Seattle Sounds and Musical Utterances: Q&A with James Falzone and Bonnie Whiting

“There is a ‘sound’ here, no doubt,” says James Falzone of Seattle’s distinctive new music scene. “It is one I would describe as patient and less influenced by the frenetic energy that you might find in a city with less vistas.”

Photo on left by Patrick Monaghan.

Those famous Northwest vistas are relatively new to clarinetist/composer James Falzone and percussionist Bonnie Whiting, each of whom recently moved here from the Midwest to serve as educators at two major academic institutions: Falzone as the new Chair of Music at Cornish College of the Arts and Bonnie Whiting as the Chair of Percussion Studies and Artist in Residence at the University of Washington.

Both powerful players in contemporary and experimental music circles, Falzone and Whiting first met at one of our New Music Happy Hours (co-presented with the Live Music Project)—and their conversation led to a musical collaboration which premieres this Thursday, March 2 at the Wayward Music Series.

Utterances is the name of the performance, which combines original, composed, and improvised music based on text, spoken word, and translation. The program merges the distinct sounds and styles of each musician: Falzone known for his matchless musical fusion of jazz, classical, and world music traditions, and Whiting for her interdisciplinary performances which often venture into nontraditional notation and instrumentation.

The concert program opens and closes with duo improvisations that expand, challenge, and subvert the traditional roles of clarinet and percussion. In between are solo sets featuring original works by Falzone, Whiting, and other composers, along with a performance by Falzone’s jazz-infused clarinet and saxophone sextet the Renga Ensemble.

We sat down with both artists to talk about Seattle sound experiments, unusual instruments, and musical utterances:

Second Inversion: You are both relatively new to Seattle, each serving as educators at two major academic institutions in the Northwest.  What do you find most inspiring about your respective new roles, and what do you hope to accomplish?

Photo by William Frederking.

James Falzone: Cornish has a legacy unlike any other institution, connected to the very heart of American experimentalism. Being the steward of that legacy is something I find very exciting but also humbling, and I intend to take good care of it. This means learning from that legacy and continuing the sense of openness, experimentation, and disruption that Cornish has always represented.

Bonnie Whiting: There are already so many fabulous opportunities that exist for percussionists at UW: the Harry Partch instrument collection on campus, a partnership with the Seattle Symphony, opportunities to perform with groups like the steel band and gamelan ensembles through the ethnomusicology department, and an ever-expanding jazz program.

I’m excited to teach, create, and perform new music by living composers alongside historical works from the 20th century. I also plan more touring and outreach for the percussion ensemble. In March, we’ll perform and lead a hands-on workshop for Tent City 3 (currently hosted on the UW campus.) I’ve been giving workshops in local high schools and middle schools, and we are going to be featured at the Northwest Percussion Festival in April.

In addition to my work with the students, it’s thrilling to have such great faculty colleagues. It’s an incredible scene for new music and improvised music, and I’ve met so many dream collaborators. Right now, I’m working on a project with another new faculty member in the DX Arts program: Afroditi Psarra. She has these incredible embroidered synthesizers and works with sensors, and so integrating these into a percussive soundscape has been fascinating.


SI: What do you find most unique or inspiring about the Northwest’s new music scene?

JF: There is a “sound” here, no doubt. It is one I would describe as patient and less influenced by the frenetic energy that you might find in a city with less vistas. I’m hearing this in composed music, in improvised music, in the soundscape around me; even in the way people speak.

Artists seem hard at work here, presenting their ensembles and music and building a sense of community, attributes of a healthy, vibrant scene. I’m delighted to be a part of it as an artist, and hope to use my role at Cornish to be of service. The wonderful NUMUS Northwest event—which, though not sponsored by Cornish, was held there as a means of service to the community—is an example of what I want to see Cornish doing more of in the future.

Solo improvisation by James Falzone, inspired by the writing of Christian Wiman:


SI: How did this collaboration come about, and how would you describe the music you’re creating together in this performance?

BW: James happened to sit across from me at a New Music Happy Hour last fall, and we had a great conversation. I had heard of him and was familiar with his music; we both moved from the Midwest and moved in similar experimental music circles but hadn’t yet had the pleasure of collaborating.

Earlier this month, we opened the Seattle Improvised Music Festival with a duo set and it was a real joy. One of the elements that has developed (that I love) is the way we subvert the traditional roles played by a percussionist and a wind player. Often, he’ll play rhythmic, groove figures while I make distorted long tones. He’s also happy to move while playing and explore the space. It’s been fun to find percussion instruments that can travel too.

