(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.


Hong Kong’s Intimacy of Creativity

Hong Kong’s Intimacy of Creativity Re-ignites the Process of Making Concert Music

by guest writer Karissa Krenz

As a recovering composer–turned music writer, it’s been years since I’ve sat through anything resembling a chamber music workshop. But last month, the representatives of a new project enticed me to fly halfway around the world to check one out. Now that I’ve returned home, conquered jet-lag, and have had some time to ponder, I’ve realized that these all-too-rare programs highlight the importance of community, and illustrate how, if the Classical music industry wants to remain a relevant, it needs to focus the shared experience of creation—which might just inject some new life to into the genre.

The Intimacy of Creativity (IC), which just completed its second year at the Hong Kong Institute of Science and Technology (HKUST), is an annual gathering that brings together emerging composers, master composers, and chamber musicians for an unusual type of workshop. The brainchild of composer, performer, and Artistic Director Bright Sheng, IC hopes to re-ignite the kinds of intensive partnerships between composers and performers that, according to Sheng, don’t exist in the concert music world as much as they did over a century ago, when people working as “composer/performer” was the norm.

Six emerging composers participated in the two week long workshop: Britain’s Emma-Ruth Richards, Hong Kong’s Austin Yip, Portugal’s Pedro Faria Gomes, and America’s Michael Djupsrom, Matt Van Brink, and Matthew Tommasini, who also served as IC’s Associate Artistic Director. IC’s three “master” composers—who also had works under the knife—were Sheng, violinist/composer Mark O’Connor, and composer/pianist Joan Tower, and the invited artists included Canto-pop star Jonathan Wong (who worked on transforming one of his songs), Ensemble-in-Residence Camerata Pacifica, Van Cliburn Gold Medalist Haochen Chang, cellist Trey Lee, and violist Sophie Stanley.

The process itself divided a grueling schedule of 11 works (plus an additional two by Beethoven) into two week-long segments. After an initial rehearsal, each piece was presented in a discussion (also open to HKUST students), during which all of the participants chimed in with suggested improvements. The composers had a day or so to edit (depending on the schedule) before another closed rehearsal and final open discussion. The works were rehearsed again —and tweaked, if necessary—before the HKUST preview performance, which was followed the next night by the World Premiere Concert at Hong Kong’s City Hall Theatre. Add jet-lag to the mix, and it was an exhausting—yet apparently exhilarating—experience that made the whole thing seem a bit like “Composition Workshop: The Reality Show.”

Philadelphia-based composer and pianist Michael Djupstrom participated in IC as both performer and composer. The harried pace was at times frustrating for him—he never felt quite prepared enough when performing others’ works, and he only had only one night to make the initial edits to his own piece before its next open discussion.

“Practically, I can’t think of any better way to do it,” says Djupstrom. “It’s not like you’re going to be able to get performers of that caliber who are going to have the time or take more time to travel to Hong Kong and do that, or the composers for that matter. But I wish we would have been able to fully prepare the work as it was pre-existing on the page, and then present that “finished version” to the whole group, and then get their feedback.”

On the other hand, Britain’s Emma-Ruth Richards handled the tight schedule remarkably well.

“ I have an affliction of writing too fast,” says Richards. “I think if I would’ve found myself in this position maybe two or three years ago, I would’ve been, not out of my depth, but I would have been far more stressed about it. But actually, an afternoon in my room to make changes and things is totally fine. And to see them change the next day, is far better than waiting two weeks or having to have this conversation over the phone with the performer that’s miles away.”

Sheng encouraged the composers and performers to make changes right up until the World Premiere performances, and while on one hand it made the whole experience a bit of a nail-biter for some, it also illustrated Sheng’s belief that music is a living, breathing entity.

“There is only one rule,” said Sheng, “that you have to make beautiful music, and whether you write it down or improvise it, or at the last minute you change something, or the players are adding something—this is all part of music making and creativity.”

While this kind of discussion and working-out process is the norm in most other genres of music, it’s not as common in the concert music world. Having the players chime in, too, was vital: Beyond the obvious technique advice they could offer, they often made interesting suggestions that approached compositional problem solving from another angle.

“Having performers articulate the same problems we would see in a totally different language,” says Djupstrom, “reinforces, for composers, that if person has that musical sensibility—and has developed it into a professional situation—you should trust them to bring a lot to the piece. I learned that their point of view was just as valid as all of the other composers sitting in those workshops.”

And when you’re working on something that’s as abstract as new “Classical” music, the discussions can be challenging—especially when everything happens within such a condensed schedule.

“In chamber music, where there aren’t any words—there might be a program or a story, but no words—we have to dig a little deeper to find out what the hidden syntax of the music is,” says Brooklyn-based composer Matt Van Brink, who, when the group realized his ten-year-old piece’s title was actually hindering its interpretation, decided to change its name. “On that level, conversation can get very theoretical, from the composer’s standpoint. From the performer’s standpoint, it’s very expressive and emotional—I think it’s very concrete. But for the composers—all of a sudden everyone has their own idea of what the piece is supposed to be doing.”

In addition to bringing people together and exposing each other to new music and new ways of thinking, they discover everyone’s capabilities, and form lasting artistic partnerships—Camerata Pacifica’s Artistic Director Adrian Spence even mentioned that he was thinking about commissioning some of the composers in the program.

