Thursday: Sarah Cahill plays Harrison at LPR

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.

Thanks again.

Thank you!

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
Link: http://lpr.com/lpr_events/lou-harrison-centennial-sarahcahill-april-6th-2017/

MicroFest North: Iconoclasts at 100 | Center for New Music | San Francisco, CA
May 7, 2017
Link: http://centerfornewmusic.com/calendar/

FULL: Harrison | Berkeley Art Museum | Berkeley, CA
May 10, 2017 at 7pm
Link: http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/program/full-2017-music-performance

Lou Harrison Centennial Celebration | New Music Works | Santa Cruz, CA
May 14, 2017 at 3pm and 7pm
Link: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2721368

Solo Recitals | Ebb and Flow Arts | Hawaii
May 20-21 2017
Link: http://ebbandflowarts.org/

Friday: Ueno Opera at Sawdust

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).

Interview: Sofia Gubaidulina with the BSO

Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall in Boston, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. (Photo by Winslow Townson) Andris Nelsons, conductor Baiba Skride, violin Harriet Krijgh, cello Elsbeth Moser, bayan
Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall in Boston, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. (Photo by Winslow Townson)
Andris Nelsons, conductor
Baiba Skride, violin
Harriet Krijgh, cello
Elsbeth Moser, bayan

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.

sofia-gubaidulina

______

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.

Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall in Boston, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. (Photo by Winslow Townson) Andris Nelsons, conductor Baiba Skride, violin Harriet Krijgh, cello Elsbeth Moser, bayan
Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall in Boston, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. (Photo by Winslow Townson)
Andris Nelsons, conductor
Baiba Skride, violin
Harriet Krijgh, cello
Elsbeth Moser, bayan