With election day just a week away, Tuesdays@Monk Space offered Midterms: This Will Hurt Someone, a concert program devoted to contemporary music with a political viewpoint.
Grab it, by Jacob TV opened the show, preceded by a recorded track of coarse street talk that blended into an equally angry video. The four hands of HOCKET accompanied, and the raw stream of words was perfectly matched by a dense and powerful outpouring of piano notes. The music reflected the passionate resentment of those caught up in the wheels of a system intent on punishing the small time street criminal. Scenes of prison life and enraged inmates gave way at the finish to a hymn-like stretch that spoke hopefully of a life reclaimed after incarceration. Grab it is a stark reminder of the failings of American justice and how it perpetuates a violent underclass.
This Will Hurt Someone, by the late Matt Marks followed, arranged by pianist Thomas Kotcheff who accompanied vocalist Gregory Fletcher. The text for this piece is the final statement of R. Bud Dwyer, State Treasurer of Pennsylvania, asserting his innocence upon conviction of bribery in 1987. The music has an easy, sweet feel, and the entrance of a toy piano played by Sarah Gibson added a childlike innocence to the words. Fletcher sang calmly and gently, navigating the higher registers with a steady confidence. The music turned darker at times with lines such as “But in this nation, the world’s greatest democracy, there is nothing they can do to prevent me from being punished for a crime I did not commit.” Yet the placid character of the music continued, underlining the disconnect between the reality of conviction and Dwyer’s enduring sense of innocence. “This will hurt someone” were the last words spoken by Dwyer before committing suicide on-camera during the press conference. This piece is Matt Marks’ testament to an often misplaced confidence in our judicial system.
Counterpundit by Ian Dicke was next, a work that for piano and video performed by Aron Kallay. This opened with a quietly introspective piano line that attained a nostalgic sensibility at times. As the tempo increased, the music became more active and the video displayed a flag waiving in the breeze. Strong percussive beats were heard on the sound track of the video as the images became halting and choppy. As the piece proceeded, images of Hulk Hogan became increasingly intermingled with the flag until the video was dominated by wrestling personalities striking patriotic poses. Counterpundit was written during the 2016 election campaign and is an astute observation of how spectacle has replaced reasoned political discourse. The outcome of the election and the subsequent behavior of the present administration only amplifies Dicke’s central premise from 2016. The piece ended with a quiet introspective feel that seemed to be longing for a return to a more enlightened past.
Following the intermission Tonality, a ten-voice choir that specializes in music about justice issues, took the stage to perform “Her beacon-hand beckons”, the third movement of Caroline Shaw’s To the Hands. Lush four-part harmonies filled Monk Space with beautiful a cappella sounds and a peaceful sentiment. This perfectly matched the text, a freely paraphrased version of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. The final line, “I will be your refuge…”, was particularly moving.
Philosophy of Furniture, by Natalie Dietterich followed, performed by speaking percussionist Derek Tywoniuk. A video projected a series of statements – ostensibly on the ideology of interior decoration and fashion – accompanied by loud, primal drum strokes. Tywoniuk shouted out the texts as they appeared on the screen, punctuating them with booming blasts and sharp raps. The contrast with the previous piece could not have been greater and the thunderous percussion created a compelling emphasis on the otherwise mundane stream words on the screen. The drift of the argument seemed to be that contemporary taste is overly influenced by money so that expensive furniture invariably acquired a higher status. “We proceed on false principals and imagine we have done a fine thing…” All of this unfurled seamlessly and Tywoniuk’s dexterity of was on full display as he attended to the many percussive elements while shouting out the spoken words at the correct instant. The text then took a most interesting turn. By describing the same processes that are at work in fashion, money was shown to similarly exert a decisive leverage on one’s political opinion. Philosophy of Furniture combines the quiet of subtle reasoning with explosive percussion to make a telling point.
