An Interview with Composer Andrew Ford

Andrew Ford’s “Illegal Harmonies”

Andrew Ford. Photo: Jim Rolon

“I’ve never had a grand plan. Never even had an ambition – I still don’t, beyond wanting to write better music,” says Ford. “So I’ve done things as they’ve come along. Of course I also say no to things. I got into writing music journalism because, in 1983 when I came to Australia, I wasn’t, over all, very impressed with the music journalism I read. My radio work really came out of being an academic and gradually replaced it totally.”

Although born in England, Andrew Ford has become associated with his adopted homeland, Australia. He’s one of the most astute commentators on the country’s music scene, hosting “The Music Show,” a weekly broadcast on ABC Radio National since 1995.

“I live in the country, and most weeks I compose from Monday to Thursday. Then on Friday I drive the two hours up to Sydney and my producers hand me a folder full of research and a bunch of CDs relating to the guests I will have on The Music Show the following morning. There are usually four and we try to mix things up: I might talk to a jazz singer, a didgeridoo player, an opera director and the composer of a new string quartet. I do the show live, and then drive home on the Saturday afternoon. I try not to work on Sundays. If I’m writing a book, of course, that might have to take over for a while.”

Ford has written several books, and while most are accessible to a general audience, he’s never shy about exposing his readers to a wide array of adventurous music. He’s also the rare interviewer who’s able to “talk shop” with composers from the vantage point of a fellow practitioner.  This is clearly demonstrated in Composer to Composer (1993), an excellent collection of interviews he conducted with many of Australia’s finest composers, as well as composers from elsewhere, such as the UK’s Brian Ferneyhough  and Americans John Cage and Elliott Carter. Another one of his collections, Illegal Harmonies, has just been reissued in its third edition by Black, Inc.

Ford says, “Illegal Harmonies was a history of music in the 20th century and began as a radio series in 1997. There were ten 90-minute episodes, one for each decade. The book was published the same year, and this is its third edition. I’ve added a new preface and also there’s a new epilogue looking at music in the first decade of the 21st century.”

Black, Inc. has also recently published Ford’s latest book, The Sound of Pictures. He says, “Funnily enough, the book isn’t really about film scores. I’d say that, more accurately, it’s about films and how they used music and sound in general. It looks – and especially listens – to a lot of films, and finds some connections between them. The way films use sound to plant clues – including false clues – or to undermine, as well as reinforce, what is happening on the screen.”

Those wishing for an entrée to Ford’s own music might start with The Waltz Book, a recent CD release on the Tall Poppies imprint.  It consists of sixty one-minute long waltzes performed by pianist Ian Munro. But these are hardly your garden-variety Viennese dance pieces by Strauss. They explore a wide array of sound worlds, using waltz time as a jumping off point for some truly imaginative musical excursions.

Ford says, “The piece was never really about waltzes. It was an attempt to build a single large structure out of a lot of small structures. I felt these small pieces should all be the same size – like a mosaic – but that each might have its own personality and be performable as an independent miniature. A minute seemed the obvious length for each piece, and having decided that, the idea of the minute-waltz followed. Of course, the fact that each minute is a waltz – or at least waltz-related – brings a kind of unity to the hour-long whole, but what interested me above all was two things. First, I wanted to experiment with putting different amounts of music into the minute molds: you can have a minute of furious activity, or a minute of Satie-like blankness. Second, I wanted the overall structure of the hour to be coherent. That’s a long time listening to piano miniatures, and the audience needs to have its attention held: there had to be a sense of a journey or a story being told. You can imagine that at the first performance I was quite nervous!”

Another of Ford’s most recent pieces found the composer working in another medium with a storied tradition: the brass band. The Black Dyke Band premiered his work The Rising at the Manchester Brass festival in January 2011.

Ford says, “Without wishing to make a pun, writing for a brass band was a blast, and especially writing for the Black Dyke Band which is the UK’s finest and has more than 150 years of history behind it. They can play anything – they are total virtuosi. I’d never written for band before. I wasn’t even terribly sure what a baritone horn was. I did my homework, but I confess there was an element of guesswork involved. But the piece came out well. It sounded just as I’d hoped. Better, in some ways, because one thing I’d failed to appreciate was just how homogenous the sound is – it’s like they are all playing different sizes of the same instrument. It was this big glowing mass of sound – the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan – and I am completely hooked. I would love to write another band piece.”

Which other works would Andrew Ford like for listeners from outside Australia to hear? “I’m very happy with my Symphony (2008). I feel that, perhaps out of all my pieces, you could say this was really typical of me. There are no references, no extra-musical stuff: it’s just my music. And fortunately you can hear (and see) Brett Dean conducting the premiere of the piece at my website. I’ve revised it slightly since then, but nothing major. My opera, Rembrandt’s Wife (2009), is another piece I am very happy with. I had a brilliant libretto (by Sue Smith) and I tried to make it into one long song. I was determined it would be full of real singing from start to finish. It was a joy to write and I’ve never felt so unselfconscious in writing a piece. It felt as though it wrote itself. What else? Maybe Learning to Howl (2001), a song cycle for soprano, soprano sax/clarinets, harp and percussion, to words mostly by women.”

