Program committee: Clarice Jensen, Hayes Biggs, and Christian Carey
ACME Management: Bernstein Artists, Inc.
ACME Publicist: Christina Jensen
Thanks: Nancy Kleaver & Max Freedman of MNMP, Jerry Bowles, Steve Layton, Sue Renée Bernstein, Christina Jensen, Canelle Boughton, Glenn Freeman, Justin Monsen; the staff at Joe’s Pub: Shanta Thake, Sara Beesley, Michele Renkovski, & Patricia Bradby.
Special thanks: to the musicians for their dedicated work preparing the program; to the featured composers for their beautiful music; and to all the members of the Sequenza 21 and Manhattan New Music Project communities, without whom this event would not be possible.
Clarice: So, ahem, Nadia it was pretty remarkable when we switched from reading from the score to parts when we were working on Hayes’ piece (ed.: Steal Away by Hayes Biggs). It’s like the music took on a different meaning.
Nadia: I know!! I find that stuff so incredible. Sometimes I forget that a massive portion of our jobs as musicians (especially of the new music persuasion) is essentially translating visual material into sound. We’re kind of like professional map-readers. Do you have any notational pet peeves?
Clarice: Page turns of course… But other than that, just spacing in general. If notes look all bunched up, then it’s hard not to make them sound that way! What about you?
Nadia: My super-dork pet peeve is spelling; I hate it when chords are spelled out in ways that have little regard for traditional chord structures. It’s sometimes really hard to wrap your brain around a whole bunch of sharps and flats living together all higgledy-piggledy without regard for implied harmony. I know I know: super-dork. That having been said, I kind of love how notation is a kind of personal, no two alike sort of thing. It gives the performer so much insight as to how the composer may be thinking. Oh! And I can get kinda frustrated with things that are notated with very small durations (64th and 128th notes) which are then in a super-slow tempo. I understand a kind of freneticism may be what the composer is going for, but it just seems to add so much time to the rehearsal/parsing process.
Clarice: Totally agree on that one. Pretty amazing how this abstract system of symbols and lines and dots can be subject to so much scrutiny and discussion regarding interpretation. And how dots and lines paired with scrutiny and discussion results in beautiful music! Amazing!
Nadia: Yay! So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the type of music and programming that translates well live vs. that which is great to listen to on the radio or on a recording. There are so many types of gestures which are fascinating to watch people achieve, which cannot be really understood in a recording. Like even a pregnant pause, for example.
Clarice: For sure – the physicality of achieving a musical gesture just can’t be heard in a recording, and sometimes seeing that gesture is what makes the music translate to the audience. However, would you say that there is any music that makes more sense recorded rather than live? What about music in the rock/pop world?
Nadia: Oh decidedly. Stylistically that’s an idea Classical peeps kind of “borrowed” from the pop world to begin with, even going so far back as Musique Concrète territory. Like, think about how many times we’ve heard the exact same performance of a song like “Louie Louie.” That performance IS the work itself. Everything else is a “cover.” This can seem like a weird, alien counterpart to the Classical model (like, do I only do covers???), but yeah, there’s a lot more of that type of thinking these days, from things like John AdamsLight Over Water to Nico Muhly’s The Only Tune, a piece I’ve performed a lot. When that piece was conceived it was as a recorded collage. When we play it, we are trying our damnedest to approximate the recording. It’s sort of the opposite type of problem from what we were talking about above, the “why does this music lack the visceral impact it had live on this record” type of problem.
Well, I’m super into the diversity of voices on this program. I get to wear a lot of different hats! (Jagged hat, lyrical hat.)
Clarice: Yes, I think the variety of pieces we ended up with is pretty emblematic of the wide range of excellent writing and composition that’s happening now. And as a performer, it really is rewarding to wear all of these hats! I mean, I’ve always considered lyrical playing to be a personal strength of mine, but over the years I’ve worked so hard on rhythmic accuracy through playing intricate music, and now I consider that to be a strength as well. It’s amazing how all of this diverse writing is in fact shaping the performers who are often playing music in the contemporary world. Do you think your focus on new music has changed you intrinsically as a performer?
