Amanda Palmer and Rhiannon Giddens have collaborated on a cover of Portishead’s “It’s a Fire,” which you can hear via Bandcamp (embed below).
Proceeds from the single benefit Free Black University.
Amanda Palmer and Rhiannon Giddens have collaborated on a cover of Portishead’s “It’s a Fire,” which you can hear via Bandcamp (embed below).
Proceeds from the single benefit Free Black University.
Interview: Philip Thomas Launches Cageconcert
By Christian Carey
Pianist Philip Thomas is a prolific artist. A member of Apartment House, he recently participated in their recording of Ryoko Akama’s compositions for Another Timbre. Also on Another Timbre is Thomas’s gargantuan CD set of piano music by Morton Feldman, which includes several previously unreleased pieces.
Two of the pianist’s other recent projects focus on other members of the New York School. His deep dive into Cage’s Concert for Piano (again with Apartment House) has resulted in a book, recording, and an interactive online project, Cageconcert (cageconcert.org) that also includes apps to work with segments of the piece and make one’s own versions. He has also released a recording of Christian Wolff’s piano music. Finally, Thomas has recorded a CD of composer-pianist Chris Burn’s work, including transcriptions of improvisations by the late guitarist (and author of one of the key books on improvisation) Derek Bailey. As the interview below demonstrates, Thomas’s performance and recording schedule shows no signs of let-up. (Note: Philip and I talked before the pandemic, so some of his future projects are now TBA).
How did you and Martin Iddon come to collaborate on a book about Cage’s Concert for Piano (1957-’58)? Were the book and recording in process before the website and apps were conceived or was the idea of multiple presentations part of the initial concept?
This goes back a long way! I had it in my thoughts that, having performed the piece a number of times, with Apartment House but also with others, including the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for the dance ‘Antic Meet’, it was a far richer piece than had perhaps history had credited it. It’s such a well-known piece, not least from its visual appearance, and its historic performance value has influenced what we think of as a Cage-ian performance practice. Plus the premiere performance and recording is notorious from its depiction on the Twenty-Fifth Retrospective Concert album. But I felt strongly that there was much that is not more widely known when digging a little deeper, both about the way it can be performed, about the graphic notations of the ‘Solo for Piano’, and about the instrumental and conductor parts. And I was aware that performance as both historical and contemporary practice has a lot to say about the music, not least because of the unusually long time one has to spend with the piano part in order to arrive at something which is playable. So I set to thinking about this as a major research project and immediately thought of Martin as being an ideal collaborator, particularly due to his brilliant book about Cage and Tudor, as well as his Darmstadt book. So over lunch in London one day we dreamt up the project, which over the following year developed and formed to include the book, the website and apps, as well as the involvement of Apartment House. Then there was the inevitable long wait until we found out our grant application was successful. The grant was for a 3-year project but inevitably aspects of that spill over into the months since – and I’ve just now finished the index for the book! The apps grew from a simple idea that we thought might be nice to a far more complex concept than any of us could have imagined, forming a vital part of the project. The team expanded to include two research assistants, Emily Payne and Chris Melen – Chris being the developer of the Solo for Piano app – with additional help from others, including Stuart Mellor who designed the Concert Player app.
As a pianist who specializes in experimental music, Concert for Piano seems like a natural work to explore from multiple vantage points. When did you first become acquainted with the piece, and what does it mean to you as an interpreter?
I’ve mostly played it with Apartment House. I think possibly the earliest occasion was in 2008 when I organised a 50th anniversary concert of the 25-year retrospective concert. My experience then was as it continues to be, that this is an exceptionally rich and lively piece, full of surprises, and one which is a total joy to perform – each moment is alive and fresh, and my experience as a performer is of being part of music being made, rather than something which is ‘re-played’. We don’t rehearse, everyone works on their own materials, and then it’s put together, so for everyone playing the experience is as new as it is for the audience. This is true of many pieces by Cage of course, but this piece seems to heighten those senses and the material is so exaggerated in its range here – noises, pitches, highs and lows, louds and softs, etc.
The website and apps provided detailed and varied material from Concert. Will you share with us some of the features you consider to be highlights?
There’s so much there, a few of my favourite things include:
Interviews with Apartment House – I love to hear the musicians of Apartment House talk about what they do. These interviews are brimming with insight. I especially like the films which combine their different insights, such as the ‘Performing the Concert’ film and the last 10 minutes of the conductor film.
Watching the films of our performances of the ‘Concert’ and also Christian Wolff’s ‘Resistance’ is a particular thrill, because, as I suggested above, there’s so much unknown in the performance itself that it’s great to get a stronger sense of the kinds of things the other musicians are doing.