“One long-term project is called Progess. My earliest pieces – when I was a teenager – were rather influenced by Stockhausen’s then current intuitive music. This was convenient, in a way, because I must admit that I didn’t really know how to write everything down. As my technique improved, I have always wanted to return to that, to introduce more freedom into my pieces, but the trouble is I keep hearing them rather clearly in my imagination and I end up notating what I hear. Progress, right from the start, is designed as a fluid piece, with hardly anything pinned down and the players asked to improvise in various ways and based on certain melodic models. The instrumentation is totally flexible and so is the spatial layout. Indeed perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the way it will accommodate itself to the building in which it is performed – literally filling the building (not just the main performance space – even assuming there is one of these), so that it becomes a musical representation of the building.  There will also be recorded voices – something I’ve used quite a lot recently – talking about the place, its history, its significance, what was there before it was built, etc. It should see the light of day next year with further performances in 2013, but it’s early in the process, so I can’t say too much more.”

When asked who, apart from Andrew Ford, are the composers born or residing in Australia that should gain more currency abroad, Ford replies, “David Lumsdaine, 80 this year and now living in the UK, is a very serious voice, I think. What interests me in particular is the way in which his soundscapes and his composed works intersect. There’s a new CD – White Dawn – that places them alongside each other. I’m very drawn to Mary Finsterer’s music, especially her latest stuff. It’s always interesting to observe composers in transition. Of course if you’re not in transition, then you’re drying up.”

Illegal Harmonies and The Sound of Pictures can be ordered via Black, Inc.’s website.

Marilyn Nonken talks about Feldman Festival

Pianist Marilyn Nonken is performing Triadic Memories on June 4 in Philadelphia as part of “American Sublime,” a festival devoted to the works of Morton Feldman. Marilyn was kind enough to tell us a bit about working on Feldman’s music, as well as some of her other upcoming projects.

-What were your early encounters with Feldman’s music like?

I can’t remember my first live Feldman experience as a listener. One of the first works I remember hearing was FOR SAMUEL BECKETT. My first experience playing Feldman was with Ensemble 21, when we performed VIOLIN VIOLA CELLO PIANO, which was just a transformative experience for me, as a chamber player. After that experience, I very much wanted to find a solo work of his to perform and possibly record.

Listening to Feldman is special because there is that great luxury of time. It can take, in TRIADIC MEMORIES for example, maybe a half-an-hour or forty-five minutes to get acclimated to the environment of the work, and to become familiar with the kinds of things that happen in that special environment. In each of his pieces, I think, there’s an extended period where the materials introduce themselves, so to say.It’s not dynamic in the sense of something happening right away, or a conflict being presented, or a big question being asked — and so I feel it’s best to not aggressively try and “figure out” what is happening.

- Which pieces by Feldman have you performed?

VIOLIN VIOLA CELLO PIANO, EXTENSIONS 1, THE VIOLA IN MY LIFE, INTERSECTION 2, PALAIS DE MARI, and TRIADIC MEMORIES –

- What do you think Feldman meant by titling a piece Triadic Memories?

Feldman’s piano music is all about decay, what he would refer to as a kind of receding landscape …. For me, that sense of resonance and the dying of the sound is perhaps the most important part of the piece. His harmonies are gorgeous, very lush and evocative — but as beautiful as they are, more of the piece is spend listening to them fade.

- When did you record Triadic Memories for Mode? Has your performance of the work changed over time?

I believe this is 2004, recorded perhaps summer 2003. I’m sure my performance has changed — although not drastically. In terms of timing and rhythmic precision, I believe it’s very consistent with the recorded version. I’m still convinced by that “magic” (for me) tempo and the specificity of the rhythms, and the way I first conceived of articulating them. But I do feel that I’ve become more sensitive to the harmonic nuances of the work, as I’ve become more familiar with it over the years —  the way I voice things, and the way I anticipate the decay, I think, has become more personal.

- While they’re not often showy, Feldman’s pieces make significant demands of their own on performers. Can you tell us a bit about those, and how you prepare to perform Triadic Memories in concert?

I feel these works are very virtuosic, despite the fact that they’re not fast and full of passagework. There’s a moment-to-moment control that Feldman requires, in terms of dynamic and timbre and attack, which requires a tremendous amount of physical and mental preparation. To be that attuned to the smallest nuances, and physically in total control, for such a significant span w/o any real “recess” requires a special kind of concentration. For me, there is no substitute for playing the work — in real time, w/o interruption, — daily for at least a week or two before the concert. There is always detail-work to be done (specificity of rhythms, defining colors, making certain that the surface of the work is somehow “flawless” and w/o rupture — but doing everything sequentially, in tempo, is always a test.

- After Triadic Memories, what are some of your upcoming projects?

I’m very excited to be working again with the fabulous pianist Sarah Rothenberg on a four-hand Kurtag program, combining (as the composer himself has done) Kurtag’s JATEKOK with his Bach transcriptions, presented as a concert program on an upright piano. Sarah and I had a fantastic time working on Messiaen’s VISIONS DE L’AMEN, touring and recording it, and this is a very different and intimate kind of project —  I’m also preparing for a recording of American spectralist composer Joshua Fineberg’s complete solo piano music, which will appear on CD with Hugues Dufourt’s recent ERLKONIG — a follow-up to my complete Murail disc. It will feature a new work written for me by Joshua, amd I am very much looking forward to touring with that, as a complete program in itself. And just after this Festival, I’m recording Elizabeth Hoffman’s “organum let open,” a beautiful work she wrote for me last year, based on texts of theatre artist George Hunka. It’s wonderful to be doing such recent music, and inspiring to be working with such talented composers.