In spite of numerous problems that still need to be worked out—it is a young program with some built-in challenges—IC’s participants ultimately seemed to take away a majority of positives from the experience, from improved pieces to performances by incredible chamber musicians.

“The most important thing I took away is that the piece is never done,” said Djupstrom. “The piece on the page exists kind of abstractly, but it doesn’t exist for any practical reason until you hear it. Even Beethoven doesn’t exist until someone plays it, which means that, every time it’s performed, in a sense, the performers are recreating the piece…and we’re always making decisions that really do shape the piece.”

In addition to reviving the true ensemble spirit of music making, the players, performers, and repertoire in general stand to receive other benefits from projects such as the Intimacy of Creativity. And by illustrating the importance of making music together in Hong Kong, all of the participants have hopefully returned home to spread the love of living music—and one hopes future IC participants will do the same.

“It’s an admirable process,” says Djupstrom, “and I think it’s something that we can use a lot more of.”

Karissa Krenz is a New York City–based editor, writer, and communications professional specializing in the arts and entertainment. Her articles have appeared in a variety of publications including Time Out New YorkMuso, and Playbill, and she is the former Editor of Chamber Music magazine. She regularly works on projects for a variety of organizations, including The Actors Fund, The New York Philharmonic, and Lincoln Center, for which she edits the special Playbill for the White Light Festival.

Composer & Conductor Discuss Resurgence of Wind Ensembles

Jeff W. Ball

Brooklyn Wind Symphony Artistic Director Jeff W. Ball interviews Dr. David Maslanka on the music of the late composer John Barnes Chance, “channeling” the composer, and the growing prevalence of commissioning consortiums among wind ensembles.

JWB:  When did you first hear a composition by John Barnes Chance?

David Maslanka

DM: My first contact was “Incantation and Dance.”  It was around 1965.  I was a first-year grad student at Michigan State and the band there was playing the piece.  I wasn’t in the band, but heard rehearsals and performance. The piece was “hot” that year – everybody was playing it.

JWB: Has your impression of this piece changed over time?

DM: It was, and remains, an attractive piece. I liked its fresh percussive rhythmic nature, and clear instrumental colors. Working with it many years later for the Illinois State University recording was still a positive experience.

JWB: How did that project come about?  What was your role?

DM: Dr. Stephen Steele, conductor of the Illinois State University Wind Symphony, was asked by Susan Bush of Albany Records if he would be interested in making a CD of select Chance works. Susan thought this would be a timely CD, one that many people would find interesting. This is a nice recognition of the enduring quality of some of Chance’s music. Steve’s first step was to send me all the scores he had collected of Chance’s wind music – about a dozen. I reviewed them all, and came up with what I termed an “A” list. My recommendations included Incantation and Dance, Variations on a Korean Folk Song, Symphony No.2, and the piano concerto piece. In rehearsals and the recording session I acted as the “presence of the composer.” It was my job to read the score and be the reminder for basic stuff like tempos, dynamics, and qualities of articulation – to insist on these, and to offer thoughts on qualities of style. There is what is printed in scores, and then there is what has accumulated as performance practice over the years. My job was to bring things back to the score. The most interesting piece for me was Symphony No.2, a piece that Chance never heard in his lifetime. I felt like I was “channeling” Chance, allowing him to be present, both to hear his music for the first time, and to offer the suggestions he would have made for performance. This assertion certainly cannot be proven, but it was a very curious experience for me.

JWB: Why do you think that Albany Records recording has been so successful?

DM: Chance’s music is still fresh and likeable, and a large number of people remember it fondly from their younger band days. It has also not left the repertoire. Steele’s recording of this music is simply very good. It is exactingly performed and well recorded.

JWB:   Has the music of Chance (and his contemporaries) influenced your growth as a composer?

DM: I would certainly say that Chance’s music, and that of people like Clifton Williams and Vaclav Nelhybel, and my teacher, H. Owen Reed, influenced my early growth as a composer. This was different music than the so-called mainstream of the time, which was serialism and significant branching off with people like Penderecki and Berio.  Chance and other band composers were more “down home” outgrowths of school music. It has taken all the years since Chance for wind band music to attain something of mainstream status. The influences on current wind band music are as varied as world music itself, but I would say that the music of the “early modern” wind band composers pointed in a fresh direction that many of us found attractive.

JWB:   Chance was a percussionist and this heavily influenced his writing style. What was your primary instrument growing up?

DM: I was a clarinetist, and had both band and orchestra experience as a high school and college student. I had more band than orchestra, and I guess that the band sound was in my ear when I thought about writing for larger ensembles. Playing clarinet has certainly been central to my writing for winds. Being in the center of an ensemble as a performer is a major factor for any composer writing ensemble music. The influence of clarinet on my writing style is certainly there, but the factors influencing writing style are many and varied. Many people are convinced that I am a percussionist, which I am not in the least. Composers have to learn the languages of all the instruments, and then absorb and transform in themselves all the music they come in contact with.

JWB:   What do you think Chance’s music would sound like today if he hadn’t tragically passed away at the age of 39?

DM: There is no knowing how Chance would have evolved!

JWB:  Chance’s Second Symphony serves as the centerpiece for the Brooklyn Wind Symphony’s annual Modern Wind Symphony Concert. Do you believe it is important to continue writing symphonies for wind bands?

