CageConcert: an Interview with Philip Thomas

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.

BMOP: an Interview with Gil Rose

Gil Rose

Gil Rose directs the Boston Modern Orchestra Projector 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.

 

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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 New Feature Articles

Two articles I wrote over the summer are finally out.

New York Polyphony article in EMA

My interview with New York Polyphony has been published in the latest issue of Early Music America. 

Beyond the Stage Carnegie Hall Cover

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).

 

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

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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

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.

Interview with Robert Morris

On September 15-18 at Spectrum, Collide-O-Scope Music begins its eighth season with a Festival celebrating the music of Robert Morris. A wide range of works will be featured, for electronics, piano, small chamber ensemble, and string quartet. In addition to Collide-O-Scope personnel, there will be guest performers, notably JACK Quartet. I recently interviewed Morris about the upcoming concerts: our exchange follows.

bob-in-lib

How did this Festival of your music come about?

 

Out of the blue, on April 20, 2015, I received an email from Augustus Arnone proposing this festival of my music. I had never met Augustus nor heard him play in person, but I knew of his great pianistic talent and industry in playing the complete works of Milton Babbitt and the complete “History Of Photography In Sound,” by Michael Finnissy. I knew also of his new music ensemble called Collide-O-Scope. He proposed that the festival should feature my piano works (of which there are many), my small ensemble pieces, some of my electronic works, and string quartets, which would be played by the JACK Quartet. The members of the JACK were once students at Eastman where I teach, and two of them had studied composition with me. They have premiered two of my string quartets: Arc (1988) and Allegro Appassionata (2009) written for them. They will also play my most recent quartet called Quattro per Quattro (2011).

 

Why was Spectrum picked as the venue?

 

Spectrum is a New York City performance space that is well known for presenting progressive art and music. Collide-O-Scope has played there many times. In the last five years, more intimate informal performances spaces, by contrast with concert halls, are becoming the norm for new music concerts and events. This is perhaps a tradition that stems from the old NYC downtown music venues of the 1980s and 90s for alternative and improvised music.

 

What will the pieces for electronics be like? How do you think they will resonate in an intimate environment like Spectrum?

 

The electronic/computer music pieces are not that loud as such things go. One of the two pieces called Mysterious Landscape is quite intimate in character, while the other piece, Entelechy 2012 for piano and electronic modification, is sometimes brash and dramatic with subtle, timbreally unique gestures often including microtones, vibrati and glissandi—categories of sound impossible to produce on acoustic keyboard instruments.

 

These two pieces, both composed in 2012, complement each other in other ways. Mysterious Landscape is an improvisational electro-acoustic piece lasting about 30 minutes to be played by one or two performers. It complements my desire to connect music with nature as in my outdoor pieces. Here the sounds and processes of nature are brought inside a performance space so that natural sounds—birds, insects, frogs, mammals, wind, and water-—are mixed together with computer-generated sounds to project a serene sonic environment that reflects on a peaceful relation of humans to nature. I will play the piece with a video slideshow using landscape photographs I took in the southwest and eastern United States, south India, Sri Lanka, and Kyoto, Japan.

 

Entelechy 2012 is quite a bit more abstract in structure and design. It also involves indeterminacy, but of the composed type; in this case, two isomorphic, composed out structures are played against each other in a different coordination from one performance to another. This underlying structure is based on a ring of 24 elements that include all the permutations of four elements once each. This ring guides the timbres, gestures, and pacing of the piece. However it does not produce a sense of stability or unity in any of the performances. Rather the composition is designed to be radically impermanent, providing surprising and novel experiences as it moves on, as much as in jerks or surges as ebbs and flows. Incidentally, The word “entelechy” was coined by Aristotle to refer to the condition of a thing whose essence is fully realized, implying an actuality that directly stems from some potential idea or concept. Augustus will play the piece with sound modifications that are not controlled by a live performer.

 

Both pieces use MAX-MSP patches

 

More on these pieces can be found on my website:

 

http://lulu.esm.rochester.edu/rdm/notes/ml.html

 

http://lulu.esm.rochester.edu/rdm/notes/ent12.html.

 

Do you enjoy being part of the performances of your electronics installations?

