Women in (New) Music: Q&A with Laura Kaminsky

by Maggie Molloy

For some, classical music is a soothing respite from the tragedy and political turmoil of the 20th century—but for many, it’s a way of addressing the social and political injustices of our world head-on. When we are willing to take time, sit down, and truly listen, classical music can be a catalyst for critical discussion, sociopolitical transformation, and meaningful changelaura-kaminsky.

New York-based composer Laura Kaminsky is a strong proponent of the latter view, and has composed an entire library of musical works addressing the major sociopolitical issues of our time, ranging from sustainability and environmental issues to issues of war, genocide, and basic human rights.

November 11-19, Seattle Opera presents a new production of Kaminsky’s As One: a chamber opera about a trans woman named Hannah’s journey to self-discovery—as told through the voices of two singers.

Composed in 2014 with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, the 90-minute chamber opera traces Hannah’s experiences from her youth in the suburbs to her college years on the West Coast and adulthood far beyond.

as-one

Directed by L. Zane Jones and conducted by John Keene, Seattle Opera’s production casts baritone Jorell Williams and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven as Hannah—but audience members may be surprised to discover that one part does not end where the other begins. Rather, the two voices are intricately intertwined throughout the opera, illustrating the fullness and complexity of the trans experience—as one.

We sat down with Kaminsky for an inside look at this cutting-edge production:

Second Inversion: What were your major inspirations for composing As One?

laura_kaminskyLaura Kaminsky: I wanted to compose an opera about a transgender individual on the journey to self-acceptance/self-actualization, and decided it needed to be both an extremely intimate piece, but one that, in its intimacy, would be universal and therefore grand.

Two singers—a mezzo soprano and a baritone—share the role of Hannah, As One’s sole protagonist. The two share the singing from beginning to end, as opposed to a less nuanced presentation where the baritone plays Hannah before, the boy, and the mezzo is Hannah after, the girl.

The whole point is that human beings are on a fluid gender spectrum and by having the two voices always on stage and always being Hannah, the audience experiences her fullness as she goes on her journey of self-discovery.

The viola, the middle voice of the string quartet, represents the soul of Hannah, and has several motives that recur and are transformed throughout the work. Also, the opening music of “Paper Route” is transformed in “To Know” and again in “Two Cities,” as these are all arias about self-awareness and the joy of knowing—and being—who one is at their core, and accepting this, even with the difficulties that may be encountered.

The two scenes “Home for the Holidays” and “Dear Son”—about an exchange of letters from Hannah to Mom and then Mom back to Hannah—are poignant depictions of the time when every young adult needs to find space and to begin the separation from parents that will allow for a fully realized and independent life, and the parent knows that the child must do this, but worries. The music for these are related, and they bookend a gentle aria, “A Christmas Story,” about Hannah’s coffee shop encounter with another lonely soul on Christmas Day.

Mark and Kim and I all were very clear from the beginning of our work together on As One that we wanted to tell a specific story about one person’s journey to self-actualization from youth to adulthood. We wanted to make our protagonist fully human and relatable, so that all who encounter As One are able to identify and see that Hannah’s story is both personal and universal, that all of us need to figure out who we are, that there is some pain along the way, but that an honest journey of self-discovery and acceptance can lead to a meaningful life.

We also wanted to increase awareness of the terrible violence against trans people across the globe, and that there is much work to be done, still, to address the ignorance, fear and hatred that continues to this day. The personal is, indeed, political, and Hannah’s victimization at the hands of a menacing bully who attacks her in a dark parking lot, and her subsequent realization that she is not alone, that there are others, and that the world is not safe, is a difficult but important scene—“Out of Nowhere”—but one we all believe needs to be included.

SI: When most people think of opera, they think of 19th century Europe, historic costumes, often-outdated storylines, and 3-hour performances in Italian. What are some of the things that make As One different from (and perhaps more accessible than) your average opera?

LK: In a way, your question is your answer here! As One is under 80 minutes, no intermission; it’s in English—and clear and understandable English. The story is both current and societally relevant, but it is also universal and timeless, so it resonates on many levels. That there are only two singers and a string quartet makes for an intimate theatrical experience and, in most productions (but not this one in Seattle), the use of an original film (by Kim) for the set exemplifies the use of multimedia so exciting to today’s audiences. (Kim, Mark and I are all excited to see what Seattle Opera has decided to do in terms of staging and design given that they are not using the film.) And, again, depending on each director’s interpretation, there are often places where the audience is actively engaged in the performance, bringing it even closer to home.

SI: Many of your scores, including As One, explore sociopolitical topics—what do you feel makes opera a compelling vehicle for exploring these multifaceted issues, and for exploring transgender issues in particular?

