Archive for the “Premieres” Category

San Francisco Bay Area composer/performer  Kanoko Nishi wraps up our series of interviews with composers who are premiering new works at the 10th Annual Outsound New Music Summit in San Francisco on Friday, July 22nd.  The Friday night concert, entitled The Art of Composition, starts at 8 pm at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online from Brown Paper Tickets, and you can also buy them at the door.  Listeners who don’t want to wait that long can get up close and personal with the composers, and learn about their creative process, at a free Monday night panel discussion at 7 pm on July 18th.

Kanoko is classically trained on piano and received a BA in music performance from Mills College in 2006.  Her recent interest has primarily been in performing 20th century and contemporary music on piano and koto, and free improvisation in a variety of contexts. SF Bay Area contrabassist Tony Dryer and guitarist IOIOI, visiting from Italy, will perform Kanoko’s graphic scores as a duo.

S21: How has your classical piano training prepared you – or not prepared you – for improvisation and composition?

I think that one very important element that is particular to musical improvisation as opposed to improvisation in other fields is the role of the musical instruments one performs and interacts with, and classical training for me was just a very deep way of building a relationship with my instruments. What has been helpful is not so much the technique, vocabulary or repertoire, but the time, energy and thoughts spent in the process of acquiring these more concrete skills and knowledge. For me, every improvisation I do is like a battle with the instrument I’m playing, in my case, either the piano or koto, and though I cannot really practice improvising by its definition, it’s only by practicing regularly that I feel I can enrich myself as a person, build my stamina and confidence enough to be a suitable match for my instrument to bring out its full potential. Read the rest of this entry »

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Krys Bobrowski is up next in our series of interviews with composers who are premiering new works at the 10th Annual Outsound New Music Summit in San Francisco on Friday, July 22nd.  The Friday night concert, entitled The Art of Composition, starts at 8 pm at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online from Brown Paper Tickets, and you can also buy them at the door.  Listeners who don’t want to wait that long can get up close and personal with the composers, and learn about their creative process, at a free Monday night panel discussion at 7 pm on July 18th.

Krys is a sound artist, composer and musician living in Oakland, California. In addition to French horn she plays acoustic and electronic instruments of her own design. Her collection of original instruments includes prepared amplified rocking chairs, bull kelp horns, Leaf Speakers, Gliss Glass (pictured at left) and the Harmonic Slide.  Krys received her M.F.A. in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College and her B.A. in Computers and Music from Dartmouth College.  In addition to performing her own work, Bobrowski plays with the Bay Area-based improvisation ensemble Vorticella.

Her new work, Lift, Loft, Lull, is a series of short pieces exploring the sonic properties of metal pipes and plates and the use of balloons as resonators, performed by the composer and Gino Robair. The compositions have their origins in Bobrowski’s recent instrument prototyping work for the Exploratorium.

S21: Do your pipes, metal plates, and balloons come with any sound-generating history? Is there any “tradition” behind their use in music?

During my artist residency at the Exploratorium, I began experimenting with alternative resonators for musical instruments. I wanted to create an experience that would allow the listener to hear the ‘sonic bloom,’ the moment a resonator comes in tune and couples to a vibrating object.

As part of this project I started researching resonators in traditional and experimental instruments. I came across an interesting photo from the 1950s of someone playing an instrument made of glass rods attached to a series of inflated plastic cushions. The cushions were acting as the resonators for the glass. Later, I learned that the Baschet brothers, Francois and Bernard Baschet, invented this instrument along with dozens of other beautiful sound sculptures, including an inflatable guitar!

This started my exploration of using balloons as resonators, mostly for instruments made out of various kinds of metal: plates, pipes, bars, odd-shaped scraps. I also came across references to Tom Nunn’s and Prent Rodgers’ work with balloons and balloon resonators in a book by Bart Hopkin, ‘Musical Instrument Design.’ This led me to make a version of the ‘balloon gong’ instrument shown in the book.

