We’re approaching the heart of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 30th annual Next Wave Festival, and one of it’s more unique offerings is right around the corner. This Thursday through Saturday, composer Joe C. Phillips, Jr. will lead his ensemble, Numinous, in the premiere performances of his newly composed score for Ernst Lubitsch’s long-lost silent film, The Loves of Pharaoh.
I think the project presents a fascinating challenge for a composer – how do you respect the history of an artifact like The Loves of Pharaoh, while still expressing your 21st-century artistic perspective? I won’t speculate on how Mr. Phillips addressed this scenario because I don’t have to.
This weekend I tracked down Numinous’ fearless leader and asked him about his mindset while scoring Lubitsch’s historic film:
Since the film was released in 1922, obviously there has been much development in musical language and technique, and it felt right to reflect that in the new score. Not in a self-conscious, “look at how modern and cool I am” way but rather as a natural extension of my own musical thinking and expression. Like all composers, my musical language is a product of sieving influences and thoughts into one unique voice and in [Pharaoh], I believe you’ll hear this. There are echoes of my past work but also new, formerly latent, ideas come to the fore and more fully explored in this score. And this idea to explore newer territory in music, to bring the film into modern times so to speak, was one of the reason Joseph Melillo was looking for a new score for the screening.
Mr. Phillips is very excited for this week’s performances, and feels very grateful for his association with BAM, who he describes as being, “incredibly supportive throughout the development of the project.” Straddling the Next Wave Festival’s film and music programs, I have the feeling The Loves of Pharaoh will be a major stand out even against the ridiculously vibrant mixture of genres and disciplines on the slate at BAM this Fall.
Last Friday, I attended a performance by the Chicago-Based Fifth House Ensemble in Detroit, MI. As I melodramatically declared in my announcement for the concert, this was not a traditional performance, at least for me. The audience sat at cocktail tables, not an auditorium’s seats, there were drinks and snacks, the lights were dimmed, not darkened and anyone could get up at anytime to walk around the space or get a refill on their glass of wine.
Culpability for the evening’s laid back and unusual character lay both with Fifth House and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, who brought the ensemble to town as part of the Mix @ the Max series, which always features a club-like atmosphere for its concerts regardless of the genre of the program. As Fifth House’s flutist Melissa Snoza explained, the group is used to and, in fact, prefers playing in flexible spaces – venues where people can mingle, nosh and drink before, during and after the concert.
On its own, this decision – to present a chamber concert in a context more relaxed than the standard concert hall – is nothing new to the music scene (though, this was my first interaction with this species of musical presentation). What is quite unique, however, is Fifth House’s style of programming, namely, how they tell a story with animations that is accompanied by a hand-selecting score of pieces. Essentially, Friday’s program was a collaboration between Fifth House and graphic artist Ezra Claytan Daniels. To put it simply, Mr. Daniels and members of Fifth House conceived the storyline and script, the music was chosen to correspond to the narrative’s scenes and illustrations were created to convey the story. The end product is a multimedia experience equally dependent on its visual and musical components for success.
After the show Friday evening, Ms. Snoza told me how excitedly Fifth House’s audiences have received their ‘narrative’ programs, particularly Black Violet. She described how people attend their concerts with their eyes closed as to only focus on the ensemble’s virtuosity, while others hardly blink as to enjoy Mr. Daniel’s fantastic illustrations to the fullest. The party at my table Friday precisely embodied this bifurcation. One of my friends hardly noticed the third movement of Brahm’s Horn Trio because she was so smitten with the story’s protagonist – an indescribably cute black cat. I, on the other hand, missed parts of the plot because my ears, and eyes, were drawn to the performers.
The event is not a traditional concert. It begins at 6 PM with a cocktail and hors d’oevres hour, which sets the mood for a more informal presentation of the evening’s program and creates an opportunity for concertgoers and the performers to mingle before and after the performance.