DM:   I don’t necessarily think that it is important for composers to continue to write symphonies for wind band.  Composers need to write whatever they need to write.  I happen to write symphonies (now seven of them for wind band) but that is something I have felt the urge to do since Symphony No.2 in 1985. Wind bands do not need symphonies in order to be “important”, to try to lift themselves to “orchestral” status.  They need powerful music, well-crafted for the medium, music which inspires the players and their audiences. This has been happening for quite some time now, and the grass roots wind band movement has become a world phenomenon. Wind bands need to program significant works, regardless of length or form, because players and audiences are intensely hungry for deeply nourishing and affecting musical experience.

JWB: Most wind band commissions occur at the collegiate level. Do you think it is important for community based wind bands and secondary schools to commission new music?

DM:  Most wind band commissions occur at the college level because they have figured out how to do consortiums. This is a relatively recent phenomenon. One person takes the lead and enlists a number of other conductors to share the burden of cost. This has resulted in a huge number of new pieces that immediately have more than a single use.  Not all of the music is good, but the simple fact is the more pieces that are written the high likelihood that a percentage will be outstanding. Regarding consortiums, there is no difference between a college band and a community band, except possibly the sense of being connected with other bands. The College Band Directors National Association offers college directors immediate connection to hundreds of other conductors. The CBDNA national and regional conferences, and other events like the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic, allow for very intense networking among conductors. Community bands can simply join in if they wish.  Anyone can join CBDNA. Commissions are now starting from high schools as well. There is the realization that the band world is all one big family, and colleges, community bands, and high schools are willing to help each other out.

JWB: The Brooklyn Wind Symphony is happy to be leading a consortium to commission a new work from you. What do you look for and take into account when requested to write a piece for a specific ensemble?

DM:   The energy and seriousness of the conductor involved is a high consideration. I deeply respect people who are trying hard to build or do something, and I am interested to work with them. For me this has included ensembles all the way from small school groups to major recognized names.

Brooklyn Wind Symphony presents an 80th birthday concert in honor of John Barnes Chance on Saturday, March 24, 2:00 PM. Grand Street High School, 850 Grand Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. $10 suggested donation.

Interview: Terry Riley (11/07/2008)

Thursday morning I talked with composer Terry Riley, who is in New York this week to collaborate with the Bang on a Can All-Stars in the US premiere of his work Autodreamographical Tales at Le Poisson Rouge on 8 November.

Riley is famous for being one of the “Big Four” of American minimalist composers (the others: LaMonte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass). But while his early works, such as A Rainbow in Curved Air, Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band, and the seminal In C, were musical rallying cries during minimalism’s ascendance in the 1960s, Riley’s been involved with many other important pieces, styles, and activities since then. His palette encompasses North Indian music, jazz, electronics, various intonation systems, and increasingly in recent years, projects incorporating guitar and spoken word.

As an admirer of his music, it’s somewhat frustrating to read review after review in which he’s asked to talk about the importance of In C and his work is then pigeon-holed as minimalist in style. In planning for the interview, I promised myself that both minimalism and In C would be off-limits. When the composer mentions in passing an upcoming performance of In C (April 24, 2009 at Carnegie Hall, but you didn’t hear that from me), I tell him of my secret pact and he enthusiastically agrees! Instead, we focus on recent, current and future projects.

Riley says, “Autodreamographical Tales started out a while ago as a piece for radio in which I narrated and played all the instruments. There were overdubs and samples. The Bang on a Can All Stars wanted me to create a new version of the piece to perform with them. My son Gyan, who’s also a guitarist and composer, helped me to orchestrate the piece. While there are still a few samples, we’ve figured out how to perform live many of the things that were looped or overdubbed.”

“The piece is based on a dream journal that I was keeping at the time. Some of my dreams had evocative images and stories that I felt would work well in the piece for radio and, now, in this new version for Bang on a Can. We got together and rehearsed it this past summer during a week-long residency in Italy. A performance there was the world premiere and this one in New York is Autodreamographical Tales’ second performance.”

Riley also spent time this past summer in New England at Bang on a Can’s Summer Music Festival at MASS MoCA. “It was an inspiring setting: a number of talented composers and performers, the galleries, and so many excellent concerts.”

We return to the subject of his son, a talented musician in his own right who encouraged the elder Riley to explore composing for the guitar. “Gyan came home with all of these recordings of the guitar: he was just crazy about it and wanted to share his enthusiasm with me. We listened to all sorts of players, especially classical and Brazilian artists.”

During the past two decades, Riley has created a number of works for the instrument, including the solo collection Book of Abbeyozzud and Cantos Desiertos, a beautiful set of pieces for flute and guitar. When I comment that Riley has managed to combine expected, idiomatic passages with some very fresh-sounding guitar writing, he replies, “It was challenging to write for the guitar as a non-guitarist. I really worked hard to learn about the instrument: there’s a lot to know in order to compose effectively for it.”

New music guitarist David Tanenbaum, Gyan’s principal instructor, has also been the beneficiary of several recent works for the instrument, including a 2008 piece for national steel and synthesizer entitled Moonshine Sonata. Riley says, “The national steel for which I wrote the sonata is a special model, redesigned so that it’s tuned in just intonation. The company that made the instrument for David loaned me one while I was composing the piece; it’s amazing how resonant, how loud it is all by itself – it doesn’t need amplification!”

