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 Monday populist records held the release party for Nicholas Deyoe’s album with throbbing eyes at Machine Project in Echo Park. It’s a significant event not only because we’ve got a sweet new album to listen to, but because it marks the new label’s first release. We managed to catch up with founders/owners/operators Andrew McIntosh and Andrew Tholl to discuss plans for the label and all of the stuff coming up that we get to be excited about.
First off, how was the release party? I’m sorry I had to miss it.
The release show was very successful. You can’t really go wrong with beer, cupcakes, live performance, and a bunch of people who are excited to hear some new music.
Ha, agreed. It seems like there’s been a serious groundswell of new classical and experimental music coming out of LA, and specifically Echo Park, in just the last couple of years. Is that the case, or is something that’s always been there just gaining more exposure lately?
Los Angeles and the West Coast in general have traditionally been places of great creativity and experimentalism. In the earlier part of the last century we had Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and John Cage. Other composers like Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, Harold Budd, and James Tenney chose to make this area their home as well. The West has an iconic history of being an enclave for free spirits and rogue thinkers, while on the East Coast there seems to be much more infrastructure and a more clearly defined concept for how music is made.
[See: this cell phone video of Nicholas Deyoe and Clint McCallum playing at the release party]
That being said, it is hard for us to speak for LA’s more recent history since we both have only been here for the last six years, but it seems that right now there is a whole community of exciting musicians who are choosing to make a place for themselves in this city. Many of us come from elsewhere, but a connective thread in the community that we’re referring to is that many of us came to LA for CalArts at some point. What we like about the community here is that it is not clearly defined and has many faces, but it seems to be made up of people who really believe in what they are doing, do it well, and are committed to presenting a wide range of music in a compelling and often slightly unusual manner.
One might think that by starting a label at this moment, you’d be perfectly poised to capture what’s been going on (and I’m sure you’ve heard more than enough references to what New Amsterdam is doing in Brooklyn). At the same time, with all of the developments over downloading, minuscule payments from streaming royalties, and so forth, this is a pretty rough time for labels, perhaps even more so than artists. Could you discuss your thoughts on going into this business side of the scene?
Well, I don’t think either of us ever really thought we should start a record label because it would be a great way to make money. We probably won’t…at least not for quite a while. But it still seemed worthwhile for us to start the label anyway. While it might seem like we’re suddenly jumping into the music business, both of us have been working as freelance musicians for years – which is very much a kind of business that you run for yourself; starting a label is just another aspect of that. As far as the comparisons to New Amsterdam go, we haven’t really heard many…we’re just starting out and I don’t think too many people are aware of us yet. But we are very aware of New Amsterdam and think the community they’ve created is pretty amazing. If we could do the same out here, we’d be pleased.
Nicholas Deyoe’s with throbbing eyes is one hell of an aesthetic statement for a label’s first release. Do you see yourself as representing the whole of this music that’s being made in and around LA, or do you have a sound in particular that you’re hoping to cover? Perhaps something akin to the more drastic side of modernism featured here?
Well we had to put something out first, but I don’t think that our first release should necessarily be taken as a statement towards what “kind” of music we intend to continue putting out. We put out Nick’s music because we like it and think it’s really good and deserves to be heard, which is probably the biggest criteria for anything we will put out in the future – we have to like it. But there’s a lot of different kinds of music that we like. While we both live Southern California and want to put out projects from our community and invest in the people around us, we don’t really have a goal of representing the entirety of the Los Angeles music scene…it’s just too big.
How hands on are you with production? I know that sounds like a silly question, but I’m curious…I know some label heads who are check in on their artists every day in the studio, while others, in a sense, foot the bill and wait for a recording to be delivered for them to take to the market. I know this first release had been previously recorded. Is that the plan?
Well, we had been talking about starting a label for at least the last year, maybe two, and we had already played on half of the works on with throbbing eyes, so we were already pretty involved before anything official happened. The album needed a home so it motivated us to actually get things going and start the label. While the album was Nick’s project, there was still a strong collaborative effort between ourselves and him throughout much of the production process. For now, I can’t really see us putting anything out where we don’t already have some sort of relationship with the composers or artists involved. Also, the way an album is put together – the space it’s recorded in, the musicians, the mixing, the track order, the album cover, etc. – is very important to us and is something we are very consciously crafting for each project.
What’s next for the label?
Our second release comes out on March 13 and will be a mostly solo album of music by minimalist composer Tom Johnson that Andrew McIntosh is recording and organizing. It also features local musicians Brian Walsh on clarinet, composer Douglas Wadle as a narrator, and is being recorded and mastered by Nicolas Tipp, who has very much been a part of the creative process for that project. It’s also interesting that both Tom Johnson and Nicholas Deyoe are originally from Colorado.
After that things are a little open, but we have several projects in the works. It is extremely likely that we will put out an album with wild Up (in collaboration with Chris Rountree and again, Nicolas Tipp). Also, we will at some point put out a duo CD of the two of us featuring composers who have come out of the CalArts community, a CD of Andrew Tholl’s experimental/improv ensemble touchy-feely, maybe a full length from the Formalist Quartet, and possibly some Morton Feldman. Oh, and in the indie label tradition, we’re toying with the idea of a single of the month club that would allow us to put out some shorter things that we think should be heard but don’t necessarily work on a whole album.
That would be amazing, please do that. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
We’re really thrilled at the response we’ve had to the label so far. It’s encouraging that so many people are interested in what we’re trying to do. We hope you’ll check out our first release, enjoy it, and continue to follow us as we try to build something great.
Our friends over at Out West Arts were able to make it to the populist records/Nicholas Deyoe CD release party in Echo Park on Monday, and have posted an awesome review of it, with video and such, here:
Meanwhile, we’ll have an interview up with the label founders sometime in the next couple of weeks. This is an exciting time to be a musician in LA.
Slightly late notice, but Nicholas Deyoe‘s record with throbbing eyes, which features Red Fish Blue Fish, The Formalist Quartet, Stephanie Aston, and Brendan Nguyen, is coming out this Tuesday, January 17th. It will be the first release from Populist Records, a new label based in Echo Park, owned and operated by Andrew McIntosh and Andrew Tholl.
The release party will be held on Monday at Machine Project from 1 to 4 pm, and Mr. Tholl mentioned to me that, in addition to performances and Eagle Rock Brewing’s Populist IPA (which is delicious), there would be cupcakes. As such, I highly recommend going, and am again saddened by the prohibitive 9 to 5 lifestyle that I’ve adopted as of late.
I’ll have a review of the record up here soon. But why wait for me to review it when you could go hear it yourself, live, with cupcakes? Complete details are on populistrecords.com.