Women in (New) Music: Q&A with Renée Baker

by Maggie Molloy

reneebakersseatedbatonChicago-based composer Renée Baker knows no creative boundaries—or rather, she just prefers to transcend them. Her music quite literally jumps off the page, often foregoing traditional Western sheet music in favor of graphic scores, improvisation, and even conduction.

As a violinist and composer, Baker has spent the past 25 years creating and conducting musical explorations into classical, jazz, and the furthest reaches of the avant-garde. Over the course of her career, she has founded nearly two dozen new music ensembles with a wide spectrum of musicians ranging from jazz cats to classically-trained orchestral players. Currently the Artistic Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta Chamber Ensemble and Mantra Blue Free Orchestra, Baker has cultivated a singularly expressive and inspiring musical voice.

And that voice is coming to Seattle this Friday, Oct. 28 for a performance with 12 of Seattle’s most outstanding improvising musicians at the Good Shepherd Center’s Chapel Performance Space.

The concert features the world premiere of Baker’s surrealist Cabinet of Wonder suite along with two other well-loved works: RAGE for Chamber Collisions and Altered Consciousness (a spatial conversation between minds).

The titles alone sparked a lot of excited curiosity for us here at Second Inversion. Lucky for us, Baker kindly obliged to answer our questions about her upcoming performance:

Second Inversion: How would you describe your compositional style? What are some of your major influences?

Renee BakerRenée Baker: I can’t ascribe a particular style but can certainly point to ideas and influences which inform my constantly evolving creative world. The process always starts with the question of intent: what do I want this work to say, explain, express, evoke? This is applicable to my composition, film work, sculpture, painting, musings for book works.

The works, whether in traditional or nontraditional notation are distillations of my view of the world. So as a method of communication I think my works transcend the old role of composer and comes closer to being a conduit and channeler of ideas and inspirations as they occur to me, I’m always thinking about what I want a work to say and what the motivation is for starting ANY work of art. So my products are remnants of all music periods, all art periods, past and current architecture, the ever changing palette of fashion, the extremes of the world of cinema, trending food fads—see, all this cycles all the time and everything influences everything.

I’m superbly influenced by Harlan Hubbard, Basho, Anselm Kiefer, Akira Kurosawa, Merce Cunningham, DW Griffith, Anne Truitt, Tasha Tudor, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, Marina Abramovic, Meredith Monk, Leon Schidlowsky. Anthony Braxton, Joseph Beuys, Oscar Micheaux, William Kentridge—this list can go on and on. I’m a voracious sponge of a mind and at some point everything experienced is channeled directly or indirectly into a creative outlet.

SI: Can you describe a little bit about the three pieces being performed on the October 28 program?

RB: Cabinet of Wonder is a work created to celebrate the worlds of Cornell and Beuys: containers that hold varying compartments of meaning, determined by the viewer/listener in this case. As there works spoke to me, the over-reaching idea that stood out for me is that we are  so similar with the same types of thoughts, fears, idiosyncrasies, doubts and worries running through our minds—so our mind cabinets are quite similar.

I have used traditional notation, colors, forms, gestural conducting to demonstrate the commonality between us. Some of this will be processed organically by every human that interacts with psyche of another person. The three movements of Cabinet of Wonder will not intentionally break, unless there is a need for set change—but they are designed to segue right into each other as a solid representation of the constant state of mind flux. I don’t want to impose boundaries on the work, so we will all meet inside these movements and hopefully touch and relate to each other, right here, right now. 

RAGE for Chamber Collision is my sonic reaction to our human condition. Altered Consciousness is a spatial conversation between the members of the ensemble, myself and the space in which we find ourselves as humans that must relate to each other positively.

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of creating (and conducting!) music that utilizes conduction, graphic scores, and improvisation?

RB: It’s all about making a connection as a creator and transmitting my intent simply so that we can create new sonic landscapes. It’s so gratifying when you can develop a language with musicians with whom you’ve worked for over 25 years, but I get the same thrill, excitement and fulfillment from making a connection with absolute strangers—that we can meet, quickly size each other and get to the task, the love and joy of making the music happen.

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SI: You’ve been at the forefront of creative and avant-garde music for the past 25 years. What inspires you most about this music?

RB: Oh no!! I’m a baby in the world of creative music. Having spent most of my life in the symphony orchestra. This culture came as a welcome addendum to my creative world. As I have listened and accessed the never ending world of creative, intuitive composition, I am constantly surprised by the creativity of fellow humans. I don’t think we can exhaust the ideas—I hope to maintain this openness regarding creation and intuition always. I never stop studying scores, listening to new works, exposing myself to even the most extreme of performance arts because the disciplines are intersecting each other at a rate I’ve never seen before.

SI: Women are extremely underrepresented in musical leadership roles, and especially in composing and conducting. How has being a woman, and especially an African-American woman, shaped your experiences in these roles?

RB: I’ll make this easy: everyone, men and women, are so bent on getting their piece of whatever pie they think they deserve, that the energy needed for truly creating your vision and sharing that with the universe, gets pushed aside. I have certainly faced racism, discrimination, sexism, ageism, classicism, brown eye-ism, straight and nappy hair-isms—it just doesn’t end.