 

Yes, I do. I enjoy improvisation, on one hand, and being in control of the nuance of the electronic sounds, on the other.

 

You’ve frequently composed for piano. What draws you to the medium?

 

I began playing piano before I could read music and took lessons.  Even today, I improvise as much as I play written-out compositions; however in recent years, I play for myself only. Thus the piano has been the instrument on and from which I get musical ideas of all sorts, and is often the medium in which I try out new compositional ideas and modes of expression. I like to contrast the percussive and dynamically mobile character of the piano—which you find most prevalently in jazz of all types–with the colorful and intimate resonances found a good deal of new music. You might say, Bartok, Stravinsky and Babbitt versus Debussy, Boulez, and Feldman.

 

The piano program contains the premiere of a new work, Foray (2016). What were some of the compositional ideas you worked with in this latest piece?

 

Foray was directly influenced by Augustus’s playing, which I finally heard live last spring in a Collide-O-Scope concert featuring the music of Milton Babbitt and some younger composers. His remarkable ways of voicing and articulating piano sound made a big impression on me. So in mid-July an idea for a piano piece popped into my head and the character of the piano ideas was something I thought Augustus would like to play, so I dedicated the piece to him. The basic idea of the piece is that an opening series of ten chords arranged in an arc (maybe a rainbow, since each chord is of a different harmonic “color”) each generate music in subsequent sections of the piece. Thus the form is the arc followed by ten sections in different registers and densities. As the music goes on, the derivation of the music from the chords gets progressively more complicated and obscure in the way the music is parsed, registered, and embellished. The process is from isolated objects to mixtures and blends—an entropic process.

 

By the way, the other pianist on the program, Margaret Kampmeier, is also playing music I dedicated to her: from my Nine Piano Pieces.

 

Have your works been performed before by Collide-O-Scope Music? What does their ensemble bring out in your work that perhaps others don’t?

 

Well, not exactly. Some of the players who are members of Collide-O-Scope as well as guest artists on this festival have played and recorded my music. Sunghai Anna Lin (violin), Margaret Kampmieier (piano), Marianne Gythfeldt (clarinet) and Tara O’Connor (flute) were once members of the New Millennium Ensemble that played and recorded my sextet Broken Consort in Three Parts, as well as other pieces over the years. These are wonderful musicians who understand how to interpret the multiplicity of structure and expression in my music.

 

Could you tell us a bit about the ensemble works that will be heard on the festival?

 

Traces (1990) for flute and piano was commissioned by the National Flute Association in 1990 as a contest piece. As the title suggests, the piece moves forward by tracing and retracing various melodic lines in the piano by the flute and vice-versa,

 

Raudra for flute alone was written for Elizabeth Singleton in 1976. It takes its name from the fourth of the nine “rasa’s” of Indian music and dance, connoting the mood of fury and anger. I’m looking forward to Patricia Spencer’s performance.

 

Along A Rocky Path (1993) was composed for the Arlington Trio (violin, clarinet and piano).  Like many of my pieces, Along a Rocky Path reflects aspects of natural landscape—especially less frequented and more rugged terrain. Shortly after completing the piece in January 1993, I came across a poem of the eighteenth-century Japanese poet, Uragami Gyokudo, from which I took the title of my trio.

 

There is no heat on this rocky path,

The sound of the water from a mountain stream is most pure,

By the red leaves, I know there must be a man’s hut nearby;

My traveler’s path is hidden in the white clouds.

Over the twisting path hang the waterfalls of Mount Lu,

The plank roads of Szechwan cross the steep mountains.

There is no need to bemoan the journey:

Wherever I chant my poems is home.

 

Out and Out (1989) was composed for Marianne Gythfeldt in the spring of 1989. It concerns the interplay between the two instruments; the clarinetist and pianist interact to shape the musical continuity, often doubling each other’s notes and rhythms. The resulting demarcation of one musical line by another affects every aspect of the piece, producing exceedingly great reaches of reference, pulling together music from every part of the piece.

 

Drawn Onward (2014) is a recent work for violin and piano written for the Irrera Brothers, an emerging violin/piano duet. The title of the piece involves a palindrome that is embedded in the following longer palindrome: “Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?” The idea of a symmetry inside another symmetry is at the heart of the composition. For instance, each of the two players has their own musical materials, but the violin material is embedded in the piano material and vice versa. Since the two performers from whom I wrote the piece are brothers, I thought that working with mutually embedded materials an apt way of composing a piece particularly for them.

