The Furies is a contemporary violin duo whose mission is to bring intersectional feminism into the concert hall through immersive performance experiences that challenge our audience and community, for us to learn more about the histories of women in a white male dominated canon, and to encourage audience members to demand more diverse programming from their musical institutions. New Classic LA caught up with the string duo to chat about their upcoming Equal Sound show on March 1st with ~Nois and all things PMS.
NCLA: What has the process of working through your upcoming show P.M.S. (People Menstruate Show) been like? Any similarities or differences in your preparations from A Cure for Hysteria?
Kate: Our new show, P.M.S. (People Menstruate Show) is an examination of the seriousness and the silliness surrounding the culture of menstruation. There are a lot of stereotypes about people who menstruate, some of them harmful, some of them silly, but all of them are important to address. It’s wild to me that I have been getting my period monthly since I was 12 years old, and I still feel awkward talking about it with friends, like it’s this big secret that we all know is there but would rather not talk about. We’ve watched a lot of old commercials selling period products in the process of working on this show, and it’s fun to think if an alien visited earth and only learned about menstruation by watching those commercials, what would they think it is?? Anyways it’s been pretty freeing to talk so much and so openly about menstruation in the making of this production!
Maiani: We’ve been experimenting with the presentation of our ideas without being too tied to our former show ACFH. Although ACFH has helped lay somewhat of a groundwork for us, we are not married to any one way of presenting our shows, which is so fun! With ACFH we presented a much more abstract show, whereas P.M.S. has a new approach; more direct and invasive… much like PMS itself.
Working on P.M.S. has been a cathartic experience. There are moments in the show that are taken from our personal life experiences and fears, so finding an artistic way of expressing these stories and fears requires a great deal of vulnerability, especially while crafting a show that includes media we don’t necessarily dominate. We strongly believe there is no one right way to make art, it’s a big part of our creative ethos, but I personally still have a way to go in unlearning some of the classical dogma that classical musicians are taught. We idealize the canon and the rigid code of conduct, and I find myself having to actively challenge the biases and fears that came with my formative musician years. All of that to say that we find it all too confining for what we as The Furies want to do. For example, I’m playing a gigue from Bach’s Partita 3, but Kate and I have decided to play around with how it’s presented. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say it will be a mixture of autobiographical experiences and anxieties as it relates to the loss of innocence/coming of age theme of this show.
We also find it interesting to explore the fact that Bach was a devout Christian and his greatest muse was his god. We are pairing what some would consider divine music with a theme that is often intentionally overlooked and also stigmatized in the ideals of organized religion: our biology. I think such veneration of customs demands a “sacrilegious” critique.
Kate: I think another big thing in this new production has been giving ourselves permission to try out some new shit. The best part about creating these two shows has been having a clear vision, and then learning whatever skills we need to learn to make that vision come true. We are trying a lot of things we were not taught to do in our classical training, like movement, comedy, electronics, singing, percussion, etc., and it’s been liberating and terrifying incorporating all these new performance techniques into our shows.
NCLA: Anything surprising or unexpected surface as you were creating the project?
Kate: It has been interesting to discover similarities in some of the feelings and responses that came up making this show in comparison to our hysteria show. On the surface, talking about menstruation can seem to be one thing, but actually it relates to so many other challenges that people face, and it was challenging to pick and choose which elements we wanted to focus on. For instance, our last show, A Cure for Hysteria, was about the concept of disenfranchising people who seem “hysterical,” and menstruation is a part of that. So it’s hard to isolate topics that deal with oppression from each other because they all intersect at some point. There are plenty of people who don’t menstruate, but are still subjected to feeling shame, loneliness, isolation, distrust in their own bodies and feelings. So in a way, though we are talking about menstruation, we are trying to address broader feelings that come with the ways in which our culture tries to use our own bodies againsts us, to discredit us, to make us question our own feelings and convictions.
NCLA: You recently treated New Yorkers to an evening with friends ~Nois. What can listeners expect for the LA double bill experience?
Maiani: One of the fun things about sharing a double bill with ~Nois is the contrast in how we present our programs. Despite our different styles (both in presentation and musical selection), what ties our sets together well is an informality and genuine interest in sharing our work. There is nothing pretentious about ~Nois; they are an amazing band who have successfully held on to the playfulness of music making. I hope our audience feels similarly about The Furies. We super enjoy listening to and playing with them, so perhaps we will play an encore together at the very end… we shall see!