Nadia: Oh, totally. Whenever you work on some weird skill, it changes the kind of mental space in which you think about everything else, really. The rhythmic idea you bring up is super apropos; I also kind of came from a lyrical place as a kind of a default, but the more I work on concepts of groove and flow, the more these ideas end up creeping their way into even the most lyrical stuff. Knowing more things as time goes on rules.
Well, lovely to chat with you, C, I can’t wait for the show!!
Clarice: Yep yep, it’s gonna be a good one!
Tickets to the Sequenza 21 Concert are free (the venue charges a $12 food/drink minimum).
Back in 2003, the incredible pianist Amy Briggs (and if you don’t know her playing, you should check out some of her performances of the David Rakowski Etudes on YouTube) was approached by the music department at U.C. Davis to engage in a residency built around the idea of new tangos for piano. As part of the project, they asked Amy to build an entire concert program of tangos, each of which needed to be no longer than three minutes. She could use completed pieces and have others write for the project, and the Davis composition faculty (including Laurie San Martin) all agreed to write new works for her and to arrange for her to record a CD of the entire concert repertoire. Amy chose me, along with several wonderful composers like Hayes Biggs, to write a new tango of no more than three minutes. She toured with these pieces for several years and the entire project is now available via Ravello Records and at Naxos.
When Amy first approached me to contribute to this project, I was both excited and quite fearful. Tangos long ago achieved the status of major cultural achievements, basically functioning as the national musical style of Argentina. As an outsider with relatively little experience of this genre I felt that there was little that I could add. At the same time, it would have been disingenuous to write a generally inspired piece and to cavalierly claim it as a tango, and I very much wanted to work with Amy and to be involved with this endeavor.
After listening to many traditional tangos for various ensembles and several experimental composers’ reinterpretations of this form, this piece began to take shape. I retain the staggered rhythm in the first half of the measure that is the most recognizable element of the traditional form, using it as an accompaniment for a simple and mournful melody that to my mind evokes the mood of the dance. The piece then presents variations on this melody. Perhaps more important than these purely musical impetuses was my attempt to portray the various aspects of the tango itself as though constantly refracting through the emotions of the dancers and the scene itself as viewed by the participants and audience. For this reason, Requests continually presents sudden shifts in mood and affect as the perspective jumps from the internal to the external and between the various perspectives on each level.
Since I knew I was writing for an astonishingly virtuosic player, as I composed this piece I allowed myself to be pulled constantly towards ever-greater feats of pianism, making this short work very daunting for most players. I’m thrilled that ACME has chosen to present Requests on the Sequenza21/MNMP concert and look forward to hearing all the pieces at Joe’s Pub this week.
- David Smooke chairs the music theory program at Peabody. He blogs regularly at NewMusicBox and plays a mean toy piano.
Sam Nichols teaches at UC Davis. His string quartet ‘Refuge’ is on the Sequenza 21/MNMP Concert this coming Tuesday (7PM at Joe’s Pub in NYC. Did we mention it’s free?).
In 2009 the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble asked me to write a string quartet. I was happy, for a number of reasons, but mostly because they bring a tremendous amount of oomph to any project. At the time, though, I was working on another piece, a trio, that was giving me a lot of trouble. Make that: a LOT of trouble. Pounding my head against the wall trouble, breaking pencils in half trouble, putting in an accent and then taking it out again trouble. Working on this trio was taking up a lot of time, and I had blown past the deadline. Meanwhile, the deadline for the new string quartet was approaching. So, I set aside the trio—it was already late, and I seemed to be stuck—and started the quartet. I didn’t have a lot of time, about six weeks (and I usually write pretty slowly; there’s usually a fair amount of moving down blind alleys, and retracing my steps sort of thing), and so there was a certain amount of adrenaline involved: I was already mired in one stalled-out project; I really didn’t want that to snowball into an unmanageable situation, where EVERYTHING I was writing was late. Yikes.
The Left Coast were going to play Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge; they asked me to design my string quartet as a sort of companion piece to the Beethoven. This was slightly terrifying—okay, more than slightly. But I tried to ignore that, and started to work. The first thing I decided was: I really couldn’t see my way clear to writing a fugue. But I thought it might be fun to take some of the basic ideas of fugal writing, twist them around, and use that as a jumping-off point. So, for example, instead of writing a traditional contrapuntal texture, I created a blurred, out-of-focus unison line that’s been twisted and tweaked. The four instruments are sometimes playing the same tune, but are ornamenting it differently, or are playing it at slightly different speeds. This results in a rough sort of do-it-yourself canon—anything but strict—where the lines are sometimes piled up very closely, and at other times are separated from each other quite dramatically.
