(Re)New Amsterdam: an Interview with Doyle Armbrust

As many of you know, during Storm Sandy New Amsterdam Presents and New Amsterdam Records’s headquarters in Red Hook, Brooklyn was decimated by flooding. Ever since, the label’s staff, led by co-directors William Brittelle, Judd Greenstein, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, have been working on rebuilding. Not only have they been concerned with their own business, but the community minded folks at New Amsterdam have also been advocating for aid to help their neighborhood in Red Hook.

New Amsterdam’s plight hasn’t gone unnoticed by the broader new music community. And not just in New York. On December 16th, Chicago musicians are presenting (Re)New Amsterdam (ticket info here), a benefit to raise money for the organization. One of the concert’s organizers, Doyle Armbrust, violist, writer, and curator of the (Un)Familiar Music Series at Chicago’s Empty Bottle, spoke with Sequenza 21 about the show.

Christian Carey: Hi Doyle. Thanks for taking the time to tell us about the upcoming benefit for New Amsterdam Records. How did the idea emerge for musicians to give a concert in Chicago to help out a record label that’s based in Red Hook, Brooklyn?


Doyle Armbrust: The idea for a New Amsterdam fundraiser came from the generous brain of Marcos Balter, whose scores have been recorded on the New Am label. This year, I’ve launched a new-music series, (Un)familiar Music, with the sole purposes of artist advocacy and breaking the new-music scene out of the concert hall setting. With its policies of allowing artists to retain the rights to their music as well as 80% of an album’s proceeds, the philosophies of New Am and (Un)familiar are wonderfully congruous. It was an obvious fit as Marcos and I saw it. Much more important than all of that, though, the Chicago new-music scene is a far more collaborative than competitive one. We believe in this often quixotic and illusory career path, and specifically the music being written today, and when we hear that our colleagues in another state are suffering, our hearts break. I moved back to Chicago after living in Los Angeles and Miami in large part because I missed this compassionate spirit of my home city. I’m grateful that the passionate response by the new-music community here has proved the point for me once again.



CC: How did you go about assembling the artists putting on the show? Which groups are participating?


DA: Once we secured the date with The Empty Bottle, (Un)familiar’s home base, calls and emails went out to just about every new-music ensemble in Chicago…and just about every new-music in ensemble immediately agreed to play. In some cases we have members of ensembles performing solo works, or smaller chamber pieces, due to availability and the size of the venue, but the program is an absolute knockout. Performers include: Abominable Twitch / Access Contemporary Music / Can I Get An Amen / Chicago Q Ensemble / CUBE / Dojo / Eighth Blackbird / Ensemble Dal Niente / Ensemble Vulpine Lupin / Fifth House Ensemble / Fulcrum Point / Gaudete Brass / Grant Wallace Band / Searchl1te / Spektral Quartet / Third Coast Percussion.



CC: Was there a collaborative or thematic aspect to selecting the program? Any highlights among the selections you’d like to preview for us?

DA: When programming (Un)familiar shows, my aim is to have the ensembles perform whatever they are most amped about. Marcos and I have continued that trend here, and I’m happy to report there will be no filler anywhere in this 4-hour show. I can’t possibly pick a most-anticipated entry, because the setlists are so dynamite. That said, as a Beat Furrer fanatic, I’m looking forward to hearing Ensemble Vulpine Lupin (a recent addition to the Chicago family) dig into “Invocation VI” and because this is a Cage year, I can’t wait to see Third Coast Percussion destroy with “Third Construction.”

CC: Any chance that the concert will be recorded?

WFMT will be recording the concert.

CC: What ways would you suggest non-Chicagoans help New Amsterdam and others affected by Storm Sandy?


DA: I wouldn’t presume to tell folks specifically how to donate, but I will say that I did have a wrestling match in my cranium over the often fraught issue of aid. There will always be someone in more dire need of assistance, as there is in the case of now-homeless victims of Sandy. I can also return from a record-buying binge and realize that someone won’t eat today, but I HAD to have that Harry Partch first-pressing. It’s a constant hypocrisy that most of us deal with on a daily basis. In the case of this event, I see an opportunity to help in some small way fellow musicians with whom I share similar artistic struggles. I have resources to magnify that aid, through my series and the generosity of my friends here in Chicago. We can rally together and throw a monster of a concert that people will excitedly pay to come witness. Together, through this incredible music we’ve dedicated our lives to championing, we can effect some tiny degree of relief.



