In a Nutshell: An Interview with David Smooke

Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker.
Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker.
On Sunday, January 22nd at 7pm at National Sawdust in Brooklyn
(80 North 6th Street), composer and toy pianist David Smooke will celebrate the release of his New Focus CD Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Joined by album personnel loadbang, Karl Larson and Michael Parker Harley, Smooke will also perform and improvise on the toy piano. I recently caught up with him and discussed the new recording, compositional approaches, and some future plans.
Artwork: Alejandro Acierto.
Artwork: Alejandro Acierto.
  • What attracts you to composing for and performing on the toy piano?

The sound of the toy piano evokes an idealized childhood, the sort that no one I know actually enjoyed and yet many of us possess as a shared mental experience. I love having that association underlying my explorations of disturbing and unusual sounds. In addition, it’s relatively easy to travel with one—certainly compared to a cello—and I like that there’s a basic keyboard interface alongside all sorts of other ways to interact with the instrument. When I first started playing live, it was also a huge selling point to me that there isn’t a standard performance practice with the toy piano, so I could do what felt comfortable to me without feeling like there was going to be someone in the audience shaking their head at the way that I hold my hands or where I place my feet. I keep thinking that I’ll move on to other instruments, and have plans to build some original ones, but then I keep finding other things that I can make this little box do.

  • Did the macabre image of the title provide a jumping off point for the winds piece or was it incorporated latter on?

When I first discovered that the Nutshell Studies existed, before I even saw them in person, I knew that I would have to eventually use them as the title for a major toy piano piece. They are a remarkably close analogy to what I do with the toy piano in that they take something associated with childhood (dollhouses in this case) and treat them in a very adult manner. And even though they portray an extreme fascination with death, they are actual tools that are used to assist people studying forensic science, and so are not sensationalist or exploitative. So the title sets up the exact expectations that I want for the piece.

Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker.
Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker.
  • What microtonal tunings do you use in the wind ensemble piece? How did you manage to detune the banjo? What other tunings appear in your music?

Like you, I do enjoy lots of different temperaments! Since every toy piano is tuned differently from each other, and none of them are in anything close to equal temperament, I tried to place the toy piano within an environment where its unique scale wouldn’t sound too wrong. From the very first conceptualizations of the piece, I knew that I needed an instrument to link the toy piano to the ensemble, in this case, the banjo. Two strings of the five-string banjo are one quarter-tone sharp of their regular tuning, and in writing the part I was very specific as to which notes were played on which strings. And so we I created a continuum from the aleatoric tuning of the toy instrument, through the professional instrument with folk associations tuned in order to make it sound somewhat distorted, into the more standard concert instruments. In that piece, concert instruments use quarter tones as well. Some Details of Hell also uses a lot of quarter tones, in that case in order to explore resonance off of a single low pitch. In A Baby Bigger Than Up Was, I compose out the vowel formants from the repeated text, which required a more systematic approach to mictrotones, using naturally-tuned thirds and sevenths in addition to quarter tones.

  • Your text-setting often takes a deconstructionist or fragmentary approach. Tell us a little about how you view writing for the voice and texted scores in general.

I love words and writing! I love them so much that sometimes I can feel hamstrung when I try to set a text. And I think that the human voice remains the absolutely most beautiful and expressive instrument that we have yet created. So, for several years I avoided text entirely while writing for voice. Some Details of Hell is the last piece in which I took a published poem that I love and tried to set it as clearly as possible. In that case, I spent months analyzing the poem, including its line breaks, and figuring out exactly how I could do justice to Brock-Broido’s incredible sensitivity to language. A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was is my most recent work for voice, and marks my return to the idea of text setting. But the text for that piece is unique in that it’s a story with all of the hallmarks of a narrative but published in alphabetical order, beginning with 19 iterations of the word “a” and ending with nearly an entire page of punctuation. So, every word is set exactly as it was published, but the text itself is organized in a non-narrative manner. The excerpt on the CD brings us from “a” to “breathing” in five minutes, but the entire piece is nearly an hour long—it all gets pretty intense when we reach the ms and the 72 statements of the word “mom” and 442 of the word “my”!

  • The idea of looping appears in two different guises on the album: down.stream where you use a loop pedal on your toy piano and the overdubbed bassoons on 21 Miles to Coolville (bonus points for that title, by the way). Obviously, your music eschews a conventional approach to minimalism. But irregular sorts of repetitions prove to be a throughline, from your vocal settings to the aforementioned looping structures. How do you deal with repetition in your compositional language?

We never experience true repetition. Each time an event is encountered, we perceive it within a context, and any previous contact with that idea or similar ones colors the new experience. I’m fascinated by that idea and also by nature, where near repetition is quite common, but true repetition is almost unimaginable. I think a great deal about listening to the interaction between various bird calls, or predicting ocean waves, or watching rivers where the water is forever changing and forever the same. In my music, I try to play with these concepts by having ideas or words or motives recur but generally subtly changed. 21 Miles to Coolville (and thanks!) is completely written out, and has been played by four bassoons and also by Michael Parker Harley as a solo with prerecorded Harleys. The only difference in how I created to that piece from any previous compositions is that the quarter note pulse remains constant throughout. And my approach to looping pedal in my solo performances is a bit different from most people in that I generally am using it to create drones and sustained sounds, which are otherwise incredibly difficult to produce on the toy piano, and to allow for the buildup of more orchestral textures. When I was in high school, the music of the minimalist composers was one of my first entries into the classical music world, and I still adore minimalist and post-minimalist music and art. So, I feel the influence of that aesthetic very strongly, and try to be patient in my own music, allowing ideas to remain in place for as long as necessary, and I do sometimes enjoy unadulterated recurrence.

