Interview: Julia Adolphe

This week, The New York Philharmonic premieres their second commission by composer Julia AdolpheThe first, 2016’s Unearth, Release, was a warmly received viola concerto for Philharmonic Principal Violist Cynthia Phelps. The latest, White Stone, will be premiered July 26th as part of the orchestra’s Bravo! Vail series in Colorado. I recently had a chance to catch up with Adolphe about both of these collaborations, as well as her opera Sylvia. 

 

Who were/are your composition mentors at Cornell and USC? What is something that you’ve learned from each?

 

I’ve had two incredible mentors who’ve inspired me to become a composer. The first was Steven Stucky, who gave me private composition lessons for four years while I was an undergraduate at Cornell. I arrived at Cornell without any formal training in classical music and was very intimidated by the large group of (all male) doctoral students pursuing composition. Professor Stucky made me feel included and welcome, allowing me to take graduate level courses alongside his other students. Steven Stucky essentially taught me how to compose, to go from nothing on the page to crafting a vocabulary, playing with colors, and communicating ideas through music. At USC, I spent four years studying with Stephen Hartke, who taught me an enormous amount about writing for the orchestra and writing opera. With Professor Hartke, I learned how to write larger forms and develop a musical narrative. Hartke encouraged me to embrace my love of storytelling through my music. Most importantly, both Stucky and Hartke taught me specific compositional techniques and tools while encouraging me to trust and believe in my own voice.

 

 

You fashioned both text and music for your opera Sylvia. Tell me a bit about your work as a poet/librettist?

 

My first musical pieces that I wrote as a child were folk songs comprised of my own original lyrics. I always loved writing lyrics and stories as well as acting in plays and musicals. Opera seems like a natural extension of these early passions. I wrote Sylvia in 2012 and it is based on the real life experiences of my best childhood friend. The opera’s content was deeply personal and I wrote the libretto out of a need to tell Sylvia’s story. I love working with living poets and am currently setting a poem entitled Equinox by Elizabeth Alexander. For my next opera, A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears, based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer, I will be working with librettist Stephanie Fleischmann. I am very excited to have such wonderful collaborators!

 

 

I have sung at Bargemusic and it can be a wobbly place to get your bearings. What was it like producing Sylvia there?

 

It was a lot of fun and an incredibly dramatic, yet intimate venue. I think the surreal setting and off-kilter feeling you experience on the boat fit perfectly with the dreamlike nature of the opera.

 

 

There are some great viola concertos in the literature, but the challenges facing composers of them is legendary: balance, orchestration, etc. Was writing for viola and ensemble an upfront part of the commission for Unearth, Release or did you choose to write for these forces?

 

 

The New York Philharmonic asked that I compose a viola concerto for their principal violist Cynthia Phelps. I was extremely excited about the challenge: the viola does not possess the same carrying power in terms of volume and brightness as the violin or the cello. It is a subtle instrument with dark tones and fragile qualities. Yet is has a singular expressive beauty. I worked closely with Cynthia, ensuring that every gesture was idiomatic and communicative for her instrument. During the rehearsals of the work’s world premiere with the Eastern Festival Orchestra, I was able to make revisions so that the viola could speak more clearly over the orchestra. Both Alan Gilbert and Jaap Van Zweden gave me feedback throughout the writing and rehearsal process and I learned an incredible amount about the orchestra along the way.

 

 

Did you know which pieces were going to be programmed alongside yours in Vail? If so, did that impact your composition of White Stone?

 

I knew from the beginning that my piece would be premiered alongside Gershwin and Dvořák, but I chose not to think about that. My goal when I write is to express my own voice and be as true to my own emotions, dreams, atmospheres and sounds as possible. Of course I am influenced by a host of composers, but to purposely seek out composers on the same program would make it harder for me to clarify my own thoughts during the writing process.

 

 

What else would you like for audience members in Vail to know in advance about the piece?

 

A white stone is an object that is both unique yet familiar, a jewel and a pebble, emerging from the dirt to become something treasured. The music rises from dark, murky textures, striving towards brightness and clarity. The cello and timpani are the first to surface from the discord, stirring action in other sections of the orchestra. The percussion serves to rally and activate the music, leading the orchestra upwards towards brighter harmonies and unified rhythms. White Stone captures the struggle to be resilient and powerful in the face of overwhelming obstacles and fear of defeat.