The title, Refuge, started out as a pun. I often use a temporary working title, and once I figure out what I’m doing, I might throw the first title away, and replace it with something better suited to the piece. So, in quickly slapping a title on my string-quartet-in-progress, I chose “refuge:” not a fugue (or “fuge,” to revert to Beethoven’s language), but a re-imagining of fugue/fuge: re-fugue, or re-fuge. And for a few weeks, I left it at that.
But as I wrote the music, a simpler interpretation of the title started to appear. The piece is very episodic: just as one musical structure is established, it’s replaced with another. It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch; an image emerges, but then it’s (sometimes quite violently) shaken up and wiped clean. So, over and over, the piece seems to move toward quieter, restful episodes: little in-between bits of music that, until they’re disrupted, offer moments of calm. This pattern, of moving through active, violent sections (including passages which seem to bristle with hostility) toward calmer havens, became one of the basic ideas of the piece. Maybe the title exerted a sort of pull on the music? Or maybe it was a coincidence. Now, two years later, I can see that writing this piece offered me a kind of refuge. It allowed me to escape from the trio I had been writing (which I eventually returned to and finished). But in a larger sense, it helped me loosen up, and find a more personal way of putting together a piece.
Composer Rob Deemer teaches at SUNY Fredonia. He blogs regularly at NewMusicBox; he’s also a frequent contributor to Sequenza 21. The presenters enjoyed his whole string quartet, but were running short on program time. He was kind enough to consent to our request to present an excerpt as part of next week’s Sequenza 21/MNMP Concert (Oct. 25 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub).
I’ve heard many composers say that the time directly after they finish their studies is one of the most important periods in their career when they finally feel comfortable to experiment, free from the pressures of being accepted by their peers and instructors. I found myself in that exact position in the two years between finishing my degree at the University of Texas and landing my current position at SUNY Fredonia. During that time, I lived and taught in Oklahoma, and the relative seclusion I had while working there allowed me to dig into some very primal concepts that I hadn’t dreamt of writing about up to that point – death and politics being two of them.
When the MacArthur Quartet at the University of Oklahoma asked me to write a string quartet, I drew upon the paintings of Julie Speed for inspiration. A surrealist painter based in Austin, Texas whose works have been shown throughout the world, Julie’s unique ability to create images that were at once recognizable and pleasantly disturbing had interested me for some time and when the opportunity presented itself to compose a work based on her paintings, I jumped at the chance and created a four-movement work Speedvisions. The individual movements are general interpretations of each painting, and while the other three movements Tea, Military Science, and Diminuendo have been received well in performances, the second movement of the work that ACME will be performing Tuesday evening has always garnered the most attention.
The Grand Dragon Crossing the River Styx on His Way to Hell is glorious in its directness and pulls no punches with its subject matter. With a nod towards Charles Ives, I have interweaved several slave and protest songs (including Hallelujah - I’m A-Travelin’ and I’m on My Way to the Freedom Land) together with a slave owner’s song (Run, N___, Run) and an ostinato pattern fashioned from We Shall Overcome. The movement is one of the most visceral of my works, but with enough tongue in the cheek to not become overbearing.
With just one week to go before the Sequenza 21/MNMP Concert, we’re all very excited. Music is being rehearsed, friends and loved ones have been invited, and, for some from out of town, travel plans have been made for a visit to New York. But one composer will be making a particularly long journey to hear the concert. James Stephenson is joining us from the United Kingdom. He tells us more in the following eloquent essay.
When my duo Oracle Night is performed at the Sequenza 21 / MNMP concert on 25 October, it will be my first performance outside Europe. A work being played overseas – on another continent even – means flights, hotels, jetlag, and – worst of all – funding applications. This comes as quite a shock to someone who is used to either conducting my own works or, at most, hopping on a train and speeding up or down the (rather small) British Isles for a couple of hours to go and watch a performance.
Writing funding applications might not be the most enjoyable way I can think of to pass a Saturday afternoon, but it does make you reflect on things. After all, as composers it’s not very often that we ask ourselves questions such as “what will you gain from this experience in terms of professional development?” let alone draw up a detailed budget. But in the never-ending quest for the next performance and the next commission, how often do we really think about composing as a career with a plan and a trajectory?