Tanenbaum and Gyan Riley, along with violinist Krista Bennion Feeney, premiered another 2008 Riley work: the Triple Concerto Soltierraluna. The concerto form is one to which Riley is drawn of late: a project in the pipeline is a violin concerto commissioned by a symphony orchestra in Bari, Italy for soloist Francesco D’Orazio. “I don’t approach the concerto form in the conventional manner, as this heroic thing; I like to find ways to integrate the soloist into the ensemble; to foster interactions between them that you don’t get in the big Classical or Romantic pieces. In a sense, what I’m writing is more akin to the concerto grosso form.”

Since the 1970s, Riley has frequently collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, producing a number of pieces for them. He’s currently at work on another, titled Poppy Nogood and the Transylvanian Horns. The title refers to one of Riley’s best known early works, Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band; but this successor also includes the Kronos group playing some newly adopted instruments. The “Transylvanian horns” in question are called “stro instruments:” string instruments fitted with trumpet or trombone bells. The composer seems to relish the challenge of learning about and composing for these hybrid instruments. Even when called upon to revisit ideas from his past, Terry Riley is ever eager to try something new.

Interview: Anthony Cheung

Yesterday’s post on File Under ? previewed Saturday evening’s concert by the Talea Ensemble at Merkin Hall (details here). Talea’s Artistic Director Anthony Cheung, a composer and pianist, was kind enough to answer some questions about the show and tell us about the ensemble’s upcoming activities.

- For those who aren’t up on the lingo, how would you describe Inharmonic and (X)enharmonic music? Do you think of them as different varieties of microtonal music?

Inharmonicity simply means a sound/timbre whose overtone frequencies aren’t pure whole number multiples of a fundamental, i.e. not a perfectly consonant spectrum. Inharmonicity is a common preoccupation with composers associated with spectral music, as it’s a way to measure degrees of dissonance; if one takes purely harmonic spectra to be consonance, stretching (contracting or expanding) the spectrum can lead towards greater perceived dissonance, eventually crossing the threshold to “noise.”

Xenharmonic music was a term invented by microtonal pioneer Ivor Darreg – a contemporary of Partch – to describe any harmonic system that doesn’t fit the 12-note equal tempered system of tuning that has dominated western music of the last two centuries or so. So it basically applies to everything on the program. And my not-terribly-clever play on the word, putting the parenthesis around the letter “X”, points to the word “enharmonic” embedded within. Enharmonic equivalents (i.e. B# and C ) can be radically different in a non equal-tempered scale, resulting in startling microtonal intervals. These differences were once the subject of much debate, e.g. between theorist-composers such as Rousseau and Rameau.

-How many different tuning systems are represented on the show?

It’s hard to pin down exactly, because there is certainly just intonation within various limits, as well as the more “approximate” use of micro-intervals in classic spectral music (a term which cannot be pinned down by any particular system), and then there are many hybrid systems, like in my piece and Enno Poppe’s. Wyschnegradsky, for instance, uses quarter-tones in his second string quartet, but really views his language not as microtonal, but “ultra-chromatic.”

-Which pieces are premieres?

No world premieres, but two US, my Discrete Infinity (written for the Ensemble Modern earlier this year) and Enno Poppe’s Holz (written for the Klangforum Wien in 2000).

-Does Dean Drummond use the Partch tunings (with non-Partch instruments) for his piece?

He uses various just tunings. He programmed several presets for the Yamaha DX7 synth, and the violin part is also written with mostly pure ratios. It’s interesting to be presenting a piece of Dean’s without Partch instruments or the 31-tone zoomoozophone, which he invented, since they are so associated with his music and the hand he’s had with maintaining Partch’s legacy. But in terms of tuning accuracy, the synthesizer cannot fail, and the sounds themselves are quite otherworldly.

-Are there ways that you can get microtones out of Talea’s pitched percussion instruments?

In terms of the retuned percussion, this really is Dean’s domain. A number of composers are writing now for specially tuned instruments. Earlier this year Rand Steiger wrote us a piece with custom-made vibraphone bars tuned to specific just intervals. Certain pitched percussion instruments have inherently complex, inharmonic timbres, such as almglocken and gongs, and these always blend nicely in the context of microtonal harmonies.

-Is the piano being retuned/detuned at all for the show?

No, unfortunately not. One of the earliest ideas I had was to do either the Ives quartertone pieces for two pianos, or a selection of Wyschnegradsky’s quartertone preludes, also for two pianos. Then logistics and costs got in the way; you wouldn’t imagine how expensive it is to retune a piano. My dream is to one day hear Wyschnegradsky’s Ainsi parlait Zarathoustra for four quarter-tuned pianos, or his works for 3 pianos in sixth-tones. But other instruments will be retuned, such as in my piece.

-What’s coming up for Talea? Any plans to get into the recording studio in 2012?

Lots coming up in the spring. We have a recording project at EMPAC of Romitelli’s music, which will be presented along with a portrait concert. Also, concerts of recent Austrian music, a trio of new string quartets from Japan, residencies planned at Stanford, Cornell, Ithaca College, and a trip to Darmstadt in the summer, where we’ll present two concerts. And we’re in the process of recording some chamber works of mine, which we’ll finish up later next year. So it’ll be a packed few months ahead!