This one is not yet on the website but will be appearing very soon – I have made a studio recording of the complete ‘Solo for Piano’, which has never been done. It’s completely different from the version I play with Apartment House – for this I recorded each notation individually, according to a space time measurement of 3 minutes per page, and then Alex Bonney has mapped them together like a patchwork quilt, to get a complete 3 hours and 9 minutes performance of the Solo. You can hear it now actually on the Concert Player app as it’s this recording which we use for the app.
For the uninitiated person finding this on the web, what do you think they apps will demonstrate to them?
I hope firstly that it’ll just be a great entry into the music – that this is music people play and love to play, and is really great to play, instead of perhaps either that it is too ‘far-out’ or obfuscatory, or, the flip-side, that it is entirely open and ‘free’! For users trying out the Solo for Piano app, I hope it’ll both be a great way of playing with the notations and their conditions for performance, to see what might be possible and conversely what is not possible with each, and to play with the multiple possibilities the notation offers; and that it will also be an aid to performance. Of course each pianist will want to try it out in their own way, but at the least I hope that for some notations this will be a time-saver, offering possibilities to randomly generate multiple outcomes and to print them off in usable formats. An obvious criticism of the app is that it removes the fun of working these things out yourself – I think it manages to keep the fun of playing with each notation, whilst cutting down on the work needed to write these things out. And we’ve been careful to always show where and how we’ve made interpretative decision when others might make other choices, so it’s clear that this is both a facility AND an interpretation.
And then the Concert player app is simply a delight to hear – there are 16,383 possible instrumental combinations of this piece, and we have a handful of recordings available. Clearly, a recording of a work such as this can only hint at the slightest possibility of how this piece may sound. But the app allows users to randomly generate or select combinations, plus select pages, their durations, their sequence, and then hear how that might sound. We’ve taken great care to ensure the space-time properties of the music are upheld (measuring by the pixel!) and so really this is a pretty accurate – no matter how inappropriate that word is to this piece!! – realisation. I still listen to it regularly and am surprised all the time by the combinations. It’s a thrill, so I hope people will just dive in.
You have been performing Morton Feldman’s music for over a quarter century. Still, the recording you did for Another Timbre last year was a mammoth undertaking. How long did it take to record? How do you keep so much detailed, long repertoire, with irregular repetitions, in your brain and fingers?
Somehow it didn’t feel like a mammoth task, more like a real pleasure to play these pieces again. Perhaps surprisingly, I didn’t feel any kind of pressure to give a ‘definitive’ statement on the music – my performances on disc just happen to be a representation of how I play this music today, after many years of thinking about and playing it. If I were to record it all again in 10 years it may be quite different, who knows? It was though a particular pleasure to discover a few pieces that I hadn’t played before, namely the unpublished works I explored at the Sacher Foundation in Basel, and the transcription I made of the Lipton film music.
I recorded the music over a period of about 2 years, in different sessions. It’s funny how the music at times just sticks in terms of fingering, rhythmic detail, whilst at other times what should be very familiar to me still seems strange. Certainly, whereas I thought this project might draw a line in the sand for me – no more Feldman! – I feel it’s done the opposite, opened up more possibilities, more ways of thinking about the music. In particular, Triadic Memories, which I’ve probably played more often than any other single piece of music, changed a great deal for me in preparation for the recording and what I thought I knew now feels more experimental, more curious, than ever. There’s a part of me that sometimes tries to avoid Feldman’s music – it’s almost too gorgeous at times, and I need to find something else, something of rougher hue, but those chords keep pulling me back! Thankfully, there’s so much more to the music than just beautiful sonorities, and in particular the music’s form and narrative feels to me to be so strikingly original.
Are there surprises among the previously unrecorded pieces?
Certainly, the addition of struck drum and glass to the Feldman sound is pretty surprising, bringing to mind much more the 1940s music by Cage, and here included as part of a set of three pieces composed for the dance. In fact there’s a surprising number of pieces composed for dance collaborations, not just for Cunningham, but also for Merle Mersicano, as Ryan Dohoney has written about in considerable detail recently. One of these is Figure of Memory which sounds nothing like Feldman and more like some kind of sketch of a Satie piece, consisting simply of repetitions of three short phrases.
Another recent release is of music by Chris Burn, including a transcription of an improvisation by Derek Bailey. How does that translate to the piano?