Two pieces from widely known contemporary composers completed the concert program. “Which Side are you on?” the second movement of Four North American Ballads by Frederic Rzewski, began with a recorded vocal rendition of a Harlan County miners’ protest song. Rzewski’s take on the song, arranged for piano, followed immediately, full of strong chords and a sturdy texture that was ably realized by Thomas Kotcheff. The complexity and power of the music seemed to increase with each variation on the simple folk tune, filling the cozy Monk Space with a robust militancy and ending with a vigorous crescendo that drew cheers from the audience. Tonality closed the concert with Make Peace by David Lang, a composer known for his sensitivity and a strong sense of empathy. The close harmonies and delicate balance in the music were complimented by the house acoustics and excellent intonation by the singers. Make Peace was a gracefully tranquil ending to an often raucous examination of our current politics through contemporary music.
Midterms: This will Hurt Someone was a carefully curated and timely collection of diverse musical commentary on our political culture.
String quartets have an extensive tradition, not only in their repertoire and performance practice, but also in characteristic sound. Accordingly, mixing electronics with string quartet is tricky because the balance has to be just right: Too much electronics and the strings are felt as accompanying the speakers, too little and the electronics are commenting beneath a string quartet. Indeed composers might want those effects from time to time, but creating them effectively and intentionally is a delicate procedure. On December 16th, People Inside Electronics presented the Eclipse Quartet in a program of electroacoustic works—all from within the last eight years—that addressed various approaches to handling this precarious balance.
Several pieces took the approach of quartet writing supplemented by subtle electronics that became part of the ensemble itself, often felt rather than heard explicitly. Kojiro Umezaki’s (Cycles) what falls must rise benefitted greatly from this atmospheric type of electronics, which consumed the strings and shakuhachi (performed by the composer) in a scored reflection of touching, personal energy. Ian Dicke’s Unmanned wove granular soundscapes into the agile ebbs and flows so natural to string quartets. The ensemble’s deep understanding of contemporary music was especially apparent in the careful unfolding of Dicke’s textures; straying further and further from the acoustic realm, the quartet gradually withdrew musically and physically until repeating harmonies devolved into electronic noise amid an empty stage.
Among this group of works, Tom Flaherty’s Recess best showcased Eclipse Quartet’s precise and invigorating virtuosity: Driving rhythmic hockets and frenzied, fragmented melodies sandwiched a gorgeously slow middle movement. Flaherty’s work can be performed with or without the electronics and so it is not surprising that it employed the most inconspicuous electronics of the program. And the piece was all the better for its electronic restraint; the writing achieved brilliant, contrapuntal balance between foreground and background throughout. The quartet returned the favor by savoring every raucous tutti and playful imitation with both composure and excitement, thrusting the audience into an intermission of wine-drinking fueled by enthusiasm rather than by awkward, idle small talk.
The bookends of the concert were works of more experimental nature, treating the electronics as an independent—even oppositional—feature rather than an integrative one. Especially striking was the opening piece, the world premiere of Zeena Parkins’s Spirit Away the Flesh. A mosaic of romantic, shimmering and agitated moments emerges from a broadly spatialized atmosphere of field recordings and voices. Recorded spoken texts address the creative process of abstract artists Eva Hess, Hilma Af Klint, and Richard Serra; inquisitive and curious creative impulses are voiced in densely-packed aphorisms. The performers cleverly emphasized the music’s own synthetic and exploratory nature, conveying a coherence among Parkins’s many appropriated influences that felt fresh, individual, and hip from beginning to end.
Parkins’s spacious and unforced writing made way for a Mari Kimura’s I-Quadrifoglio, an active and linear four-movement prayer in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. Kimura’s movements (“Faith,” “Love,” “Hope,” and “Luck”) each playfully interacted with the electronics, ranging from subtle synthetic backgrounds in the first movement to hopping echoes, sweeping filters and harmonizing lines in the later movements. An improvisatory style was delineated by a few moments of stunning cohesion: A melodic doubling between first violin and cello, the violin inheriting soaring, ascending sweeps from the electronics, and a teasing callback to the elegant opening harmonies in the final movement.