Transcription of an electronic audio score by Richard Logan-Greene. Original realization and performance by Bonnie Whiting:


SI: The Renga Ensemble features six clarinets/saxophones—what is it about this instrument combination that grabs you and pulls you in?

JF: I love homogenous sounding ensembles, though I know many composers do not. The sound of six single reeds resonating together offers far more color than one might imagine. But Renga Ensemble, both in its original state and now with this Seattle mix of players, has always been about personality coming through the texture by way of improvisation.

All of the music I’ll be presenting incorporates improvisation, mixed with through-composed elements, and this back and forth—this teetering between the “already” and the “not yet”—is what my work focuses on. For me, improvisation brings forth a musician’s personality like nothing else can and the challenge I set for myself in the Renga music is to find the balance point so that you hear the voice of each player as much as you hear the voice of the composer.


SI: Many of your percussion performances feature unusual instruments, sounds, or spoken elements—has your career as a percussionist changed the way you listen to your surroundings in your everyday life? (Or vice versa—was it your interest in sounds that originally led you to percussion?)

BW: Even as a kid I had a long attention span, and I have always loved sounds. My mother says some of my first toys were pots and pans on the kitchen floor. Just the other night I was listening to the radio on a long drive across upstate New York, and I stumbled upon the last movement of Mahler 9.  It’s quite long and I was on the Thruway, so gradually the piece became punctuated by static as I moved out of range. This intensified the listening experience for me: my memory filled in some of the music, my imagination more, and I actually enjoy the sound of static.

I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit trying to replicate the sound of static and white noise on my snare drum and sandpaper blocks, and my collection of found tuned pot lids are more valuable to me than my five-octave marimba. I’m naturally drawn to pieces that use speech patterns to generate rhythmic material: Globokar’s Toucher and Parenti’s Exercise No. 4 on our program feature this technique. These days, I have a very young son and I enjoy “performing” our bedtime stories, adding sound effects and rhythm each night.


SI:What were some of the written sources that inspired the music of Utterances?

JF: In addition to improvised duets with Bonnie, I’ll be presenting two works that connect to text. The first is an ongoing solo project I call “Sighs Too Deep for Words,” which is an improvised, long-form work that is inspired by language from the New Testament that speaks of “utterances,” which is sometimes translated as “sighs,” that communicate the prayers we do not have words for.

The other pieces come from music I’ve created for my Renga Ensemble, which takes its name from a form of Japanese collective poetry. Most of the music for Renga was created around a haiku by American poet Anita Virgil:

not seeing
the room is white
until that red apple

“The Room Is,” composed by James Falzone and performed with the Renga Ensemble:


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

BW: John Cage often said that his goal as a composer was to “make an art that, while coming from ideas, is not about those ideas, but rather produces others.” I echo this desire when I honestly answer that I don’t wish for our audience members to gain any one insight or worse, “message.” I hope our program might inspire others to improvise, or to make work of their own, or to seek out the fantastic spirit that is within each mundane utterance or environmental sound in their daily lives.

Photo on right by Marc Perlish.

Utterances is Thursday, March 2 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For more information, click here.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Meet the Sound Ensemble Q&A

by Maggie Molloy

It’s a new year and there is a new Sound in Seattle—the Sound Ensemble, to be precise.

sound-ensemble

Founded and directed by conductor Bobby Collins and tuba player Jameson Bratcher, the Sound Ensemble is a new music collective dedicated to performing innovative and transformative classical music concerts that defy traditional concert hall expectations. With a flexible lineup of winds, brass, strings, piano, and wide-ranging percussion, the ensemble crafts performances that are at once thought-provoking and accessible for contemporary classical newcomers and seasoned new music enthusiasts alike.

This Saturday, Jan. 7, marks the second concert in their inaugural season at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. Cheekily titled “Life After Y2K,” the concert features a full program of music written after the turn of the 21st century.

First on the program is the world premiere of a brand new chamber orchestra work composed by Sound Ensemble flutist Sarah Bassingthwaighte. Titled Further Letters from the Earth, the piece calls for a whole range of extended techniques and unfamiliar sounds inspired by the world’s most primordial music: the sounds of nature.

Life After Y2K also features new works by local composers Greg Dixon, Sean Osborn, and Marcin Paczkowski, and New York-based composer Daron Hagen’s fiercely mystical Chamber Symphony concludes the evening.