Jeff Gavett talks about Ekmeles

Ekmeles rehearses Iddon

On Tuesday 1/11, newish New York vocal ensemble Ekmeles presents a program of music by Martin Iddon, Alvin Lucier, and David Lang at The Tank. I caught up with Ekmeles’ director, baritone Jeff Gavett to learn more about the event.

Carey: Why did you form the group Ekmeles?

Gavett: “While New York is home to many exceptional instrumental groups dedicated to contemporary music, there is a relative paucity of new vocal music. Ekmeles was created to fill the gap, and bring adventurous new music for solo voices to audiences that otherwise have little or no chance to hear it.”

“Our first season so far has included a US premiere by Mauricio Kagel, New York premieres by Aaron Cassidy and Kenneth Gaburo, and new commissions by Troy Herion and Jude Traxler. We also performed as the vocal complement in a sold out performance of Knee Plays from Einstein on the Beach as part of the Darmstadt Essential Repertoire series at Issue Project Room.”

Carey: Tell us about the works on the concert?

Gavett: “First on the program is our commission, Martin Iddon’s Ἁμαδρυάδες (hamadryads). It’s a transformation of Josquin’s Nymphes des Bois which involves retuning the intervals of the original in chains of Pythagorean intervals. These pitches, notated to the hundredth of a cent, are traversed mostly through extremely slow glissandi, requiring the singers to use sine wave reference tracks to achieve the tuning. We’ll also be playing tuned wine glasses, which blend eerily with the vocal textures.”

“Next is Alvin Lucier’s Theme, a setting of a poem by John Ashbery which shares some kinship with his most famous work. Lucier fragments the poem and distributes it between four speakers, who read the text into what he calls “resonant vessels.” These are vases, milk jugs, any empty container into which is placed a miniature microphone, which picks up the sound of the voice as filtered by the vessel, much like the room filters the sound of Lucier’s voice in I am sitting in a room.”

“David Lang’s the little match girl passion rounds out the program. As the title suggests, Lang has taken Hans Christian Andersen’s moralistic children’s story and infused it with the Passion. The suffering and death of a poor little girl is thus directly and explicitly equated to that of Christ, amplifying the story’s emotional impact. The singers all play percussion instruments, and the glockenspiel is featured especially prominently, its crisp attack evoking the freezing night. The clear and sparse textures throughout the match girl text are contrasted beautifully with richer quasi-choral textures in the Passion-derived elements.”

Carey: What’s next for Ekmeles?

Gavett: “Upcoming performances include John Cage’s Song Books at the Avant Music Festival on February 12th, and Chris Cerrone’s Invisible Cities with Red Light New Music in May.”

Concert Details

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011, 7 PM - Ekmeles – Resonances
$10 admission
The Tank
345 W 45th St, Manhattan, NY 212-563-6269

Pieces of Eight: AME at Galapagos on Monday

American Modern Ensemble

The American Modern Ensemble performs Pieces of Eight, a program of sextets at Galapagos in Brooklyn on Monday, December 13, 2010. Among the eight under-40 composers featured on the concert is Sequenza 21′s own Contributing Editor Armando Bayolo.

I recently caught up with AME’s Artistic Director Robert Paterson and asked him for some details about the show. Here’s what he had to say.

Pieces of Eight consists of works by composers from all over the United States, including Xi Wang from Texas, Armando Bayolo from Washington, DC and David Ludwig from Philadelphia. I chose these particular works because they are wonderfully stylistically different from each other, and help to demonstrate how diverse American composers are today, particularly with regard to the subset of composers under forty.”

Action Figure by Armando Bayolo has a strong pulse and hyper-kinetic kind of energy, and encapsulates the image of an action figure—like you would play with as a child—but through sound.”

“the resonance after… by Christopher Chandler is the winner of AME’s Fifth Annual Composition Competition. Christopher writes achingly beautiful music, and this is one of those “chills up your spine” pieces—a piece of music that really makes you feel something emotional. The title perfectly encapsulates what you hear, and the musical landscape he creates is simply beautiful.”

Adolescent Psychology by Shawn Crouch sounds like the state of a child’s mind, at least to me, especially with the rapid changes of emotion, slower introspective sections and frenetic scalar runs. Shawn has written a number of works for voice and choir, so this is a wonderful glimpse into his chamber music world.”

“Among the many intriguing qualities of Hannah Lash’s music is how she uses and explores extended techniques. In A Matter of Truth, she asks the violinist and cellist to detune their instruments way below the normal range, effectively turning each instrument into a much lower version of itself.”

“David Ludwig’s Haiku Catharsis consists of a set of short movements that are inspired by poems, and what I love about David’s work is that even though there is a numerological importance to how he constructed this piece, it never sounds technically “on your sleeve” or academic. The whole works sounds organic and lovely, and is timbrally rich and colorful.”

OK Feel Good by Jonathan Newman is probably the most “Downtown” sounding piece on the program, and has a kind of happy “feel good” sound quality. The piece joyfully carries you along with its bouncy rhythms and Major scale harmonies and melodies.”

Three Images by Xi Wang is the longest piece on the program, and one of the saddest. It wonderfully contrasts some of the other works on the program that are more emotionally uplifting.”