And so, whilst trying not to explicitly mention how much I wanted an autumn holiday in the Big Apple, I filled in my funding applications with reflective paragraphs about exposure and widening my profile, about networks and contacts, about the creative growth and technical development which will surely come from working with such high calibre musicians. However, by the end of it I realised that there was something else I was overlooking, and though the funding agencies might not be too impressed, it is nonetheless a thing of vital importance for the 21st Century composer.
That thing, of course, is the Internet. I am old enough to remember the days before I had my first email account, before we had dial-up internet access at home. But only just – the World Wide Web has certainly pervaded most of my adult life, and I count myself amongst the first generation of composers where the accessibility of information and communication which the Internet brought about has opened up literally a world of influences for each and every one of us. Oracle Night, as an example, makes use of Scottish and Japanese influences. Now it happens that I have visited both countries, but nonetheless the difference between having to travel somewhere to experience indigenous and traditional music as opposed to firing up your web browser and typing in a Google search is remarkable indeed. Every type of music imaginable is at our fingertips – to hear, to read, to analyse and to internalise and incorporate into our own output. And of course, I would never have seen a call for works for this performance if I couldn’t access the Sequenza 21 website from my desk in Manchester.
But beyond information, there is the communication aspect of the web: the social network. My greatest hope for my trip to New York actually isn’t that I will meet people who could be inspiring, influential or otherwise useful contacts. What I’m actually hoping for is to meet as many as possible of the people I know through facebook, twitter, websites and email discussions. A number of musicians who I greatly respect live on the Eastern seaboard – some old friends and collaborators, but many who I’ve only met through the internet, and the chance to meet them, argue with them, buy them a drink and put the world (of music, at least) to rights, that’s what I’m looking forward to most of all.
As a tool for bringing composers and contemporary performers together, as well, the web has opened up unimaginable avenues in recent years. Beyond the websites, blogs and tweets, there’s the interactivity of forums and facebook groups, some of which create rich opportunities for the web-inclined composer (I am writing for an ensemble in continental Europe at the moment, who I met through facebook earlier in the year after they saw a YouTube video of my oboe quartet). What a remarkable thing it is to meet a few of these people, with whom you have exchanged ideas, challenged and supported each other – with whom only 20 years ago you could never in a lifetime have shared a conversation.
Hayes Biggs is an outstanding composer, vocalist, copyist, and longtime instructor at Manhattan School of Music. I was delighted when he agreed to help us judge the call for scores for the Sequenza 21/MNMP Concert (which will be on Oct. 25 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub in NYC). The concert will close with the final movement from Hayes’s String Quartet, a work he discusses in the following post.
If ever a piece required my patience as it slowly taught me what it needed to do and be, it was my String Quartet: O Sapientia /Steal Away. My first sketches for it date from 1996, but it was not completed until 2004. This eight-year span of course included numerous interruptions of various sorts, including time on the back burner while other more immediately pressing projects got done. Even in rare moments of front-burner status I struggled with it, but I remain as proud of this work as of anything I’ve ever composed. The Avalon String Quartet premiered it in 2006 and subsequently recorded it for the Albany label.
The title refers to the quartet’s two main sources of material: my Advent motet for unaccompanied voices, O Sapientia, composed in 1995, and the African-American spiritual Steal Away. It is the latter that is the focus of the third and final movement, the one that will be heard at Joe’s Pub on October 25. It is in two parts played without interruption: an Epigraph—simply a straightforward presentation of the melody of the spiritual—followed by an extended free Fantasia on that melody.
The quartet bears an overall dedication to my wife, Susan Orzel-Biggs, but this movement carries a separate one in memory of my friend, teacher and mentor, Tony Lee Garner (1942-1998). He was the choral director at Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College), as well as an accomplished singer, actor and director, and he taught me as much about the joys and responsibilities of being an artist as anyone I have ever known. As a freshman member of the Southwestern Singers in the spring of 1976 I sang in a program of American music under Tony’s direction that included William Dawson’s beautiful arrangement of Steal Away. The printed key of that arrangement is F major, but Tony liked the way the choir sounded with it transposed up a half step, so in this movement the tune is always heard in the key of G-flat major.