Frank Dodge talks Bob Helps (interview; ticket giveaway)

Spectrum Concerts Berlin visits New York

Last week, I met with cellist Frank Dodge at Lincoln Center to discuss the upcoming concert his ensemble Spectrum Concerts Berlin is giving in New York.

At 8 PM on December 7th at Weill Recital Hall, Dodge and his colleagues will present a program that celebrates the works of composer/pianist Robert Helps (1928-2001).

Helps was a virtuoso performer adept at both contemporary repertoire and warhorses from the classical music canon. He also relished championing works that had been overlooked and crafting (often fiendishly challenging) transcriptions for the piano.  More than once, I heard Milton Babbitt suggest that Helps “made the unplayable playable.”

Born in the United States, Dodge relocated to Berlin in the 1980s. But he didn’t forget about his first encounters with Helps: in the late 1960s in Boston as a student at the New England Conservatory of Music.

He says, “Bob (Helps) liked to champion pieces that needed looking after. His performances of the music of John Ireland, Felix Mendelssohn, and Poulenc and, of course, his own music were truly very special to hear. We were fortunate to have him visit and perform with us in Berlin twice. I only wish that, before his passing in 2001, we could have collaborated more frequently.”

Dodge’s stewardship has cultivated a group of champions of underrepresented repertoire. Spectrum Concerts Berlin is currently giving its twenty-fourth season of concerts. They have recently released their second recording devoted to Helps’ music: Robert Helps in Berlin (also featuring the ATOS Trio and Helps; Naxos 8.559696-97). A double CD set, it features a number of Helps’s important chamber works, including one of his first mature pieces, the 1957 Piano Trio, as well as one of his last, Piano Trio No. 2, written shortly before his passing. It’s interesting to note his return to the genre after forty years’ absence. My initial impression of the piece is one of leave-taking. I hear its angular lines, brittle articulation, and acerbic harmonies as a defiant kind of valedictory statement. Dodge, on the hand hears the trio showing evidence of new potential directions in Helps’s music; alas, unrealized.

He says, “The second Piano Trio and some of the other late pieces, such as Shall We Dance (1994) and the Piano Quartet and Quintet (both 1997), provide glimpses of Bob considering his compositional approach afresh. I find the discoveries he makes in these works to provide some of his most exciting music.”

The CD also includes a live recording of Helps at the piano; performing a recital that includes some of his aforementioned favorites: Mendelssohn, Ireland, Poulenc, Shall We Dance, and Godowsky’s Studies on Chopin’s Etudes (or, as one of my professors used to like to call them, Chopin on steroids!). One is struck by his exquisite touch and seemingly effortless virtuosity of Helps’ playing.

The impressive array of compositions and music-making displayed on the Naxos disc raises a question. Why isn’t Helps a household name here? Why don’t American-based ensembles perform more Helps and why don’t more composers know him as an important figure?

When I pose this question to Dodge, he says, “Bob did zero self-promotion: none. Even though he taught all over and was very well respected, he had a difficult time with the conventional ‘career building’ activities that many musicians take for granted as part of the business. And he also had considerable personal struggles during his lifetime, with illnesses and other challenges. There were long periods of silence, where he didn’t play or compose at all. Fortunately, these gave way to great bursts of creativity.”

“So, Helps isn’t a household name … yet! Things will change. Sometimes, when a figure is hyped during his or her lifetime, but their work is nothing special, they fade away rather quickly. With Helps, the opposite can be true. It is durable work, and its legacy will only grow. The strength of his music is what will bring performers and listeners to it over time.”

My take: if you’re in the New York area, don’t miss out on this chance to hear Spectrum Concerts Berlin on 12/7. They will make you a convert to Helps’s music in nothing flat.

Ticket Giveaway

In a very generous gesture, the ensemble is offering 20 FREE tickets to S21 readers.  If you’re interested in attending the show, email Paula Mlyn at: paula@a440arts.com with your name. She will put aside a ticket for you for the December 7 performance.

Program Essay for SONiC: Sounds of a New Century

From October 14-22 in various locations in New York City, the American Composers Orchestra hosts SONiC, a new music festival co-curated by Derek Bermel and Stephen Gosling. ACO asked me to write an essay for the program booklet, which they’ve kindly let me share with Sequenza 21 readers as a preview of the concerts

Trying to sum up the diverse array of compositional styles and performing traditions that comprise contemporary classical music’s many “scenes” is a daunting task. One can scarcely imagine distilling its essence, even over the course of several evenings. But during SONiC: Sounds of the New Century, the American Composers Orchestra aims to do just that. With curatorial assistance from pianist Stephen Gosling and composer Derek Bermel, ACO has organized an ambitious series of programs, enlisting many topflight ensembles and spotlighting composers under forty. The orchestra’s first free concert at the World Financial Center, a new music marathon, late night jam sessions, and several premieres are all part of the festivities.

JACK Quartet. Photo: Stephen Poff.

During late summer, I had a chance to speak with some of the composers and performers featured on SONiC, a small but representative sampling of the diverse array of participants. While one would need as many essays as there are participants to tell all of the stories of SONiC, we hope that what follows provides an idea of the variety of ways that new music is being created for these events.