Dog Days: Interview with David T. Little

David T. Little. Photo: Merry Cyr.

After a long gestation, which included multiple workshops that presented excerpts of the work in progress, this weekend David T. Little’s Dog Days will be given its premiere as a full length opera. It is being presented at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey on September 29th through October 7th. Despite all the myriad details to which he’s had to attend in the rehearsals leading up to the performances, David was kind enough to consent to an interview about the bringing this long term project to fruition and some of his other current activities.

Sequenza21: When did you first become aware of the short story on which Dog Days is based? Why did you think it would be a good subject for your first full length opera?

I first encountered the story Dog Days in the film adaptation by Ellie Lee. (The original story is by Judy Budnitz.) I was living in Ann Arbor at the time, and had gotten into the habit if composing each morning with the TV on in the distant background.  It would usually start with the previous night’s Daily Show; then, I’d switch to IFC.  On one particular day, IFC was showing a shorts program. I happened to look up at a certain moment, and catch a glimpse of Spencer Beglarian (late brother of Eve) playing Prince, the man in a dog suit.  I immediately thought: “what the hell” and couldn’t look away, almost obsessively watching the entire film. I filed this piece away, thinking of it as a work I really liked, by an artist I respected, and then sort of moved on with my day.  I wrote a song some time later, called “After a Film by Ellie Lee,” about the landscape of Dog Days–and even got to meet Ellie in 2003–but never really thought of making it an opera.

Then in 2008, Dawn Upshaw contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in writing something dramatic–a scena, or opera excerpt–for the Dawn Upshaw/Osvaldo Golijov Workshop at Carnegie Hall.  I of course said yes–because that’s what you say to Dawn Upshaw!–and began looking for a libretto. I had written the libretto for Soldier Songs myself, but those were all monologues.  This piece was to have characters who needed to have actual dialogue, which I didn’t feel I could handle that as a writer. So I approached Royce Vavrek, who I’d met maybe six months earlier after an American Lyric Theater performance, and we started talking about ideas.

After looking through a number of options, we kept coming back to Dog Days as a piece that just made sense.  It was dark, but with these wonderful moments of light.  It got into very serious issues–the animal/human divide, issues of choice and consequence, questions of how we treat the least fortunate among us–but without being heavy handed about it.  It felt like the perfect story to use for our first adaptation, and it’s proven to be an incredibly rewarding text to write with.  (Plus, it had the right number of characters to match the singers we’d been assigned!)  We approached Judy Budnitz for permission, she granted it, and we got started.  (Judy, by the way, is a really terrific author and unique storyteller.  If people don’t know her work, I hope they will check it out.)

What’s been changed or added since presenting scenes of Dog Days at Carnegie Hall?

We added a whole lot!  The Zankel presentation was only about 20 minutes, and when we did it at Vox (2010) we had about 30 minutes, having written the aria ”Mirror Mirror” for one of American Opera Projects’ Opera Grows in Brooklyn programs in the summer of 2009.  But the piece now lasts about 2 hours and 15 minutes with the intermission, so it has more than doubled since those early presentations.  Also, a number of the voice types changed.  I mentioned that we were assigned the singers for the Carnegie Workshop.  We loved all of them, but, as we worked on the libretto, came to feel that some of the voice types weren’t right for whom the characters were becoming.  For example, Howard–the father–started off as a tenor, but is now a baritone.  So in addition to the new music, we also had a lot of rewrites to the old music.  Even after the workshop in April, we continued to rewrite, and have continued to tweak throughout the rehearsal process.  We added a character who was not present in the original version (though is present in the story): the Captain, a military officer played by Cherry Duke who brings the two sons back from mischief, and tries to make a devil’s deal with Howard.  This aria was written maybe eight months ago.

The last big thing was that we finally have a dog man, played by the amazing John Kelly.  In the Carnegie Hall performance, Prince was just not there–since it is not a sung role–so all the singers were singing to an invisible man.  That’s changed in the stage version. Works much better now!

Did you want to use Newspeak from the beginning, or is the Montclair production a “chamber version” that might subsequently get orchestrated?