“A criminal running scared from the police on old Route 66 inspires my own Sextet. It starts with the scream of police whistles and ends with a band; it even incorporates a chase scene. AME is releasing its brand new CD of my music at this concert, and my Sextet is on the CD, beautifully performed by our wonderful ensemble.”

Event Details

Pieces of Eight

Monday, December 13, 2010 at 7:30 PM

GALAPAGOS ART SPACE, 16 Main Street, Brooklyn, NY

(Corner of Water Street in DUMBO)

A/C, 2/3, F Trains

Tickets: 20 Advance / $25 at the Door

Advance Ticket Purchase

Online: galapagosartspace.com • Phone: 718-222-8500

AME Artists

Stephen Gosling, piano

Blair McMillen, piano

Sato Moughalian, flute

Benjamin Fingland, clarinet

Meighan Stoops, clarinet

Robin Zeh, violin

Victoria Paterson, violin

Arash Amini, cello

Robert Burkhart, cello

Matthew Ward, percussion

Robert Paterson, conductor

Introducing Meet the Composer Studio

Meet the Composer’s latest venture, MTC Studio, will be unveiled on Monday at an event at the 92nd Street Y (Tribeca). It features members of the International Contemporary Ensemble and the first class of MTC Studio composers – Kati Agócs, Marcos Balter, Yu-Hui Chang, Glenn Kotche (of the band Wilco), Dohee Lee and Ken Ueno – in an evening of conversations and music making.

Yesterday, I caught up with Ken Ueno (University of California-Berkeley) and asked him about MTC Studio and some of his other recent exploits. In addition to his activities with Meet the Composer, Ueno is getting a portrait concert on the Baltimore Contemporary Museum’s Mobtown Modern series. What’s more, he’s spending the year as a Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.

Ken Ueno. Photo Annette Hornischer

Sequenza 21: For those not in ‘loop’, what’s ‘Meet the Composer?’

Ueno: Meet the Composer is one of America’s most important and vital institutions supporting the creation of new musical work.  A core tenet of theirs is to foster exciting new ways for composers to interact with audiences and performers.

Sequenza 21: Tell us about their new project, MTC Studio.

Ueno: Meet the Composer sums it up this way: “MTC Studio is a website that documents the creative process of composers through video, blogs, and other web content offering a rare perspective into the raw inner-workings of a composer’s world. Viewers get the unique opportunity to follow a musical work from first note to stage and can take part in individually supporting commissioning projects.”

Sequenza 21: What was the process for creating your page on the website?

Ueno: Kevin Clark of Meet the Composer’s home office and Jeremy Robins (a videographer) came out to Berkeley to interview me over the summer.  During that time, we shot some initial footage.  They gave me a flip camera and I’ve been since shooting my own footage that Jeremy has been editing.  It’s kind of like keeping a video diary balanced with a more general introduction to who I am and what I do as an artist.  It’s been a lot of fun.
Sequenza 21: Have you had, will you have, interactions with the other MTC composers?

Ueno: Most of them I’ve already known for years!  I’m quite honored and humbled to be included amongst some of my favorite composers of my generation!  Glenn, I did not know from before.  But being a Wilco fan for years, I look forward to meeting him.
Sequenza 21: You’re busy on this trip to the US. Tell us your itinerary!

Ueno: I gave a lecture on my music at Columbia this week.  Next week, I have the MTC Studio event, a lecture at Stony Brook, and two performances of my new piece for the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players (at Stony Brook and at Merkin Hall).

Sequenza 21: How’s your residency in Berlin been? What’s the academy like and what are you writing there?

Ueno: Being at the American Academy in Berlin’s been great!  I have the time and space to concentrate on composing.  It’s a gracious gift of time.  What’s been especially enthralling and stimulating has been learning from the other fellows.  People like the literary critic James Wood, the journalist Anne Hull, the writers John Wray and Han Ong.

Two senior colleagues from UC Berkeley are there too: Martin Jay, a historian (one of the world’s foremost experts on the Frankfurt School), and his wife, Catherine Gallagher, a professor in English (an expert in the field of counterfactual fiction).  It’s been great hanging out with these folks and picking their brains about all sorts of things. I’m quite impressed with our youngest fellow fellow, Kirk Johnson, who started the List Project.  His organization has helped hundreds of Iraqi allies transition to the US.  This man has saved people’s lives!  Very inspiring.  We are also lucky to have Pamela Rosenberg be our dean of fellows, with all the experience she’s had in the arts.  Oh, and as a foodie, I’ve especially enjoyed the creations of the academy’s chef, Reinold Kegel.  He’s fantastic!

During my year at the academy, I’ll be working on a number of projects.  The first piece I finished was a 20-minute work for 11 instruments for the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players, which will be premiered next week.  Next, I’ll work on an installation for SCI-Arc, a collaboration with the architect, Patrick Tighe.  After that, I’ll work on pieces for Alarm Will Sound and a solo for Evelyn Glennie.  If all goes well, I’m hoping to have time to work on my chamber opera, in which I’ll perform, but that’s due much later.

Event details:

Introducing Meet the Composer Studio

Monday November 15, 2010, 7:30 PM

Mainstage at 92YTribeca, 200 Hudson Street

Tickets: $15

Interview with Richard Ayres


Richard Ayres

Since 1989, British composer Richard Ayres (born 1965) has lived and worked in the Netherlands. He currently teaches composition at the Royal Conservatoire in Den Haag: an institution where he did his graduate studies with Louis Andriessen. His compositional style reveals a profusion of influences, from Ives and Kagel to Ades and Janacek. Above all one notices his interest in dense counterpoint, frequently deployed in multi-layered structures; as well as a concomitant flair for testing the limits of playability, often with an eye towards cultivating a “melancholically humorous” ambience.