I got in touch with Fifth House’s flutist, Melissa Snoza, and asked her about the groups experience with these kind of laid back concerts. She told me:
[T]he cocktail format is definitely something we’re familiar with, especially for this show! When we first presented this series in Chicago during the 2009-2010 season, we staged it at SPACE, which is a flexible cabaret-style venue with a bar, tables, and chairs that we could arrange in any format we liked to suit the experience we wanted to create for the evening…We’re a group that really loves to perform in unexpected spaces and to design concert experiences with our audience at the center of our programming, so we’re delighted that the DSO has staged this performance in the same way that we originally conceived it!
The program tomorrow night is called “Black Violet Act 1”, it is a compilation of several pieces from different time periods presented in Fifth House’s famed ‘narrative’ programming style. Among the works on the docket are two by living composers: Jonathan Keren‘s Hungary is Far Away and my colleague Greg Simon‘s Kites at Seal Rock.
If you are in the Detroit area tomorrow, go check out what is sure to be a fantastic evening of mingling and music. Tickets are $25 in advance, $28 at the door and can be purchased here.
I talked to Sarah about Friday’s concert, her career, working in Europe and other topics related to contemporary music on my web-based music show/podcast, We Are Not Beethoven on Washington Public Radio. You can stream/download our conversation here.
Once again, violinist Sarah Plum is giving a recital at the Firehouse Space in Brooklyn this coming Friday at 8 PM. Tickets are $10, and the Firehouse Space is located at 246 Frost Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. More information about the event can be found here.
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I talked to Mariel a couple weeks ago and have just published our conversation as the latest episode of my audio web-series/podcast, “We Are Not Beethoven” on Washington Public Radio. As you’ll hear, Mariel is as charming and articulate an advocate for contemporary music and composers and there is, and there are several fascinating conceptual topics related to the creation and design of Nonextraneous Sounds that are definitely worth your time to explore.
If you’re free this Sunday, go see Symphony Z, Danielle Eva Schwob and Tania Stavreva at Dixon Place. Or, if you’re curious about the musical stylings of William Zuckerman, look for Music In Pluralism on Spotify, Amazon and CD Baby.
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I’m pleased to announced that I have begun producing episodes of a new music show/podcast called “We Are Not Beethoven”. This is my contribution to NPR music critic Tom Manoff’s new venture, a start-up public radio network called Washington Public Radio.
The goal of “We Are Not Beethoven” is to talk about music like no other music show: evening the playing field of listening to and talking about music by humanizing composers and musicians, disregarding genres and categories, focusing heavily on listening, and confronting the barriers of entry that discourage people from exploring new kinds of music.
You can find a link to the first episode here, and below is a video preview of what I talk about in the first episode:
On June 10th, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston will host two performances of Klytemnestra, a chamber opera starring and conceived by soprano Misha Penton and scored by celebrated Houston-area composer/conductor Dominick DiOrio. Klytemnestra premiered in April 2011, selling out Houston’s Divergence Vocal Theater and drawing high praise from CultureMap Houston’s Joel Luks. As Ms. Penton described to me, Klytemnestra’s return to the stage is, “sleeker, redesigned, [and] semi-staged”, using the paintings of the Museum of Fine Arts’ Gallery 214 as backdrops for the production.