JACK Quartet is an important presence at SONiC, hosting the Extended Play marathon at Miller Theatre on October 16. Along with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, the quartet is premiering Filigree in Textile, a work commissioned from Hannah Lash by the Fromm Foundation. (Lash had a piece read by ACO in 2010 on the Underwood New Music Readings). While Filigree in Textile is inspired by Flemish tapestry – its movements are titled “Gold,” “Silver,” and “Silk” – two other “threads” run through its genesis: Lash’s own background as a harpist, and her frequent collaborations with JACK, dating back to their student days at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

Hannah Lash. Photo Noah Fowler.

Lash says, “I know the harp very well, so when I write for it, I feel that I can exploit a lot of that instrument’s possibilities without overextending the player in a way that would be uncomfortable. I notice that when I write for an ensemble that has harp in it, I feel very comfortable and excited to make the most of its presence.”

She continues, “As an undergraduate, I wrote quite a few string quartets, and at least three members of JACK Quartet played pretty much all those quartets over our years at Eastman on the Composer Forums.  These players were wonderful, and always completely fearless.  I remember one piece in particular that I wrote for them when I was a junior: it took me literally three weeks just to copy the score and make parts because the notation was so detailed.  It was such a great experience to give it to these amazing players and have them learn it and play it so enthusiastically and elegantly. In fact, I was completely spoiled, because the summer after that year, I took this piece to a festival where a professional quartet was supposed to play it; they had one rehearsal and then told me I had written something completely unplayable.  I did not mention the fact that it had only taken my friends at school a week to learn the piece and put it together.”

Currently, Lash focuses her energies on composing (and writing her own libretti); performing as a harpist has, for now, largely fallen by the wayside. Other composers in this era subscribe to the DIY aesthetic: performing their own music and forming their own ensembles. SONiC curator Derek Bermel is an acclaimed clarinetist.

Composer/pianist Anthony Cheung helped to form the Talea Ensemble, a group that has fast become one of the most formidable interpreters of the most daunting repertoire in contemporary music. These pieces are often categorized as works of the New Complexity movement or the Second Modernity. They return music to an aesthetic that revels in detail and is intricately constructed. Scores by New Complexity composers are abundantly virtuosic avant-garde fare.

On SONiC, Cheung will play his Roundabouts, a piece written in 2010 for pianist Ueli Wiget of Ensemble Modern. (Cheung is another composer familiar to ACO: he participated in the 2004 edition of the Underwood Readings.) There’s a long tradition of composer-performers, particularly pianists. One can look at great figures from the classical music canon, such as Mozart, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff; more recently, composers such as Thomas Ades and Philip Glass continue this tradition, championing their own music from the keyboard. Cheung feels that being an active performer informs his work as a composer. He says, “It’s definitely a huge benefit, but one that needs to be carefully considered. Getting inside a composer’s head and extrapolating a personal language from a score, while adding a unique interpretative angle if appropriate for the music, is as good as any analysis or score study. And while analysis can approach the minutiae of each moment and attempt to dissect intentionality, being part of the real-time re-creation of a work is a direct window into a composer’s experience of time and form. These things seep into your consciousness and make you more open to creative possibilities of your own. The danger is also to one’s advantage: falling back into a comfort-zone with your instrument, where idiomatic fluency can lead to a kind of repetition of received practice and prevent you from considering possibilities outside of them.”

Kenji Bunch is another composer/performer, active as a violist. He will perform as soloist (on an amplified viola) with the ACO in his concerto The Devil’s Box, a piece inspired by the many legends that associate fiddles and fiddle playing with diabolical influences and pursuits. It’s also a chance for the classically trained Bunch to demonstrate his mettle in the realm of bluegrass and folk music.

Bunch says, “Back in the mid-nineties, I spent a few summers teaching composition in Kentucky, and was exposed to some wonderful bluegrass bands.  I had long been interested in improvisation and non-classical approaches to string playing, and at the time had been doing some work with a rock fusion band on electric violin.  I was somewhat dissatisfied with what I was contributing in that context, and felt I was trying too hard to be an electric guitar.  In this sense, bluegrass was a revelation.  Here was an ensemble of all acoustic string instruments in which the fiddle was an essential, organic member. Further trips to Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama helped to shape my understanding of the music and its history.  Perhaps most significant to my study of American roots music was a chance acquaintance with master fiddler, composer, and educator Mark O’Connor, whose friendship and encouragement has given me an exposure to all kinds of string traditions well beyond bluegrass fiddle.”

He continues, “It was after teaching at one of Mark’s fiddle camps that I began to incorporate elements of American folk music into my compositions.  Incidentally, before I started doing this, I had never performed my own music!  For some reason, I had kept my parallel careers as a violist and composer as separate as possible.  I think I started performing my own work out of convenience; the inflections and articulations are hard to notate, and it was easier just to do it myself.  When I realized how rewarding it was, I started working on a repertoire of works I could perform.  Today, most of the playing I do is my own music.”

Traditional instruments, even repurposed ones like Bunch’s amplified viola/fiddle, are one way to go in new music. Another is to find or create new instruments altogether. Such is often the pathway of composer Oscar Bettison. He enjoys incorporating unconventional instruments, such as those made from found objects or junk metal, into his scores.

Bettison says, “This was all a result of moving to Holland to study in the early 2000s. Before that, I had written a lot of music for traditional forces and I wanted to get away from that: to stretch myself as a composer. So, I started to play around with things, even going as far as to build some instruments; percussion mostly, but later on I branched out into radically detuning stringed instruments – there’s some of that in the guitar part of O Death. These things I called “Cinderella instruments: the kind of things that shouldn’t be ‘musical’ but I do my best to make them sing. And I suppose as a counterpoint to that, I shunned traditional instruments for a long time.”