The results of my sonic explorations and the ‘balloon gong’ will be featured in my composition, Lift Loft Lull. Read the rest of this entry »

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Here’s the first in a series of interviews with composers who are premiering new works at the 10th Annual Outsound New Music Summit in San Francisco on Friday, July 22nd.  The Friday night concert, entitled The Art of Composition, starts at 8 pm at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online from Brown Paper Tickets, and you can also buy them at the door.  Listeners who don’t want to wait that long can get up close and personal with the composers, and learn about their creative process, at a free Monday night panel discussion at 7 pm on July 18th.

Andrew Raffo Dewar (b.1975 Rosario, Argentina) is an Assistant Professor in New College at the University of Alabama.  He’s a composer, improviser, soprano saxophonist and ethnomusicologist. He’s studied and/or performed with Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Bill Dixon, Alvin Lucier, and Milo Fine. He has also had a long involvement with Indonesian traditional and experimental music. His work has been performed by the Flux Quartet, the Koto Phase ensemble and Sekar Anu. As an improviser and performer Andrew has shared the stage with a plethora of musicians worldwide, both the celebrated and the little-known.

As a member of his own Interactions Quartet, Andrew will premiere “Strata” (2011), dedicated to Eduardo Serón and inspired by the Argentine artist’s 2008 series of paintings, “La Libertad Es Redonda” (“Freedom is Round”).  His description tells us that “Through a combination of improvisation and notation, performers negotiate several “layers” of written material, mixing and matching components that are eventually assembled into nested counterpoint.”

S21:  You’re traveling quite a distance to premiere your piece at the Outsound Summit but it’s certainly not the first time you’ve been here.  How did you become associated with the San Francisco Bay Area new music community?

I lived in Oakland for roughly two years (2000-2002) before heading off to graduate school at Wesleyan University in Connecticut to study with people like Anthony Braxton and Alvin Lucier. My first exposure to the Bay Area community was, if I remember correctly, a two-day workshop with legendary bassist/composer Alan Silva organized by Damon Smith at pianist Scott Looney’s performance space in West Oakland in 2000, which was an excellent experience.  After that, I worked regularly — I think it was weekly — in a “guided improvisation” workshop ensemble at Looney’s organized by clarinetist Jacob Lindsay and guitarist Ernesto Diaz-Infante, and separate improvisation sessions with violist/composer Jorge Boehringer, which were both situations where I had the opportunity to play with many great Bay Area folks, like trumpeter Liz Albee and many others, which was wonderful. Around that time I was walking by guitarist/composer John Shiurba’s house with my horn, and he happened to be outside watering his garden. He asked me what kind of music I played, and I think the combination of the perplexed look on my face and my inability to answer his question easily is why we connected that day — he invited me in to chat, and when I saw a framed photo of Anthony Braxton on his mantle (whose work I’ve appreciated since my late teens, and who I’ve had the great opportunity to study and perform with) I knew I was “home.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Full disclosure: I co-founded San Diego New Music in 1994, served as its first Executive Director, and have been a board member since 2000. This isn’t a review or a comprehensive report so much as some of my impressions and observations about what’s going on at The Athenaeum in La Jolla, California, this weekend. If you think I overlooked anything, please feel free to contribute more in the comments section below.

After core members of NOISE, the resident ensemble of San Diego New Music, dispersed across the continent (flutist/director Lisa Cella to Baltimore; percussionist Morris Palter to Fairbanks), it became more and more expensive and time-consuming to do an entire season with the ensemble in San Diego. The ingenious solution NOISE came up with was to do an annual festival in June.

This year’s installment is the 5th year of San Diego New Music’s festival, soundON. From the beginning, it’s been impressive for the wide range of musical styles represented on the festival and for the high caliber of their commissions and score submitted through a semi-annual call. Unlike other competitions, there’s no entry fee. The musicians themselves wade through the entries and determine which scores they want to play on the festival.

Last night, the first of the festival, had impressive commissions and nice finds through the calls for scores. Several of the composers in attendance this year have been composers with whom NOISE has developed a relationship over the years: Christopher Adler (who doubles as the Executive Director of San Diego New Music), Stuart Sanders Smith, Matthew Burtner, Madelyn Byrne, and Sidney Marquez Boquiren.