LK: It’s all about the storytelling and the power of the human voice to touch us deeply and immediately. It is possible to write more abstract instrumental music on a socio-political theme, and I have many such pieces. Vukovar Trio is dedicated to the victims of ethnic cleansing; my percussion concerto, Terra Terribilis, and my sixth string quartet, Rising Tide, confronts issues around environmental sustainability; Transformations II, which was commissioned by the St. Helens Quartet (who are performing in As One), was composed in the aftermath of 9/11, are some of the instrumental works on sociopolitical topics—and any of these could have been operas instead of instrumental music but in conceiving them, I wanted to use instrumental forces. But for As One, it had to be an opera, not an instrumental work. It just had to be sung.

jorell-williams-and-taylor-raven

Baritone Jorell Williams and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven share the role of Hannah in As One.

SI: What were some of the unique challenges and rewards of composing music for two distinct voices portraying the same person?

LK: The most important thing for Mark, Kim, and me in crafting the story, and then for me to set it musically, was not to have the first half be “the boy” and the second half “the girl.” So structuring the arc of the piece to have both singers always playing Hannah, before, during and after, was a lovely challenge—determining who would sing which aria and convey which piece of the story and which parts of Hannah’s emotional journey. Technically, I had to be sensitive to the few notes that the two voice types have in common and decide how best to use them to create the unity we all wanted—the “as one” aspect.

SI: As One originally premiered in 2014 at the BAM Fisher in New York City, produced by American Opera Projects, and has since been performed around the U.S. and in Europe. In what ways will the Seattle Opera production different from previous performances?

LK: This will be the first production that will be staged without using Kim’s film for the set, so that is something we are all eager to see. Also, this is the first African-American cast, and I think that this will add another layer of complexity and nuance. African American trans women are among the most ostracized and victimized, so casting this with two black singers will be incredibly powerful. I am delighted to say that I’ve known Jorell Williams for over a decade, when he was a student and I was the dean of music at Purchase Conservatory, and so it is a great thrill to be working with him now.

as-one-rehearsal

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

LK: It’s just a piece of the whole. I am a composer. I’m a New Yorker. I’m a married lesbian. I’m a secular humanist Jew. I’m a progressive thinker. Oh, yes, and I am a woman. It’s shaped everything, as have all the other parts of who I am have, and sometimes it’s been a challenge, and sometimes a blessing, but it’s all I know. This isn’t the best answer, obviously, because it really doesn’t answer anything, but I do think that the day will come when the question doesn’t even have to be asked.

However, I can say that this is a good moment for women in opera. I have been the beneficiary of two grants administered by Opera America from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation to support women composers. The first was in support of As One; the second is in support of the new opera that Mark and Kim and I have been commissioned to create for Houston Grand Opera, Some Light Emerges.  And Opera America is taking an advocacy and leadership position with its new initiative, the Women’s Opera Network.

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

LK: Write the best music you can. Go to concerts. Meet performers, presenters, and producers in the field. Be a part of the larger community. Be brave!

Seattle Opera’s production of Laura Kaminsky’s As One runs Nov. 11-19 at Washington Hall in Seattle’s Central District. Performances are evenings at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 4 p.m. All performances are ages 21+ with a cash bar. For tickets and additional information, click here.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Q&A with Andrew Waggoner (Seattle Modern Orchestra)

Seattle Modern Orchestra opens its 2016-17 season with a concert featuring works by three composers who reflect on the past, both personal and cultural, to create an expressive piece of music for today. Both celebrated German composer Wolfgang Rihm and Lithuanian composer Vykintas Baltakas recontextualize ideas from other works in their respective catalogs, with a language of gesture linking us to past traditions.

andrew-waggoner_composer_november-2015

We had the great pleasure of chatting with Andrew Waggoner, the third composer on the program, whose Concerto for Piano will be premiered by Grammy-winning pianist Gloria Cheng:

Second Inversion: How did the collaboration between you, Gloria Cheng, and Seattle Modern Orchestra come about?

gloria_cheng_photo_b

Gloria Cheng. PC: Lefteristphoto.com


Andrew Waggoner:
My relationships to Gloria and to Julia and the SMO are representative of what I love most in my compositional life: the chance to work over many years with small and intersecting groups of close friends who are also beautiful artists. Gloria and I met in 1989 when I went to Los Angeles for concerts with the L.A. Phil. Soon after that we started working together on a range of projects, including two large-scale solo piano pieces I composed for her and the durable, collaborative L.A. series Piano Spheres. She also picked up another piano piece that I had written for myself as a kind of compositional etude and gave its first performances, just because she liked the piece. Everything she does, from her Grammy-winning disk of Stucky, Salonen and Lutoslawski, to the concerto she’s premiering with the SMO, is a labor of love, which is one of the main things I love about her.