Cinderella instruments, as well as references to popular music of many varieties, are signatures found in his work O Death, which will be played on SONiC October 19 by the Dutch Ensemble Klang.

Of O Death, Bettison says, “It was written for Ensemble Klang between 2005-7 and is my longest piece to date. It’s about 65 minutes long and I wrote it very much in collaboration with the group. We were lucky enough to have a situation in which I was able to try things out on the group over a long period. This was very important in writing it. The piece is in seven movements and is a kind of instrumental requiem, which references popular music elements (especially blues) and kind of grafts them on to the requiem structure. It’s something that I fell into quite naturally.  This I think is tied to my idea of ‘Cinderella instruments:’ eschewing the “classical” tradition somewhat.”

Bettison continues, “The thing that a lot of people don’t know about me is that I come from a very strict classical background. I was a violinist; indeed I went to a specialist music school in London as a violinist from the age of 10. My rebellion to being in a hot-house classical music environment was getting into metal, playing the drums and listening to avant-garde classical music that was seen as outside the ‘canon’ and I think that carried on into my music. So, to psychoanalyze myself for a minute, I think I’ve done both things in a response (quite a delayed response!) to the classical tradition precisely because I feel so at home in that tradition.”

Whether it’s a gesture of critical response or one of inquisitive exploration, crossover between musical traditions is nothing new per se. But today, genre bending, such as Bettison’s references to blues, metal, et cetera, is celebrated. True, there was a time when a gulf existed between “high” and “low” art, at least in some people’s minds (particularly those of the parochial and/or polemical bent). Increasingly in recent years, genres are blurring. Classical composers frequently incorporate materials from pop, jazz, and ethnic musical traditions. Correspondingly, a number of musicians primarily known as pop artists are exploring concert music, creating hybridized works from their own particular vantage point. And musicians like Bryce Dessner, who have significant pedigree in both genres, prove such distinctions largely meaningless today. Dessner is probably best known as the guitarist for the rock band The National. But he also has a Master’s degree in Classical Guitar Performance from the Yale School of Music and performs regularly with the “indie classical” ensemble Clogs. As a guitarist, he performed at the recent Steve Reich celebration at Carnegie Hall, joining members of Bang on a Can for their performance of Reich’s recent foray into rock instrumentation: “2×5.”

Bryce Dessner. Photo: Keith Klenowski.

Dessner says, “I think my electric guitar-playing has informed my composing and my classical training has in turn benefited my work with the National. I don’t consider my activities to be two separate pursuits; they’re both aspects of the same goal: to make creative music that pays attention to detail.”

Most of Dessner’s own instrumental compositions have an extra-musical source of inspiration, from visual art, mythology, or literature. St. Carolyn by the Sea is inspired by a section of Jack Kerouac’s 1962 novel Big Sur. Big Sur has this sense of sweep and variety of mood shifts that evokes, in a way, a kind of orchestration. I’ve created a work that employs the entire ACO but, at their suggestion, also incorporates two electric guitar parts: these will be played by my brother Aaron and me. I want to stress that our role is really as members of the ensemble: this is not a guitar concerto. We have little solo passages here and there, but then so do many other players in the orchestra.”

“I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to write for chamber orchestras in the past, but this work for the ACO will be the first time that I’m getting the chance to write for a full orchestra. It’s such a rare opportunity. Even today, it’s still challenging to get orchestras to program new music. And, of course, it’s very expensive to rehearse and present a new piece. What the ACO does in presenting so many composers’ work is truly an unusual situation.”

It’s heartening that so many composers and performers are going to be included in the “unusual situation” that is SONiC. Despite their disparate backgrounds, they are brought together by a fascination with sound and a determination to make the concert hall an adventurous and engaging place to be: one filled with a fresh sense of discovery.

Composer Christian Carey is Senior Editor at Sequenza 21 and teaches at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.

Interview with Mimi Goese and Ben Neill

Songs for Persephone: Mimi Goese & Ben Neill

Take a seductive voiced art-pop singer and a post-jazz/alt-classical trumpeter. Add fragments of nineteenth century classical melodies, electronics elicited by a “mutantrumpet” controller. Then add influences ranging from ancient Greek mythology to the Hudson River Valley. What you have are the intricate yet intimate sounds on an evocatively beautiful new CD: Songs for Persephone.


The Persephone legend is one of the oldest in Greek mythology, with many variants that provide twists and turns to the narrative and subtext of the story.  In the myth, Persephone, daughter of Zeus and the harvest goddess Demeter, is kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld. During her absence, vegetation is unable to grow in the world; fields fall fallow and crops cannot be harvested.


To break this horrible time of famine, the gods come to an understanding with Hades. Persephone is eventually freed, but on the condition that, if she has eaten anything while in Hades’ realm, she must return to his kingdom for a certain length of time. Thus, each year she must remain in the underworld one month for each pomegranate seed that she has consumed. This serves to rationalize, in mythic terms, the change of seasons, times of decay and renewal, shifts in light and weather; even the autumn foliage and the falling of the leaves.


