Mabel Kwan is a pianist of impressive range and artistry. Last Saturday she presented a stunning performance of Georg Friederich Haas' Trois Hommages for one pianist playing two pianos tuned one quarter-tone apart. Having completed this 45-minute virtuoso marathon, Mabel faces yet another imposing test from Haas this Thursday when she plays the accordion part in Dal Niente's performance of In Vain. Simply put, these works present unique and uncompromising physical and mental challenges. With that in mind, I asked Mabel the following:
D.B. I think the first question that comes to mind is very straightforward: How did you practice the Trois Hommages? More specifically, how did you acclimate yourself to the physical challenges that stem from sitting between two pianos arranged in a V-formation?
M.K. The first movement is the most demanding and worrisome from a physical standpoint-- I started out playing a three-minute version of the piece, and gradually upped the duration to fifteen minutes. I had access to a room with two pianos and even though they were both regularly tuned, it was helpful to practice the first hommage on two pianos. I practiced the second and third movements at home with my piano and a keyboard which I programmed a quarter-tone lower. For those two movements it's essential to practice with the different tuning between the two pianos. I had to take a lot of breaks while practicing and often I had to quit sooner than my brain would've liked just because my arms were shaking and I couldn't control in my fingers. It was strange to experience this law of diminishing returns to such a degree in practicing this piece.
D.B. Aside from a possible dress rehearsal, did you have a chance to practice on pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart?
M.K. The pianos in the hall were tuned two days before the concert so I got to practice for real those two days which was fantastic. I had to figure out some pedaling issues which I hadn't dealt with when practicing at home with the piano and keyboard setup, and another thing I had to get used to was the different timbres between the two pianos.
D.B. Can you describe the on-stage experience of performing all three Hommages?
M.K. It was unexpectedly scary. I've never been so aware of the possibility of mechanical failure. So I was pretty much worried about that the whole time while playing. I didn't know that was going to happen until I was up there. It was kind of awful! But I would totally do it again.
D.B. You are in the very unique position of performing the Trois Hommages and the accordion part for In Vain within the same week. In the case of the latter, you are once again in foreign territory from a physical standpoint, this time as a pianist playing a related but nonetheless very different instrument. How have you approached the challenge of the In Vain accordion part?
M.K. First I really want say, EVERYONE PLEASE COME TO THIS CONCERT. IT WILL BE INCREDIBLE!
This is another case where I had to gradually build up the physicality in order to play a piece. Learning the part at first was very unnatural because the only way I could learn it was to play it on the piano and then "translate" it to the accordion. It was kind of maddening, but as I got more accustomed to playing the accordion and I stopped having to doing that. It's been fascinating to play this part on chromatic accordion because the intervals--lots of tritones, whole steps, half steps--are perfectly suited to the arrangement of the buttons on the accordion-- three rows, each a diminished 7 chord. While I can't recommend a piece by Haas being the first thing you learn on a new instrument, it's been an interesting way to get to know the accordion very well.
D.B. Do you have any plans to perform the Trois Hommages again? Are there any other pieces on your agenda that place similar demands on the pianist?
M.K. I would love to play the Trois Hommages again. I'm also interested in your piano solo, Stress Position, and a piece for three toy pianos by Evan Johnson, Positioning in Radiography.
Note: I very much appreciate Mabel taking time to answer my questions and it would certainly be an honor to have her perform Stress Position. After playing Haas' Hommage to Ligeti, however, I'm sure my piece will seem rather tame!
On this, the last day of 2012, I'd like to take a moment to recognize some of the outstanding works created by my composition students over the past year at Columbia College Chicago. I am now in my second year at Columbia and it has been very satisfying to witness the creative and intellectual energy permeating all of the studios and classes within the program. I will undoubtedly post more recordings as they become available. For now, here is a small sampling:
Conscious for violin, cello, oboe and bass clarinet
Mimesis for voice and piano (Note: While I did not work with Monte on this particular piece, I think it is truly outstanding and had to include it here. Bravo to Monte and to Marcos Balter, with whom he studied while composing Mimesis.)
