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).

BMOP Records Thomson and Premieres Sanford

Virgil Thomson – Gertrude Stein

Four Saints in Three Acts; Capital Capitals

 

Charles Blandy, tenor; Simon Dyer, bass; Aaron Engebreth, baritone; Andrew Garland, baritone; Tom McNichols, bass; Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, mezzo-soprano; Sarah Pelletier, soprano; Deborah Selig, soprano; Sumner Thompson, baritone; Lynn Torgove, mezzo-soprano; Stanley Wilson, tenor;

Boston Modern Orchestra, Gil Rose, conductor

 

BMOP/Sound 1049 2xCD

 

Virgil Thomson’s 1934 collaboration with the eminent author Gertrude Stein resulted in their first of two operas, Four Saints in Three Acts. Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose, has made successful forays into recorded opera before, bringing scores such as Lukas Foss’s Griffelkin and Charles Fussell’s Wilde to life. Their recording of Thomson/Stein’s opera is a very successful addition to the orchestra’s burgeoning catalog of works.

 

Taking Stein’s use of non-linear narrative in her writing as a cue, Thomson created a score that, for its time, was exceedingly adventurous. At first blush, one might well think of Thomson’s harmonic language – relentlessly tonal – and his borrowing of material from the American vernacular – ranging from hymns and folksongs to popular songs and dances – to be far more conservative than Ives or other contemporaries who mined similar material but with a more dissonant palette. There is also a component of repetition and scalar melismas, even counting that sounds like a cousin of passages in Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, that suggests a proto-minimal approach to Thomson’s design. However, near-constant shifts of texture and demeanor, which mirror Stein’s approach to text, provide their own set of challenges for both musicians and listeners: in essence, how to follow the thread?   

 

Four Saints in Three Acts is a work with a large cast, yet all of the roles in BMOP’s production are populated by fine singers, many of whom are associated with the Boston area’s various operatic ventures. The orchestra’s playing under Rose is also exemplary: this is a score in which frequent changes of instrumentation create a balancing act that could undo a lesser ensemble.

 

The liner notes are well curated. Given his totemic role as a writer on music, including Thomson’s essay about Four Saints is a particularly nice touch. Thomson scholar Steven Watson contributes his own enlightening essay, underscoring the durability of the opera through many production incarnations, from its original — an all African-American cast (most unusual for its day) — to Robert Wilson’s staging for huge animal costumes.

 

Capital Capitals is another Thomson/Stein collaboration, this one from 1927, for four male voices and piano. The text discusses the various virtues of “capital cities” —  Aix, Arles, Avignon, and Les Baux — in Provence (Stein became acquainted with the region during her tenure as an ambulance driver in the First World War). It is breezier than Four Saints and proves an eminently charming counterpart.

 

_______

David Sanford

At 8 PM on Friday, March 31st at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, BMOP presents a concert featuring works by John Harbison, Eric Sawyer, Ronald Perera, and the world premiere of BMOP commission Black Noise by David Sanford. Soloists include violinist Miranda Cuckson, cellist Julia Bruskin, and pianist Andrea Lam. At 7 PM, a pre-concert lecture with the composers will be lead by Boston Symphony’s Robert Kirzinger. A repeat performance, this one with the Claremont Trio as soloists, will be at 3 PM on Sunday, April 2nd at Amherst College’s Buckley Recital Hall.  

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