From the start, I had always planned for Newspeak to be the band.  On one hand, Newspeak has been a really important part of my artistic path, growth and process over the years.  On another, it felt important to make a work in which I could control the means of production, so to speak.  That I wanted to be able to find a way to make the full opera happen myself if I needed to, DIY-style.  If I had written it for orchestra, this would have been nearly impossible.  In reality, it would have been impossible for me to mount this version of the piece on my own.   It’s just too big, too expensive, with too many moving parts.  I just can’t even keep track of them all.  But at the time I thought at least if I had the ensemble taken care of, I could mount the show somehow.  But really it’s all much bigger now than I’d ever dreamed:  Bigger cast, longer duration, etc. It became a much bigger piece as we worked on it, as our 90-minute estimate became a 130-minute reality.

But all that said, this was also the right sound for the piece.   Even when we did it in VOX, I kept it more or less as is.

Writing for an amplified band is really interesting, sometimes a little tricky, but for me at least, extremely rewarding.  It was very much a learn-by-doing process for me, with Newspeak. This piece is maybe the sixth I’ve written for Newspeak over the years, and like with non-amplified orchestration, you learn something new each time.  I made very different choices in Dog Days than I did in Electric Proletariat, the first piece I wrote for the group back in 2004.  But I’ve also had the advantage of studying all of the pieces that have been written for us, and to think about how they work or didn’t work in the context of amplification.  So in a way, I partially wrote, partially assembled my own how-to manual over the years.

I think the biggest mistake people make when writing for amplified ensemble is in assuming that the amplification will fix problematic orchestration. The hard truth is that is only makes bad orchestration louder!  You still need to consider the same basic principles; it still needs to work in those traditional ways.  However, what you can gain in amplification is a broader palette of sound.  Specifically for Newspeak, having effect pedals and a synthesizer adds a whole new element to things.  Unlike in most Newspeak material, Dog Days doesn’t use any effects on the strings, but the sonic palette of the guitar is hugely important.  Taylor Levine is one of our great noise-makers, and I’ve tried to work on a lot of his specialties into the score.  Without amplification, these sounds couldn’t really exist together with the other, acoustic sounds.  But these new sounds still need to be subjected to the same orchestrational process as in a purely acoustic setting.  So it’s a little bit of a back and forth, but gradually you figure it out.

One big advantage with an amplified opera, though, is in the vocal writing. I know there are strong opinions about this, but for me, I find it really allows a broader range of vocal sound to be heard.  I don’t have a problem anymore with the whole bel canto thing–though I once did–but I do think that that particular sound is only part of a total package that contemporary singers bring to the table.  Having mics allows for all of these sounds–from whisper to a scream–to come through.  Rinde Eckert once said that, for better or worse, you cannot conceive of the 20th century without considering the microphone.  I think this is true, and equally so for the 21st century.

How did Montclair become the venue in which you chose to mount this production?

Alan Pierson was the conductor for the Upshaw/Golijov workshop in 2009.  He liked what he heard of the piece, and brought it to Jed Wheeler’s attention.   Jed Wheeler is this amazing visionary who has created a luxurious haven for adventurous work at Peak Performances.  I was actually at the opening of the theater in 2005, where they kicked off this new initiative with a Ridge Theater production of Harry Partch’s Oedipus!  That should tell you something, right?   So Alan liked the piece, brought it to Jed.  Jed liked the piece, and asked for a meeting.  We met, talked about options, plans, hopes, dreams for it.  He suggested that he knew the perfect director for the project, Robert Woodruff, at which point I had to do everything in my power not to jump across the desk and kiss him.  I had months earlier read an article in Time Out on Robert’s then-upcoming production of Edward Bond’s Chair and thought, “my god, I need to work with this man.”  So I was very excited by this prospect, and feel really grateful for the opportunity.  Working with Robert has been a terrific experience.

From that point on, all systems were go; and we progressively brought on the members of the full team: Beth Morrison, Jim Findlay, Vita Tzykun, Matt Frey, Garth MacAleavy, Lindsey Turtletaub, and many others.  It’s a truly amazing team. I feel really lucky.  In particular, Beth Morrison has been really vital to the whole process. More than anyone, Beth has really encouraged me to pursue this sort of operatic hybrid work, and offered tremendous faith and support over the years. She’s been a huge part of almost every single music theater piece I’ve done since 2007–I think Dog Days is our 7th project together, and the largest to date, with many more on the horizon.  I don’t think I’d be doing this sort of work without her.