One of his favorite mediums is the “noncerto:” a composition for soloist and orchestra in which the soloist isn’t a heroic individual who overawes both orchestra and audience. Instead, the soloist’s role is quite the opposite: a Beckettian antihero: frequently asked to explore the barely possible or, indeed, the impossible. There are antecedents for the noncerto – notably in works by Carter, Feldman, and Kagel. By turning the concerto paradigm on its head, Ayres creates an affecting exploration of the individual who feels inarticulate: out of step with society. Doing so while creating compelling music (that attracts non-soloists) is no mean feat! But Ayres’ noncertos are becoming increasingly in demand.

This year he’s received a great deal of buzz in Europe. His new CD for the NMC imprint, Noncertos and Others, has received accolades from many corners, including critical praise from venues not ordinarily known to be sanguine about contemporary classical music. Perhaps the disc’s biggest coup to date is landing the coveted “Editor’s Choice” distinction from Gramophone magazine.

Despite the plaudits overseas, Ayres isn’t a household name yet here in the United States. Indeed, during the course of our wide-ranging discussion, he mentioned having not yet been programmed by an orchestra the United States. One hopes that this oversight is quickly remedied!

Christian Carey: How did you come up with the idea of the ‘noncerto?‘ Who first performed one of your noncertos? Have soloists been receptive to the idea of this type of piece?

Richard Ayres: I saw a program on the TV that was about a trombonist with some sort of Alzheimer’s disease. He was holding an electric razor and thought it was a trombone. He became very upset when he couldn’t work out how to play it. This broke my heart, and I wanted to write a little piece out of sympathy or as a tribute to this guy. This piece became the first noncerto for small ensemble and alto trombone. The Schoenberg Ensemble from Amsterdam commissioned it. I became attracted by the idea of outcast against the crowd, and four more noncerti followed.

Soloists need a melancholic sense of humor (humor not comedy), and an amazing technique to play these pieces. In spite of being underdogs, the solo parts are obviously virtuosic. I like to think that anyone that is attracted to the melancholia of Charlie Chaplin, or the excess of Terry Gilliam would like to play my noncerti. This is certainly just vanity.

CC: Each time I listen to No. 37B for Orchestra, I’m struck by what I hear as a kinship with the music of American composer Charles Ives: the overlapping of orchestral lines in a sort of collage, the frequent shifts of focus, and the wondrously pungent dissonances. Of course, I might just be listening through my own set of repertoire filters, but I wondered- is Ives at all influential on the music you’re composing?

RA: Oh yes! I heard Ives’ 4th symphony when I was a student and this gave me permission to write “far too many notes” sections in my pieces, and generally to roam around musical history. Actually these seemingly complex textures are rarely more than five musical lines…any more than 4 musical lines seems to be heard as a texture. I’m glad I listened in that particular counterpoint class!

CC: Who are some other touchstone composers you might point to?

RA: Oh, far too many to mention. I devour all music. Contemporary music loves range from Jerry Hunt right through to Tom Ades. I listen to loads of folk and rock music, just about anything. If I had to pick out some especially important classical composers then, apart from Ives, the music of Janacek, Sibelius, Beethoven, Mozart, Purcell, Rameau, Verdi, Strauss has been a massive influence on my composition.

I am just as, if not more, influenced by film. Fellini, Guy Madden, Terry Gilliam, and the great Charlie Chaplin have all played a part in shaping my creative taste.

CC: Would you tell us a bit about your numbering system for pieces?

RA: Three reasons for the numbers: I don’t have a lot of imagination for titles, and the ones I have made up were pretty awful; I find it easier to remember which piece is which (although this is no longer true. As I get older and the number of pieces increases, I find I can’t remember which is which); I forget now which painter said “a title is as important as a color in a painting”. Was this Jasper Johns? Whoever it was, I agree entirely. A title determines, or colors the listeners perception of a piece of music. I don’t want to pollute a listener’s experience unless it is absolutely necessary. At the moment I am playing with a juxtaposing literary and musical narrative, and am writing extremely long movement titles that are very evocative, and either concur with, or contradict how we experience the music’s emotional world.

CC: Noncertos and Others (NMC) has gotten a terrific reception, both in Europe and the US. Has this been a surprise, albeit a pleasant one?

RA: I wish I could be cool and knowing and say that it was what I had expected. I can’t, and I am extremely surprised. When I opened my copy of Gramophone magazine and saw my CD was editor’s choice I immediately ran to buy a copy to send to my mother. I’m very happy.

CC: For those whose introduction to your work comes via this CD, where would you send them next to learn more about your oeuvre?

RA: That is a bit of a problem as this is the only commercial recording, and so far my music has been played all over Europe but not in the states. I’ve never been there either, but I will get there one day!

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Cautious Optimism – Ambitious Pragmatism: An Interview with Klaus Heymann

Naxos Records’ founder and CEO Klaus Heymann meets me in a café, downstairs in the midtown hotel where he’s staying in Manhattan. Heymann is on a trip to the US in which he’s doing press meetings and presentations in New York, followed by meetings with the Naxos America team at their base of operations in Franklin, Tennessee. Then he’s off to the West Coast for still more meetings. Finally, he gets to go back to his home in Hong Kong. When I remark about the seemingly whirlwind nature of the trip, Heymann says, “International travel is expensive these days. It’s best to take care of all the business I can in a single trip.”