The program closed with Missy Mazzoli’s haunting ode to the Brooklyn Bridge, Harp and Altar. Electronics also play against the ensemble here, most of all in the moments where Gabriel Kahane’s voice materializes, singing lines from the Hart Crane poem from which the piece takes its title. But the synthesis of the two contradicting sound worlds is seamlessly brokered by Mazzoli’s signature language: Static yet driving, eerie yet loving, simple yet complex. The use of a clicktrack left something to be desired, but the performance by Eclipse Quartet unfurled dramatic waves of suspense and resignation throughout. The result was an emotionally tumultuous conclusion to the concert, but also one that poignantly reaffirmed the fundamental question of the night: When the performers can themselves convey such deep musical meaning, what role can (or should) technology play? Is it accompanist? Performer? Sound effects?
If you looked around the room at Throop Church during the performance, the incredible amount of work People Inside Electronics did to stage this program was readily apparent. The chairs, performance space and speakers were thoughtfully laid out. The space created was intimate but exciting. The people, cables, mixing boards, computers, light stands and video cameras waiting at the ready betrayed the incredible amount of care afforded every detail. And it payed off: The sound was excellent, the electronics seemed flawless, the concert carried an air of comfortable professionalism that put the audience in the right frame of mind for an adventurous program. At musical commencement, the audience witnessed the members of the Eclipse Quartet do their part, leaping around the fingerboard and pulling the bow heavily through the strings. But like so many modern concerts, that other, binary, member of the ensemble was invisible save a coy, glowing apple hovering above a table of audio equipment. We didn’t see her sweat. We didn’t see her frantically reach to execute the code, or run out of breath as she swept filters across delay lines. She was the buffering, multi-channel elephant in the room, but we didn’t get to see her balance tenuously on the ball.
I enjoyed the program immensely, but it seems to me that this is the missing aspect we must reconcile in order for electroacoustic music performance to move forward. The music is already there: The writing and use of electronic sounds was intricate and balanced and clever, and the Eclipse Quartet showcased impressive chops and huge ears. But the audience needs to experience the exertion, the risk, the capacity to fail of all essential elements of a performance—we need to see the jungle of cables, to doubt them, in order to really appreciate when they work. Of course, sometimes a composer wants to hide technical facets of a performance from the audience, but the impact experiencing a performance has on an audience’s perception of the music must be rightfully acknowledged and incorporated into compositional practice. I left “Electric Eclipse” encouraged that electronics have matured beyond mere exploration in contemporary music–they were meaningful, emotional and powerful musical-rhetorical devices. But I also left confident that the performance practice of electroacoustic music is now the pressing limitation to its further development. It is time to abandon the stoic, screen-lit face as an acceptable prime form of electronic music and explore ways for technology to critically enhance the performance of music, rather than just the sound of it.
Pianist Aron Kallay offered a well-rounded program of innovative, politically charged music, including three world premieres, to open the Piano Spheres 2016-17 season. This, the 23rd season, is dedicated to Piano Spheres founder, Leonard Stein–born 100 years ago December–whose memory will inform each concert even more than usual.
“I did not know Leonard Stein personally,” stated Kallay in a preconcert talk, “but his impact on new music is clear, and makes its way into this program.”
Stein conceived of Piano Spheres, with a mission statement to champion “broader spheres of piano repertoire.” He performed an annual recital in the series, alternating with the four other pianists he selected.
Following his demise in 2004, Stein was never replaced. His spot in the series was left open for a guest artist, of which Kallay was this season’s choice.
Kallay programmed an exciting assortment of new works with an eye to Stein’s preferred repertoire, as well as the upcoming Presidential election and its implications for social justice. True to himself, Kallay–a director of People Inside Electronics and Microfest–performed several pieces involving electronics, though Stein generally played acoustic piano alone.
The REDCAT stage, decorated with political signs, came to life with the first notes of Monroe Golden‘s microtonal composition for retuned and remapped digital piano, I’m Worried Now, after the perennial blues standard “Worried Man Blues,” on a text about penal servitude.
Golden’s piece, a microtonal reinterpretation of twelve-bar blues, set the tone for the Kallay’s program, entitled “I’m worried now…but I won’t be worried long.” Most of the works explored troubling topics in recent history, and pointed to the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming election, although ended on an optimistic note.