And what has been most amazing is that all of our rehearsals have been in Montclair, on the set. That’s just unheard of. I’m told that so far we’ve logged 233 hours of rehearsal, on the stage where the show will take place.  This just never happens in theater and opera, and it’s one of many very generous things Peak Performances has brought to the table.  It’s been a real pleasure.

In addition to the new opera, you also recently took on a new academic position. Congratulations! Have you gotten to work with the students at Shenandoah yet? What are your expectations, hopes, and goals for the composition and new music programs at SU?

It’s true!  This August I took up a position as the Head of Composition and New Music Coordinator at Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia.  I’ve remained based in New York and am splitting my time between here and there, which has meant a lot of traveling back and forth and a somewhat hectic schedule, to say the least!  (I am also still running MATA, while our incoming ED learns the ropes.)  But my colleagues are great; I love the students and have been having a great time teaching. I think Shenandoah is a really special place, and it is a very exciting time to be there.  Michael Stepniak, the dean of the conservatory, is another visionary who has done some remarkable things there already, with more on the horizon.  On my end, there are some things in the works that I’m very excited about, both on a curricular-level and in terms of guest artists, concert presenting, etc.  I can’t say too much more just yet, but it is my hope to create a composition program for the 21st century–focusing on equal parts craft, practical know-how, entrepreneurship, etc.–and in making Shenandoah a real hub for new music.

Dog Days

September 29 and October 6 • 8:00 p.m.
September 30 and October 7 • 3:00 p.m.
October 5 • 7:30 p.m.

Alexander Kasser Theater

World Premiere – A Peak Production

Beth Morrison Projects

Composed by David T. Little
Libretto by Royce Vavrek
Based on the short story Dog Days by Judy Budnitz
Directed by Robert Woodruff
Music Direction by Alan Pierson

Set and Video Design by Jim Findlay
Lighting Design by Matt Frey
Costume Design by Vita Tzykun

Featuring: John Kelly, James Bobick (baritone), Marnie Breckenridge (soprano), Cherry Duke (mezzo-soprano), Michael Marcotte (tenor), Peter Tantsits (tenor), and Lauren Worsham (soprano), with chamber ensemble Newspeak and special guests.

All tickets are $15 and are available at the Alexander Kasser Theater Box Office, by calling 973-655-5112 or online.

Dog Days from Beth Morrison Projects on Vimeo.


Monday: Clogs and Loop 2.4.3 at Galapagos

The group that helped to start the indie rock plus classical crossover genre, Clogs, doesn’t often make it out to Brooklyn. But, if Monday’s show at Galapagos is any indication, when they visit the borough, the group goes all out.

In addition to selections from Clogs’ previous studio recordings, the concert features “Shady Gully,” a new group of songs written by Padma Newsome. Those in attendance will also get a sneak preview of “2 Moon Shine,” his forthcoming opera project.

Also on the bill is Clogs member Thomas Kozumplik’s project Loop 2.4.3. I’ve been greatly enjoying their latest full length recording American Dreamland (out now via Music Starts from Silence). Kozumplik, joined by Lorne Watson, have created a percussion heavy and somewhat jaundice eyed view of the American dream, referencing everything from Edgar Allen Poe to Easy Rider to urban blight along the way. While the album’s subject matter could easily become a colossal bummer, Loop 2.4.3 creates supple beats  and several fetching tunes (the radio ready single “So Strong” noteworthy among them) that make even a dystopian post industrial landscape sound like far better a destination than its likely to be!

A small caveat for fans of the National: guitarist Bryce Dessner is not playing the Galapagos show. Ben Cassoria will take over his duties for the evening (no mean substitute!).