 

 

Article on Music Mentorship in Carnegie Hall’s WMI Magazine

WMI Magazinean annual publication by Carnegie Hall, includes my article on music mentorship. Featuring interviews with three artists, including jazz pianist Fred Hersch, it can be read for free online via Issuu.

Erasure: “I Need You”

Erasure – Doron Gold

 

Erasure has just released “I Need You Now,” a “bonus track” from their World Be Gone EP.

 

Here’s one of the remixes from the EP:

And tour details:

ERASURE TOUR DATES
July 25 – Berlin, Germany – Waldbühne *
July 26 – Berlin, Germany – Waldbühne *
July 29 – Stockholm, Sweden – Tele2 Arena *
August 1 – Trondheim, Norway – Granåsan Arena *
August 4 – Bergen, Norway – Bergenhus Fortress *
August 7 – Copenhagen, Denmark – Telia Parken *
August 10 – Tampere, Finland – Ratina Stadium *
August 16 – Vilnius, Lithuania – Vingis Park *
August 19 – Prague, Czech Republic – Airport Letnany *
August 23 – Budapest, Hungary – Groupama Arena *
August 26 – Vienna, Austria – Ernst Happel Stadium *
August 29 – Klagenfurt, Austria – Wörthersee Stadium *
September 2 – Zurich, Switzerland – Letzigrund Stadium *
September 7 – St. Petersburg, Russia – Ledovi Dvorets Palace *
September 10 – Moscow, Russia – Olympiski *
January 29 – Dublin, Ireland – Olympia (SOLD OUT)
January 30 – Dublin, Ireland – Olympia (SOLD OUT)
January 31 – Dublin, Ireland – Olympia (SOLD OUT)
February 2 – Dundee, Scotland – Caird Hall (SOLD OUT)
February 3 – Edinburgh, Scotland – Usher Hall (SOLD OUT)
February 4 – Newcastle, England – City Hall (SOLD OUT)
February 6 – Liverpool, England – Philharmonic (SOLD OUT)
February 7 – Hull, England – City Hall (SOLD OUT)
February 8 – Manchester, England – O2 Apollo (SOLD OUT)
February 10 – Cambridge, England – Corn Exchange (SOLD OUT)
February 11 – Birmingham, England – O2 Academy (SOLD OUT)
February 12 – Nottingham, England – Royal Concert Hall (SOLD OUT)
February 14 – Ipswich, England – Regent
February 15 – Southampton, England – O2 Guildhall (SOLD OUT)
February 16 – Cardiff, Wales – St David’s Hall (SOLD OUT)
February 18 – Aylesbury, England – Friars Waterside Theatre
February 19 – Brighton, England – Dome (SOLD OUT)
February 20 – Guildford, England – G Live
February 22 – Norwich, England – UEA (SOLD OUT)
February 23 – London, England – Eventim Apollo
February 24 – London, England – Eventim Apollo
February 27 – Cologne, Germany – E-Werk
February 28 – Hamburg, Germany – Mehr Theater
March 1 – Berlin, Germany – Columbiahalle
March 3 – Leipzig, Germany – Haus Auensee
March 4 – Munich, Germany – Tonhalle
March 5 – Frankfurt, Germany – Batschkapp
March 7 – Hanover, Germany – Capitol

* with Robbie Williams

 

Required Reading: Experimental Music Since 1970

experimental music since 1970

Book Review:

Experimental Music Since 1970

By Jennie Gottschalk

Bloomsbury, 2016

284 pp.

From the very beginning of Experimental Music Since 1970, author Jennie Gottschalk lets us know that her perspective is that of a “maker,” a composer. This is instructive as to the book’s approach and to its inclusion and, in some cases, exclusion, of experimental composers who have made an impact over the past five decades. These decisions are based on a particular composer’s vantage point rather than an attempt to construct an all-encompassing canon of “important” figures, which in the fragmented and various perspectives of the postmodern era no book could truly do without devolving into mere name-checking and cataloging. Happily, Gottschalk’s book is anything but a catalog — her portraits of various wings of experimental music are vivid and often detailed. It is the viewpoint of a fascinating “maker,” someone who embraces an array of imaginative approaches to musical experimentation.