But it’s not new. When you’re smart, front, and present AND a woman, you have to be ready for your Weeble moments. Remember the Weeble commercials? Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down? There you have it. I formed the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project and my chamber orchestra in Berlin, PEK Contemporary Project, because I didn’t want to be bitter about possibly not being given opportunities to have my music heard. I’ve been wonderfully lucky and terribly unlucky in many circumstances.

The biggest elephants in the room are racism and sexism—okay, got it! So what do you do about? If you feel your voice MUST be added to the chorus of creativity and made tangible for the world to taste, then make it happen. I’ve started over 20 new music ensembles, each fitting a different music demographic, and have had a marvelous time doing it. Not to sound like the happy Pollyanna, but if the wall keeps appearing, be sure that your work can stand up, and you climb on it and go over the wall. As a woman you will have some luck, but you have to provide your own working world sometimes. Be prepared, say yes, show up!!!

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SI: What advice do you have for other women who are fighting to make it onto concert programs and conductor podiums?

RB: CREATE YOUR PLACE!! Puuuuush!!! Be confident that you deserve an opportunity and go after it. Be sure that you’re going after YOUR idea of success—we’re not all going to have Beyoncé-like careers, but diversify your talents and keep your practice fresh and relevant. Podiums are opening but there are still criteria that some of us will never fit—go ’round it!!

 


SI: What are you most looking forward to with the October 28 performance, and what do you hope audience members will gain from it?

RB: I want to experience new, creative minds and ideas from artists who have had special journeys of their own. I hope we can add to each other’s experiences and for the audience, I want them to meet and experience the authentic creative mind of Renée Baker. My way of seeing the world through music is an open door.

Renée Baker’s Seattle performance is this Friday, Oct. 28 at 8 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For information and tickets, please click here.

Women in (New) Music: Global Concertos Q&A with Samantha Boshnack

by Maggie Molloy

The concerto may traditionally be a Western musical form, but composer and trumpeter Samantha Boshnack likes to take a more global approach.

Photo by Daniel Sheehan.

Photo by Daniel Sheehan.

Her international opus, aptly titled Global Concertos, is a collection of five distinct pieces written for world-class soloists from, well, all over the world. Accompanied by the B’snorkestra (an alternative chamber ensemble Boshnack founded in 2011), the five concertos feature the soloistic talents of Thione Diop on West African talking drum, Christos Govetas on Greek clarinet, Srivani Jade on North Indian vocals, Julio Lauregui on Latin American piano, and Thomas Marriott on American jazz trumpet.

Drawing from classical, jazz, rock, avant-garde, salsa, and world music traditions, the concertos combine written and improvisational elements to craft an entirely new sound that is truly global in its scope.

Sam Boshnack Still 15

Photo by Ian Lucero.

Though the tour de force originally premiered in May of 2015, the gang is back for another evening of international jams as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival, co-presented with Cornish at PONCHO Concert Hall this coming Monday, Oct. 24 at 8pm.

We sat down with Boshnack to talk about concertos, community, and the rest of the world.

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind Global Concertos?

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Photo by Daniel Sheehan.

Samantha Boshnack: Global Concertos arose from my desire to celebrate individual expression and virtuosity of musicians outside of Western classical music. I also felt inspired by the concept of a concerto—a large group working together to elevate and support an individual. All of the soloists featured are artists I deeply admire. 

Traditionally in concertos, the virtuosity of the soloist is mostly displayed by their performance of the composer’s written material, although a concerto may contain improvised cadenzas. Global Concertos expands on this idea—in addition to my written material, there is also space for each individually virtuosic soloist to showcase their particular style of improvisation, aural tradition, rhythm/groove and ornamentation. While B’shnorkestra provides the accompaniment, its members are top musicians from jazz, rock, avant-garde, salsa, world, classical and more—providing the flexibility needed for works spanning the globe in their reach.

I created the B’shnorkestra in 2011 and have written a number of pieces for the group (we released our debut record Go to Orange in 2013). This felt like an exciting next step for us. I could still write ideas for the “orchestra” like I had before, but then I could also leave space for the soloist to showcase their brilliant musicality—and together we could create something different than anything either of us individually could.  

For my concerto for vocalist Srivani Jade, I used a Rabindranath Tagore poem entitled Prarthona. Tagore wrote this before India gained its independence. He is describing his dream of how the new, awakened India should be. I chose this poem for lyrics because of its inspiring message extolling the power of unity and the strength of diversity. My goal in this project was to create a musical world that has “not been broken up into fragments.”

B'shnorkestra

Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom.

SI: The concertos feature a wide range of soloists playing instruments from all over the world. Can you describe a bit about what the concertos sound like?

SB: My goal when choosing soloists was to represent five different continents and also five different families of instruments. So I wrote for vocal, brass, woodwind, drum, and piano; and Asia, North America, Europe, Africa and South America are represented. I felt like I hit the jackpot, because I managed to accomplish those goals while also working with amazing soloists who are leaders in their musical communities. I was really inspired by each of them. As I was writing this work, I delved deep into each of their recording catalogues and tried to really hear how their voice would fit in each piece. In addition, I was trying to maintain my individual voice as a composer. I think they and I were both pushed outside of our musical comfort zone, making this a truly experimental work. It was maybe a bit scary.  

Prarthona features Indian classical vocalist Srivani Jade.  I wrote Srivani a melody with Tagore’s lyrics, which she learned by ear. Then we worked together to create sections for her to improvise over. The Concerto for Julio, written for pianist Julio Jáuregui, draws on Latin American roots and exploits the piano as a percussion instrument. In the Concerto for Christos, Macedonian multi-instrumentalist Christos Govetas, here on clarinet, brings a distinctly Balkan flavor to the proceedings.