  • Tell us about the gig! How did you come together with National Sawdust to present a portrait concert? Who is playing and what will be on the bill?

With the new CD, I wanted to launch in New York, where so many of the performers live, as well as in my home of Baltimore. I’ve been hearing so many amazing things about National Sawdust, and I was fortunate enough to have them agree to host this concert. We’ll be presenting four of the six tracks from the CD, all performed by the players on the album: loadbang, the pianist Karl Larson, the bassoonist Michael Parker Harley, and myself. In addition, loadbang and I will improvise together to close out the show. I’m very excited to have this opportunity to share the stage with such amazing people and players!

  • What’s next for David Smooke? What projects are in the pipeline?

I’m going to be playing live quite a bit more than usual over the coming months, with shows in Boston on the Opensound Series on February 11 and in San Francisco at the Center for New Music on February 24, among others. And I’m working on a piece for the Baltimore-based Sonar Ensemble right now that uses a recording of a run on a nature trail near my home as the ground layer over which the ensemble will perform.

R. Andrew Lee Plays Paul A. Epstein (CD Review)

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Paul A. Epstein Piano Music

R. Andrew Lee, piano

Irritable Hedgehog CD/DL

 

Prior to this recording, composer Paul A. Epstein was not a name known to me. There are so many vital creators out there that one must continue to search for them. Thankfully, R. Andrew Lee has recorded this disc for Irritable Hedgehog. It presents eight of Epstein’s compositions for solo piano: a delightfully diverse and stimulating collection.

In Will Robin’s excellently annotated liner notes, he points out that Epstein doesn’t fall neatly into the minimalist category. His interest in Sol LeWitt, Philip Glass, and Tom Johnson notwithstanding, there are processes afoot in Epstein’s music that share an affinity with modernism. Thus, we hear motoric passages brushing up against piles of dissonance and non-tonal canons. Some processes of pitch and rhythmic manipulation demonstrate an awareness of serial approaches: Robin quotes post-minimalist composer and author Kyle Gann, who likens Epstein to “the Milton Babbitt of minimalism.”

Lee performs this challenging music nimbly, with extraordinary verve and impressive rhythmic accuracy. The pianist has steadily expanded his reach to include many composers from seemingly all corners of experimental music. While one savors this recording, it is also exciting to contemplate what Lee will come up with next.

 

 

 

 

Laura Cetilia on Estuary, Ltd.

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Used, Broken, & Unwanted

Laura Cetilia, cello, autoharp, voice, and electronics

Estuary Ltd. CD

 

A live recording from 2013 made in Providence, Rhode Island, Used, Broken, and Unwanted demonstrates to good effect the wide-ranging timbral palette and drone-based structures that artist Laura Cetilia explores. The title track makes use of repetition, not in the symmetrical fashion of process-driven minimalism, but to create an undulating undergirding for the wisps of vocal and cello melodies that sporadically emerge. This elegantly segues into the exquisitely fragile “Thrum/Pin.”

“Plucked from Obscurity” makes efficacious use of pizzicato; the electronics with which it contends range from the bell-like to the percussive. Particularly lovely is the delicate album closer “Tears of Things,” in which the main, initially pizzicato-driven, ostinato is gradually supplanted by sweeping guttural electronics and an accumulation of upper register sustained notes.

In the surprisingly burgeoning field of cellists who sing, Cetilia is a distinctive one. Alternately penetrating and atmospheric, Used, Broken, and Unwanted is a stimulating listen throughout.

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The Song of the Stars (Naxos CD)

The Song of the Stars

British Music for Upper Voice Choir

Naxos CD 8.573427

Wells Cathedral School Choralia, conducted by Christopher Finch; Eleanor Turner, harp; Elliot Launn, piano

Occupying as it does an important niche in choral literature, the CD Song of the Stars demonstrates the vitality and importance of Naxos Records’s “no stone left unturned” recording ethos. Apart from A Ceremony of Carols, A Survivor from Warsaw, and a few other well known works, many often think of SATB – soprano, alto, tenor, bass – groupings as the default vocal ensemble for which truly meaningful choral literature is created. Here we find a number of gems for upper voices – many of them in their debut recordings – that provide a strong case for inclusivity.

The program contains well known composers such as Gustav Holst, James MacMillan, and John Tavener, who rub elbows with some of the finest contemporary British composers: Paul Mealor, Tarik O’Regan, and James Whitbourn. A find for me was the music of Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951), represented on the disc by her Regina Caeli. The piece alternates lustrous polychords with sprightly counterpoint in an attractive blend of elements that makes me want to delve deeper into McDowall’s output. There are also works by composers familiar to me, such as O’Regan’s Alleluia, Iaus et gloria, that are impressive compositions made even more appealing by their authoritative performances.

This is the recording debut of the Wells Cathedral School Choralia. Conducted by Christopher Finch, this is a fine group that demonstrates strong technical skills, beautiful tone, and excellent musicality throughout Song of the Stars. Indeed, the title work, composed by former King’s Singers member Bob Chilcott, has a perilously demanding tessitura that conventional wisdom would suggest disqualifies some groups from attempting it. The Wells Choralia make it sound eminently attainable. One hopes that conductors and composers take a careful listen to this CD. It provides many ideas for possible programming and the creation of new works for upper voice ensembles. Recommended.

Video of Tarik O’Regan’s “Alleluia, Iaus et gloria”