Gottschalk suggests that one of the purposes of her volume is to serve as a continuation of Michael Nyman’s seminal Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Perhaps in response to the centrality of Cage in the earlier volume, she begins Experimental Music Since 1970 with a deconstruction of the composer’s 4’33”, pointing out the various pathways into experiment that the piece still affords today. Gottschalk identifies these central concerns as follows: indeterminacy, change, non-subjectivity, research, and experience. While it is quickly pointed out that not all experimental music engages all of these issues, they prove to be pivotal in the way that Gottschalk defines and describes experimentation.

With these initial precepts laid out, the book proceeds to further parse experimentation into particular spheres of activity, with each chapter tackling one or more of these. Thus we are spared a chronological overview and when concerns overlap in composers’ works, they may reappear throughout the volume. This does lead one to question certain choices of space allocation. For instances, even given all of his fertile creativity, why is Peter Ablinger so often referenced while microtonal composers Ezra Sims and Joe Maneri and hypercomplex composers Brian Ferneyhough and Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf are not mentioned even once? Apparently, the second modern school falls outside of Gottschalk’s purview. While one can fall back on her statement that she is a composer rather than a historian, it is somewhat disappointing that these significant types of experimentation seem “beyond the pale” (interestingly, there is similar neglect of American late modernism in Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s recent After the Fall: Music Since 1989). The presence of experimental jazz is also spotty, with a few references to artists such as Anthony Braxton and George Lewis but nothing about, for instance, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, and Sun Ra. Another challenge is some haphazard copy-editing, particularly in the book’s latter half.

These caveats aside, what is covered here is a splendor of imaginative music-making that will supply much food for thought. Gottschalk is particularly in her element when discussing the Wandelweiser collective, approaches to instrument-building, ad hoc electronics, improvisation, sound art, ecomusic in general and site-specific works in particular. The book’s inclusivity in terms of race, gender, and sexuality may, along with Rutherford-Johnson’s similarly sensitive treatment of these issues in Music Since 1989,  help to slay a few stereotypes about composers. Gottschalk’s website, Sound Expanse, continues to build upon the achievements and aims of Experimental Music Since 1970, providing a valuable companion to the book and a “must bookmark” resource all by itself.

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György Kurtág on ECM


György Kurtág

Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

Asko | Schönberg and Netherlands Radio Choir; Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor

ECM Records 3xCD 2505-07

 

Composer György Kurtág was born in Transylvania, but his many years of association with the Budapest conservatory have identified him as one of the foremost composers of Hungary, heir to Ligeti’s mantle as forward thinker and brilliant creator. ECM has been the label most associated with his music. Their release last decade of his string works was revelatory and one could certainly heap plaudits on the label’s celebration of Kurtág’s eightieth birthday in 2006 with a recording of his brilliant Kafka Fragments.

 

To celebrate his ninetieth year, just a smidge late, ECM has released a 3 CD set of Kurtág’s Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir. Even before listening, it is something to behold. ECM rightly has a reputation for lovingly curating their releases, but a number of interviews and essays (including program notes by Paul Griffiths), inclusion of the complete texts in sympathetic translations (no matter how thorny the originals), and many samples of the composer’s handwritten scores and ink drawings make this release a feast for the eyes. As for the ears, it has a remarkable dynamic range, clearly rendering everything from the softest whispers to thunderous bass drum thwacks with a sense of energetic potency.

 

The variance of dynamics is just one part of the multi-layered structures found in this music. From fragments of instrumental sound and disordered declamation to walls of choral sound and altissimo register vocal climaxes, Kurtág’s work encompasses a wide range of expression. In terms of desire, grief, fear, exhaustion, resiliency, and pain, there seems to be not a shade of emotion missing: his music is a complete catalog of the modernist project. Conductor Reinbert de Leeuw elicits each of these emotions and musical demeanors in turn with the surest of hands, drawing consummately detailed performances from the assembled forces. If you make it your business to get one recording of music by Kurtág, this is it.

 

Offa Rex: “The Queen of Hearts” (Video)

Offa Rex’s “The Queen of Hearts” (Nonesuch).

Offa Rex, a collaboration between alt-folk vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Olivia Chaney and indie rock stalwarts the Decemberists, released their debut LP, Queen of Hearts, today via Nonesuch Records. Check out a video for the title track below.