Well Chris is a wonderful wonderful composer, and a brilliant pianist and improviser. And so he is fully aware of the slightly perverse nature of what he was doing in writing these pieces, not least as someone who used to play with Bailey. But these pieces are not just really lovely pieces of music, but they also reveal something about Chris and how he hears and thinks of music, as well as being revealing of Bailey’s own work, and in particular of his love of Webern and his close attention to pitch. So when the guitar-ness of the pieces is removed a different side to Bailey’s music is revealed which is simply different but to my ears no less remarkable.
As if 2019 weren’t busy enough for you, a compendium of Christian Wolff’s piano music was released on Sub Rosa. In the notes you say that “In all my performances of Wolff’s music, I aim for interpretations that both interest and surprise me, allowing the notations to lead me to new ways of playing and thinking about music, whilst at
the same time trying to lead the notations toward the unexpected.” When discussing the piano music with Wolff, what were some insights he offered? What piece will most likely surprise listeners?
The recent double disc follows on from an earlier three-disc set, and hopefully precedes another three-disc set to follow. Christian’s music is, when it comes down to it, the music I feel closest to. I love the potential for change, for surprise, for play. On the whole I tend not to ‘collaborate’ with composers (I trust them to do what they do well and then it’s over to me) and so I love the moment when I begin a new piece, I put it up on the piano and I start to think ‘ok so what am I going to do with this’. This is where I am at my most creative, and Christian’s music works especially well to that effect. I’ve never asked him for his approval of what I do and most often he doesn’t hear my interpretations until after I’ve performed or recorded it. Though the very first time we met, in 2002, I played ‘Bread and Roses’ to him, waited for his response, and learnt fairly quickly that his typical response was ‘Sure!’. He tends not to validate not to denigrate peoples’ performances of his music and I appreciate that. He doesn’t want to say ‘yes, this is how it should be played’ preferring instead for the individuality of the player to find new solutions, new ways of playing. And so I do hope with each performance I give of his music that I might offer something that would surprise him, that might suggest possibilities in his music which he’d not considered.
In this recent set I’ve included a few pieces which are not published, so that surprised him too! So three variations on Satie, pieces he composed for John Tilbury, which he never quite convinced himself as worth publishing but hopefully he’s convinced now they’re out on disc – they’re wonderfully eccentric pieces. Also his Incidental Music, which he has played and recorded (wonderfully, on Mode) but which he’d not heard anyone else perform. He was delighted, so that’s great. And for anyone familiar with Wolff’s music I hope that my playing brings both recognition and surprise too.
What will be your next recording/recital? What will Apartment House be up to in 2020?
Next concert, in Cambridge in April, features a brand-new piece that Toronto-based composer Allison Cameron is writing for me, which I’m delighted about. And Simon Reynell’s always dreaming up new ideas and introducing me to younger composers and I’m always happy to play a small part in that project. And as a result of the Feldman release we’ve been able to commission one of my very favourite composers, Martin Arnold, to write a large-scale new piece for me. But that won’t be for a while. Lots of ideas, lots of pieces I want to play, but actually I’m hoping for a bit of a quieter year this year!
(For more, consult Philip Thomas’s website.)
Christian Carey is a composer, performer, musicologist, and writer. His work has been published in Perspectives of New Music, Intégral, Open Space, Tempo, Musical America, Time Out New York, Signal to Noise, Early Music America, Sequenza 21, Pop Matters, All About Jazz, and NewMusicBox. Carey’s research on narrativity in late music by Elliott Carter, presented at IRCAM in Paris on the composer’s 100th birthday, appears in Hommage à Elliott Carter (Editions Delatour). He is Associate Professor of Composition, History, and Theory at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey.
On Wednesday May 8th, Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra presents the New York premiere of Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2, music by Harry T. Burleigh, and a rarely heard oratorio, And They Lynched Him on a Tree, by William Grant Still. The program, titled From Song Came Symphony. fits the ensemble’s mandate to prioritize the performance of composers who are women and people of color. It focuses on the legacy of Burleigh. I recently caught up with UPCO’s conductor Thomas Cunningham, who told me more about the concert.
Cunningham says, ”I found programmatic inspiration in Jay-Z lyrics: Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run / Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.”
“Burleigh wrote art songs so that the following generation – William Grant Still, William Dawson, and Florence Price – could write symphonies and concert works. Burleigh’s incorporation of African American music into Western art music, and his advocacy for this new American music genre through his work at Ricordi, had a vast influence on remarkable composers of color in America.”