Microtonal music, with its expanded pitch vocabulary, enjoys heightened capacity for emotional expression. Monroe Golden relied on the technique of extended just intonation, retuning the digital keyboard to the pitches of the overtone series out to the 96th partial, to express the atrocities of penal servitude in the 20th century South most directly.
“‘Worried Man Blues’ is a piece I’ve known all my life,” stated Golden in a post concert interview. “The practice discussed in the text primarily affected the poor….I wanted to use microtonality to express the pain the compelled prisoners must have felt.”
Beyond the arresting, microtonal twang, which reinforced the blues song’s original message, viewers were treated to a surreal cognitive dissonance as far right keys sounded low in pitch and far left keys sounded high, defying expectations of any keyboardists present.
In a nod to Leonard Stein, Kallay offered a crystal clear rendition of Dallapiccola’s Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera (“Musical Sketchbook for Annalibera”), a suite of eleven miniature movements for piano solo dedicated to the composer’s daughter (the work’s namesake), on the occasion of her 8th birthday.
Beyond the scope of most children’s abilities, the work is more about childhood, in its whimsical playfulness, than for children per se.
“This is one of my favorite pieces for piano solo of the twentieth century, and I know Leonard Stein admired it and performed it,” stated Kallay.
A major twelve tone composition, Quaderno, would be known to Stein, who was Schoenberg’s assistant and graded assignments by Schoenberg’s pupils at UCLA. The brand of twelve-tonality utilized by Dallapiccola was closer to Berg’s than Schoenberg’s however, integrating tonal references, such as thirds and sevenths, for a gentle lyricism throughout.
The work also earned a place on the program due to Dallapiccola’s staunch support of the anti-fascist movement in mid-twentieth century Europe, which Kallay deemed apt in view of the imminent shift in Executive leadership and the risks entailed.
“I hope you like wrestling…,” signaled Kallay wryly, as a screen lit up and attendees sat up, evidently striving to process what was in store.
Kallay co-funded the next work, a world premiere Piano Spheres commission by composer Ian Dicke—wrestling aficionado, political activist, and accomplished music technologist—a volatile combination, ideally suited to Piano Spheres and the REDCAT stage.
Dicke’s Counterpundit features a montage of classic wrestle-mania footage (names like Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter), looped into additive phrases, somewhat like a Stravinsky ballet. Dicke created a computer application combining live electronic processing of piano input with the video media. Kallay, opening the work as a soloist, eventually shifted roles into chamber musician, integrating piano music with the oddly hypnotic footage and layers of electronic sound in this Gesamtkunstwerk.
Heavily camp-laden Counterpundit compares the buffoonery of wrestle-maniacs to the political media pundits that influence perception in critical times such as these.
“I would have written something about this even if Aron hadn’t asked me to, as I consider myself a politically engaged composer.”
Traditional musical language, from Satie to Prokofieff (the latter quoted at one point), works with Dicke’s own harmonic concept as a convincing partner to the footage. The rhythmic play between instrumental forces attained to virtuoso levels, Kallay wizardly synchronizing with the media at several turns.
If Kallay is any example, it is clear that today’s pianist must go beyond piano playing. Kallay creates themed concerts, discovers existing repertoire to support a thesis, finds composers to commission, and constructs a verbal narrative to contextualize the program for attendees.
In the course of such research, he discovered Karen Walwyn, pianist and composer from Washington D.C., who provided the next work—another world premiere—“June 17th,” a movement from her suite Mother Emanuel: Charleston 2015, after the shooting in Charleston on that day.
“As much as I love this piece, I struggled with whether to program it because of its extraordinary gravity,” noted Kallay, “but thought it was important and should be heard.”
The work opens with a simple statement of classic hymn “Amazing Grace,” which breaks off abruptly, interrupted by terse, tense figuration. The hymn is reharmonized in surprising ways, fleshed with angry virtuoso writing until breaking off once more in a sharp, unanswered conclusion.
“Impromptu is a cry expressing the tortures of the soul that plague contemporary human beings,” writes Daoust, and indeed the musique concrète effects of the recorded media—sirens, traffic, and other elements of the urban soundscape—infuse the piece with a sense of angst, supporting the theme of social upheaval.