Madelyn Byrne is represented by a video installation by Lily Glass, to which Byrne supplied a soundtrack. I can’t comment on it now, as I spent most of the last night catching up with old friends, but the lovely sounds I did manage to overhear and the colorful still or slow-moving abstractions on the screen invite further exploration tonight and tomorrow. (Update: turns out I heard this two years ago at a new music conference. It’s included on a DVD of works by lesbian composers, Sounding Out. Yes, it is worth experiencing again.).

Time Comes Full Circle, for violin and cello, struck me as completely unique in the output of Stuart Saunders Smith. Framed by an opening and closing spoken dialogue between the instruments the work begins with a mournful modal lament for both instruments, a prismatic minor key duet somewhat reminiscent of Pärt or Schnittke; I’ve never heard anything like this before in Smith’s music. This first section continues exploring this haunting music, only to abandon it for an extensive middle section which is in a vein more typical for Smith: independent, thorny harmonic and rhythmic counterpoint, marked by striking moments where the violin and cello come together in unisons—one, an A 5 spaces above the treble clef. It’s not a perfect unison—at times one instrument drops out and the other takes over, or a heterophonic melody splinters away. The minor-key lament returns in the final section, splintered in new combinations.

Any critic describing Smith’s music is in trouble searching for an easy category in which to pigeonhole him. If he belongs to any school, it’s probably the individualist, intuitive New England branch of experimentalism begun by Ives and Ruggles, later branching off in an intellectually rigorous way by Elliott Carter. Smith’s music, though, strikes me as highly intuitive, seasoned with the acceptance of sounds and free forms of the New York School composers Cage and Brown. Invoking any of these names tells you, only in the vaguest, broadest sense, what his music resembles. He is sui generis. What I can report is that this is an expansive work, a significant contribution to the infrequently explored combination of violin and cello. It was given a wonderful performance by cellist Franklin Cox and violinist Mark Menzies, and Smith seemed genuinely delighted with their interpretation.

A recent solo flute work by Nicolas Tzortzis, Incompatibles III, was dropped from the concert. The program notes are intriguing: “The whole work is based on the idea of ‘going towards something else,’ coming back each time, leaving again, and so on, before reaching the moment of the revelation.” Tzortzis was represented by a frenetic ensemble piece last year which appeared to ring some new changes on the New Complexity style (a distinguishing feature was the amount of repetition and return in the work). I hadn’t encountered his music at all before the Festival last year, and I was looking forward to hearing more. Alas, in its place was Berio’s Sequenza I, given a sharply delineated reading by Lisa Cella. I know it’s a major landmark in flute repertory, and yet taken in the context of all of Berio’s Sequenzas, it is the most dated, the least interesting to 21st century ears. The later Sequenzas developed a modern manner of prolonging dissonant harmonies through a solo instrument; today Sequenza I seems more caught up in the rapid turnover of all 12 tones, as many European composers strove to do in the 1950s.

Christopher Adler
is my favorite San Diego composer after Chinary Ung. Aeneas in the Underworld, Act I: The Caves of Cumae suggests a new direction in his music—a music theatre work for reciting guitarist. Chris has two consistent strains in his music, the ethnomusicological (he’s an expert on Thai music) and the mathematical, and Aeneas appears to lean towards the latter. In four “scenes,” guitarist Colin McAllister recites Virgil’s poetry in Latin, while playing a prepared guitar. Like Cage’s prepared piano music, the guitar is more of a percussion instrument here than a melodic/harmonic device, so the focus in the music is on expanding and contracting rhythmic patterns. Over these regimented rhythms, McAllister orates with what I assume is a more natural spoken delivery.

I heard the premiere a month or two back, and was frustrated by the inability to read the text in the dimly lit hall. The music, in general terms, delineates the broad themes of the poetry. Last night’s performance was far more assured, the rhythms crisper, the declamation more confident, and it was greatly helpful to be able to read a translation of Virgil’s text as McAllister recited.