Vocalist Mimi Goese and trumpeter Ben Neill have updated the Persephone story, while retaining its iconic essence, on their new recording Songs for Persephone (out now on Ramseur Records). As one can see from the pomegranate on the cover, (a visual designed by Goese), the duo is mindful of the legendary Persephone’s history; but they are not hung up on providing a linear narrative.

In a recent phone conversation, Goese, who wrote the album’s lyrics, said, “The artwork that I did for the cover, featuring the pomegranate, is one acknowledgement of the myth of Persephone. And there are other images that I found in the lyrics. But we were interested in using what was evocative about Persephone to create our own story. That’s sort of how the myth evolved too – one storyteller picks up the thread from another down through the years.”


They started work on this music some five years ago, but originally presented it as part of a theatrical production by the multimedia company Ridge Theater, starring Julia Stiles. In 2010, it was produced at Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival.


The theatrical presentation and the mythological story behind it are only two strands in a disparate web of influences that resonate with Songs for Persephone. Both Goese and Neill make their home in the Hudson River Valley. Both for its stunning natural surroundings and its history as a home for artists of all sorts, the valley is rich with reference points. Neill feels that these are subtly imparted to the music.


In a recent phone conversation, he said, “I found myself particularly interested in the Hudson River School of painters. These Nineteenth Century artists depicted the local landscape and the changing of season with a dimensionality and symbolism that seemed to have an affinity with what Mimi and I were after in Songs for Persephone.”


For Neill and Goese, these extra-musical influences – artwork, nature, and theater – are an important part of the music’s genesis. But the polystylistic nature of their music making adds still another layer to the proceedings.


Goese says, “I started in dance and theater and later moved to performance art. Singing came along later. But I don’t have the musical background or training that Ben has – I’m self taught.”



She doth protest too much. Goese’s voice provided the steely, dramatic center to the work of late eighties band Hugo Largo. One part art rock and another dream pop, the group incorporated bold theatricality and ethereal experimentation, releasing two memorable full lengths, Arms Akimbo and Mettle, and the Drums EP, an alt-pop connoisseur’s delight. She’s also collaborated on several occasions with Moby and, under the moniker Mimi (no last name) released Soak, a solo album on David Bryne’s Luaka Bop label.


Goese is a powerful singer, but Songs of Persephone brings out the lyricism her voice also possesses. Cooing high notes and supple overdubbed harmonies are juxtaposed with the more muscular turns of phrase. Experience plays a role in Goese’s tremendous performances on the disc. But she also credits the musical creations of her collaborator Neill with spurring on her inspiration.


“Ben has been a terrific person with whom to work,” Goese says. “He’s inventive and willing to try new things. From the moment we first performed together, at a concert nearly a decade ago, I’ve felt an artistic kinship with him.”


One can readily hear why Neill’s music would be an engaging foil for Goese. His background as a producer, and his years of work designing the mutantrumpet, have encouraged Neill’s ear toward imaginative soundscapes. His 2009 album Night Science (Thirsty Ear) is an example of Neill’s nu-jazz arrangements and soloing at their very best.


On the current CD, Neill’s playing remains impressive; but his arranging and collaborative skills come to the fore. There are intricate textures to found, on which Neill’s trumpet and electronics are abetted by strings, bass, and drums, but it’s the melodies, floating memorably past, one after the other, that are most impressive here. Some of the melodic lines he crafts are imitative of the voice in their own right: it’s no accident that some of the most inspired music-making on Songs for Persephone are when Goese and Neill create duets out of intricately intertwined single lines.


Neill says, “The classical materials that I used as the basis of the compositions on Songs for Persephone were melodies from the Nineteenth century: from opera and symphonic music. Many of them were from relatively the same era in which the Hudson Valley painters worked. I found it fascinating to juxtapose these two genres that were in operation more or less at the same time.”


He continues, “I’d describe the material as fragments of melodies: small excerpts rather than recognizable themes. None of them are treated in such a way that most listeners will be able to say, ‘Hey that’s Berlioz,’ or ‘That sounds like Schumann.’ They were meant to be a starting point from which I would develop the music: it’s not a pastiche.”


At 7:30 PM on September 27th, Goese and Neill will be having an album release party at the Cooper Square Hotel, part of Joe’s Pub’s Summer Salon series.  Goese says, “It’s an interesting space – we’ll have glass windows behind us, which is unusual as compared with a more conventional stage. But it’s fun performing in non-standard venues. It allows you to try different things and to bring different elements into the mix in terms of theatricality, lighting, and the way that you play off of each other. I’m excited to see how Persephone changes as we take it into various performing spaces.”


-Composer Christian Carey is Senior Editor at Sequenza 21 and a regular contributor to Signal to Noise and Musical America. He teaches music in the Department of Fine Arts at Rider University (Lawrenceville, New Jersey).

Hilary Hahn Skypes with Max Richter (video)

Hilary Hahn. Photo: Peter Miller

We all know Hilary Hahn as Sequenza 21′s resident video blogger; oh, and she’s a world class violinist and DG recording artist.


Wearing both of those hats simultaneously, Hilary had a video chat via Skype with composer Max Richter earlier this week. Richter is one of 27 composers commissioned to write an encore for Hahn; she begins debuting the pieces this coming October. In order to spotlight the featured composers, Hilary’s planning to release a video interview with one each month. It makes us here at Sequenza 21 feel kind of special. After all, how many other websites have their video blogger booked two years out?