One of our featured composers on the Sequenza 21/MNMP Concert (on October 25 at Joe’s Pub) is Dale Trumbore. In the following post she tells us about the work ACME will perform on the program: a piece that was premiered in 2009 by Kronos Quartet.
How it will go (2009) is a quirky little 6-minute work for string quartet; its first descriptive marking is “maniacally cheerful.” Although the piece is a rondo, the piece has a frantic, slightly unpredictable quality, as if it doesn’t know which way it’s supposed to go, or when exactly it should return to its main theme. I imagine the piece almost like a mechanical toy: there are moments where the battery-power of the piece seems to be failing, then resurging a bit too enthusiastically; at the end, it simply dies down, like a wind-up toy running out of steam.
I sketched out the idea for How it will go’s main theme one afternoon back in 2006, then put it aside it until I started working in the University of Maryland’s fantastic program that allows student composers the opportunity to collaborate with the Kronos Quartet. Over the span of two years, selected composers work with the Quartet to write new works; the program culminates in a concert of these new pieces. This opportunity seemed the perfect venue in which to develop that little melody; I wanted to write a piece that was fun to play and to hear, but with an element of almost virtuosic showing-off at times, to showcase the ensemble performing it.
The premiere of How it will go took place a few months after I first moved to Los Angeles, and I flew back to Maryland to hear it. The dress rehearsal for the piece was on my birthday that year; hearing the Kronos Quartet perform your new composition in its entirety for the first time is not a bad way to spend a birthday.
As I was waiting in UMD’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center about an hour before the performance, I happened to check my email and see that How it will go had won Lyrica Chamber Music’s Composition Contest; the piece would receive its second performance (by the Neave Quartet) less than a month after the Kronos Quartet premiere. The two performances differed greatly in interpretation, particularly in tempo, but they were both fantastic. I can’t wait to hear ACME perform the piece in October!
Two days before the Sequenza 21/MNME concert, I’ll be accompanying soprano Gillian Hollis in a performance of selections from our recently-released CD of art-songs I’ve written for Gillian, Snow White Turns Sixty.That performance is Sunday, October 23 at St. Paul’s Church, 200 Main St., Chatham, NJ 07928, and the 3 p.m. concert has a suggested donation of $5, which will go towards the church’s fund to replace their organ. More about the CD and other upcoming performances along the Snow White Turns Sixty tour can be found here.
Laurie San Martin teaches at UC Davis. She’s one of our featured composers on the fast approaching Sequenza 21/MNMP Concert (October 25 at Joe’s Pub). In the guest post below, she talks about her work Linea Negra, which will be performed on the program.
The faint, dark, vertical line that appears on a very pregnant woman’s belly in the weeks before she bursts is called the linea negra. So it seemed like a fitting title for the solo marimba piece that I was writing during the final weeks of my first pregnancy in the summer of 2004. Real-life deadlines work in my favor as a composer. That is to say, the countdown leading up to a big life change is an intensely productive time for me. Linea Negra is a piece I always associate with that particular time in my life. When most mothers would have been preparing the baby’s room or redecorating the house, I was making deals with my daughter while she was still in the womb. “How about you wait a few more days to come out and I can finish this piece. Really, it’ll be much better that way.” She arrived a few days late, so I was able to finish the piece on time; I have the greatest daughter one could ask for (and the piece isn’t bad, either).
I compose from left to right. That is to say, I start at the beginning and pretty much write the musical events in the order that they happen. It probably comes as no surprise then that my music is very linear. Linea Negra is just under five minutes in length, with an ABA structure. The outer sections are a fast and repetitive moto perpetuo while the middle section is slow and lyrical. The piece is quite virtuosic–the marimba player is asked to play very fast runs, leaps, and chords; audience members often describe the piece as “acrobatic.”
Linea Negra is written for percussionist Chris Froh, who premiered the piece in October, 2004 at the American Academy in Rome. Chris is an exhilarating performer, and I was very lucky to be able to work with him while writing the piece. Hearing the work in progress influenced the direction of the piece and helped me iron out some of the technical difficulties, and clarify the musical gestures. Working with a musician of Chris’s dedication and commitment is such a privilege for a composer, not to mention, inspiring and rewarding.