We wanted to hear a bit more about what’s in store for the Sound Ensemble, so we sat down with Bobby Collins, Jameson Bratcher, and Sarah Bassingthwaighte to get an inside scoop:

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind starting the Sound Ensemble?

bobby-collinsBobby Collins: In starting the Sound Ensemble, Jameson and I sought to create a flexible ensemble that could morph to fit the needs of our community, both audience and performer. 

Our goal is two-fold: firstly, to create an exploratory and welcoming environment in which our audience can experience contemporary classical music and discover their own connections to the music without feeling intimidated by the culture of classical music.

We want to curate a listening experience for the audience that more accurately represents their listening at home through diversity of style, ensemble size, and instrumentation. As someone who loves the classics but has found a home in the music of our time, I work to create in-roads to contemporary music for those who might otherwise be scared away by the infamous term “new music.” By demonstrating connections to pop music and music of earlier times, I believe we can engage a wider range of music appreciators than might otherwise attend “classical” concerts.

Secondly, we work to create an organization that can help our members fulfill their artistic goals. When we recruit performers, we look for highly-skilled and creative musicians who are eager to share their artistry with those around them. As Music Director, I welcome their input about future programming and outreach ideas that will help us connect with the community. If one of our performers has an idea for a concert or particular piece, I will work with them to make it part of our season. 

SI:  Can you tell us a bit about the Life After Y2K performance and the repertoire you selected?

BC: The programing of Life After Y2K goes to the heart of what the Sound Ensemble is working to accomplish. In our experience of classical music, we often unconsciously think of great composition ending after 1900 or 1950 at the latest, but there is so much beautiful, playful, and profound music being composed to this day.

For Life After Y2K, we chose music that represents the wide range of compositional techniques currently in common use, including premieres by Greg Dixon and Sarah Bassingthwaighte, plus other new works by local composers Sean Osborn and Marcin Paczkowski. We will round the concert out with Daron Hagen’s Chamber Symphony.

The title Life After Y2K is a playful jab at our inclination as performers and audience members to think that musical life practically ended once we reached the 20th century, just as we all thought the world was going to end after Y2K. Thankfully, we are all here to keep enjoying music together.

SI: What makes the Sound Ensemble unique?jameson-b

Jameson Bratcher: The Sound Ensemble hopes to engage with our audience in a more intimate way than the usual concert experience. Rather than retreating backstage, the musicians hang out in the audience when they are not performing and are readily available to chat. The Sound Ensemble has a refreshing humility to it; the “rules” of music are changing so continually that we don’t have time to be dogmatic. We perform whole-heartedly and passionately, but not with closed minds.


SI: What type of listening experience do you create at Sound Ensemble concerts?

JB: I like to think of our concerts like having a bunch of friends over for a meal. The Sound Ensemble as the host does a lot of prep beforehand and is certainly busy in the kitchen as our guests arrive. When it is time to perform, just as in a great meal, we engage with our guests and we all get to enjoy the fruit of the hard work together. At the Good Shepherd Center the stage is hardly higher than the floor, which diminishes the separation between musician and audience that is felt at most halls.

Audience members can expect to hear some new and unusual things but in a casual atmosphere. Back to our meal, just as you might ask about what ingredients are in a dish or what method of cooking was used, our musicians are available and excited to talk about the music and also learn about what your favorite parts are. We are all hungry for beauty and understanding of the world around us and our concerts are aimed to whet that appetite. 

I personally love when younger students attend our concerts as they have no deep-seated expectations of how things “should” go. No one really knows where the future of music is going so we want to discover it for ourselves as a community. 

SI: Can you tell us a bit about your piece Further Letters from the Earth?

sarah-bSarah Bassingthwaighte:
The inspiration for Further Letters from the Earth is the complex relationship between humans and the natural world since the year 2000. I spend a lot of time in our beautiful mountains, as well as on the water, and the first part of the piece, “Playful,” features some of the sounds that I enjoy so much: splashing water, rain, wind, birds. I use a drone to represent the sense of quiet I experience when I’m out backpacking—which is a little ironic, since it actually is the escape from the drone of everyday electronic noise and traffic that I love. 

Then the tension increases in “Heat,” and the sounds of heat, melting, burning, and stress replace the playful sounds. This gradually leads to the third section, “Unleashed,” which is driving and energetic. This section is inspired by the hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes and so on that have occurred in the last decade and are caused, in part, by humans. This section is the most rhythmically compelling, and the most traditional musically. The last section, titled “After,” represents an uneasy peace with the natural world.