Sam Boshnack Still 17

Photo by Ian Lucero.

While rhythm has always been a key component for me, the Concerto for Talking Drum takes that dynamic to a whole new level, as Senegalese percussionist Thione Diop brings his organic mastery of the West African talking drum to bear on this combination of African and Western motifs. Last is the Concerto for Jazz Trumpet, written for Seattle-native Thomas Marriott. As the most overtly jazz-oriented of the concertos, it is emblematic for its spontaneity.  Each of these pieces has many sections in it, allowing me to explore different moods and styles within each culture.

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of studying, composing, and performing this music?

SB: This project (by design) created an opportunity to collaborate and experiment with some musicians that I would not normally get to work with. This was so rewarding for me. My compositional language expanded by adapting to the musical worlds of these diverse, top-notch soloists. The challenge was that I had to use different strategies and methods than usual in order to write for each soloist, because many did not read Western notation. I learned from and worked with each soloist individually to discover ways to successfully display their incredible talent within my compositions. The beauty is that music is universal, and the soloists could rely on their ear. 

B'snorkestra

Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom.

SI: What do you find most inspiring about collaborating with these soloists from around the globe?

SB: Having such a diverse group of soloists allowed me to explore so many musical palettes. Each tradition is so rich and deep. It was an honor to work with these soloists to create compositions for them to shine on.  

SI: Women are extremely underrepresented in musical leadership roles, and especially in composing and band leading. How has being a woman shaped your experiences in these roles?

SB: It is certainly a great challenge.  I think all women in leadership roles in all fields face the same challenges.  We have to fight harder to have our ideas heard.  My work mostly falls in the jazz realm of music (although I would say this project veered away from that), and jazz is so male-dominated.

I think you go through many stages of dealing with sexism—when you are younger you face different challenges then when you’re a bit older. Or sometimes you have an encounter in music that is so discriminatory that it knocks you down and you feel very defeated. But ultimately you love what you do, and you get back up again. I work with a lot of great men who understand the struggle and are supportive, but unfortunately not all are like this. I would say I find a lot of strength in my relationships with other women. They do understand the struggle and we can support each other in the hard times.

SI: What advice do you have for other women who are fighting to have their music heard?

SB: You’re not wrong in feeling that it’s hard, but I think it’s really important that we keep fighting.  

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance, and what do you hope audiences will gain from it?

SB: It’s been interesting diving back into this music again for this performance. We premiered these pieces in May 2015. Like I said, for me—it was all a little scary then. This was the biggest show I had ever undertaken. Nineteen musicians—some I hadn’t worked with before, all new music—it was a lot. But we rehearsed hard and frequently, and pulled it off. Actually, I got a really fabulous live recording of the show which I am releasing on CD. This recording will be available for sale at the show, and online (pre-order on Bandcamp, release date November 18). So this time around, that feeling of “will it work?” is not in my brain. This time around we get to relax a little more into the work, I’m really looking forward to that. Because the soloists are all such great improvisers, the pieces are different this time and it’s so fun to hear what changes.

I hope the audience will gain a deeper knowledge and appreciation for all of the incredible and diverse talent we have here in our city.  

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The Global Concertos performance is Monday, Oct. 24 at 8pm at PONCHO Concert Hall. For additional information, please click here.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Q&A with Joan Tower

by Maggie Molloy

joan_tower

When you’re a chamber musician, you have to know how to dance.

You have to be able to communicate directly with the other players through music and movement. You have to move together and apart, support each other’s parts, and make each other shine; you have to work together to tell a cohesive story without stepping on each other’s feet.

This notion of musicians as dancers was the inspiration behind Grammy Award-winning composer Joan Tower’s Chamber Dance, a piece which is being performed in Seattle this weekend by the North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO) in their 2015-2016 season finale.

The piece maximizes the chamber orchestra’s textural and timbral palette by weaving through a rich and colorful tapestry of solos, duets, small ensembles, and full ensemble—each instrument serving as just one small part of the larger dance.

NOCCO will also perform Haydn’s Violin Concerto in C Major, featuring violinist Elisa Barston as the soloist, and the NOCCO Winds will join forces with cellist Eli Weinberger and bassist Ross Gilliland to perform Dvořák’s Serenade for Winds, Cello, and Double Bass in D Minor.

Dance on over to Seattle this weekend to get in on the action! In the meantime, we sat down with the woman of the hour, Joan Tower, to find out more about what we can expect at this concert:

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind Chamber Dance?

Joan Tower: Having been a chamber music pianist for a long time with the Da Capo Chamber Players, a group I founded in 1972, I was immediately impressed with how Orpheus (the conductorless group for which I wrote Chamber Dance) was actually a large chamber group that interacted the way a smaller chamber group would: through an elaborate setup of sectional leaders who were responsible for the score. An amazing feat accomplished over years of trials and errors—and an amazing ensemble indeed.

SI: How is this piece similar to and/or different from your other compositions? 

JT: It’s similar in structure to many of my chamber pieces, but different in that the solos get surrounded by larger forces within a bigger “palette.”

SI: What composers, artists, or styles of music most influence your work? 