Lastly, while I don't have a recording of this piece, I'd like to share a few shots of the score to Erin Doubenmier's Oms de la Planet Sauvage for flute, viola and harp. I have always appreciated well-executed hand-written scores, and Erin, who took my Composition III course this past fall, certainly produced a very special work visually and aurally.
Thanks again to all of my students - I look forward to working with you in 2013!
On Sunday, December 16, 2012, the (Un)familiar Music Series will present (Re)new Amsterdam, a fundraiser benefiting New Amsterdam Records. The Brooklyn-based label sustained significant damage to their warehouse and lost around 70% of their CD inventory during Super Storm Sandy.
The event is significant in that it will bring together nearly all of the Chicago new music groups. This impressive roster of individuals and ensembles has been growing steadily over the past decade. So too have the diverse number of venues hosting contemporary music events. All of these topics were on my mind when I posed a few questions to Doyle Armbrust, curator of (Un)familiar Music and a musician who plays many roles within the larger Chicago new music community.
DB: Your partner in the (Un)familiar Music Series is The Empty Bottle. Over the past few years, similar "non-classical" venues in Chicago, Mayne Stage and The Green Mill among them, have likewise hosted new music concerts. What is your reason for partnering with the Empty Bottle and how do you see the landscape of traditional and non-traditional concert settings evolving in the next few years?
DA: The idea for performing in non-traditional venues is not a new one of course, but for Spektral Quartet (I'm the one reading alto clef), we knew that we wanted to avoid the rut of only playing in the obvious halls around Chicago. We picked the Empty Bottle to stage our Sampler Pack concerts primarily because it is my favorite rock/experimental room in Chicago. The real motivation for lugging stands and chairs into a dry acoustic for both Spektral and (Un)familiar, though, is to expose more Chicagoans to new-music. The kabuki (formal dress, lavish venues, expensive tickets) that has developed around classical and even new-music over the centuries has largely given it an exclusionary or off-puttingly sophisticated veneer. While I hold this music in the highest regard and admiration, I certainly don't feel elitist about playing it. Trust me, there's nothing sophisticated about the way I look after rehearsing Carter for four hours…
When a new-music newbie comes to an (Un)familiar show by choice or by happenstance, that preconceived notion of classical or new-music as rarified artifact ceases to exist when they look around and see a young audience with nary a tuxedo to be found and cheap drinks within an arm's reach. This also has an inspiring effect on the performers as well. The audience is relaxed, everyone is bantering with the musicians between movements or pieces, and the bar setting immediately takes (some/most of) the edge off performance nerves. Risks are taken that wouldn't be otherwise by both performer and listener.
I don't pretend to know the future of new-music, but I do think this explosion of expedient ensembles as well as the focus of current composers on writing for them is not to be overlooked. We are fleet, we are embracing to the public, we work like dogs and we don't relegate cocktails exclusively to intermission.
DB: The (Un)Familiar Music Facebook page describes the series' repertoire as "eccentric, experimental and avante-garde" - can you elaborate on what this means and how it compares to other Chicago new music offerings?
DA: This language was not intended to set (Un)familiar apart from other new-music series in Chicago, but from the larger institutions down in the Loop (which for the record, I love dearly). If anything, (Un)familiar is intended to bring the new-music community closer together. Eighth Blackbird has done an incredible job in this realm through the recent "In C" and "Inuksuit" projects, and my series is aimed at furthering this trend. The idea is to feature our city's tremendous ensembles throughout the year at a venue more likely to attract new and unexpected fans, and if I have my way, you'll be seeing some cross-pollination between groups as we grow. But back to your question, audience interaction is a massive part of this endeavor. We want folks to ask questions, to crack jokes with the performers and to give live feedback without the worry that they are "doing it wrong." In addition, I'm scheming to get some groups in from (far) outside the city limits starting next season.
DB: Your first event is a fundraiser for New Amsterdam Records, a Brooklyn-based label that lost much of its CD stock as a result of Super Storm Sandy. The lineup includes virtually every new music group in Chicago. How did this event come together?