Florence Price’s work has recently been receiving significant attention. Cunningham feels that Violin Concerto No. 2 will be a highlight of the concert. “Price’s second violin concerto is wonderfully idiosyncratic. The concerto is in so many places defined by its subtle and yet robust brass writing, atypical especially for a concerto for string instrument. All the while, this work demonstrates a novel voice, both aware and in touch with various traditions, but carving out singular nuance and identity.”
UNC-Chapel Hill Ph.D. candidate Kori Hill will deliver a pre-concert lecture at the event. Of Price’s work, she says, “This concerto, completed just one year before Price’s untimely death in 1953, is a fascinating example of her applications of African American vernacular and Western classical principles. It is an important component to understanding and fully appreciating her contributions to American classical music. We hope Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2 becomes a staple of the violin repertory in the years to come.”
In addition to the aforementioned works, the program also includes a movement from Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony. Cunningham says that the included excerpt is connected to multiple pieces on the program. “Incorporating the Largo from Dvorak 9 serves a dual purpose: first, to demonstrate the tangible connection between the spirituals sung by Burleigh to Dvorak, and second, to mirror the premiere of Still’s And They Lynched Him on a Tree, which also included the movement.”
This is the fifth year that UPCO has been active. Their advocacy is laudable, and the group has musicianship to match its ambition. Cunningham and company are persuasive performers of both standard-era repertoire and more recent music. May 8th’s concert should be a memorable one.
Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra and Harry T. Burleigh Society present
From Song Came Symphony
Wednesday May 8th at 7:30 PM
Langston Hughes Auditorium
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
515 Malcolm X Blvd.
New York, New York 10037
Gil Rose directs the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, or BMOP. The orchestra’s in house label, BMOP/Sound, has released a spate of vital CDs of American music. I recently interviewed Rose about recordings already released on the label and a preview of the rest of 2018’s live and recorded events.
In recent years, BMOP has released several recordings that “crossover” into pop, what some writers have described “Indie classical.” Which of these projects do you think have most effectively helped the ensemble to grow musically? Do you approach conducting differently when a groove supplied by a rhythm section or drum kit is part of the proceedings?
Several projects come to mind including Eric Moe’s Kick and Groove both discs we did of Evan Ziporyn’s music and Tony Di Ritis Devolution. I think that when you have a “kit” involved listening is at a premium. At that point its important to share the stage with the drummer and try not to be a groove buster while keeping all the proceedings together. I think there is a lot of trust in the orchestra which empowers the players. That always brings out their best. I think we saw this at its best in our recording of Mackey’s Dreamhouse.
I found BMOP’s Wayne Peterson recording to be fascinating, both because theIre isn’t a comparable disc of his orchestra music and because of the history of his Pulitzer prizewinning piece “The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark.” At the time that he won the award, there was some controversy because Ralph Shapey was one of the other finalists and was told his work was rejected in the finals after being recommended by the music subcommittee. He got mad and was very public about it. Listening to the two pieces, they are certainly different but are in the same pocket, relatively speaking: One wonders what all the fuss was about Peterson winning. Did you two discuss the Pulitzer situation at all or do you have any insights?
I never have discussed the Pulitzer “incident” with Wayne. I think the piece is a knockout all by itself. It’s those American orchestral “Tone-Poems” that was likely to be forgotten in spite of the Pulitzer history. Robert Erickson’s Aurorus in the same ilk. There are MANY others. Great works that have been left behind because they require a virtuosic orchestra to pull off but major American orchestras are unwilling to take them on for reasons that personify the stagnation of our orchestral culture.
Paul Moravec’s ‘secular oratorio’ seems to share an affinity with some British pieces in a similar vein: Tippett and Vaughan Williams, for example. Was that on your mind at all when preparing the piece for recording? Congratulations, by the way — it seems like a very challenging work — tough vocal parts as well as an ambitious orchestration — and BMOP/NEC pulled it off without a hitch.
I think you are right to point out the connection to English Music. Though the piece is written for full orchestra it relies primarily on the strings. It gives it a sheen that makes it very exposed for the singers. Also the the vocal writing is tricky because the tonality is extended in the direction of chromatasicm which makes the tunig hard for the singers while they still have to sound lyrical. The subject matter is a challenge as well. The piece luckily (through clever design) has a few lighter moments as well as a good bit of hope to go along with the considerable pathos.
For Innova, BMOP and you recorded Ann Millikan’s “Symphony,” which deals with someone close to her battling cancer? Will you please tell us a little more about the impetus for this piece and the way in which you interpreted its very personal story?