JT: Many different styles of music have influenced my work: I grew up in South America surrounded by all the Latin music of that culture; was trained as a pianist in the European Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, etc. model; married a jazz pianist who introduced me to all the greats at that time in NYC; and I formed my own group the Da Capo Players who performed the music of many living composers of that time (1972-1987). My biggest influences were Beethoven, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Pärt, Adams, Monk, Evans and lots of popular Latin music.

SI: Three out of the four NOCCO programs this season feature American women composers’ works. Why do you think this is a significant programming decision?

JT: Because it is rarely done, and women make up less than 5 percent of all classical programing—which still is a statistical problem. I am happy to see some visionary conductors find the right music and go for it.

SI: What do you hope audiences will take away from listening to your Chamber Dance?

JT: A memory of some kind, I hope. 

Performances are Saturday, June 4 at 2 p.m. at University Unitarian Church in Seattle and Sunday, June 5 at 8 p.m. at the Royal Room in Columbia City. For additional information and tickets, visit NOCCO.org.

2016 FOLKLIFE PREVIEW: Meet Sound of Late

by Maggie Molloy

For many artists, water is a muse—for some, it is the very essence of music itself.

In Seattle, we awake and fall asleep to the gentle swooshing of Sound, and our lives are shaped and smoothed by its sparkling presence. For us, water is a source of comfort and relaxation, inspiration and even transportation.

Water

And so this Friday, we invite you to paddle on over to our annual Second Inversion Showcase at the Northwest Folklife Festival, where you can dive into the underwater sound world of Sound of Late.

Based in Seattle and Portland, Sound of Late is a new music ensemble known for creating collaborative, cross-disciplinary concerts which build upon and inspire the communities surrounding them. Most recently, they presented a maritime music series titled “What Water Knows,” featuring shimmering, ocean-inspired music alongside music and poetry of marine biologists and commercial fishers.sol-grp300x210

But in case you missed it, no need to feel blue. Lucky for us, they’ve, ahem, distilled their water-themed program into a shorter set as part of our Folklife Festival Showcase, where they’ll be performing along with the Skyros Quartet and the Westerlies.

We caught up with Sound of Late’s horn player Rebecca Olason to talk about water, whale songs, and the Pacific Northwest:

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Second Inversion: How would you describe or characterize your ensemble’s sound?

Rebecca Olason: Sound of Late primarily plays works by living composers, but our sound is fairly diverse. We might play works that are within the serialist tradition in one concert and folk inspired music in the next. Our set for this concert has a mix of music inspired by water, featuring a local folk singer, a work by a marine biologist (who is also a rock musician), and a piece inspired and imitative of whale song. We try to represent the variety of styles and sounds that are present in contemporary chamber music.

SI: The Pacific Northwest is really blossoming in the contemporary classical music sphere—what do you think makes our music scene here so unique?

RO: Having lived on the East and West coasts, I feel that the Pacific Northwest scene is unique because in many ways it is impossible to participate without being an innovator. To play contemporary classical music here, you have to be a risk-taker, and a person who will find a path where there wasn’t one before. It is more difficult to find a way to present your music as there are fewer new music venues, presenters, and groups.

The challenges of creating music here are a catalyst for the vibrancy, inventiveness, and passion of the community, which are also reflected in programming and actual musical style. Most contemporary classical groups are willing to make mistakes, and to take risks, but I feel that this is especially true of our community in the Pacific Northwest.

SI: Northwest Folklife strengthens local communities through art and music, celebrating diverse cultural heritages and working to ensure their continued growth and development. What types of communities or music traditions are represented in your music?

RO: The bulk of Sound of Late’s current repertoire is contemporary classical, though we often collaborate with other communities, and love to play improvisational music. This concert is inspired by and features maritime folk music.

SI:  As a Seattle-based ensemble, what does the annual Northwest Folklife Festival mean to you?

RO: We are a newly Seattle-based chamber group, so Folklife represents a new future in this amazing city for us!  The festival strikes me as one of the greatest celebrations of musical talent in the area from a broad stroke of traditions, and I am so honored and excited to be a part of it!

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance, and what do you hope audiences will gain from it?

RO: I am looking forward to the chance to distill our last concert series into a quick, yet captivating show. We performed a series of concerts full of music inspired by water featuring music by contemporary classical composers, scientists, and fishers. What I really liked about these concerts was how many different experiences and musical traditions we were able to feature, so we tried to represent that variety in our small set. I hope that our audience will be inspired by our music, and contemplative of their own experience with water.

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Sound of Late will be featured along with the Skyros Quartet and The Westerlies at our 2nd Annual Second Inversion Showcase at Folklife on Friday, May 27 at 8 p.m. For more information, please click here or RSVP to our Facebook event.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Town Music Season Finale: Q&A with Andrius Žlabys

by Joshua Roman

On Tuesday, I’ll be joined on my chamber music series Town Music by Johnny Gandelsman, Arnaud Sussman, Kyle Armbrust, and Andrius Žlabys for a program of 20th and 21st Century works. We’ll present the world premiere of “Movement for String Quartet and Piano”, written by Andrius and commissioned by Town Hall Seattle. Andrius is a fantastic musician and a regular collaborator of mine, so I jumped at the chance to interview him over the phone about composing, performing, and his new piece.

download (2)By the way, you can hear this performance LIVE on Second Inversion – tune into the 24/7 stream on Tuesday, May 24 at 7:30pm PST!