The work’s creative team remains the same as in its first iteration, with pianist Kyle Evans and violist Meredith Harris bringing Mr. DiOrio’s score to life and Shelley Auer’s narration and Megan Booker’s choreography augmenting Ms. Penton’s unrelenting dramatic presence. Videos from the 2011 performance – the “Overture”, and the “Weaving Area” – demonstrate the ominous clarity of Mr. DiOrio’s score, along with Ms. Penton’s world-class abilities as both an actress and a vocalist. Above all, these tidbits of Klytemenestra impress upon the viewer the great depth of meaning inherit in the work’s message – an incredible achievement given the production’s limited resources. Ms. Penton further elucidated the work’s symbolism in an e-mail:
Each of the five scenes of the opera is an internal, psycho-emotional narrative of the conflicted, grieved and complex Greek heroine. Composer, Dominick DiOrio has set my words to music, and they wriggle from inky scribbles on a page into the soaring vocal embodiment of, arguably, the most influential and subversive Greek Heroine in all of the Greek plays: Klytemnestra. She stands against the polis, against the emerging male-ordered, linear, dualistic state; against the forming patriarchy that will define our culture (for women and men) for thousands of years after her time. She possesses the inherent potential of subversive expressivity in body, voice and word, and thus the power to entirely restructure the male paradigm of society. Her murder of Agamemnon is a symbolic rejection of Order and an embrace of Chaos – a metaphoric release from the confining limitation of societal acquiescence to power-over.
Soprano Misha Penton as Klytemnestra
To me, the operative theme emerging from Ms. Penton’s summary is ‘subversion’ – in fact, the opera’s subtitle is: The Original Subversive Female. As evidenced by her 2011 interview with Sequenz21’s Chris Becker, Ms. Penton does not isolate fracturing political/social/economic paradigms to her operatic depictions of ancient Greek heroines. Rather, Klytemnestra is an example of Ms. Penton’s innovative approach to opera and being an opera singer.
As she told Chris, she sees projects like Klytemnestra as part of a larger trend in smaller opera companies to have singers involved in the creative process of a production, contemporary or otherwise. Beyond this, I imagine the subject matter of this most recent endeavor is an allegory for Ms. Penton’s admitted skepticism towards the conventional institutions of American music such as non-profits and traditional opera companies. Just as the Klytemnestra of legend assaulted the “Order” around her, so does the opera bearing her name challenge the way contemporary musicians and presenting organizations bring music to their audiences.
Those of you in the Houston area can see Klytemnestra this coming Sunday, June 10th, at 2 and 5 PM in Gallery 214 (Beck Building) of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Soprano Misha Penton stars in the title role, and will sing her own libretto set by composer Dominick DiOrio. Her on-stage collaborators will be dancer and choreographer Megan Booker, violist Meredith Harries, pianist Kyle Evans and narrator Shelley Auer. For more information, please visit the MFAH’s website.
Garrett Schumann is a composer and music journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. To hear Garrett’s music and read more of his ‘Observations’ on contemporary music in America, visit his website: garrettschumann.com
(from Left to Right) Line Upon Line Percussion's Matt Teodori, Cullen Faulk and Adam Bedell
This coming Friday, May 4, marks the beginning of Austin-based percussion trio Line Up Line’s Xenakis festival, dubbed “Perspective: Xenakis” (go here for ticketing information). While most fans of 20th/21st-century music have come to know Xenakis’ music as a staple of the percussion repertoire, the program for “Perspective: Xenakis” is surprisingly broad, featuring, among other chamber pieces, a complete performance of Xenakis’ string quartets by the renowned JACK Quartet.
I caught up with Matt Teodori, one of Line Upon Line’s founding members, and dug a little deeper into how this festival came about. As he explained to me, the impetus behind their programming began by looking at Xenakis’ entire chamber output and locating different paths the composer pursued in his career. Line Upon Line wanted to illustrate these paths as best as they could, and designed the festival’s three evenings of performances to account for the remarkable sonic diversity Xenakis’ output. According to Mr. Theodori, involving the JACK Quartet was, “a no-brainer”, because their reputation performing Xenakis’ music is, “extraordinary”, and the works they bring to the table enable Line Upon Line to showcase a wider range of Xenakis’ oeuvre than otherwise possible.
In addition to this weekend’s concerts, Line Upon Line is providing a couple non-musical experiences for concertgoers who are interested in learning more about Xenakis’ life and personality. Prior to each performance, the Line Upon Line is presenting the BBC’s 1991 documentary Something Rich and Strange: The Life and Music of Iannis Xenakis; and, following the concerts, Xenakis scholars Nouritza Matossian and Benoît Gibson will join that night’s performers in an open conversation with audience members. These opportunities are meant to, “illuminate [Xenakis] as a man and composer”, and should be a worthwhile supplement to the festival’s musical offerings.