DA: Composer Marcos Balter is the catalyst for this amazing event, (Re)New Amsterdam. He approached me about co-producing a fundraiser for New Am and hosting it on my (Un)familiar Music Series. As an Opera & Classical writer at Time Out Chicago, I have the fortune of listening to just about everything this New York-based label releases, and they are doing fantastic work. They also manage to buck the trend of record company exploitation by allowing artists to retain rights to their music as well as 80% of an album's proceeds. Needless to say, it was a very easy decision to partner with Marcos for such a worthwhile cause. What is both astounding as well as totally expected, though, is the enthusiasm with which the Chicago new music scene has responded. One of the reasons I moved back to Chicago was because I missed the collaborative and compassionate spirit of this city, especially amongst musicians. Chicago is proving me right on this in a very real way.
DB: Given your efforts to expand the new music experience to new audiences, I am compelled to ask about how the (Un)familiar series relates to your personal career trajectory? Given that you wear many hats - violist in The Spektral Quartet, free-lancer and teacher, writer for Time Out Chicago, concert series curator - do you see your own activities as representative of the diversification necessary for classically-trained musicians to make a living?
DA: Without any shred of a doubt. My trajectory since high school was toward an orchestral career. While a member of the New World Symphony, I had a bit of an epiphany in realizing that I couldn't visualize my career past (hopefully) winning a professional symphony job. It was a blank in my mind, and it sent me hurtling in the opposite direction. While I would never dissuade anyone from pursuing such a gig, I can say definitively that if you don't go the orchestral route, you need to be adaptable. Stating it as I just did, though, is somewhat misleading. I didn't take on these roles out of necessity. I've just said yes to and worked hard at the projects that get me amped. Mainly, you should just get into new-music because it melts your face.
Note: To get ready for the upcoming (Re)New Amsterdam fundraiser, here is Doyle and his fellow Spektral Quratet mates (who will be performing at the event) playing Hans Thomalla's Albumblatt.
It is a pleasure to begin this new series of "Listening To" posts with Jenna Lyle, a composer and vocalist from Carrollton, Georgia. Jenna currently resides in Chicago and is pursuing a Doctor of Music in composition at Northwestern University. I recently presented a few questions to Jenna about breathpiece, an intense work for voice, cello and double bass. Her responses provide insight into a compositional process that draws upon extensive investigations into breathing and the impact of breath upon the body, instrumental/vocal techniques, and the resultant sounds. Jenna also talks about important artistic influences including the painter Pierre Soulages and singer-songwriter Tom Waits. A complete recording of breathpiece and the interview are posted below.
DB: How did you come up with this somewhat unusual instrumentation?
JL: The piece was commissioned by my friend, bassist Scott Dixon, in the Spring of 2011. He wanted a piece that we could perform together and gave me the option of writing for bass and soprano or bass, cello, and soprano. Since we live in different cities, I thought it might work best if I wrote a piece whose main elements he could work up with a performer in Cleveland and then add me (the soprano) in a smash-up, weekend-long rehearsal session. I'm working a lot lately with concepts of intimacy and community, and I wanted a situation where at least two performers were able to spend some time together developing that intimacy as an ensemble. So the instrumentation was one of geographical practicality, really. The string parts are very tightly knit, and I wrote the soprano as kind of a narrator fairy who flies in at the last minute with a new timbre.
Aside from that, there are some sick cellists in Cleveland, many of whom I've had opportunities to work with. The cellist in my soundcloud recording, Daniel Pereira, is an extremely versatile performer who brings a wonderful enthusiasm and physicality to the things he decides to invest in. Both he and Scott are, much to my delight, two spectacular performers who are able to balance technical precision with deep conceptual reflection. I knew they would have no trouble living in the conceptual world of the piece.
DB: Were there any extra-musical or conceptual ideas that informed your compositional approach?