Ann approached BMOP about making a recording of what for her was a very personal work. We were honored that she thought of us. Although the piece is dedicated to, and about someone who died, it actually is more of a portait of his interests and activities. It sort of functions as a celabration of his loves and life. I tried to bring out the character of each movement and how they related to the subject.
Del Tredici’s Child Alice is one of an extensive series of his pieces that are based on Lewis Carroll? How do feel that his take on the stories of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ are inhabited in the music of “Child Alice?” What did you do to prepare yourself and the musicians for dealing with the particular sound world and quirky expressivity of the piece?
I think the Alice stories and characters gave David the chance to deal in a kind of deep psychological exploration while at the same time show his sheer showmanship. His understanding of how music works at technical and sonic level when married his great sense of theater and sheer insanity creates an experience that you can’t prepare for. All I told the players was buckle up as your about to go several Rabbit Holes at the same time.
Looking ahead to 2018, what are some of the recordings and activities to which BMOP listeners can look forward?
In 2018 we have a full slate of concert and releases. We did a tribute to Joan Tower in February, In April were world premieres by Lei Lang, Anthony Di Ritis, Huang Rou followed by performances at the Library of Congress and June in Buffalo. Upcoming releases include works by Charles Fussell & Peter Child the complete orchestra works of Leon Kirchner, a great Chen Yi CD and Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and a few other surprises.
Information about BMOP’s first Fall concert is below.
Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) Kicks Off 2018-19 Season with Four Boston Premieres
When: Friday, October 19, 2018, 8:00pm
Where: NEC’s Jordan Hall, 30 Gainsborough Street, Boston
Who: Boston Modern Orchestra Project led by conductor Gil Rose with soloists Hannah Lash (harp) and Colin Currie (percussion)
What: Four Boston Premieres:
Steven Mackey – Tonic
Hannah Lash – Concerto No. 2 for Harp and Orchestra
Hannah Lash, Harp
Harold Meltzer – Vision Machine
Steven Mackey – Time Release
Colin Currie, Percussion
Two articles I wrote over the summer are finally out.
An article on mentorship in music, which includes interviews with Fred Hersch, his student James Shipp, and James’s student Ian Burroughs, has been published in Carnegie Hall’s 125th Anniversary Magazine, Beyond the Stage (read here).
This week, The New York Philharmonic premieres their second commission by composer Julia Adolphe. The 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.
Pianist Sarah Cahill appears at LPR on April 6th at 7 PM as part of her tour celebrating the music and birth centenary of composer Lou Harrison. She and I touched base earlier this week as she was preparing for her trip to the Northeast.
Hi Sarah. Thanks for taking time to talk with Sequenza 21. Which was the first Lou Harrison piece you played? When were you first aware of his music?
I don’t remember the first piece I played, but I became interested in him because of my fascination with Henry Cowell and Ruth Crawford and that circle of early 20th century American experimentalist composers. And in the Bay Area, where I live, there’s a profound affection and devotion to Lou Harrison everywhere. He taught at Mills College for many years, and lived fairly close by, in Aptos, and worked with many musicians I’m close to, including Larry Polansky, Robert Hughes, Jody Diamond, Willie Winant, Phil Collins, Julie Steinberg, and many others.
What was it like working with Harrison on his pieces? Tell us about the piece that you premiered.
I premiered a piece called Festival Dance for two pianos, with the pianist Aki Takahashi, at Cooper Union in 1998. It’s a piece Lou Harrison wrote in the 60s and had never been played. He was such a gracious person, always kind-hearted and relaxed. He wanted us to emphasize the melodic line.
At LPR, you will be playing ‘Party Pieces.’ What was the collaborative process like in this composition – how did the “exquisite corpse” concept play out in the musical domain?
Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, John Cage, and Henry Cowell met frequently in Lou Harrison’s loft on Bleeker Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in about 1944 or 1945. Lou Harrison explains it best: “Each composer present would write a measure, fold the paper at the bar line and, on the new fresh sheet, put only two notes to guide the next composer in his connection. The next composer would write a bar, fold at the bar line and leave two more black spots and so on. It seems to me that we would begin simultaneously and pass them along in rotation in a sort of surrealist assembly line and eagerly await the often incredible outcome.” Last month I visited the Lou Harrison archives at UC Santa Cruz, with Lou’s great friend, composer/conductor/bassoonist Robert Hughes, and made copies of some of the manuscripts with my cell phone. I’ll give copies to the audience at my concert on Thursday evening.
What are some of the other pieces you are playing at LPR?