Joshua Roman: When was the first time you thought about writing your own music?

Andrius Žlabys: Well, actually from childhood. I started by improvising, before I began formal piano studies, to the horror of my piano teacher, because my whole setup was fairly developed in an amateur way. So I had learned, on my own, the Bach Toccata and Fugue for organ, but my fingers were all over the place, so it was a kind of promising disaster.

JR: What style did you improvise in?

Improvisation

AŽ: I started to come to the keyboard (we have a grand piano where I grew up) – and I would begin just tinkering with the piano, finding any sonorities I could. I don’t know what style that was. Kid style. But I think I might have made some sense, because my parents thought “it’s not just regular banging on the piano”, and I would spend a lot of time on it. So they decided maybe it’s a good idea to try lessons. And so I kept improvising, and the style was kind of baroque for a while, and then some contemporary elements were added as I was exposed to more contemporary music. And at some point I did try to write it down, fragments, but I didn’t have any formal composition studies until I came to the U.S. to Interlochen, where I studied composition.

JR: Did you ever write anything that was performed at Interlochen?

AŽ: Yeah! I wrote a piano sonata, a piece for violin and piano, and actually a suite for cello and piano. When I auditioned for schools, I got into Peabody as a double major; composition and piano, but I chose to go to Curtis as a piano major. So for a while, I didn’t compose, and then started up again later. But I kept improvising.

JR: Who are some of your influences as a composer?

AŽ: I have composers that I love and play all the time like Bach, and obviously Mozart. Looking at more current composers, I love Messiaen, and I love Shostakovich, Schnittke, and Arvo Pärt. But I was also influenced by many of my close friends who are composers. For example, Dmitri Levkovich, and Yevgeniy Sharlat, who was a tremendous influence. He wrote a piano quartet for me; through that and other pieces that I observed him writing I got to see the process, the struggle, and moments of joy when it comes through.

Somehow I was so in a piano mode that I never developed the ability to write lengthy things. Because the actual technique of writing is to be able to capture the ideas before they float away. So once I became able to capture longer ideas, there was more possibility. The ideas were always there, I just never had the capacity to capture them until I took up composing in a more focused way.

JR: Do think that composing affects your piano playing at all?

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AŽ: Absolutely. Yes, they’re so interconnected. In interesting and sometimes strange ways. For example, when I compose – as a piano teacher, I change a lot. Because I start to see all kinds of motivic connections that I would never see otherwise. I remember once I was teaching Mozart Fantasia in C minor, and at the time I was actively writing a piece, and I saw all kinds of things in the Mozart that were totally out of my vision when I was practicing the piece myself. So yes, it affects my interpretation. First of all, you get to see how the thought is developed. So I get to see what is the core idea, which influences the piece mostly on a subconscious level. I get to see how everything revolves around that idea, which is usually just a couple of notes. And to see the whole, not just the parts – that musical cognitive process, a kind of inner logic.

Since I started composing more, Beethoven has become a total mystery. In his case, there are so many rather simple harmonic progressions; we have tonic-dominant, dominant-tonic; fairly straightforward. And then you get ornamentation in the form of the melody, which is also often just very simple arpeggios. And the real genius is somewhere in between those two things. Because by themselves, harmonic progressions are just harmonic progressions, right? And without them, those ornamentations would not make sense. So something happens in this very thin area, a kind of boundary layer. So I began to see more of those things when I started really composing.

As a performer of my own music, I always hear “how it should really sound”. It makes me much more demanding of what my sound should be. On the other hand, I realize that how the piece should sound is not defined by, you know, precise dynamics. When I analyze the great works I now see how masterfully the composers placed those dynamics. They are precise enough, but leave just enough room for freedom, and every composer does it differently. It’s such an important element, and when I compose myself, I can imagine the music being interpreted in different ways, as long as the underlying thought is somehow expressed.

JR: How do you feel playing the piano affects your composition? This is kind of the opposite question.

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AŽ: Playing the piano of course gives me access to polyphony. For me, voice leading in composition is probably the most important thing. The lines follow a certain kind of logic – almost like physical laws. And then, when they try to break the boundaries of those laws, those have to be intentional moments, not accidental. Voice leading, polyphony, the importance of independent yet strongly interacting lines, are the most important values for me, no matter what style. I think that if you look at any music that we consider great music, the voice leading is almost always impeccable, unless intentionally not so. Then, of course, it’s breaking those rules quite purposefully.

Writing for piano, it helps to know how to write for my own hands. Sometimes it makes me write kind of demanding stuff for the piano, and then of course I have to deal with it.

JR: Aside from knowing the idiom of the piano, do you think being someone who interprets other people’s music and performs it for audiences affects your compositions at all?

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Photo Credit: D. Matvejavas

AŽ: Oh yes, absolutely. It’s been kind of a tradition throughout classical music; every composer was a performer and every performer a composer, up to a certain historical period when they began to separate. Ideally you should be able to play every instrument that you’re writing for. I can only play piano, but I try to strongly envision how it would be on the other instruments, so I can write in a way that would be comfortable. Or if uncomfortable, there would be a good reason for that.

For me, I want to write as few notes as possible to convey the feeling. I try to avoid unnecessary complexity. It’s like words; I like to be laconic if possible. Get to the point.

JR: Let’s talk about your piece, A Movement for Piano Quintet.