You may have seen this cartoon going around—it’s pretty much an inside joke by Christopher Adler part describing the work to an incredulous guitarist, although in broader terms the interaction between composer and performer is rather true, if cloaked in humorous exaggeration.

A surprise event had been announced for the festival, and after a brief intermission Frank Cox was plunked down in a chair front and center facing the performance area, and serenaded with seven compositions dedicated to him by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Stuart Saunders Smith, Colin Holter, Steven Kazuo Takasugi, Sidney Corbett, John Fonville, and Brian Ferneyhough. The real surprise was Ferneyhough’s piece, titled Paraphrase on Antonin Artaud’s “Les Cenci,” unusual for being the only purely electronic work by Ferneyhough anyone present could recall. It appeared to be constructed entirely from samples, and yet the densities and microtones distinguished it from the average MIDI composition.

SoundON in the past has done “Chill-Out” concerts, which are what you might expect them to be: performances of more meditative, quiet, and/or serene works. Tension Studies I by Samuel Carl Adams, a West Coast composer still in his 20s generating lots of buzz, was scheduled for a Chill-Out performance, yet was withdrawn. In its place was a lovely electroacoustic composition by Matthew Burtner, whose title I do not now recall, composed for Colin McAllister. McAllister is a mountaineer, and recorded sounds of his ascent up the tallest volcano in Mexico; Burtner used these sounds and slowly-changing diatonic harmonies to supply an acoustic foundation over which McAllister played gently oscillating notes, ringing harmonics, and melodies which sounded quasi-improvised. Many folks commented later on how beautiful this work was, and I agree. I had heard it previously, and hearing it for a second time was a pleasant experience.

David Toub will be known to Sequenza21 readers. He submitted a trio for violin, cello, and vibraphone to the call for scores. Christopher Adler, in a preconcert talk, described how Toub’s score—dharmachakramudra—leapt out from all the others, in its being a more austere form of minimalism, a style Adler did not see at all in any of the other 400+ submissions. It is a quiet piece, featuring chords in the violin and cello rocking back and forth with four-note vibraphone chords. If you can imagine Morton Feldman writing a rhythmically regular and shorter piece, or Steve Reich writing a dissonant, slow work, that might give you an idea of the piece.

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The concert ended with the ocean inside by Frances White, another composer new to San Diegans. Her work was composed for Eighth Blackbird, and incorporated a tape part. It was consonant, lyrical, and a lovely way to end the evening.

And the performances? First class, throughout the night. These performers take their commitment to the music of our time extremely seriously. Doing this festival is a labor of love, and the concern and passion is always evident in everything they play.

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Once upon a time in 2000, there was a brand-new underground music collective in the San Francisco Bay Area, presenting a monthly concert series named “Static Illusion/Methodical Madness”.  The SIMM series is still going strong today, and its parent organization, Outsound Presents, now additionally puts on the weekly Luggage Store Gallery concert series and the Outsound New Music Summit.

Outsound acquired a Board of Directors and incorporated its bad self in 2009.  Now with a 501(c)(3) IRS determination in hand, it’s a stalwart provider of experimental music, sound art, found sounds, improvisation, noise, musique concrete, minimalism, and any other kind of sound that is too weird for a mainstream gig in the Bay Area.

The upcoming 2011 Outsound New Music Summit is the 10th annual, running from July 17-23, 2011. All events will take place at the San Francisco Community Music Center, 344 Capp Street, San Francisco. Eager listeners can purchase advance tickets online.

Sunday July 17: Touch the Gear Exposition
Outsound’s free opening event allows the public to roam among the Summit’s musicians and sound artists and their sonic inventions, asking questions, making noise and learning how these darn things work.

Monday July 18: Discussion Panel: Elements of non-idiomatic compositional strategies
Another free public event in which composers Krys Bobrowski, Andrew Raffo Dewar, Kanoko Nishi and Gino Robair will discuss the joys and pains of creating new works some of which to be premiered in The Art of Composition.  The public is invited to participate in a Q&A session.

Wednesday July 20: FACE MUSIC
This concert is devoted to the voice, the world’s oldest instrument, and artists who expand its horizons: Theresa Wong, Joseph Rosenzweig, Aurora Josephson, and Bran…(POS).