I’m starting with two unpublished Lou Harrison pieces, Range-Song and Jig, that pay homage to his teacher and friend Henry Cowell, who was in San Quentin at the time, with Cowell’s famous chord clusters. Then a movement of Cowell’s own Rhythmicana, dedicated to Johanna Beyer, so then I’ll play a short piece from Beyer’s Dissonant Counterpoint. That will lead to the Conductus from Harrison’s Suite which he wrote while studying with Schoenberg (with a twelve-tone row). Then a short piece by James Cleghorn, who was Harrison’s friend who suggested he take classes from Henry Cowell. His son Peter Cleghorn will be in the audience to introduce that piece. Then a pair of pieces, both composed in 1946 for a performance by the choreographer Jean Erdman: Lou Harrison’s The Changing Moment, not heard in New York since 1946, and John Cage’s Ophelia. Both compositions reveal some of the emotional disturbance and identity crisis that affected both composers at the time. Then a movement of Frank Wigglesworth’s Sonatina, and ending with the wonderful Summerfield Set that Harrison composed in 1988. At LPR I have to stick to a sixty-minute program– otherwise I could go on and on and on with Lou Harrison and his circle, because there are lots of fascinating connections.
Tell us about the concerto? What was Harrison’s approach to orchestration in this piece primarily Western in conception, or does it incorporate non-Western instruments/allusions/tuning, etc.?
Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto is one of the great concertos of the 20th century. It’s gorgeous and epic and should be played a lot more often. The piano is retuned in a Kirnberger tuning, as are sections of the orchestra. There’s a great battery of percussion.
What else is going on for you this season?
Later in the year I’m playing Lou Harrison’s great Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan a few places around the country, and also playing a program of his piano works on three different instruments– equal tempered piano, tack piano, and piano in Werckmeister 3– in Tokyo and Fukuoka, at the invitation of the extraordinary composer Mamoru Fujieda. I’m learning Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen for next year, and Takemitsu’s Quotation of Dream (Say Sea, Take Me!) to perform at Interlochen in July. And next month I’ll get to play Lou Harrison on Maui and the Big Island, along with Tania Leon, Ruth Crawford, George Antheil, and many others, at the invitation of a marvelous composer, Robert Pollock, who runs a concert series there.
Sarah Cahill’s April-May 2017 Lou Harrison Tour Schedule
(Fall 2017 Lou Harrison tour dates will be announced in May 2017)
Solo Recital | Le Poisson Rouge | NYC
April 6, 2017 at 7pm
MicroFest North: Iconoclasts at 100 | Center for New Music | San Francisco, CA
May 7, 2017
FULL: Harrison | Berkeley Art Museum | Berkeley, CA
May 10, 2017 at 7pm
Lou Harrison Centennial Celebration | New Music Works | Santa Cruz, CA
May 14, 2017 at 3pm and 7pm
Solo Recitals | Ebb and Flow Arts | Hawaii
May 20-21 2017
At National Sawdust on Friday April 7th at 7 PM, Opera Cabal presents the premiere of Ken Ueno’s new opera Aeolus. Joined by vocalist Majel Connery and Flux Quartet, Ueno performs throughout the opera. His fascinating blend of vocal techniques includes microtonal inflections, megaphone-amplified directives, and throat-singing. Electronics, video projections, and an architecturally conceived set design converge to make Aeolus a potent multimedia concoction. I recently caught up with Ken as he was in the thick of preparations for the opera.
Hi Ken. Thanks for taking the time to talk with Sequenza 21.
Why are you calling this an opera instead of some other genre? As you well know, multimedia theater pieces are called all sorts of things…
Following the examples of Monteverdi, Mozart, and especially Nono, “opera” seems to be an open enough label, if we need a label, so I hope it’s appropriate for this piece. But you’re right – I don’t really know what to call it. It doesn’t have a regular narrative. It features two voices that are in distinct contrast to bel canto singing. But I am attached to the possibilities Prometeo opens up, so if Nono’s is an opera, then, Aeolus, can be an opera too, right? Aeolus does feature a suoni mobili (Nono calls the movement of sound the main drama in Prometeo) characteristic in that, in the guise of Aeolus (the ruler of the winds), I move around the hall, directing my non-semantic vocalizations with a megaphone to articulate the architecture, the space, as an instrument.
You’ve mentioned that there are autobiographical elements in the libretto. Since it is fairly nonlinear in terms of narrativity, would you like to share how some of your own history fits in?