But while Heymann is averse to wasting money on the jet-setting model of yesterday’s record labels, he’s certainly willing to invest the label’s resources where it counts: on the music! The imprint has a catalog of nearly 4000 titles, boasting both tremendous depth of repertoire and many fine performances. And it’s growing continuously. When I suggest that we discuss the projects in the offing, Heymann brings out a list of recordings that is jaw dropping in its comprehensiveness. Of course, I ask first about the area dearest to my heart (and most germane to my writing beat).

“Let’s see, the American Classics series: we have 73 titles ‘in the pipeline,’” says Heymann.

The list of American recordings on the way includes a number of famous figures: Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, Richard Danielpour, and Michael Torke among them. But there are a number of projects by composers who, while they may be discussed on Sequenza 21, certainly aren’t yet household names: Paul Moravec, Roberto Sierra, David Post, and too many others to recount here.

I notice a couple of Sequenza 21’s contributors on the list too: Judith Lang Zaimont and Lawrence Dillon. There’s a significant commitment to diversity. Women composers such as Zaimont and Jennifer Higdon and conductors such as Jo Ann Falletta and Maren Alsop feature prominently in Naxos’ future plans, as do artists from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. And Heymann doesn’t seem to have a style agenda: Naxos presents both Uptown and Downtown composers and seemingly everything in between. I’m particularly excited to hear about a forthcoming recording by the New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble (including Elliott Carter’s Tintinnabuli!).

Is there a composer who’s conspicuous in his absence? “No more John Adams for a while,” says Heymann. Seeing my eyes widen, he continues, ”He made some very disparaging comments about Naxos in an interview … budget label … mediocre performances. It was very hurtful to a number of people at the label who’ve advocated for his music.”

This is the first I’ve heard of the interview, which I later find online in Newsweek. Given that Naxos’ recently released a fine recording of Nixon in China, the ingratitude is stunning. (In trying to reach Adams for comment, I’m told that he’s on “media blackout” while finishing a commission).

In addition to our appetite-whetting discussion of upcoming recordings, Heymann enthuses about a variety of methods for delivering music to consumers. On the day of our meeting, he’s is also booked to demonstrate Naxos’ first Blu-ray audio recordings. The initial run of ten titles is slated for release in Fall 2010. They include a recording of a contemporary American work: John Corigliano’s Circus Maximus.

Heymann says, “When we recorded Circus Maximus, I promised John that we would release it in surround – that’s how it was meant to be heard! SACD seems to be a declining format, so we waited … and now will release it on Blu-ray.”

While Naxos has remained committed to releasing recordings via physical media – CD, DVD, Blu-ray – they are also continuing to diversify their collection, providing a plethora of format offerings for the digital age, from conventional MP3s to streaming services such as Naxos Audio Library and Naxos Radio.

“I’m very interested in the technology side of things,” says Heymann. “When the iPod first came out, I was certain early on that it would be a transitional device – that streaming would be the wave of the future. And as the technology improves, we’re streaming better and better quality audio online.  Sales of our streaming services are improving while downloads seem to be stagnating. Of course, no one knows what the future will bring, so we’re remaining flexible. We’ve even recently released a recording on a USB stick: five hours of Chopin. The packaging looks like a CD jewel case, but the stick delivers higher quality audio – and more of it – than a conventional CD.”

The Audio Library is available through my university, and I’ve found it to be an invaluable resource in the classroom. It doesn’t just contain Naxos’ recordings; there are over 200 labels represented. I mention wishing that so many of the historic recordings in its database weren’t barred in the US.

“Me too,” says Heymann ruefully. “But that’s something to take up with your congressman; the laws in America are restrictive in that regard.”

Naxos has recently added a Video Library. It currently has around 400 titles. “There are more to come,” says Heymann. “It won’t have 44,000 titles like the Audio Library does, but our near term goal is to get it up to around a thousand. In addition to operas, we’re planning to include educational programs and plays.”

Despite the myriad challenges facing the record industry, Naxos seems to be a flexible player poised to take classical music into the future. Heymann says, ““People talk about piracy and illegal downloading: both of which are indeed problems. But seeing the amount of young people who are studying classical music, I remain optimistic about music’s future.”

He continues, “We don’t make a lot of money on most of our recordings. Things like The Best of Chopin sell well. But then consider most of the recordings in the American Classics series; we don’t release them because they’re lucrative, but because it’s important to do so. Naxos has created a catalog that I’m proud of – one that‘s now an intrinsic part of the classical music landscape.”

Locrian Chamber Players: Interview with David Macdonald

Eclectic in their programming and superlatively talented, the Locrian Chamber Players have a unique mandate: they are the only new music ensemble which limits their repertoire to works composed in the last decade. This has led them to give countless American and World premieres of works. LCP are giving a concert this Thursday at Riverside Church, uptown in NYC. I caught up with the group’s director, David Macdonald, who whets my appetite for what looks to be an exciting concert.

CBC: How did you come to commission Malcolm Goldstein’s The Sky has Many Stories to Tell?