Thursday July 21: The Freedom of Sound
A night of operatic free expression, and power of spontaneous sound from Tri-Cornered Tent Show featuring guest vocalist Dina Emerson, Oluyemi and Ijeoma Thomas’ Positive Knowledge, and Tom Djll’s “lowercase big band”, Grosse Abfahrt with special guest Alfred Harth (A23H).

Friday July 22: The Art of Composition
Gino Robair
premieres his Aguascalientes suite based on scenes captured by Jose Guadalupe Posada, Andrew Raffo Dewar’s Interactions Quartet performs Strata (2011) dedicated to Eduardo Serón, Kanoko Nishi premieres her graphic scores along with bassist Tony Dryer, and Krys Bobrowski offers Lift, Loft and Lull, a series of short pieces exploring the sonic properties of metal pipes and plates and the use of balloons as resonators.

Saturday July 23: Sonic Foundry Too!
In a sequel to the first Sonic Foundry performance in 2006, 10 musical instrument inventors are paired up in 5 collaborations: Tom Nunn, Steven Baker, Bob Marsh, Dan Ake, Sung Kim, Walter Funk, Brenda Hutchinson, Sasha Leitman, Bart Hopkins, and Terry Berlier.

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Director Robert Geary and Volti

One of the most exciting areas for new music in recent years has been in the field of choral music. In the next two weeks, two choirs devoted to new music—one a veteran organization, the other an exciting, young rookie—will be presenting important programs of new choral works in both coasts.

The rookie is Baltimore’s Anima Nova Chamber Choir, which will present a concert of works by Eric Whitacre, Tarik O’Regan, Michael Rickelston, Sean Doyle, and Anima Nova founder and director, Jake Runestad. The concert, at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 8 at St. Ignatius Church, 740 North Calvert Street in Baltimore, will benefit the Peabody Preparatory’s “Jr. Bach” scholarship, which provides opportunities for underprivileged students to attend the Peabody Prep.

The veteran ensemble is San Francisco’s Volti, which for the past 32 years has been at the vanguard of new choral music in the United States under the direction of its founder, Robert Geary. Their season finale will be presented three times (Friday, May 13 at 8:00 p.m. at the Berkley City Club; Saturday, May 14 at 8:00 p.m. at First Lutheran Church in Palo Alto; and Sunday, May 15 at 4:00 p.m. at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco’s Presidio) and features works commissioned by Volti, two of which, Matthew Barnson’s Genesis and Elliot Gyger’s voice (and nothing more), are world premieres.

Barnson composed his Genesis, a re-interpretation of the biblical story of creation through poetry, at Volti’s Choral Arts Laboratory, its annual commissioning and residency program where composers under 35 work with Volti’s singers, Artistic Director Robert Geary and Composer in Residence Mark Winges to create a new work for choir in a workshop setting, culminating in its premiere at the end of a given season. Barnson describes Genesis as “three tableaux that are independent of one another but dependent upon the Book of Genesis to give them meaning. Each is a subversive exegesis upon the original story of creation and posits a slight, but vital alternative in the narrative, affecting the outcome of the myth in ways that are sometimes insignificant (but poignant) and sometimes darkly different. Each of the poets whose work I set refracted my original intentions. For instance, the outer movements of the triptych actually retell stories from the book of Genesis. In the second, middle movement I set Richard Siken, a poet whose ecstatic and anxious book, Crush is replete with Biblical images. Beyond the images of apples (knowledge but death) is the feature that the last two poems share: death deferred.”