 

Did the JACK Quartet work with you when they were at Eastman?

 

As I mentioned earlier they did as composition students, but they were not the JACK Quartet yet. You can read about the interactions we have had in the following interview article: “Interview with the JACK Quartet, John Pickford Richards, Ari Streisfeld, Christopher Otto, Kevin McFarland, And Joshua B. Mailman,” Perspectives of New Music, (2014) 52/2.

 

String quartets often are particularly significant pieces in composers’ respective outputs. How would you characterize the quartets that will be heard on the festival?

 

Although I wrote a string quartet in 1976, Arc of 1988 is my official first quartet. Due to the difficulty of the music, I had to wait 21 years before it was played. The JACK decided to learn it in 2008 and have played it here and there since then. The second quartet, Allegro Appassionata, was written for the JACK in 2009 for a special concert at the Tank in NYC. The third, Quattro per Quattro was premiered and recorded by the Momenta String Quartet in 2014 with Benjamin Boretz’s string quartet, Qixingshan. Now I will hear the JACK’s interpretation!

 

Are these quartets significant in my output? I think yes: they are all extended, ramified compositions; each embodies a harmonious relation between singular compositional craft and intense emotional particularity; each is quite challenging for the performers. But as your question implies, string quartets are considered the high-water mark for composers of all stripes. I can only hope my quartets will be appreciated as such.

 

______________

Sep 15 – 8:00 pm

Robert Morris Festival, Concert I – Electronic Installation Works

Augustus Arnone, piano, and Robert Morris, Electronics

 

Mysterious Landscape (2012)

Entellechy (2012)

 

(pre-concert discussion with Morris at 7pm)

 

Sep 16 – 8:00 pm

Robert Morris Festival, Concert II – Music For Solo Piano

Augustus Arnone and Margaret Kampmeier, pianos

 

39 Webern Variations (2010)

Sabi (1998)

Night Vapors (1967)

Wabi (1996)

Lake (2016)

14 Little Piano Pieces (2002)

Foray (2016) ** World Premiere

 

(pre-concert discussion with Morris at 7pm)

 

Sep 17 – 8:30 pm

Robert Morris Festival, Concert III – Music For Mixed Ensemble

Collide-O-Scope Music

 

Traces (1990)

Raudra (1976)

Along A Rocky Path (1993)

Out and Out (1989)

Drawn Onward (2014)

Yugen (1998)

 

Sep 18 – 3:00 pm

Robert Morris Festival, Concert IV – Music For String Quartet

JACK Quartet

 

Arc (1988)

Allegro Appassionata (2009)

Quattro per Quattro (2011)

 

________________________________________________________

 

Spectrum

121 Ludlow St. 2nd fl, New York City

September 15th – 18th

http://www.spectrumnyc.com/

TICKETS: 20$/15$ (students and seniors) OR Festival Pass 50$/40$ (students and seniors)

________________________________________________________

Carson Cooman (Interview)

coomanpews-large

Interview with Carson Cooman

Sequenza 21: The latest CD of your compositions, Liminal on Divine Art, features three works, a short orchestra piece, Shoreline Rune, Liminal, your Fourth Symphony, and Prism, an older work for organ. How did you decide on this grouping?

Carson Cooman: A number of recordings of my music have been released, and the music on them has been grouped and organized in different ways, depending on the repertoire at hand. For this release, I wanted to try a “mini-album” (shorter length than a full CD and priced accordingly). So the symphony was the main affair, and then I chose two other pieces that would serve as a sort of prelude and postlude. I remember Lutoslawski said that he settled on his characteristic large scale form (short introductory movement followed by a main movement) because he felt there was too much information to digest for a typical listener in a traditional four movement symphonic structure. In a somewhat related way, I wanted to do an album where instead of lots of pieces competing to fill up the 80 minutes of time there was just one main piece and then two shorter pieces to take the listener in and out of it. I was grateful that Divine Art was open to doing this. Shoreline Rune was written as a birthday gift for Judith Weir, and then Prism was an organ piece from more than 10 years earlier, which I chose simply because I felt its mood worked as a postlude to the symphony.