I met Julia through Michael Jinsoo Lim. Both Mike and Melia Watras knew Julia well from her time at UDub, and Mike had performed the Scelsi violin concerto with her and the SMO. He suggested that we meet and so we did, and almost immediately started looking for ways to work together. Julia and Mike collaborated on the premiere of my violin concerto with Philharmonia Northwest, another labor of love! The piece had been commissioned by an orchestra in the UK, then had gone begging for four years before Julia picked it up. Once Gloria and I had decided the time was right for a concerto we offered it first to Julia and the SMO and were thrilled when she responded with an enthusiastic “yes!” (this both for the idea of the piece and for the chance to work with Gloria!).

dsc_7764

Julia Tai. PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

Gloria was also part of the original personnel for our group Open End, with Mike; Melia; my wife, cellist Caroline Stinson; and me, so the Seattle connection is deep and multifaceted.

SI: What does it mean to you to be working with such a young, yet thriving, ensemble here in Seattle on the premiere of your piano concerto?

AW: I’m deeply honored to work with the SMO. Everything about the group, from the scope of its season to the depth of its programming, is unique on the current new music scene. To commit to doing full concerts of large, sinfonietta-scale works, many of which are among the most sophisticated in recent memory, is really remarkable. There’s not a whiff of political convenience or professional grandstanding in anything they do; as a composer one feels safely tucked into a program of complete integrity, one that, at the same time, is vivid, exciting and welcoming to the audience. That the group exists in Seattle and not New York is telling, and a wonderful corrective to the (still weirdly persistent) notion that the East is where it’s at. Not so!

dsc_7681

Seattle Modern Orchestra. PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

SI: What would be helpful for audiences to know about the piece before hearing it? And what kind of impression do you hope to leave?

AW: Probably the most important thing for the audience to know in advance about the concerto is that it is highly personal; I was well into composing it when it occurred to me that it’s very much a diary piece. This was unintentional, but is certainly an outgrowth both of the depth of my affection for Gloria and her playing, and of my relationship to concerto writing in general: I can’t get anywhere with a concerto until I know who the soloist is, that is, who the instrument is in dramatic terms. I need to hear the instrument’s voice as a character with a whole backstory that defines its expressive personality. Once I have that the piece takes shape fairly quickly, and in this case it became clear that the backstory was in large part mine, and that the piano both gives voice to and comments upon that story over the course of the piece. The piano, then, is a trusted friend with her own emotional response to what is, at least to some degree, a shared history.

The large-scale trajectory of the piece takes the listener from an interlacing of dream- and waking-states, sometimes violently juxtaposed; through an extended rumination on the necessity and challenge of compassion, for others and for oneself, that seems to grow directly from the dream encounters of the first movement; to an extended reminiscence that has a kind of incandescent quality, called Quantum Memoir. While I was deep in the heart of this movement we lost Steven Stucky, one of the strongest, most significant musical voices of the last 40 years, and a very close friend and mentor. Steve, then, impresses himself upon this memoir that seems to be inscribed in pulsating quanta. Exactly how is difficult to say, but I feel him there, and so the movement is dedicated to him.

Both the first and second movements jump off from literary points of reference, Carl Jung’s The Red Book in the first, Whitman’s poem Reconciliation in the second, at the center of which are these lines:
For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

As for the impression I’d like to leave, it’s fairly simple: I want listeners to have an experience that is both strange and beautiful. Strange in that they feel pulled in a direction, to a place, they would neither have anticipated nor, perhaps, chosen for themselves; beautiful in that when they’re in it they find that they’re happy for it, even if they can’t quite say how or why.

dsc_7290

PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

SI: Outside of any concert-related activities, what are you looking forward to doing in Seattle while you’re in town?

AW: I’m looking forward to seeing friends and to eating at Poppy! Beyond that, I’ll be there with my son Henry, who came with me the last time I was in town for the violin concerto with Julia and Mike. He and I can’t wait to: visit the aquarium; eat Top Pot doughnuts; and swim in the local pools.

dsc_7653

PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

SI: What’s next for you this season?

AW: On the near horizon is another piano piece; and a new movement for a six-voice chanson I wrote two seasons ago for the virtuoso vocal collective Ekmeles, based on a poem by my oldest daughter Sally Williams. This coming spring will see the premiere of a new string octet, Ce morceau de tissu, for two string quartets, (inspired by the writing of Fatima Mernissi) commissioned by the Lark Quartet for their 30th anniversary. The first performances will be given by the current and founding Larks, in Weill Hall at Carnegie on May 1st, and next season at the Schubert Club in Saint Paul. After that I’ll spend some quality time writing songs, and get started on a new orchestra piece that will be in some way be constellated around Michelle Alexander’s epic (and shattering) study, The New Jim Crow.

Seattle Modern Orchestra’s season opener is Thursday, November 3 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: 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.

renee-baker

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!!!

renee-baker-with-violin
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?

boshnack-3_photo-by-daniel-sheehan

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.  

globalconbandcamp

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:

rebecca-olason-horn-sq

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.

12493927_1324713520887600_6671891356435475989_o

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?

EXRE-MI00125-5

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.

piano-1024x682

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?

03 23 andrius zlabys 2015-01-17 4 photo-d.matvejavas©

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.

8333_450

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