Elliot Gyger’s voice (and nothing more) reflects the composer’s interest in “language and communication in their own right.” The original germ for what would become voice (and nothing more) was planted ten years ago, when Gyger was a graduate student at Harvard University, where he heard a lecture by musicologist Mauro Calcagno. “Occasionally as a composer,” one encounters by chance a piece of text (or other extra-musical stimulus) for which one may have no immediate use, but which makes such a strong impact that one files it away for future reference. Among the many fascinating sources which Calcagno discussed was a passionate diatribe on the transience of the voice from Emanuele Tesauro’s La metafisica del niente (The Metaphysics of Nothing). Read the rest of this entry »

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Opera Singer Misha Penton as Klytemnestra (photo by Kerry Beyer)

(Houston, TX) Houston based opera singer Misha Penton opens her unique performance space Divergence Vocal Theater this Friday, April 15th. Located at Spring Street Studios, home to many of Houston’s finest visual and mixed media artists. Divergence Vocal Theater will bring together Ms. Penton’s team of singers, musicians, composers, dancers, and lighting and costume designers to present new chamber opera repertoire. Klytemnestra, a collaborative opera dance theater work featuring music by composer Dominick DiOrio, sung text by Misha Penton, spoken text by John Harvey, and choreography by Meg Brooker, is receiving a great deal of positive press in advance of its premier April 15th and 16th at Divergence Vocal Theater.

Ms. Penton’s mission is to subvert the social mores and business paradigms preventing singers from creating their own works. In the wake of reality after graduate school, more and more classical instrumentalists are creating their own business and career models, going further and further out into what is, for many musicians, uncharted territory. Violinist Todd Reynolds, the ensemble Alarm Will Sound, and Houston based pianists Jade Simmons and Kris Becker are a few examples of musicians who are each developing a sustainable means for commissioning, performing, and deriving an income from playing contemporary classical music. Their approaches are as varied as their personalities, and there is much to discuss when it comes to what is actually working for one musician as opposed to another. But in the near future, these intrepid instrumentalists are going to find that more and more singers, including Misha Penton, are “out there” with them.

Misha and I met shortly after my relocating to Houston and I quickly recognized a kindred spirit. This interview took place via email in advance of the premier of Kyltemnestra.

Chris Becker: In a recent interview you said: “One of the things I want to do…is restructure the way people think about who does opera, how it’s done, who makes it, and who performs it…What I do with Divergence is…create my own works and I sing in them. It’s very much something actors and dancers do, but singers are not encouraged to create their own products.” Do you think this model that you’re describing is the future of classically trained musicians?

Misha Penton: Actually, I do – but it’s already happening. And it really isn’t anything new…instrumentalists in particular have been savvy to this model for a long time – the success of independent ensembles like Eighth Blackbird comes to mind immediately. Some conservatories are starting to take entrepreneurship seriously. Opera America has a great feature about entrepreneurship in its spring magazine and about singer-led initiatives, and entrepreneurship is the theme for the conference this year as well. Obviously rock and jazz musicians work this way and always have. I’m seeing more classically trained singers take on their own projects, but it doesn’t seem to be as encouraged by the vocal teaching tradition as it could be…but again, that is all changing. The more opportunities we, as artists create, the better we’ll be able to define success for ourselves. As a singer, I’m only partly an interpretive artist. I’m a theater artist and writer too, so I’ve always done creative work. I think of myself as an independent artist who happens to create work collaboratively.

Opera Singer Misha Penton (photo by Kerry Beyer)

CB: Who are some of your peers among singers that are doing something similarly subversive?

MP There are more and more small opera companies popping up that singers are joining forces to create – that’s absolutely fantastic. And classically trained singers are branching out into all sorts of music projects. I meet singers all the time who say, “Hey I have this idea for a project” – I just love that. Go do it!

In general, I question the traditional company and nonprofit structure – so I’m not sure that’s the best survival tactic nor the best creative model. There are so many options for funding work now without forming a nonprofit (fiscal sponsorship, crowdfunding, etc). The last thing I want on my back is an “organization”. I work project-to-project and I’m aspiring to a Robert Fripp-ian model – a “small mobile intelligent unit”.