Further Letters from the Earth is a follow-up piece to one that I wrote for the Seattle Percussion Collective in 2011. That group did an amazing job, and a few of the sounds from that piece (and some of the message) made it into this one: a gravel box, (which the percussionist runs in), bed sheets that are torn, and a giant pot of water for splashing sounds.  

Overall, the sounds throughout the piece are unusual and otherworldly. I call for exercise bands threaded through the strings of the piano (and operated by the other instrumentalists)—these create an eerie sound that has no attack, that sort of floats above the rest of the music. Each instrument has special capabilities, such as helicopter tonguing in the bassoon, growling in the tuba, or singing while playing the flute. Plus I really enjoyed experimenting with ping pong balls on the strings of the piano—a great sound! 

SI: What are you most looking forward to with the Life After Y2K performance, and with the future of the Sound Ensemble?

SB: It is my hope that performing this piece, and listening to it, is actually pretty fun.  Each player explores unusual sounds on their instruments, from multiphonics to wind sounds to percussive techniques, and most of the players get up out of their chair at some point to make sound inside the piano (so there’s a bit of a visual element to the piece).

The Sound Ensemble is an exciting and inspiring group for me to work with.  Everyone in the group has a sense of adventure as well as technical mastery of their instrument, and the energy is so positive and stimulating.  Bobby is a strong, organized, and inspirational leader, and he helps pull together this amazing group of musicians. 

And at the concerts, the players mix with the audience at every opportunity to discuss the music and the instruments. I’m hoping that some audience members will be interested in our unusual instruments and techniques, and give us the opportunity to demonstrate. 

sound-ensemble-instruments

The Sound Ensemble’s Life After Y2K performance is this Saturday, Jan. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For tickets and additional information, 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.

NEW VIDEO: In/Exchange by Andy Akiho with Friction Quartet

String quartet and steel pan? It’s an awesome combination, but we don’t really need to tell you that…

San Francisco-based Friction Quartet was recently in Seattle for a residency at Cornish College of the Arts and their friend, composer and steel pan virtuoso Andy Akiho, joined them at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center for one of Second Inversion’s video shoots. This piece, In/Exchange, is Andy’s first composition for string quartet and steel pan.

Andy is a virtuoso steel pan player, and just as many composers would write on the piano, thinking about structure and harmony and translating it to other instruments, he relates his music back to the steel pan. This instrument has incredible timbres and melodic possibilities and In/Exchange is a perfect example of relating those possibilities to the string quartet. By doing so, Andy takes both the steel pan and the string quartet to places they have never been before.

In/exchange was commissioned by the Ethel String Quartet and the Jerome foundation, and premiered in Merkin Hall in New York City as part of the Tribeca New Music Festival.

Inside John Cage’s Prepared Piano: 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.

New Music Concerts: March 2016 Seattle * Eastside * Tacoma

SI_button2Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

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Keep an eye out for our this flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list drop us a line at least 6 weeks prior to the event.

Program Insert - March 2016 - onesided

Racer Sessions
A weekly showcase of original music with a jam session based on the concepts in the opening presentation.
Every Sunday, 8-10pm, Cafe Racer | FREE

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electronic/electroacoustic music, & more.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-15

Seattle Composers’ Salon
Informal presentation/discussion of works by Jeremiah Lawson, Sean Osborn, Nicole Truesdell, Neil Welch & Marcin Paczkowski.
Friday, 3/4, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-15

STG Presents: José González (Seattle Premiere) with yMusic
González’s melodies & lyrics will be reframed by new chamber orchestra arrangements in a collaboration with yMusic.
Sunday, 3/6, 7:30pm, Moore Theatre | $37.50 (+ fees)

Inverted Space: Mystery Concert (Long Piece Fest)
For those looking for a bit of an aural adventure, this concert’s works will be announced from the stage.
Tuesday, 3/8, 7:30pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-15

Universal Language Project: SCRAPE
The innovative ensemble Scrape (15 bowed strings, harp & electric guitar) perform new works by Jim Knapp and Brian Chin.
Friday, 3/11, 8pm, Resonance at SOMA Towers, Bellevue (3/11) | $10-25
Saturday, 3/12, 8pm, Velocity Dance Center (3/12) | $15-25