JL: Oh my. This is always a tough question for me. I'm not what you might call a "focused" composer when it comes to concepts. I usually start with one idea, and then the more I work with the piece, the materials begin to develop a life of their own--so I go with that. And then I live my life and experience things, and they become part of the piece as well. I'm not opposed to letting a work wander off somewhere weird. I'd rather do that than hold so fast to my concept that I limit the possibility for growth somewhere else. I try to keep the idea of aesthetic unity somewhere in the back of my mind while I'm working though, so that occasionally keeps me in check.
The work's concept actually came from the way that Scott approaches his instrument. His rootedness in Feldenkrais techniques is evident in his bowing. In our work sessions, we discussed the way he connects bow strokes to breath, breath to the rest of his body, and body to the ground. I wanted to write a piece highlighting his particular sense of body awareness, where the musical materials themselves became somewhat corporeal. The piece quickly became about breath.
In my reflections on the idea of breath, I did a lot of sitting alone in the dark, listening to myself breathe, and watching shards of light peek through the blinds in my living room (*This is precisely why I've never been great at having roommates.*). And I became really obsessed with this painting by Pierre Soulages (Painting 220x336cm, 14 May 1968):
I was interested in the way that the large, connected, dark gestures in the painting point more to their foundation, the white space, as a primary material rather than to their own existence as materials. And breath, I guess, is a foundation, like the white space in the painting. Breathing isn't something that you instruct your body to do. You breathe or you pass out. It's how you exist. To isolate breathing as something more materialistic than foundational, I tried to create a setting in which my own breath was the loudest thing I could hear. So I covered my ears with my hands. There I was, sitting in the dark, hands over my ears, thinking about Pierre Soulages, and looking an awful lot like someone most people would worry about. And that became the piece! The sound that results from covering your ears and creating a pressure vacuum is a low rumble and kind of a high, barely-present hiss. Breath, in such a context, is piercing, even though it's relatively involuntary.
Timbrally speaking, the qualities of the cello and bass make them perfect to purvey the low rumble and high hiss while the high voice actually IS piercing breath. Eventually all three transform into one another. I was also inspired by the way that Soulages brings attention, not only to the final visual product of his work, but to the gestures and apparatus with which it was made--In a way, making a piece out of what's left over from his physical process--giving both the leftovers and the process equal billing. Something similar happens in breathpiece, where (1) the timbral world itself is imitating the sonic refuse of silence, and (2) certain sounds are simply the results of specific instructions for movement and breath.
What tied everything together for me was the harmonic material (not that it's extremely prominent) which I nabbed from a few bars of Tom Waits' "Ghosts of Saturday Night [After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House]" and then tweaked for my own purposes of leaving strings open, etc. It's a song from my favorite album, The Heart of Saturday Night, where the lyrics are basically a list of everything that's left over after a night of whatever there's been a night of.
And then I actually wrote the piece, and it materialized into something of its own...out of leftovers!
DB: There is an intense physicality that seems to define breathpiece, a raw, course quality that stems from the dramatic gestural content as well as the constant presence of indefinitely pitched sounds/noise. With this in mind, would you talk a bit about how you worked with the instruments (the voice included) to develop the material for the piece?
Beginning with my initial timbral idea (low rumble/high hiss/piercing breath), I set about working with Scott (via phone and various trips to Cleveland throughout the year), and Chicago cellist Russell Rolen to explore the methods they as string players might use to achieve the sounds I wanted, methods I might not have considered. In my sessions with them, I watched their movements and tried to orient them on a spectrum of intensity--intensity of bow pressure, intensity of breath, range of motion, speed, and a few other variables which I've forgotten now. And I looked for relationships between all of them and considered how I might exploit those relationships, build new ones, turn them upside-down, or morph individual techniques into one another. Underpressure of the bow on the string, for example, might seem like an un-intense technique, but it actually requires a lot of control on the part of the player and results in an unstable sound which, in the right context, can be kind of nerve-racking. Then I might ask for a double stop, where the player puts less pressure on one string and more pressure on another string, allowing one string's resonance to disappear into the other.