Memory is non-linear. Spaces between texts and texts in memory become islands in search of a place in time, an ostensible home, which the idea of a Penelope represents. My biographical circumstance is that my family moved around so much during my formative years that I don’t have a normative sensation of a home. So, the idea of a home is a mythic space for me, one I’ve also begun to associate with not only a place, but also specific people with whom I shared lived in those spaces that felt like places to which I belonged. That’s also, I think, why James Joyce resonates so powerfully in me. If there is a main narrative in Aeolus, it’s the counterpoint between the semantic and non-semantic in search of a home.
If I may, here’s an excerpt of a draft I’m writing for something else, which elaborates on this:
My own language acquisition parallels Dedalus’ in that the trajectory from babbling to fluency did filter out a palette of sounds that were extraneous to language. As a baby, I remember understanding language before I could actually speak. I remember both the frustration of not being able to communicate, as well as the tiny victories when I somehow managed to reach out and get through – sometimes purely through the inflections of non-semantic vocalizations, maybe combined with clear physical gestures like pointing or shaking my head.
When I was four, my family moved to Switzerland, and apart from speaking Japanese with my family I was a mute child again, unable to speak the local French. The burgeoning richness of my internal life was frustrated by this communication setback. Around that time, I was given a portable Aiwa tape recorder and started to make non-linear musique concrète, playing with snippets of sounds of my little world in exile. Listening to those recordings now, through auto-archaeology, I discover not only that I was vocalizing non-semantically, but that I was singing multiphonics. I was babbling, testing the limits of my vocal repertoire, expanding the repertoire of sounds my body could make. Unhinged from semantic obligation, I was freely playing at making sounds for the pure sake of making sounds, developing a series of dexterous moves ancillary to spoken language – to logos. I remember how it felt. The complex vibrations of the multiphonics reverberated in my body, shaking my bones. It was soothing. I learned to make a variety of sounds that registered different feelings. They felt like different weights of the world. Not being able to speak the local language, not having any friends, I was performing, rehearsing for my future self. The future will rationalize the past. When I read James Joyce as a teenager, the tropes of alienation and exile, and the distance between language as sound and language as semantic medium, all resonated with me.
Tell us about your collaborators.
Majel Connery is my singer. Though classically trained, she has a beautiful lyrical voice, that reminds me of Elena Tonra from Daughter or Beth Gibbons of Portishead. But that’s really unfair. I should not be naming names or comparing her to anyone else – she has a great voice, she is a primary referent in her own right. When I heard her voice and imagined what it was capable of, I knew I wanted to write songs for her. Songs that would carry the semantic exposition in Aeolus. She’s been very generous with me in trying out sketches of my songs in different keys, etc., so that we can get to the right voice/word combination to get to the pathos that I want to express. Majel is also a brilliant project leader. She is Opera Cabal. She is our fearless leader and most responsible for all of this happening. A visionary!
Thomas Tsang is a brilliant architect with whom I have been collaborating for ten years. We met as fellows at the American Academy in Rome, and we’ve collaborated on installations ever since. As an artist, he brings a fully-fledged multidisciplinary edge to architecture. He questions traditional outputs and bravely creates installations, events, workshops that challenge us to rethink the history of specialization in our related fields. The full vision for the opera is to have a space that he designs that is something more than a set or venue, something more integral to the expression of the piece. We are working towards that.
Erin Johnson is a video artist with whom I have been collaborating over the last few years. She’s an all-round creative force. Many of her works thread the line between video art, installation, performance art, curation, and community engagement. She naturally problematizes categories in her artistic output. She curated a work of mine last summer – Fortress Brass, a site-specific piece that took place on boats and then at Fort Gorges in Portland Harbor, in Maine. Erin made videos for four of the scenes in Aeolus, for scenes with voice-overs. Voice-overs take the place of dialogue in Aeolus (a move that I first began to experiment with in my first opera, Gallo). Being pre-recorded, the voice-overs inhabit a different time/place: it serves a distancing function.
I am also lucky to be working with the renown Flux Quartet. Specialists in the extreme demands of new music, breathtaking in their courage and inspiring. I am blessed to have this team.
What are some of the electronic elements in the piece?
Mostly, the electronics are backing tracks for the pop songs. In one scene, I perform with a Max patch that the brilliant designer/composer Ilya Rostovtsev made for me. The patch lets me use my iPhone as a controller for algorithmic drums.
What does lateral bowing sound like? You’ve become a big fan of it … how did you first discover it as a technique?
I like lateral bowing because it sounds like breath – the link between my vocal practice, my body, and the embodied choreography of sounds that I notate for instrumentalists to perform. I first came up with lateral bowing, when I was experimenting on a viola during the composition of my viola concerto, Talus.
What’s next for you?