 

S21: Judith Weir is the dedicatee for Shoreline Rune. How do you know Weir and which of her pieces would you recommend to listeners to get to know her work?

CC: I studied with Judith Weir for a year in college, and it was a remarkable and inspiring experience. While I had quite positive interactions in different ways with other teachers, I’ve often felt that I gained more in that short time with her than I did in all the other years of formal study combined. For my taste, you can’t really go wrong with digging into her output. And like so many British composers, she has pieces for all purposes: from major concert works for the world’s best orchestras to easy pieces for amateur congregational singers. This versatility of purpose is something I greatly admire and strive for myself, and for various reasons, it’s been far more common in the 20th/21st century in UK composers than in other countries.

But in terms of a few specific Weir pieces that are personal favorites: Her first big opera, A Night at the Chinese Opera, is a masterwork. The orchestra piece The Welcome Arrival of Rain is quite moving. And there are so many exceptional chamber works: I Broke Off a Golden Branch and the Piano Concerto being two personal favorites. Chamber music is a particularly good fit for her sensitive, transparently luminous musical aesthetic.

 

S21: Your Fourth Symphony is about climate change. What made you decide to respond to this global issue in symphonic form? Are you feeling either Adams breathing over your shoulder?

 

CC: I use the term symphony simply to imply that a piece is inspired by a “big subject.” Thus, the five pieces (four for orchestra and one for organ solo) that I’ve given that title all have different big topic inspirations. However, I really don’t see these pieces as “grand statements” that try and sum anything up—and certainly not in any truly cosmic way. They are much more akin to writing a personal essay (or a long Facebook post!), just reflecting and expressing in some way my own thoughts. And, in some ways, writing the pieces on those subjects (whether or not one believes music can express anything concrete) is just a way to help me organize and work out what I think. I get itchy around “grand statements,” which in the right hands can be remarkable experiences, but the arrogance of which they often smack personally doesn’t sit well with me.

My decision to use climate change as the inspiration for the symphony came simply after several years of thinking, reading, and personal processing about the issue. Certainly when writing any environmentally connected piece of music today, John Luther Adams’s presence is inevitable. I think it’s wonderful that in spite of its “experimental” roots, his work has in the last few years really entered the classical mainstream. I think what my pieces do and how they are put together are rather different from JLA, and while my piece does also have a climate/environmental inspiration, it’s a different work than Become Ocean is, for example.

As for the other Adams (John Coolidge), I’ve also heard everything he’s written, and there are many pieces that I greatly enjoy as a listener, but I don’t think much from his style has had an audibly direct impact on what I write. I think partially it’s because his most characteristic devices are now so instantly recognizable as his. I hear those influences very audibly in a number of composers today, and that’s totally fine—in a sense they are working in their own way in a new post-John Adams tradition. But just as a personal choice, I don’t want to use his devices so directly.

 

S21: Organist Erik Simmons has been one of your staunchest advocates. How did you come to work with Erik and what is it like writing for another organist?

CC: I’ve been very fortunate that my organ music has been well-received and played by many fine organists, but Erik has taken to it to a degree that goes above and beyond. He’s recorded four full CDs of my organ pieces so far, with several more in the works, including a double disc set of all my organ pieces inspired by pre-baroque genres. It’s not officially a “complete organ works” project, though in the end it will probably be close to that.

In my own organ performing, from time to time I’ve had this experience myself where I almost compulsively want to play and record as much as possible by a particular composer. Erik’s work with my organ music has been a bit like that, and I’m just experiencing it now from the other direction, which is very flattering. Our work together has also generated a number of new compositions, all of which he has recorded beautifully.

In terms of “writing for another organist,” that is always what I’ve done. None of my organ music is written for myself. I never play my own pieces, unless somebody specifically asks me to do it. The main reason is that, as a player, I enjoy most the sense of discovery and exploration of repertoire, and I already “know too much” about my own music, having spent lots of time writing it in the first place. Composition and performance are two different impulses for me, and I get different kinds of satisfaction out of them.

 

S21: Your own activities as an organist have included a considerable amount of commissioning, performing, and recording. Tell us about your most recent recording projects as a performer.