As I discussed in some detail above, I was definitely inspired by the idea of movement and breath as materials themselves that might result in indeterminate sounds. As a result, there are a few sections in the piece where the performers are instructed to move and breathe according to diagrams in the score, and then further instructed to listen to their own breaths in relation to each other's. As an added layer, I wanted to expand the concept of 'body awareness' established early in the piece with breath consciousness and movement instruction to 'instrument body awareness.' In the final section of breathpiece, I actually climb a stepladder to open and close chromatic gates on the bass while the player performs double stop harmonics. It's partially practical, because I actually wanted a chromatically descending passage of double stop harmonics, but it also serves as a means of relationship-morphing between instrument and performer/performer and performer.
DB: The use of the voice in conjunction with the other instruments is interesting - the voice sometimes stands out, punctuating phrases or sections, and at other times it blends seamlessly with noise sounds in the strings. Was there a particular formal strategy with regard to the voice?
JL: Practically speaking, the voice had to be its own entity. As I said above, "The string parts are very tightly knit, and I wrote the soprano as kind of a narrator fairy who flies in at the last minute with a new timbre." The high female voice in breathpiece balances and creates a nice contrast to the inherently low tessitura of the cello and bass. At the same time, the three are capable of existing in the same register and executing techniques that result in similar sonic effects...a lot of possibility for contrast and combination.
Formally, I wanted the voice to mark sections in the piece and to instigate and respond to events in the strings, and vise versa, with all three performers eventually coming together to form one instrument. Additionally, the opening vocal cadenza outlines the form--or at least the energy of the form, breaths inward and outward, strained and relaxed, are placed linearly in imitation of the way breathpiece builds up and releases tension.
As yet another school year has come to a close, I am left wondering the following: Should beginning composers be allowed anywhere near notation software?
Composers who have devoted years to learning Finale or Sibelius know that the default settings on these programs often generate scores that contradict many long-held notational standards. Composers should be expected to, at the very least, identify and correct such inaccuracies. True mastery might be understood as the ability to achieve, via Finale or Sibelius, the unlimited creativity inherent in a blank piece of paper. This means being able to personalize the appearance and functionality of your score, whether implementing graphic and other "unusual" forms of notation or simply customizing certain cosmetic elements such as where the meter is placed, cross-stemming pitches between staves, etc.
But all of these skills - from identifying the software's anomalies to implementing a truly unique visual appearance - depend upon a deep understanding of notation outside of the software context. This was less of a problem in the 80's and 90's, when composers who began using Finale did so after spending at least some time notating by hand. I will never forget my first attempts at hand-written notation. I was baffled by the extent to which it felt foreign to manually generate the very symbols I had been reading for years. This process of "graphic re-orientation" not only helped me learn to notate, it made me pay greater attention to the notation of others. If I didn't remember exactly how to draw a symbol or indicate a certain sound, I looked at printed scores.
Today's students are engaging in the musical equivalent of learning to type before learning to write by hand, and doing so without spell or grammar check. When you combine a lack of notational experience with a still-developing theory background, you get dotted quarter notes that begin on the second half of beats, nonsensical beamings, and wildly incorrect spellings of chords - none of which the software corrects.
Sadly, this is not be the worst part of the situation. MIDI playback is solely responsible for several evils. It undermines the development of the inner ear. (To quote Aaron Copland: "You cannot produce a beautiful sonority or combination of sonorities without first hearing the imagined sound in the inner ear."*) It causes students to falsely equate the play button with the abilities and tendencies of living, breathing musicians and their instruments. This is especially true with tempo markings, but, as one of my colleagues pointed out, MIDI playback also fails to point out balance issues that arise when certain instruments are put into weaker registers. The playback feature further deludes students into prizing fast-paced textures over those that are less rhythmic and often more sonically nuanced. In the end, certain software features may help us hear things in new and exciting ways. MIDI playback is not one of them.