Read the rest of this entry »

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(And Gods know sanctuary is something many of us might be searching for these days…) This Monday, 21 March, at 8pm in the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall (57th Street and Seventh Avenue, NYC), the ensemble Lunatics at Large begin a series of four concerts with five premieres, of works involving the collaboration of five composers and five poets. This little bit of numerology is titled “The Sanctuary Project“; Project Director Evi Jundt says:

We picked artists whose work we believed would be evocative of the theme ‘Sanctuary.’ First, the poets presented one new poem and some older works to the composers. The composers then chose which poet(s) they felt compelled to collaborate with. Each collaboration happened on its own terms: in one case, it resulted in a group of poems set to music in a song cycle; in another case, the poet helped find examples of folk music to be quoted in the composition. In the next stage, musical compositions served as inspiration for another new work by the poets. Finally, the poets – the initiators of the process – will join the musicians onstage to read their work in between performances of the chamber pieces.

The composers are André Brégégère, Mohammed Fairouz, Raphael Fusco, Laura Koplewitz and Alex Shapiro; the poets are Rob Buchert, Joanna Fuhrman, David Shapiro, Yerra Sugarman and Ryan Vine.

The Lunatics will present the same concert three more times, in actual sanctuaries: April 8, 8pm at Christ and Saint Stephen’s Church (122 West 69th Street, NYC); April 10, 7pm at the Synagogue for the Arts (49 White Street, NYC); and April 21, 7:30pm at WMP Concert Hall (31 East 28th Street, NYC).

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This Friday and Saturday October 22 and 23, Andrea Liberovici’s multimedia work Mephisto’s Songs premieres a part of the Apollo Theater’s Salon Series. I’m not familiar with Liberovici, but I am familiar with Mephisto’s featured performer singer Helga Davis. In addition to Ms. Davis’ amazing vocals, the piece includes recorded narration by Robert Wilson and cello improvisations by The Kronos Quartet’s awesome Jeffrey Zeigler. Live musicians for this performance include Clarice Jenson (cello), Fred Cash Jr. (bass), and Abe Fogle (drums).

Some of you may be familiar with Helga Davis as a host of WQXR’s Overnight Music. She works frequently with composers Paola Prestini and Bernice Johnson Reagon who, in collaboration with Robert Wilson, created the critically acclaimed opera The Temptation of Saint Anthony with Davis singing the role of Hilarion. And some of you truly hip folks may know that she sings on two scores I composed for dance, Like Dirt for Racoco Productions and La Spectra for Movement Pants Dance. Davis is also a distinctive and powerful composer. Her solo shows combining song, spoken word, theater, and video at venues that include New York City’s Whitney Museum or Galapagos are not to be missed.

Check out the Apollo Theater website for ticket information for their Salon Series. An article about another one of Liberovici’s recent projects can be found here.

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It’s a cliché to say Texans like things BIG although a mid morning drive on Houston’s freeways will do little to dispel this notion. However, many incredible opera companies in Houston presenting cutting edge programming and embracing fresh approaches to audience outreach are relatively small operations. But that doesn’t mean these companies and their ambitions aren’t growing.

Viswa Subbaraman is the Founder and Artistic Director of Opera Vista, Houston’s innovative contemporary opera company. October 15, at 8pm at Zilkha Hall (located in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts) maestro Subbaraman and company present the world premiere of composer and Bangkok Opera artistic director Somtow Sucharitkul’s The Silent Prince. Billed as a “Bollywood Opera,” The Silent Prince tells the Buddhist tale of Temiya Jataka, a Buddha who has been reincarnated as a prince. When forced to choose between committing terrible karmic deeds and disobeying his father, Temiya withdraws from the world into silence.

After visiting Sucharitkul’s website to hear samples of his music and blog to read his first hand accounts of composing and conducting music in Thailand, I reached out to Viswa Subbaraman with a few questions about next Friday’s premiere and the future of opera:

What are the connections between Bollywood and The Silent Prince? Does the Bollywood connection have to do with the production’s staging and choreography as well as the appearance of a live elephant?

The Bollywood connection has primarily to do with the staging, dancing, and costuming. In a lot of ways, I see this as a throwback to to the Bollywood movies I remember watching with my parents. When I was really young, it seemed as though my parents could only find Bollywood movies that had been out for at least 5-10 years. It wasn’t as prevalent to find Bollywood movies in the US back then. Those old movies had a very operatic element to them. I think the Bollywood connection in this opera harks back to that type of Bollywood film.