AŽ: Movement for String Quartet and Piano. Actually, somehow I prefer — “quintet” for me is not as noble sounding as “quartet”, because for me it implies a kind of mesh. I think the string quartet is such a complete sonority. The piano is like a guest, that gets to join for a little while.

JR: Fair point. What was the inspiration for your piece, Movement for String Quartet and Piano?

AŽ: The initial sketches for the piece, and the original motive – a rising three note line – came from a feeling I had during the events in Ukraine in 2014. In fact, the piece is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the war in Ukraine. So the whole piece comes from that feeling or thought. It’s definitely not a very happy piece. There’s a sense of things going wrong, and kind of a protest against that.

This was very close to home – Lithuania. I felt solidarity with Ukraine, and we felt that this could happen to Lithuania as well. To this day, there’s a lot of uncertainty about that.

JR: How does the feeling affect your compositional process?

AŽ: Well, there’s nothing explicit on purpose. There’s an intention, and I think that intention directs the whole process. The obsessive rhythm, and the images that might be seen, come from that intention. It’s not a peaceful piece, even though it has peaceful moments, maybe. There’s kind of an underlying feeling of foreboding.

JR: Is that the ostinato?

AŽ: Yes, the ostinato, with its obsessive quality.

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There’s another place with strong images – after the big climax there’s a solo quartet section, which is kind of like a Sarabande. And then the piano eventually comes on top, and that feeling was of disjointed, parallel realities, that kind of coexist, but not necessarily coincide. That creates a hallucinatory feeling; it’s not quite a cadenza, but elaborate passagework that comes on top of quite a nice harmony and destroys it.

Then there’s a pizzicato canon, which feels like a person who’s locked into a room of a certain number of dimensions, and cannot get out of it. It’s just perpetually repeating. And again, the piano comes in with little scales which are really a rearticulation of the theme from the beginning.

One of the reasons I couldn’t write for a while when I was – back at Curtis was that I felt I wasn’t allowed to write tonal music. So when I would write, the stuff that would come out would be tonal, and I would dismiss it because it’s just not contemporary. And at some point I said “OK, if that’s what’s coming out then that’s what I have”. That’s my natural language. So, of course, everybody looks for their own style, but my idea is that if I have something that sounds a certain way in my head, and it sounds enough that I want to write it down, then that takes precedence over style. For me, if I can express a certain idea to the best of my ability, or state of mind, then the style will take care of itself.

I hope you’ll be able to join us at Town Hall for the Town Music season finale on Tuesday, May 24, 7:30pm. If you’re not in Seattle, you can listen worldwide on the webstream here at Second Inversion!

Joshua’s May 2016 Playlist

2016 FOLKLIFE PREVIEW: Meet the Skyros Quartet

by Maggie Molloy

Skyros Quartet1

Beethoven to Britten, Sibelius to Shostakovich—the sky is the limit for the Seattle-based Skyros Quartet. Comprised of violinists Sarah Pizzichemi and James Moat, violist Justin Kurys, and cellist Willie Braun, the quartet is known for their innovative and interactive approach to classical music both old and new.

Founded in 2010, Skyros studied chamber music at the University of Texas at Austin under the mentorship of the Miró Quartet and Sandy Yamamoto. By 2012, they became the first quartet-in-residence at the University of Nebraska, where they pursued doctorates in chamber music performance under the guidance of the Chiara String Quartet.

Suffice it to say, they’re pretty qualified musicians. And lucky for us, they recently relocated to Seattle to continue their work as contemporary classical performers, teachers, and collaborators.

You can catch Skyros in action on Friday, May 27 at our annual Second Inversion Showcase at Northwest Folklife, along with Sound of Late and the Westerlies. In the meantime, we sat down with the quartet to talk about classical music, cultural heritages, and #casualfridays:

Second Inversion: How would you describe or characterize your ensemble’s sound?

skyros-018James Moat: Whether we’re playing Mozart, Beethoven, Shostakovich, or Ruben Naeff’s “Jackass,” our group strives to create a sound world that is true to the nature of the composer.

When performing the classics, we have help from history to determine what kind of character and sound we’re looking for in our performance. When playing modern works, we’ve always taken every opportunity to work directly with the composer. This type of collaboration is always interesting because the composer has a chance to work with us to find the sound that they want, and we also have a chance to provide them with our own interpretations. The result is a wonderful blend of everyone’s artistic contributions.

SI: The Pacific Northwest is really blossoming in the contemporary classical music sphere—what do you think makes our music scene here so unique?

skyros-024+-+Version+2Willie Braun: Contemporary classical music in Seattle is more than just a sphere or scene, it’s a whole community of composers, performers, and audiences who are passionate about sharing the experience of new music. Having recently moved to the Seattle area last fall, our quartet has felt very welcomed into this community. It is refreshing to see so many artists collaborating, working together, and supporting one another to create music rather than compete for audiences.

The result is a diverse community representing many unique spectrums of contemporary classical music. Seattleites are great audiences, ready and willing to try something new. Going back a few decades, Seattle has a rich history of supporting innovation in music (i.e. grunge) and audiences here are still eager to explore new sounds and experiences.

SI: Northwest Folklife strengthens local communities through art and music, celebrating diverse cultural heritages and working to ensure their continued growth and development. What types of communities or music traditions are represented in your music?