NCLA: We are so fortunate to be able to use the arts as a platform for change and calling out social inequities, and The Furies don’t shy away from big subjects that are unabashedly female centric and socially taboo. How has this been received by audiences? Anything that you’ve discovered in these formative years as a duo?
Maiani: Our performances have generally been well received. On occasion there is an audience member who is uncomfortable and leaves mid show, and I’m actually fine with that. If some people don’t have an adverse reaction to our programs then we aren’t exactly doing a good job of presenting taboo topics.
Although we never doubted the thoughtfulness of our audience, we’ve discovered that most of them are much more receptive than we had expected. But of course that’s a limiting perspective as we have yet to play in very conservative cities. These formative years as a duo have taught us, among other things, that we want to create even more discomfort.
Kate: It’s been really informative for us to see how many of our peers and audience members crave live performance experiences that ask questions in a different way. We have been really fortunate so far to hear some great feedback at our shows. It’s been nice to see our musical community reach out wanting to share our ideas on their concert series or create new projects together.
It has also been revealing hearing some of the criticisms about the work we do. They often have less to do with the content and quality of the shows, and more to do with whether or not they think we’re jumping on a trend. It is just one more clear example of how there is this scarcity mindset in classical/new music communities, that somehow when we do the thing that challenges us and is a creative outlet for us, we somehow are taking away from other things people are doing. Maiani and I feel empowered by what we are doing.
Maiani: Ironically this criticism has come from people who’ve never attended our shows. We don’t think culture and music making is a zero-sum game.
NCLA: Anything else you would like to share?
Maiani: YES! We are having a tampon drive for The Midnight Mission! We will be collecting unopened boxes of tampons before and after our show. We hope that by encouraging people to donate boxes of tampons, we will not only help a large number of menstruators in need, but we will also motivate non-menstruators to get over their irrational discomforts of buying tampons… Doing good is a great motivator. A win-win!
In a diverse, capably executed program of Microtonal music for solo piano and violin entitled “Beyond 12,” Tuesdays@MonkSpace further solidified itself as a major presenting organization for contemporary music in Los Angeles. Pianist and T@MS co-founder Aron Kallay, a noted exponent of microtonality, joined musical forces with like-minded violinist Andrew McIntosh of the Formalist Quartet in a generous offering of harmonically-expanded music spanning three centuries. The concert marked the season finale of T@MS, as well as that of Microfest–the primary source for microtonal music in the area–which co-produced the event.
While the octave (8 lines and spaces on the musical staff), is generally divided into 12 equally spaced notes, microtonality allows for dividing the octave into many more notes and spacing them at varying distances from each other, providing for greater and freer expressive power.
The first selection on the program‑‑a staple of Kallay’s repertoire—Kyle Gann’s Fugitive Objects (2004), exemplified the extraordinary harmonic richness possible in microtonal music by dividing the octave into 36 discreet pitch classes—three times the usual number of notes on the piano. With sweeping romantic intensity and lyricism–heightened by Kallay’s expressive playing—the piece meanders through original, unexpected dimensions of pitch. Listeners are kept on track by memorable ostinatos that define a form amidst a spongy, vibratory tone-massage.
Acoustic pianos are incapable of sustaining the pressures of such extreme tonal fission. Consequently, Kallay used a midi-controller with timbre and tuning courtesy of Pianoteq, a real-time piano modeling software.
“The changes in tuning required by Gann are so great as to be impossible on an acoustic piano: the strings would simply break,” Kallay pointed out. “Even when we can change the piano’s normal tuning system to a microtonal variant, it requires many tunings to stabilize the new tonal scheme, followed by additional tunings to restore the original temperament,” Kallay elaborated.
Such practical factors have led to the accepted and widespread use of electronic technology in live microtonal concerts.
Andrew McIntosh did not use software to produce the tunings of his program for solo violin. The simultaneous blessing and curse of the string player is the ongoing onus of intonation, note by note. The violin’s flexibility of pitch is ideally suited to microtonal music, where subtle tone-warps add expressive range, in many cases complementing programmatic content.