Musically, the work tends to be a very eclectic piece. There are moments that strike me as being old-school Bollywood. There are also times that I’m reminded of Sondheim, Wagner, Bernstein and a score of other composers. What I find extremely successful is that it does not sound piece meal. There is a definite unity between the various musical styles.

The score for The Silent Prince combines Western and Indian instruments. What Indian instruments are used? Does the score incorporate instruments from other parts of the East as well?

The Indian instruments in Somtow’s score include Tamburas and Harmonium. In the original conception, there were ideas to use Indian percussion and a variety of Indian instruments, but in the end, it seemed as though Somtow pared things down to create a much cleaner texture. One could make the argument, however, that he uses the violins and flute in a very Carnatic way at points. There is a definite South Asian connection in the instrumentation. Somtow uses a number of tam-tams, gongs, and antique cymbals, so there is a “gamelan” influence. Granted, those instruments tend to be so common in the orchestra that we don’t consider them as exotic any more. That being said, there is a definite nod to eastern traditions in the way those instruments are used.

From your perspective as a conductor and director of an opera company, where do you think contemporary and yet-to-be-written opera in the 21st century is headed? Are the costs of production stifling the development of this tradition of music? Or are more and more people like yourself discovering innovative ways to keep this particular genre of music and its audience growing?

This is an interesting question in that these days I see a ton of new opera. Opera Vista runs an annual competition for new opera (The Vista Competition), and since our focus is primarily opera by living composers, we also receive a number of perusal scores. When I started Opera Vista, I was wary of what we would receive in the way of submissions for the competition, and I was also curious to see what the state of new opera was. I can honestly say that we should be excited by all the great opera being written by living composers. I think opera, much like other areas of contemporary composition, is marked by eclecticism. I don’t know that you can say that there is a specific style or direction that marks contemporary opera. We’re seeing every manner of opera under the sun. There seems to be almost no subject area that is taboo. There also doesn’t seem to be a musical style that is necessarily in vogue right now.

Costs of production are probably the biggest hurdle. I have literally hundreds of ideas for new productions of new opera as well as a variety of directions we could go to help composers develop their art. That being said, it is still difficult to convince potential donors of the necessity of donating to support new music. New music still scares people. This is an area that I guess I could write a book about now. I love all types of music, but as Artistic Director of an organization that is still in its infancy, there is no doubt that I have tabled some productions that I think would be amazing to explore – Elliott Carter’s What Next? comes to mind – because I need to develop my audience base as well as their faith that new opera can be interesting and not scary. I really want Opera Vista to develop a consistent donor base and to be able to truly afford its staff and musicians before pushing the envelope too far – although a Bollywood opera with a live elephant really does feel like pushing the envelope! In some ways, that is the beauty of The Vista Competition.

The Vista Competition for new opera has been an amazing way to introduce living composers and their music to audiences. Every year, I have thought that there might be a piece in the mix that is “above the audience,” and to my amazement it does extremely well in the competition. The Vista Competition is run in an American Idol style. We perform 6-10 minute excerpts of the opera to give the audience a flavor of the work. The jury then asks the composers questions about their work, and in the end, the audience votes for the winner. Because of the interaction between the jury and the composers and in the finals directly between the audience and the composers, there is an opportunity for the audience to learn about the piece in fun and hopefully not-so-scary manner. It has been a building process. I’m excited each year by the number of people who return for the competition and bring friends. We are slowly finding a way to overcome the “opera” and “new music” stereotypes that scare people.

I think there are a number of groups that are working towards fostering new opera. It takes time and a ton of effort. It truly is a labor of love initially. It’s an exciting time for new opera. I really believe in the work we are doing. I know there is now the Microscopic Opera Company in Pittsburgh, Bluegrass Opera in Kentucky, and a number of others are growing.

The Silent Prince by Somtow Sucharitkul, performed by Opera Vista, Viswa Subbaraman conducting, will premiere October 15, 2010, 8pm at Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts,
 800 Bagby St.,
 Houston, TX.

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