Matching+headshot1Sarah Pizzichemi: The classic canon of string quartet literature is a melting pot of Western art music and a diverse range of influences from Balinese gamelan and Russian folk music, to American jazz and the Finnish national epic poem. The intimate yet universal appeal of four voices in conversation through the timbral spectrum of the string instrument family has made it an ideal medium for composers to record their most cherished musical thoughts, and a way to celebrate many cultural heritages in one masterwork.

We consider ourselves above all else collaborators, and we especially like to work with living composers who are continuing this tradition of musical globalization through the lens of today’s experiences. As an ensemble we also directly explore specific musical traditions like Celtic, Americana, pop culture, film scores, and different types of folk music in contexts like our #casualfriday series on Facebook and YouTube.

SI: As Seattleites, what does the annual Northwest Folklife Festival mean to you?

Sarah Pizzichemi: Skyros Quartet just moved to the Seattle area in September, but I personally was born and raised here. Some of my earliest memories are coming to Folklife to hear the cornucopia of different kinds of music. My parents were fans of world and folk music, so it was so influential for me to hear live ensembles and bands playing such a diverse range of music all in one setting.

As a junior high school student I participated in Folklife as an Irish Dancer, and as a high schooler, I would come to Folklife with other musician friends and we would busk near the Center House playing Shostakovich quartets. I will never forget the invigorating feeling of catching the attention of passersby with the ferocious second movement of the Eighth String Quartet!

I’ve continued to make memories with friends at Folklife, especially visiting the Trad Stage, as I have quite a few friends in the Celtic music circuit. I can’t wait for this year and the special opportunity to share my passion of contemporary classical music with Folklife audiences.

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance, and what do you hope audiences will gain from it?

skyros+063Justin Kurys: As a quartet, we are very passionate about reaching and connecting with new audiences. As this is our first time performing at Folklife, we are looking forward to interacting with the diverse audience this type of event attracts!

Performances are always at their best when a connection with the audience is created. We hope to engage the audience and create a musical landscape for them to take a journey with us as we perform a very interesting and varied show. The music we will perform shows a different side of art music from what is generally conceived of when people think of classical art music, so we hope that this inspires thought and emotion that is somewhat unexpected from the audience coming into this.

The Skyros Quartet will be featured along with Sound of Late and the Westerlies at our 2nd Annual Second Inversion Showcase at Folklife on Friday, May 27 at 8 p.m. For more information, please click here or RSVP to our Facebook event.

CONCERT PREVIEW: John Cage Sonatas and Interludes: Q&A with Jesse Myers

by Maggie Molloy

The avant-garde and always-iconoclastic composer John Cage threw a wrench in the Western music tradition when he invented the prepared piano in 1940. Well, maybe not a wrench per se—but an eclectic assortment of hardware supplies, nonetheless.
Prepared Piano - Photo by Maggie MolloyAll Photos and Video by Maggie Molloy

Presented with the challenge of writing dance music for a small stage with no room for a percussion group, Cage discovered it was possible to create an entire percussion orchestra with just a single instrument—a grand piano. His creation was the prepared piano: a grand piano that has had its sound altered by placing everyday objects such as screws, bolts, and pieces of rubber on or between the strings.

And that small, humble stage on which he first invented it? That was actually right here in Seattle, at Cornish College of the Arts. At the time, Cage was working there as composer and accompanist for the dance department.

Cage’s prepared piano works have since been studied and performed all over the world—and now, Seattle-based pianist Jesse Myers is bringing them back to the Northwest for two very special lecture-recitals on Cage’s famous Sonatas and Interludes. Performances are Saturday, May 14 at Stage 7 Pianos and Friday, May 20 at the Good Shepherd Chapel Performance Space.
John Cage Sonatas and Interludes - Photo by Maggie Molloy

Though the Sonatas and Interludes are among Cage’s most famous recordings, live performances of the work are relatively few and far between. That’s because most artists and venues shudder at the thought of placing sharp metal objects inside something as sacred and pure as a piano—plus set-up, take-down, and tuning a prepared piano takes hours.

Suffice it to say, it’s not so easy to get your hands on a prepared piano. And so, me being the unabashedly nerdy Cage fan that I am, I jumped at the opportunity to drop by to Myer’s piano studio and experience Cage’s prepared piano live, in-person. Myers was kind enough to let me try my hand at the prepared piano, and to answer some of my burning questions about his upcoming performances.

Jesse Myers - Photo by Maggie Molloy

Second Inversion: What do you personally find most unique or inspiring about Cage’s music and artistic philosophy? What drew you to his prepared piano works specifically?

Jesse Myers: As a teacher, I tend to be a pretty analytical musician. Form, structure, and harmonic analysis of the great masterpieces of classical literature are some of the most exciting things for me to explore. It is perhaps the biggest motivation for me to continue to explore new and challenging music. But this has been quite different compared to, say, Rachmaninoff or Beethoven.

On the surface, the most unique aspect of this music is obviously the preparations to the piano, something that John Cage invented. Beyond the preparations and from a compositional perspective, the pieces are exceptional in regard to their lack of harmonic structure and their reliance on a rhythmic form.