The Impromptu is a genre associate with the Romantic era, when friends would gather to generate their own music, largely by improvising. Daoust offered a modern, fully worked out Impromptu, every nuance preformulated and accounted for, but still expressing humanity’s key questions.
“I think people are as tortured by existential questions as they were during the Romantic period,” notes Daoust.
Preserving a link to the Romantic Impromptu tradition, Daoust quotes the haunting B section melody of Chopin’s Fantasy-Impromptu, (used also by Crumb in his piano work Makrokosmos).
Lee, playing the Steinway model D, brought a melting lyricism to the singing melodies, while angular lines emerged from out of the recording and duo ensemble.
In a strongly topical inclusion to the program, Laura Karpman’s Shrill, a work of “disposable music,” as Kallay introduced it, is overtly centered on the 2016 presidential election. Whether the work will endure as a humorous and surprisingly musical snapshot of current events, or fade away as quickly as the losing candidate, only time will tell.
Shrill, commissioned by Kallay and Piano Spheres, is Karpman’s answer to a critique of Hillary Clinton. Detractors call her voice shrill, “but it is Donald Trump who is truly shrill,” so notes Karpman.
The work is scored for “solo piano and Trump,” which reads like a typo at first glance. Cast in the perennial melodrama genre—spoken word accompanied by music—the verbal content is complimented by music reinforcements, yet unfolds with clarity.
Soundbites of Trump’s especially polarizing statements are presented in catchy rhythms, looped for effect, both musical and political. Kallay served once again as accompanist to the media, interspersing Trump’s charged remarks with a sardonic, biting musical language reminiscent of Satie’s funniest moments. Stereophonic effects abound, imparting a sophistication that lifts the work well beyond its prosaic central topic.
Fortuitously, Trump’s voice and locution is highly musical, so it turns out. Who knew he sang melodies such as descending broken minor triads, and perfect fifths while on the campaign trail. He may have missed a calling as vocalist.
Kallay concluded by stating, “I am actually not sure I won’t be worried long….”
The future remains uncertain, but the Jewish hymn “Shalom Chaverim,” arranged into a set of eight variations for piano solo by American composer Adolphus Hailstork, rounded out the program on a friendly, hopeful note.
Hailstork’s reinterpretation of the traditional Jewish theme, sung by children on holidays throughout the Jewish calendar, utilized modern harmonies, including quartalism and expanded tonality, and warm textures that express the original text implicitly:
Till we meet again
A/B Duo‘s next album, Variety Show is dropping on October 7, and includes LA composer (okay, we’ll count Riverside because the Outpost Concert Series is awesome) Ian Dicke‘s piece Isla, which has its origin in he and his wife’s old band. And guess what? We’ve got an interview with Ian, and an exclusive stream. Here’s that.
Tell me a bit about the piece on the new A/B Duo record.
When I lived in Austin, I played bass in a band with my wife Elisa Ferrari. We played fairly frequently and were usually paid in all-you-can-drink Lone Stars. We recorded two albums and my piece Isla is a remix of our song “Isla de Niños.” The electronic part includes Elisa’s singing, as well as some of the other instrument parts that pop in sporadically. Much of my work incorporates source material and I really enjoyed writing a new piece around the core of this song.
What was it like collaborating with them?
A/B Duo are so much fun to work with! Besides being kickass performers, they are very comfortable with technology and were able to navigate the piece’s intricate setup with ease.
A lot of your works deal with sociopolitical issues. Despite how disheartening recent months have been politically, are you finding a lot to drive your work? Does that ever get tiring for you?
Yes, unfortunately I don’t think I’ll ever run out of abysmal political topics to work with. I suppose part of my attraction to writing programmatic music is cathartic. But as a composer, I believe there are countless artistic impulses hidden within our daily lives and my work focuses on finding new modes of musical expression within these experiences.
In addition to composing, you’re a director of both Fast Forward Austin and UCR’s Outpost Concert Series. How do these roles inform each other?