I’m lucky to have pieces upcoming for talented friends: a piece for five-string baroque cello for Elinor Frey; a solo trumpet + electronics work for Andy Kozar; a solo cello piece for Jason Calloway; a saxophone piece for Vincent Daoud; a trio for Kim Kashkashian; and a long overdue piece for piano for Kathy Supove (and some other things too).
This week, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra visit Carnegie Hall for performances from February 28th through March 2nd. They feature the New York premieres of two works. On February 28th, Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina’s Triple Concerto for violin cello and bayan, featuring violinist Baiba Skride, cellist Harriet Krijgh, and bayan player Elsbeth Moser, a piece co-commissioned by the BSO and Carnegie Hall, will be performed alongside Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh “Leningrad” Symphony.
On March 2nd, George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song, featuring countertenor Bejun Mehta and the vocal group Lorelei Ensemble, will be performed along with works by Maurice Ravel (Le Tombeau de Couperin) and Hector Berlioz (Symphony Fantastique). On March 1st, the program consists of the recently departed Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, Emanuel Ax in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22, and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony #3.
With the kind help of a translator (alas, I don’t yet speak Russian), I recently interviewed Sofia Gubaidulina about her new piece and the process of working with Nelsons and the BSO on its premiere.
For those who aren’t familiar with the instrument, what does the bayan’s repertoire sound like?
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the bayan played an entirely secondary role–as an accompanying instrument for songs, for light music, for dancing. Its repertoire was folk music. It was only in the twentieth century, really only in the second halfof the twentieth century that the bayan came into its own as an instrument for serious music on the symphonic stage, on a par with the traditional instruments of the orchestra. And that was thanks to the initiative and efforts of superb bayanists dedicated to their instrument, to expanding its repertoire and enhancing its prestige.
You’ve written for bayan and orchestra several times. Which instruments do you like to use to accompany it?
I think string instruments are most congenial in combination with the bayan. There is a natural alliance between these instruments. To be honest, if I had the inclination to pursue this further, I would love to try to combine the bayan with brass instruments,with French horns, for example. There is an episode in this piece where I combined it with trombones. In principle, I love the idea of combining the bayan with brass instruments—with French horns, Wagner tubas. It also sounds marvelous together with percussion instruments. I think it goes less well with woodwind instruments, because the bayan contains all those possibilities already, both the bassoon register and those of flute and oboe. You won’t have the same kind of contrast or enrichment. But I would love to combine it with brass.
How did you decide to write a Triple Concerto using bayan, violin, and cello?
The impetus for this work came from the bayanist Elsbeth Moser, a marvelous musician who is passionately devoted to her instrument and with whom I have worked for many years. Approaching a milestone in her life, she invited seven composers to write works for her. She asked me to write a concerto and specified the solo instruments: violin, cello and bayan. I was delighted to accept; I found the challenge of writing for this combination of instruments and full orchestra very stimulating.
You’ve mentioned that each of your concertos has a different narrative. What is the relationship between soloists and orchestra in the Triple Concerto?
The relationship of the three soloists is very complex. It could be described as an entire cosmos: the upwards, the downwards and the connecting function of the bayan. When a composer fantasizes, it often turns into something that subsequently can’t readily be described in words. The cosmic plan isn’t easily verbalized.
The bayan part here is a very important persona. To employ the metaphor of the trinity, the high and low registers of the violin and cello are united by the bayan playing glissando clusters. The bayan part in this concerto is the root from which a tree grows. The melodic, harmonic and intervallic structure of the piece derives from this tree. The breathing of the bayan is a distinctive property of the instrument. And the tree of the orchestral fabric grows out of this breathing, producing great energy. In other words, the energy that leads upwards develops from this root. This isn’t a virtuoso showpiece with many complex textures. On the contrary, my approach to this instrument—as the root from which everything grows—is very rigorous. The bayan is the persona uniting the high with the low.
How has it been collaborating with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony?
It has been a fortunate circumstance. On the one hand, the young conductor Andris Nelsons is a very deep musician, very deep and talented, with intensely energized pathos. Spiritually, I feel very close to someone like this. So for me the experience has been a happy one. As far as the orchestra is concerned, this is not the first time I have encountered it. And every time I do, my admiration for its musicians is unbounded. The first time I came to Boston, for the performance of Offertorium in 1988, I observed that every musician in the orchestra possessed a distinctive individuality, even those in peripheral roles, say in the rear desks of the violas. It makes no difference: the quality is so high, and the attention to the sound so exacting, that I am a true enthusiast of the orchestra.
What are you composing now?
I don’t want to formulate my next steps because they demand unpredictability.