Friday and Saturday’s evening concerts begin at 7:30 PM, with Saturday’s afternoon performance running from 1-2 PM. For those who are interested, the documentary runs about 50 minutes and is shown one hour before each concert. The events are housed at Austin’s Floating Box House, St. Elias Eastern Orthodox Church and Angelou residence, respectively. The first two performances feature the members of Line Upon Line Percussion, with the JACK Quartet closing the festival on Saturday evening with a presentation of Xenakis’ complete quartets.
Fast Forward Austin directors (from left to right): Ian Dicke, Robert Honstein and Steven Snowden
The 2012 Fast Forward Austin contemporary music festival begins its 8-hour marathon of performances this afternoon at Austin, Texas’ versatile ND-501 studios. This year’s event, the second installment of the Fast Forward Austin (FFA) idea, features performances by local and nationally-acclaimed performers including renowned pianist Vicky Chow and Graham Reynolds, considered, “Austin’s own new music wizard”. Today’s musical menu features established names from the last few decades of new music – David Lang, Louis Andriessen and Iannis Xenakis – alongside brand new works by up-and-coming composers – Shawn Allison, David Biedenbender and Christopher Cerrone – culled from the festival’s 2011-12 call-for-scores.
Last Thursday, I caught up with Fast Forward Austin’s founders, composers Ian Dicke, Steven Snowden and Robert Honstein, and learned, among other things, that a series of “satellite events” have led to tomorrow afternoon’s marathon performance. These appearances, designed both to promote this year’s festival and strengthen the collaborations on display this afternoon, began with a performance of Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night last December. Austin is the second city Mr. Snowden has successfully introduced to Unsilent Night, a staple of New York’s experimental music circles for two decades, and the event represented more than just a way to draw advanced attention to tomorrow’s marathon string of concerts.
The kind of community involvement manifest in the Unsilent Night performance lies at the heart of Fast Forward Austin’s goals. As Mr. Honstein told me in our chat Thursday evening, “first and foremost, we’re a local festival.” In addition to featuring Austin-based musicians, FFA has a tradition of supporting local, musically oriented charities. Last year, the festival donated all its proceeds to Anthropos Arts, a non-profit organization that provides free music lessons to economically disadvantaged young people in East Austin. This year, FFA has partnered with Austin SoundWaves, a local iteration of the famed “El Sistema” initiative. SoundWaves will receive a portion of FFA’s proceeds and some of the children served by the charity will participate in a performance with Graham Reynolds. Beyond philanthropy, FFA’s founders see this kind of outreach as a way to build an audience. Mr. Dicke, in particular, emphasized the potential for young people to enjoy and be inspired by contemporary music, suggesting opportunities, like those fostered by both Fast Forward Austin festivals, could be benefit all American composers in the long-term, were they to be replicated across the country.
As Fast Forward Austin has grown since last year, its founders have worked to expand the festival’s presence on a regional and national level. This broader scope is no better represented than by FFA’s collaboration with renowned pianist and Bang-On-A-Can All-Star Vicky Chow, who will be performing this afternoon. As Mr. Dicke and Mr. Honstein explained, they’ve been cultivating a relationship with Ms. Chow for some time. Both of them met her at different festivals, and then last year, when the Bang-On-A-Can All-Stars came to Austin, Mr. Snowden and Mr. Dicke showed Ms. Chow around town and convinced her to work participate in this year’s festival. The connection between Vicky Chow and Fast Forward Austin is reciprocal – Fast Forward Austin held a preview show in New York this February as part of Ms. Chow’s Contagious Sounds series. Much like the Unsilent Night event, this performance was simultaneously a promotional tool for today’s marathon of performances and a way to foster a deeper bond with a community – the contemporary music community in New York.