I actually retired this as a director of FFA this past spring, but…
A composer must be a strong advocate for fellow composers and the musicians who support our work. We cannot simply write pieces and wait for the next commission (well, not me at least!). When we develop projects that do not directly serve ourselves, we discovery a whole new world of things. New audiences, new performer friends, new artists in other disciplines, and so on. Directing a concert series certainly requires a different set of skills, and I have learned a tremendous amount over the years. New music is still (and perhaps will always be) a relatively small community. We all prosper when we create opportunities for each other.
I’m always curious about Austin – what’s the scene there like? Can you compare it with LA a bit?
There is a definite kinship between the two cities. Austin has a vibrant new music scene, but it isn’t over saturated and cliquish like other larger cities. I think LA’s scene also has a welcoming atmosphere and is strangely accessible, even when the city itself often feels like an endless labyrinth of freeways and concrete.
Anything else you’d like to add?
If A/B Duo are coming to your town…go see them! And pick up their new record!
You can do just that at abduomusic.bandcamp.com/album/variety-show.
The Neighborhood Church in Pasadena was the venue for the latest People Inside Electronics concert titled Music for String Quartet and Electronics, featuring the San Francisco-based Friction Quartet. Six pieces of new music were performed, including one world premiere.
Universe Explosion (2014) by Adam Cuthbert was first, undertaking the ambitious task of presenting a musical biography of the universe from its beginning to the present. This opens with a rapid, repeating figure in the high register of the violin that is soon joined by the other strings in a frenetic, yet rhythmically coherent, outpouring of notes. The electronics joined in, adding to the bustling, cosmic feel. The playing by the Friction Quartet was precise and accurate, producing a strong, satisfying groove that suggested the music of Steve Reich. The tempo gradually slows as the piece progresses and smooth passages appear that contrasted nicely with an active, syncopated counterpoint. Still later, as the tempo again slows, a strong melody emerges containing some lovely harmonies. The sweeping arc of the rhythm and tempo changes convincingly portray the vast scale of the subject. As the piece concludes, the texture decomposes into several slow, wayward fragments that quietly fade at the finish. Universe Explosion is a remarkable work, ably performed by the Friction Quartet, perfectly integrated with the electronics and fully exploiting a combined sonic palette that convincingly captures its monumental subject matter.
Harp and Altar (2009) by Missy Mazzoli followed, and the title is taken from a poem by Hart Crane about the Brooklyn Bridge. This begins with a warm, affectionate cello line that is soon joined by the other strings, becoming busier and suggesting the crossing patterns of the cables of the bridge as seen from a distance. The tutti passages soon turn forceful and assertive, alluding to the strength and massive presence looming over the Brooklyn and Manhattan waterfronts. About midway through, a recorded voice is heard singing lines and fragments from the poem, underscoring the heartfelt sincerity of music. The skillful orchestration here was carefully observed by the playing, allowing space for the recorded vocals to be heard clearly. After a dynamic and dramatic climax in the strings, the piece concludes with smooth vocal tones that fade to a finish. Harp and Altar is a genuine and unpretentious valentine to the iconic New York landmark, carefully crafted and pleasingly performed.
Unmanned (2013) by Ian Dicke was next and for this piece the acoustic sounds of Friction Quartet were reprocessed through a computer and sent to speakers on the stage. There were some software adjustments needed for this, giving Mr. Dicke a chance to remark that subject for Unmanned was the use of military drones and that his major influence for this was, tellingly, the 8th String Quartet of Dmitri Shostakovich. The opening of Unmanned is a forcefully strident tutti passage, with a pounding rhythm in the electronics and a palpable sense of tension in the strings. This shifts quickly to a series of slow, poignant phrases that evoke a quiet melancholy. As the piece progresses, feelings of uncertainty and anxiety creep back in, gradually building the tension. The ensemble through this stretch was excellent, slowly building the energy level and creating a sense of menacingly purposeful motion. About two thirds of the way through the slower, solemn feeling returned, but with a stronger undercurrent of sadness. As this continued, the string players left the stage one by one, while the electronics gradually raised in pitch and volume, arriving at a sense of profound disquiet and dread. The sounds, coming only from the speakers now, became more mechanical and increasingly disorganized, like a machine tearing itself apart – until a sudden silence marked the finish. Unmanned is a powerful musical experience with a troubling message about the use of deadly force by remote control and the Friction Quartet brought this challenging vision to a masterful realization.