CC: Relating to what I said above about a kind of compulsive obsession, much of my recording activity the last few years has been devoted to the work of several composers: Thomas Åberg (Sweden), Carlotta Ferrari (Italy), and Lothar Graap (Germany). In all three cases, I’ve recorded CDs and also a large number of additional works for online/YouTube.

Lothar Graap has been the focus in 2015. Born in 1933, Graap spent most of his life in the former East Germany (DDR), and because of that, his work was not widely known outside until the 1990s. Several pieces were published internationally by the state publisher in those decades, including his Meditationen (Meditations) (1968), which I think is one of the true organ masterworks from those years of East Germany. Since 1990, Graap has published old and new pieces with many publishers in Germany, and his work is now widely used within that country. However, it is still little known in the USA, and my recording project was conceived partially to address that.

I really like his music; its very German aesthetic is appealing to me, since a French influence has become all-consuming and pervasive in 20th/21st century new organ music (in all countries, including the USA). There isn’t a French moment in Graap’s music, and I thus enjoy working with something that is different from so much of what one usually hears today in new organ literature. As a fine organist himself, Graap writes music that is beautifully conceived for the instrument; much of it is very well suited to the small and medium size organs that are my personal favorite kinds of instruments. Much as I enjoy hearing the whole spectrum of organ music in the hands of other players, my own personal tastes tend to gravitate towards organ music with a strong neo-baroque aesthetic, but re-imagined through the lens of the present era.

Much of my recording activity in 2015 has been devoted to Graap’s work. This summer, I released two CDs of his music and have also recorded some 75 additional works online. There are a still a number more that I want to do before I’m done with this project. Since we’ve begun this project, he’s also written a few new pieces for me which I’ll premiere in 2016.

In addition to those three composers, I’ve also (in smaller quantities) continued to perform and record works by many other contemporary composers as well. At last count, I’ve recorded organ works of more than 225 different contemporary composers since 2012.

As the organ editor for Lorenz Publishing Company, I am also simultaneously developing and commissioning new organ publications from many composers, covering the entire spectrum of organ literature: from pieces for part-time church organists to recital literature.

 

S21: You are an uncommonly prolific composer. My composition students often ask me how forebears such as Bach or Handel wrote so much music. While writing in many genres and styles, how does a composer in the Twenty-first century find their voice?

CC: Since the late 19th century, a romantic/post-romantic paradigm seems to have become the norm in terms of how one conceptualizes an output and body of work. This even true for people whose music has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with romanticism as an aesthetic or style. But the notion that one writes primarily big pieces (and fairly few of them) is something that has stuck with us in contemporary concert music circles. I think it’s this inheritance that makes it hard for many composers to think about the kind of productivity that was the norm in earlier eras (and not unheard-of from certain composers in the early 20th century either).

My own thinking is in many ways more like that of pre-romantic eras. I’m a professional composer, and so I write music to the best of my ability when I’m asked to do so: whether that be for professional orchestra or amateur chorus. The “great artist” ego has little appeal to me. I’ve always been relatively prolific, and I’ve found in my own experience (and with many of my friends and colleagues) that we all have different paces at which we work, and trying to change that pace is not going to be effective. You simply have to find your own musical metabolism and learn to produce the best work you can that way. No actual teacher of mine tried to make me write less, but when I was a student other people advised it, based on their own (slower) pace. There was nothing to be gained by that, however, as it simply wasn’t the way that I worked. It ultimately made no more sense than it would make for me to try and force somebody who writes really slowly to produce a lot more just for the sake of doing so.

But of course, I can’t escape that post-romantic aesthetic inheritance entirely. For example, I do make a conscious effort not to repeat myself and not to accept commissions/projects where I think the result might be just be a lesser version of something I’ve already done. Because I was born in 1982, I worry about things like that. If I had been born in 1682, such thoughts would not have crossed my mind! When people criticize Vivaldi (not really true, of course) for writing the “same concerto over and over again,” the notion that doing something like that would have been somehow “wrong” would have been rather foreign to him. But because I live when I do, I can’t escape entirely the milieu and aesthetic in which I came of age musically.

In the end, I just try and do the best work that I possibly can in the manner that has come to be my way of doing things. Each person needs to find for themselves what that method and pace is.