Taking the stage alternately with Kallay, McIntosh opened his survey of microtonality for solo violin with, “Intonation After Morton Feldman, 1” by Marc Sabat, from his suite Les Duresses (2004). McIntosh introduced the piece with enticing context-building commentary, adding an impactful additional element to the concert experience. All evening long, in standard T@MS form, the performers served as musicologists, drawing on extensive academic training in sensitizing listeners to each work’s essential attributes.
Combining a love for the music of Morton Feldman, icon of twentieth century experimental music, with a passion for precision, Marc Sabat pinned down Feldman’s allusions to microtonality in a fully worked out, rigorously notated adaptation of Feldman’s late string writing style.
“In his final few years, Feldman seemed to suggest microtonal inflections of pitch in his music for strings. When pressed to explain his methods, he seemed to avoid the question but hinted that some notes would weigh more than others,” explained McIntosh, who went on to perform the piece with clear, convincing modulations of pitch, indeed evoking weight in some notes, buoyancy in others.
The Weasel of Melancholy, a terse, humorous work for piano solo by Eric Moe, followed, closing out the first half with microtonal whinings and abstract figuration. Animal sounds and songs are always microtonal. Moe drew on the versatility of microtonality to convey animal emotion, and Kallay dispatched passages of virtuoso figuration with abandon and effortless fluency.
A jovial crowd, remaining close at hand throughout intermission, drew to attention as the stage was set for a substantial second half.
In a refreshing reminder that microtonality is nothing new, McIntosh presented a lengthy suite for violin solo, “the first example of microtonal music for solo violin,” by the Baroque composer Johann Joseph Vilsmayer.
Microtonal effects were common in the Baroque, having been used widely by Antonio Vivaldi and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber for subtle undercurrents of meaning in program music and character sketches. Vilsmayr’s Partita number 5 is a fusion of Austrian folk melodies, French ornamental writing, and poignant microtonal leanings modeled on Biber’s Rosary Sonatas.
In an original scordatura tuning devised by Vilsmayr, the E string became a D string (for two D strings in total), allowing for numerous harmonic possibilities otherwise inconvenient in violin writing.
Aron Kallay, characteristically warm, acknowledged departing interns as well as MonkSpace owner Michael Lane, then continued to inform without lecturing. “There are pockets of microtonal communities throughout the country, especially Boston, as well as Birmingham, Alabama.”
The History of Elevators in Film, by Birmingham composer Holland Hopson, depicted the sensory experience of riding in elevators with virtuoso compositional prowess. Doppler-like expansion and contractions of pitch evoke that unmistakable sensation of “Moving while standing still,” the title of one movement, as well as the ominous destination of floor number 13, in “Floor 13, please….”
Hopson’s History might be considered the sole collaboration of the program: a duet between piano soloist and technology itself. The keyboard’s tuning dynamically shifted in response to programmed triggers using Max, an interactive framework for real-time musical processes. Kallay would “play a low note, repeat a chord a certain number of times, leap by a given interval, etc.” and the tuning would audibly shift concomitantly. The process lent a spontaneous, interactive chamber music quality to the piece, further conveying the reduced independence of elevator passengers.
Apart from Vilsmayar’s Partita, all the pieces of the program were composed in the current century. Many were commissioned by Kallay himself. “I began to grow tired of equal temperament 10 years ago and began playing microtonal music then, but not much had been written for piano solo,” Kallay noted at the program’s outset. “I began commissioning works, and hope to continue building the repertoire forever.”
Among the latest additions to Kallay’s growing compendium is The Blur of Time and Memory, by Los Angeles-based composer, Alex Miller, which brought the program to a dramatic finale.
Miller’s Blur integrated uniquely microtonal effects with idiomatic, even traditional piano writing for a holistic listener experience. An inventive microtonal tuning allowed for seamless glissando-like transitions through the entire range, inducing a haunting, surreal atmosphere of liquefied pitches and flowing masses of sound. While inextricably linked to microtonality, the piece was not dependent upon it, drawing power from striking tone clusters, singing lines, and undulatory dynamic gestures.
Building energy progressively, Miller’s Blur seemed to conclude with its climax. A torrent of sonority reverberated in the lively MonkSpace acoustic, shortly giving way to authentic, spontaneous applause by a nourished audience.
The mood was set for a reception that would last hours—a known T@MS phenomenon—drawing together friends, new and familiar in the joy of a shared adventure, the sense of something meaningful in music, and the promise of another season.