The world premiere of Hagiography (2015) by Isaac Schankler followed the intermission. Hagiography is a form of historical biography, usually of a monarch or Christian saint, where the less attractive aspects of the subject are glossed over in favor of pleasant stories that highlight good works and accomplishments. In this piece, the Friction Quartet was accompanied by electronics, and this supplied the hagiographic element. Hagiography opened with a complex, swirling ebb and flow of sound that surged like a restless tide. There was a choppy, rhythmic feel that was busy, but always engaging to the ear. As the piece progressed, stretches of dissonance would creep in, never alienating, but clearly noticeable – only to be replaced by more consonant passages reinforced by the electronics.
The texture and pace were consistent throughout, like a fast-flowing stream full of rapid gestures. Hagiography was true to its form – at times there was a roughness and tension in strong tutti passages, but these were invariably superseded by some really lovely harmonies and soft colors. The blend of acoustic instruments and electronics was seamless and well-balanced, perfectly fitted to the intentions of this piece. Although fast-moving and often complex in character, this is a well-structured and skillfully crafted piece with all the details precisely under control. Hagiography offers hope that the good we do can outlive our failings.
Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites (2010) was next, an arrangement of the music of Skrillex by Friction cellist Doug Machiz. This began with an active, busy feel that bounced pleasantly along until a sharply dissonant chord suddenly changes the entire direction and feel from ‘nice sprite’ to ‘scary monster’. After a few bars of moderately frightful music, the nice sprite regained control and a lovely melody emerged against artful counterpoint. As the piece proceeds, the music passes back and forth between scary and nice, although scary never approaches the truly frightening.. At several points, while in monster mode, the stomping of the players feet in unison added a clever accent to the proceedings. There is an exotic, almost Asian feel to this that portrays what could be the good and the evil characters of some ancient folk tale. Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites is an accessible and engaging work that achieves a charming intensity when realized through the unique capabilities of this quartet.
The concert concluded with another Doug Machiz arrangement, this time Where Are Ü Now (2015) by Jack Ü and Justin Bieber. This has a formal, almost courtly sensibility at times, but also includes a strong beat and other identifiable pop influences. Just a few minutes in length, but with some nicely complex passages and strong harmonies, Where Are Ü Now has an upbeat optimism and familiar feel that makes this piece a favorite when the Friction Quartet plays before younger audiences.
This concert of string quartet music combined with electronics was well-balanced – the electronics never dominated by raw power or sheer volume – and the equal partnership with the strings made the combination all the more effective.
The next People Inside Electronics concert is at 8:00 PM April 2, 2016 at the Neighborhood Church and will feature the Southland Ensemble with a live performance of Rain Forest IV by David Tudor as well as the world premiere of a new composition by Carolyn Chen.
Photos by Adam Borecki
This Saturday evening People Inside Electronics bring San Francisco’s Friction Quartet to LA for a program of works by Ian Dicke, Adam Cuthbert, Missy Mazzoli, Skrillex, Diplo, and PIE director Isaac Schankler. Tickets and more info are available at peopleinsideelectronics.com/friction-quartet.
Ahead of the show, Isaac has had a chance to sit down with the quartet’s cellist, Doug Machiz, for an interview.
How did Friction Quartet form? What’s the history of the group?
Kevin and I were working on Philip Glass’ third quartet at the Zephyr Chamber Music Festival in the Italian Alps. The experience was incredibly moving and Kevin and I really enjoyed working on this non-traditional classical music together. I had recently had my first experience playing contemporary classical music and I found that my background in improvised music made for a smooth transition into performing music that had not been performed before. I was deciding in real time what something should sound like and that was exhilarating.
I was studying at UT Austin and became close friends with the Miro and Aeolus Quartets. There was something special and family like about their dynamic. I spontaneously decided that I could devote my life to performing string quartets that had never been played before and also that I could have Kevin as my partner in this endeavor. I also knew from being at BU with Ari from JACK quartet that this could be a viable career option. So I asked Kevin if he wanted to do this and he said he has always wanted to do this. So we decided that if I ended up in SF that we would go for it. A year later I was accepted to SF Conservatory of Music and Friction was born. Otis joined half a year after our formation and Taija joined 2 1/2 years ago. Now we have that stable familial feeling that I loved about the Miro and Aeolus Quartets and we are deciding what new string quartets can sound like.