Clogs with Loop 2.4.3

Monday, July 16th

at Galapagos (16 Main St, Dumbo, Brooklyn · 718 222 8500)

Doors 7PM, Show 8PM

Tickets: $15 Advance, $20 At Door

Event link: http://galapagosartspace.com/event/clogs-loop-2-4-3-new-american-and-australian-music

Andrew Bird: Fever Year Trailer (Video)

Earlier this Spring, the documentary film Andrew Bird: Fever Year was screened at fourteen festivals. Containing interviews, concert footage, and capturing rehearsals of works in process, it looks to be a fascinating corollary to Break it Yourself, Bird’s latest studio album (out now via Mom and Pop). Would love to review a screener of the film (anyone?).

Birthmark: “Stuck” (SoundCloud)

When we talk about the “indie classical” phenomena on Sequenza 21 and Signal to Noise, as we’ve done a fair bit in recent times, we’re often referring either to concert music composers who incorporate elements of indie pop or classical presentations that incorporate or are created by pop musicians. But increasingly, musicians with both feet firmly planted in the pop arena make music that can just as easily be called “indie classical.”

The record companies may market these releases as pop, but the songs contained therein have arrangements that use concert instruments deftly with a composerly aesthetic. And, unlike some great pop albums that outsource the band charts, the “songwriters” do their own arranging, often playing much of the material themselves. Thus, it’s worth remembering that the classical crossover phenomena is, happily, a busy two-way street. And while this is nothing new (Frank Zappa is just one notable antecedent), it’s certainly a resurgent phenomena that’s fostering fertile music making.

A case in point is Birthmark, a project whose principal songwriter is multi-instrumentalist Nate Kinsella. The track below, “Stuck” (an embed from Soundcloud), is a preview from his forthcoming third LP Antibodies, which will be released via Polyvinyl.

With hushed vocals accompanied by strings, winds, and mallet instruments aplenty, it would fit right in on the Ecstatic Music series or a release on Brassland or New Amsterdam. Kudos to Polyvinyl: it’s nice to see more labels branching out into this polystylistic milieu.

Zammuto: S/T LP (Review)

Zammuto S/T LP

Temporary Residence Ltd.

Best known as half of The Books, an indie duo that incorporated both electronica and classical crossover signatures (before the latter was cool!), Nick Zammuto recently released his first solo LP for Temporary Residence.But rather than being a ‘music minus one’ presentation, a recording in which part of a distinctive collaboration is sorely missed, Zammuto has a distinctive sound all its own.

Its leadoff track, “Yay,” underlines that point with an interesting use of vocoder, crafting layers of beat-boxing in counterpoint to skittering live drums and sustained organ lines. Modified vocals are instead employed as longer melodies swaths on “Groan Men, Don’t Cry,” where they are set against syncopated guitar riffs, prog-inflected synth work, and funky percussion fills. “F U C3PO” combines appropriately sci-fi-sounding effects with saucy vocoder singing, taunting the droid mocked in the song’s title.

While this frequent employment of synthetic vocal production could, and, in other settings has, become a gimmick, here Zammuto uses it to provide a distressed, glitchy alternative to the lush sonic palette found on his records as part of the the Books. And don’t assume that the arrangements on Zammuto are only about gadgetry. One need only check out the bass line on “The Shape of Things to Come,” not to mention its varied array of percussion, imaginatively deployed and performed with zesty elan, to belay that notion.

Whether within the Books or as a solo act, one looks forward to many more interesting sounds from Nick Zammuto.

Yay (via Tumblr)

Mountain Goats plus Anonymous 4 on Q2

Offbeat collaborations have become a hallmark programming preference for Merkin Hall’s Ecstatic Music festival. But the combination of a cappella group Anonymous Four with indie rock songwriter Josh Darnielle of the Mountain Goats and multi-instrumentalist/arranger Owen Pallett is a standout even in this season’s diverse set of offerings.

Josh Darnielle (photo: Jeremy Langet)

Our friends at WQXR were kind enough to share the concert on Q2: it’s streamable via the embedded player below.


Transcendental Youth (Darnielle)
Lection: Apocalypse 21:1-5
The Lord’s Prayer (John Tavener)
Motet: Salve virgo regio/Ave goriosa mater/[DOMINO]
Motet: Gaude virgo nobilis/Verbum caro factum/ET VERITATE
Benedicamus domino: Belial vocatur
Conductus: Nicholai presulis
Song: Novus Annus Adiit
Trope: Gratulantes celebremus festum
The Scientist (Richard Einhorn)
Religious Ballad: Wayfaring Stranger