DM: A long time ago I heard Malcolm play a solo violin improvisation at Carnegie Hall.  I was floored by the sounds he got out of the instrument and the way he built a flowing piece on the spot out of all these extended techniques.  I later found a string quartet by him, which we performed in 2008, I think.  We loved the piece and, I’m happy to say, he was pleased with the performance.  We got to talking about having him write a piece for Locrian and “The Sky…” is the result of that.  The commission came through the Canada Council.  (Malcolm lives in Montreal.)  The piece, like most of his works, is a set of coordinated improvisations.

Who performs your Hornpipe? Is this a new piece?

It’s for string quartet, and it is a new piece.  Anyone who wants to hear it should not come late.  It lasts about 3 minutes and it’s first on the program.

Tell me about Evan Hause and his piece Halcyon Shores?

Evan is probably best known for a series of operas he’s written over the past decade based on 20th century historical subjects.  Like many of today’s youngish composers, his influences are very eclectic.  One of those operas has this aria where the vocal writing is kind of a hybrid of sprechtstimme and scat singing.  It’s really terrific.  Halcyon Shores is for violin, cello, flute and harp.  It’s never been performed in New York.

John Adams’ music is, of course, well known and often performed, but Fellow Traveler perhaps isn’t one of his ‘household name pieces.’ What’s Adams up to here?

It’s a crazy little piece he wrote for the Kronos Quartet a few years ago.  It’s almost entirely quarters and eighths at a very fast tempo (half-note-equals-138), with lots of nervous syncopation.

Which composers are going to be in attendance on Thursday?

Me and Evan Hause. Malcolm was supposed to be there and to play the violin part in his own piece.  But he became ill last week after a grueling European tour and thought it best not to push himself.  Our excellent violinist Cal Wiersma will take his place.

This has been a year of transition for Locrian Chamber Players? How have things changed in the way that you’re organizing the ensemble and programming concerts?

It’s been a tough year.  When (co-founder) John Kreckler died, I wasn’t sure if we could continue.  But the players have been absolutely lovely in helping me run things.  Locrian is a very important part of all of our musical lives, and we will go on.

What plans are in the offing for Locrian?

Next concert:  August 26.

Event Details:

The Locrian Chamber Players this Thursday, June 10 at 8PM in Riverside Church (10th floor performance space). Entrance at 91 Claremont Avenue

Directions: (North of W. 120th Street: One block W. of Broadway)

The Program:

Malcolm Goldstein

The Sky Has Many Stories to Tell (World Premiere)

John Adams

Fellow Traveler

Evan Hause

Halcyon Shores (New York Premiere)

Joel Hoffman

Blue and Yellow

Chen Yi

Night Thoughts

David Macdonald

Hornpipe

The Players:

Calvin Wiersma and Conrad Harris, violins; Daniel Panner, viola; Greg Hesselink, cello; Diva Goodfriend-Koven, flute; Jonathan Faiman, piano; Anna Reinersman, harp.

Free admission: A reception will follow the concert.

Short Chat with Elizabeth Ziman

Elizabeth and the Catapult

Brooklynite singer/songwriter Elizabeth Ziman is probably best known for her work with the indie pop band Elizabeth and the Catapult. But Ziman, a trained pianist who studied film scoring, was recently involved in composing music for a crossover “art song” project. The commission was premiered last Thursday at New Sounds Live, a concert hosted by John Schaefer at Merkin Hall in New York City. Elizabeth and the Catapult,Gabriel Kahane, and Ed Pastorini all appeared, performing new works that demonstrated their own particular takes on the ‘art song’ concept. After the gig, Elizabeth was kind enough to share some thoughts about creating crossover art songs at the behest of WNYC.

CC: How did you get involved with the New Sounds Live project? Have you been on the show in the past?

EZ: I first met John Schaefer when I was commissioned to write a piece for the Young People’s Choir of NYC about 5 years ago, and ever since he’s been really super supportive of all Elizabeth and The Catapult ventures- he’s featured us on Soundcheck a number of times. But this was our first appearance on New Sounds. We were all very excited.

CC: Tell us about the commissioned work that premiered at the Merkin Hall event.

EZ: Around the time John gave me the assignment to write the song cycle, I was reading a book of poems Leonard Cohen wrote while spending time in a Zen monastery in California: ”Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing”.The general theme of these poems are not so much about religion/sex/depression/politics as is per usual with him, but more personal- mostly about being human and flawed and trying to succumb to it. He’s constantly searches for peace but when he can’t reach it, he laughs at himself. So there’s a good dark humor to the poems. Something about this really struck a chord with me and ended up writing my own poems mirroring this sentiment.  Musically speaking, it was just the normal setup plus string quartet.

CC:  Merkin Hall is generally known as a classical and jazz venue. Has Elizabeth and the Catapult performed in similar halls in the past?

EZ: We performed at Carnegie Hall two years ago; otherwise the closest thing to Merkin Hall we’ve played is probably a club like Joe’s Pub in the Village. But we welcome all theatre/art spaces- they usually sound the best anyway.

CC:  The concept for this New Sounds program was showing how ‘art songs’ – songs in the concert music tradition – are being affected by influences of pop, jazz, and other kinds of music. How did you respond to this?

EZ: I really just tried to do exactly what I do – but because there was some kind of budget I was lucky enough to be able to hire a string quartet for the occasion as well.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-Ved2Jq4Yk[/youtube]

CC: A lot of indie pop artists seem increasingly interested in incorporating classical influences into their work. Conversely, classical artists are blending pop influences into their compositions. Can you comment on this trend and how, if at all, it affects your songwriting and arranging?