Can you tell us a little about the program you’ll be performing?
We will be performing some of our favorite works we have commissioned that also happen to be electro-acoustic. Ian Dicke’s Unmanned was one of the first pieces we commissioned and really became a flagship piece for us. Adam Cuthbert’s Universe Explosion exists because I met Adam at the Bang on a Can Festival and played his Universe Explosion for large chamber ensemble. I loved the piece so much and we collaboratively came up with the idea to have Adam arrange it for double quartet. Isaac Schankler’s Hagiography is one of our recent commissions and this will be the world premiere. It’s a stunning, ambitious work and we can’t wait to share it. We will close the program with two of my own arrangements of music by Skrillex.
Friction Quartet is known for championing new music — was that part of the quartet’s mission from the beginning? What made you want to focus on new music, and especially commissioning new music? There’s no shortage of string quartet music already out there, after all.
As I mentioned before, the quartet formed with the intention of specializing in new music. Old music is fantastic, but it can’t possibly address what is happening in our lives and what we are feeling the way new music can. We also believe in pushing the boundaries of what sound can do. We want to share new sound worlds with people and move them in ways they never thought possible. To quote the great Living Earth Show, we want to be a “megaphone for composers” who have important things to say about the world right now.
Initially we planned to only play music written after 1900 (we couldn’t possibly exclude our favorite 20th century giants). But over the years we decided to bring the old stuff into our repertoire because it’s too good not to. Also we don’t believe in excluding any music from our possible repertoire because we would just be missing out on potentially great music and new audiences. There is something to learn from and enjoy in music of all styles and time periods.
I’m curious about your pop covers. A lot of quartets have taken stabs at covering pop music, but it seems to me there’s something special about the way you approach it, both in terms of the music you chose to cover, and the care and creativity that go into your arrangements. How do you decide what songs to cover, and what’s your thought process in terms of how to arrange them?
I try to find a balance between songs that I like and songs that are going to resonate with new audiences. All of the songs I arrange fall somewhere on that spectrum. I’m on a mission to recruit new audiences simply because I don’t want anyone to miss out on how fucking awesome classical music can be. But the arrangements are also self-serving. I want to provide extremely fun repertoire for the quartet to play and I want a creative outlet for myself as a performer of music written by other people. I’ve dabbled in free improv, jazz, electronic compositions and playing in bands. These arrangements let me explore all of my musical interests in the context of my main project.
The most amazing and unintended consequence of making these arrangements is consistently getting huge crowds of young children to go absolutely ape shit. It’s like we’re the fucking Beatles all of a sudden when we play Michael Jackson’s Thriller (check out our documentary, Friction, by Meridian Hill Pictures). And this makes no sense because Michael Jackson’s career was all but over when these kids were born. I feel confident that a lot of these kids are going to find more ways to be creative through music because of our performances. I also think some of these kids will become fans of music when they otherwise may not have.
What’s next up for the Friction Quartet? Any upcoming projects you’re particularly excited about?
After our So-Cal tour we head to NYC for a performance of a favorite commission of ours, Juiced by Brendon Randall-Myers, at Roulette. We will also make our Carnegie Hall debut as part of the Kronos Quartet Workshop performing classic and new Kronos commissions. Then we head to Seattle to shoot a video, produced by Second Inversion, of In/Exchange for Steel Pan and Quartet by Andy Akiho with Andy himself on steel pan. We have residencies at Cornish College and Western Washington University. At WWU we are premiering a new string quartet concerto by Roger Briggs. After returning to SF we have an onslaught of various awesome projects that all happen before we head back east to Detroit in June for the Shouse Institute at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. I’m most excited about our SF Jazz debut in August with Fabian Almazan’s trio.
Tickets for the Friction Quartet show are available at peopleinsideelectronics.com/friction-quartet