The vast majority of music that exists, across all styles from rock and roll to classical, is built on a design of tension and release (dissonance to consonance)—and this is done so by harmony. Once Cage prepared the piano, it destroyed the possibility of harmony functioning as the glue that holds the music together. Instead, Cage developed a form solely on rhythm.
Table of Preparations - Photo by Maggie MolloyRemarkably, he did so in a way that short phrases relate to that of the whole of the piece, a form he called “micro-macrocosmic structure.” Like a fractal, its structure, one could say, is more natural (as in life and nature) than harmony. Harmonic rules are man-made and academic. Fractals are found everywhere in nature. Nature in art is an important aesthetic perspective when playing and listening to his music.

I’ve always been intrigued by this music but received some squeamishness from people in charge of performance spaces. That’s unfortunate and discouraging. If you don’t know any better, it sounds like it could be damaging to the piano, but a properly prepared piano is totally benign. My technician, Kenn Wildes, is the owner of Stage 7 Pianos, one of the venues for these recitals, and he was really open-minded to the idea. His initial agreement to have me perform these was basically the start of this project. Kenn is such a strong advocate for classical piano in our community and an invaluable resource for me as a pianist.

SI: How do you go about practicing Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes? Do you practice with or without preparations, or some combination thereof?

Jesse Myers Practicing - Photo by Maggie MolloyJM: I practice the music both prepared and unprepared. It’s like knowing two different pieces of music. The unprepared version actually works musically which I find fascinating—they are modal or diatonic at times. When I prepare the piano for these pieces it is as if I am witnessing a cast of performers getting ready for an elaborate theatrical production where all the characters put on their makeup and costumes to become completely different and unrecognizable. Playing it unprepared, though musically still rewarding, feels a bit like the actors are just practicing their lines in their jeans and t-shirts without any staging. I never expected that sensation to occur when I started this project.

I teach at home Monday through Friday. On the weekends I prepare the piano for the Cage and unprepare it for Monday’s lessons—my students probably wouldn’t want to hear bongos and rattles instead of their Chopin. The first time I did it, it took four hours. Now it takes about an hour just to get the material in the piano and maybe another 30 minutes of tuning.

SI: As a classically trained pianist, can you tell me a bit about what it was like for you to sit down and play a prepared piano for the first time? What are some of the major unexpected differences or similarities between playing a standard grand piano and a prepared one? 

Jesse Myers Piano - Photo by Maggie MolloyJM: At first it was very disorienting. Playing something like a simple ascending scale causes the pitches to zigzag up and down. When you expect the sequence of pitches to get higher, they may sound lower or sound like a bongo or a rattle. I have to say though, it didn’t take long to acclimate to Cage’s prepared piano.

The biggest difficulty after learning the notes has been dynamic relationships (volume) among the changing timbres of the different notes. For instance, if Cage asks for the notes to steadily get softer, I have to be mindful of the preparations within that phrase because some notes may be muted with rubber, or have a bolt with a nut that rattles on it. So the same pressure applied to each key results in a varying array of volumes.

One of the questions I get a lot is whether or not the notes feel different when you strike the key. Basically, can I feel a note rattle or clang? There is no tactile difference among the notes of a prepared piano and a regular one. So I have to know what sound the note will make before I strike it. So if I practice the piece without the preparations, I’m actively “translating” the sounds in my head.  Not so easy, but I’m getting better at it.

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing this music?

Sonatas and Interludes Sheet Music - Photo by Maggie MolloyJM: I think every serious pianist should try this music at some point in their career. I’ve become a better musician and that’s the biggest reward. Though I don’t think I’ve necessarily become a better pianist from it, as the pianistic skills developed are probably isolated and catered to these pieces alone.

Musically, however, it has matured me in that I have found a brand new way of emoting. I cannot rely on melodic and harmonic expression or pianistic tone. Since working on this music, my job has been to create an emotionally captivating performance in the absence of the only tool I’ve ever performed with—the unprepared piano. Try asking a chef to make world-class dish but take away her knives and whisks, but instead give her a rubber mallet, a garden spade, and a wheel—now there’s a cooking show.

SI: Have you tried playing other music or writing your own music on Cage’s prepared piano?

JM:
I have a lot of fun improvising music on his prepared piano. Most of my improvisations end up sounding like Mickey Hart in a tripped-out part of a Grateful Dead show. I’ve never tried to structure a piece though. Some of the sounds are so unique that I can’t help but hear the Sonatas and Interludes when I play them. I think if I were to compose something for the prepared piano I would have to change up the preparations and start fresh. Cage’s presence is inescapable in these preparations.Prepared Piano - Photo by Maggie Molloy

SI: What are you most looking forward to with these two upcoming performances, and what do you hope audience members will gain from them?

JM: I think this is some of Cage’s most accessible music. In the very least, I would like to open the audience’s mind to exploring more of his music and more of his ideas in general. Even outside of his compositions he is an incredibly interesting figure who seems to be incapable of uttering anything except the profound.

For the more-seasoned Cage listeners, should they come, would be to show a fresh take on these pieces. This music is electric with rhythm and I want these pieces to get into your bones, not just your mind. Beyond that, these performances will sound remarkably different than anything you’ve ever heard before, even if you are familiar with the music. No two pianos will ever really sound the same once they are prepared. This is ever-changing, living music.  

Prepared Piano - Photo by Maggie Molloy

Jesse Myers will present two prepared piano lecture-recitals on Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. The first is this Saturday, May 14 at 7:30 p.m. at Stage 7 Pianos in Kirkland. The second is next Friday, May 20 at 8 p.m. at the Good Shepherd Chapel Performance Space in Wallingford.