So what is the solution from a pedagogical standpoint? To me it begins with ensuring that young composers have some experience with hand-written notation. I recently asked students in my Composition I class to write a brief paper reflecting on their final compositions. Here is what one student wrote (reprinted with the student's permission):
"One thing I did find important was writing out my own score...I became much more familiar and close to my own piece. Every note, rest, and bar line was processed through my hand and this gave me comfort in knowing that I had complete and ultimate control over what was to go on my staff paper."
The key words in this statement are familiarity, comfort and control. One of the primary purposes of writing down music is to facilitate the hashing out of sonic ideas - to, as my student puts it, become familiar with the core ideas driving one's own musical discourse. Writing down music is not merely a means of communicating detailed information to performers - the page itself is an arena for exploration. How will the sounds be ordered? What is the best manner in which to visually present the material? A blank sheet of manuscript paper (or better yet a blank piece of paper) allow for direct, unencumbered engagement with these very important questions.
In addition to at least temporarily delaying the use notation software, more emphasis must be placed on score reading. One idea I am mulling over is having students carefully examine one or two scores a week and answer questions that specifically address notational concerns. I know of teachers who make students copy out score excerpts and this may be a useful exercise as well.
I would like to clearly state that I am not completely opposed to notation software. From a larger perspective, I think computer literacy is absolutely essential for all students. The "jolly luddite" syndrome (those who pridefully confess to not knowing how to use certain programs or, even more commonly, social media) that I've witnessed in schools and workplaces alike is appalling . But we must understand notation software for what it is - a troublesome copyist, a musical Bartleby constantly saying to the composer "I would prefer not to." When viewed in this way, we understand that it does not provide a grounding in proper notational practices nor does it facilitate creativity. Therefore, its educational value is severely compromised. I find myself encouraging students to learn how to use notation software so that they are knowledgeable about a commonly used tool, one that they may be required to utilize in a professional context. I wish, however, that my encouragement were bolstered with more substantial, pedagogically-based reasons.
In the end, even professional composers would be wise to hold off on using Finale or Sibelius until after a given piece is completed. When ears and eyes remain free throughout the creative process, one is far less likely to allow notation software to impose upon the final sounding result. Your ears + pencil + paper remain the most vital compositional tools. One may expand upon this dictum to include non-notation software that facilitates acoustic analysis and sound processing. But when it comes to notation, pencil and paper remain a vital part of the overall process. I'll leave you with a recent Facebook comment by Marti Epstein, my very first composition teacher and a composer who continues to generate striking hand-drawn scores:
"When you ask me how I would notate a large orchestra piece, ask yourselves how Mahler notated his symphonies, or Stravinsky his ballets. I fear the grid that the computer can lock us into, I fear that it can make us fast, yet unimaginative. Ask yourselves if George Crumb's music would work better if notated on the computer. I'm not saying everyone needs to copy by hand, but it is worrisome to me that it has become such a lost art that people can't even imagine doing it. Try it once, and see what happens!"
Indeed, the slowness Marti refers to may be perceived as the most threatening part of scoring by hand - a direct contradiction to the speed so valued in myriad contemporary contexts. But slowness and calculation is what enables composers to carefully construct the elaborate textures that make art music of the past and present so fascinating. If Mahler didn't need MIDI playback, you don't need MIDI playback.
* Chapter 2 "The Sonorous Image" from Music and Imagination by Aaron Copland
Postscript:David Smooke recently wrote an interesting post on New Music Box about how his approach to notation has evolved in accordance with his aesthetic evolution as well as an ongoing desire to provide performers with a sense of clarity. Here is a quote relevant to my discussion above:
"Over the past few years, I’ve been changing my approach to musical notation. I began my compositional studies writing conventional scores by hand, but quickly moved into computer engraving. Even as I started to conceive of different ways that I might be able to convey my musical ideas more concisely, I allowed the limitations of the notation software (and in 1994, notation software was significantly more limited than it is today) to direct me down certain notational paths. As I have become more certain about my musical ideas, I’ve begun pushing against the constraints of the software, goading it along a path towards creating scores that convey these ideas as clearly as possible."