EZ: I went to school for film scoring- so I’ve always been very interested in arranging cinematically, and using a broader scope of instruments- but I feel like bands like Sufjan, The Dirty Projectors, David Byrne, St Vincent and Antony and the Johnsons(to name a few) have been really pushing the envelope with their arrangements in a very hip way.

CC: How did your approach the ‘art song’ compared to the other artists > on the show – Gabriel Kahane and Ed Pastorini? Was there any communication about the music you were composing ahead of time?

EZ: I love Gabe, I actually wrote one of the songs for the cycle on his piano at his house while he was on tour and I was house-sitting! But no, the night was pretty much a happy surprise for all of us.

CC:  Is this type of project something you’d like to explore further with Elizabeth and the Catapult?

EZ: Sure, it was an absolute honor to perform in such a beautiful venue for such a great program. I’m always psyched to be involved in new random projects, especially those being sponsored by NPR.

CC: What’s next for Elizabeth and the Catapult? Are you touring/recording this summer?

EZ: We’re recording this summer and hopefully touring very, very soon!

Those interested in hearing the Merkin Hall concert, stay tuned! It will be broadcast as part of a future New Sounds program on WNYC.

Cryptacize: Interview with Chris Cohen


   Cryptacize

Chris Cohen is a member of the band Cryptacize, an indie quartet whose recently released LP, Mythomania (Asthmatic Kitty), is a fascinating, oftentimes whimsical, affair. It traverses myriad musical genres: psych-rock, alt-folk, non-Western music, and echoes of Fifties-era pop balladry. The album’s artwork, drawn by Nat Russell, mirrors the band’s sense of inquisitive playfulness.

Cryptacize has been touring up a storm in support of Mythomania, driving from gig to gig in a tiny Toyota Corolla, necessitating a stage show employing miniature amps and a spare drum kit. The band’s turned this supposed limitation into a virtue, ramping up the performance energy level as they bring down the amplitude; providing their entertainment up close at intimate venues for enthusiastic audiences.  

Carey: What inspired the title Mythomania?    


Cohen: The filmmaker Raul Ruiz was talking about Hollywood movies or something – we just liked the word for some reason. Actually we had to look it up. But ‘mythomania’ is also good if you don’t know what it means – ‘myths’ and ‘mania;’ both pertinent to our album.   “Mythomania” really means compulsive lying, where you have to make up one story after another to justify previous lies.  

Our music is created by a process something like that – not that we’re lying – but one thing leads to another in a compulsive kind of way, and you end up with something in the end that’s really weird and isn’t what you’d expect originally.   I think that in general a person’s sense of reality goes something like that too – the narrative we feel like we’re living sort of self-generates and sends us on a very particular, self-determining path which seems somehow already decided.

Carey: I really enjoyed the CD’s artwork – how did you decide on images from the book This is the Smoke that is Inside You?
 

Cohen: Nat Russell is our friend from Oakland and we are fans of his work. We just came across the drawings and said ‘yes!’

Carey:  Cryptacize’s sound brings together a bunch of influences, including Non-Western rhythms and vocal inflections. Would you tell me a bit about some of your favorite reference points from outside the Western pop canon?
 

Cohen: We are interested in all genres.   If you check our blog, we post mixes there of stuff we’ve been listening to lately, so you could get more detail…   anyway I would say I like individual artists in every genre, but never every artist in any genre.   Lately I really like Selda Bacgan, Fairuz, the film composers Shankar-Jaikishan, Group Doueh, Etoile de Dakar, the Pearl Sisters… we’re pretty much open to whatever is unique/exceptional… a lot of that music is older stuff.   I like new stuff too, like Fiji music, but I don’t know about as much there.     It’s kind of like African highlife music mixed with rap, just drums and vocals, and they have really good videos on YouTube.

Carey: At the same time, pop styles from early rock ‘n roll to psych-rock are palpable. It’s great to hear you bring an intricate groove together with more straightforward rock signatures on a song like “Tall & Mane.” How did that arrangement come together?
 

Cohen: Thanks – I don’t know – Mike and I just started playing that rhythm pattern together on the cowbell and guitar.   It was trial and error like everything else. We wanted it to sound frantic so we brought in the sped-up guitars…

Carey: “Gotta Get Into that Feeling” and “I’ll take the Long Way” are examples of another kind of music-making at which Cryptacize excels: the ballad. Sometimes, it’s startling how earnestly presented your ballads are.   Given how cynical pop culture can be, is it difficult to allow a song to be earnest in its emotional appeal?
 

Cohen: No it’s not difficult. That’s just our natural personalities…   I guess I think a cynical ballad would be horrible.   Ballads should be sad!   They should make people cry! How are you going to do that and be cynical?

Carey: Are you still driving a Toyota Corolla to gigs?
 

Cohen: Yes, although not for too much longer… 4 people’s starting to kind of push it for space.

Carey: Using mini amps and a small drum kit certainly keeps things streamlined for touring. How have they affected your musical approach?
 

Cohen: The tiny equipment pretty much made it possible for us to go on tour. On the money we make, we can’t afford to pay for much gas.   We do like the sounds of our tiny equipment though! And it makes the sound-person’s job a lot easier, they like things pretty quiet on stage usually. I don’t know why, I love little amps. And my back loves me not carrying heavy ones anymore!

 

 Cryptacize