Northwest Sinfonietta: Mass in the Time of War
Artistic Partner David Lockington conducts Aaron Jay Kernis’ Musica Celestis alongside music by Haydn and Mendelssohn.
Friday, 3/11, 7:30pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall (3/11) | $20-40
Saturday, 3/12, 7:30pm Rialto Theatre, Tacoma (3/12)| $20-60
Sunday, 3/13, 2pm, Pioneer Park Pavillion, Puyallup (3/13) | $40

STG Presents: Well Strung
An evening of string quartet music fusing pop and classical music from Madonna to Beethoven.
Wednesday, 3/16, 8pm, Neptune Theatre | $28 (+ fees)

UW World Series: Jeremy Denk, piano
This MacArthur “Genius” Fellow performs music by Bach, Bolcom, Tatum, Ives, and much more in between.
Friday, 3/18, 7:30pm, Meany Hall | $45-50

The American String Project Chamber Players
Barry Lieberman, Maria Larionoff, and friends reunite to perform Ligeti’s String Quartet No.1 and Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op.127.
Friday, 3/18, 7:30pm, Brechemin Auditorium | FREE

Seattle Rock Orchestra: Electric Light Orchestra Tribute
SRO pays tribute to their upbeat and imaginative compositions, drawing from their extensive discography.
Saturday, 3/19, 8pm, Kirkland Performance Center | $40

Pacific Northwest Ballet: Director’s Choice
A performance of new ballet works featuring music by American singer/songwriters including Andrew Bird & Sufjan Stevens.
Various days, 3/18-27, McCaw Hall | $37-142

NW Symphony Orchestra: Poteat, Benn, Beyer, Medina & more
This program features female composers Angelique Poteat, Hanna Benn, & Kari Medina and soprano soloist Alexandra Picard.
Saturday, 3/19, 8pm, Holy Rosary Catholic Church | $12-15

Washington Wind Symphony: Of Commoners and Kings
This program will showcase David Holsinger’s dynamic composition In the Spring, at the Time When Kings Go Off to War.
Sunday, 3/20, 2pm, Kirkland Performance Center | $6-16

Tacoma Symphony Orchestra: Water Passion After St. Matthew
TSO presents the Water Passion by Tan Dun, a refreshing blend of Western classical music & traditional Chinese ritual.
Sunday, 3/20, 2:30pm, Pantages Theatre, Tacoma | $12-80

CONCERT PREVIEW: The Space Between Us: Q&A with David Jaffe

by Jill Kimball

David Jaffe

What happens when a composer is also a programmer? He creates pieces that are at once surprising, mathematical and superhuman.

In almost all of his work, San Francisco composer David A. Jaffe marries music and math. He’s been experimenting with computer music since the late 1970s, years before most of us owned computers or understood what they were. In what has to be one of the greatest life hacks of all time, Jaffe and fellow composer Andrew Schloss used the sensing mechanism inside a three-dimensional mouse developed at Bell Labs to create a computerized instrument. They called it the radiodrum.

On Saturday, March 5 at Seattle’s Good Shepherd Center, audiences will be able to hear strategically-placed instruments created by Seattle artist Trimpin and controlled by the radiodrum in “The Space Between Us,” a landmark work Jaffe premiered in 2011 that also features eight (human) string players. Also on the program is Jaffe’s “Impossible Animals,” where violin riffs come together with computerized birdsong, Jaffe’s bluegrass-inspired “Cluck Old Hen Variations,” English composer Rebecca Clark’s “Poem,” and Shostakovich’s magnificent String Quartet No. 9. Joining Jaffe and Schloss onstage are the members of the Victoria, B.C.-based Lafayette String Quartet.

In advance of the concert, we chatted with Jaffe to find out how he worked with Schloss and Trimpin to create “The Space Between Us,” how he sits down (or doesn’t) to compose, and how he’s beaten the odds to keep on making music.

Jill Kimball: How was “The Space Between Us” born?

David Jaffe: Several different threads came together to make this piece. The first thread was the radiodrum. For years i’ve been collaborating with Andrew Schloss, who saw the musical potential of that 3-D mouse. If you have a pair of snare sticks, say, you can add wires and make them radio transmitters, each with their own frequency, so the device can know the difference between the two sticks. The drum is a radio receiver, and when you hit the drum with the stick or even just move it above the surface, the sound that comes out is completely up to the composer…it reads anything you code and interprets your gestures however you want it to. 

Another thread was my interest in the work of Trimpin. I love his aesthetic, his nuts-and-bolts funky and sophisticated art. I wanted to work with him on a radiodrum piece for the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco. It was all coming together.

And then, in 2008, my mentor [and Pulitzer Prize-winning spatial composer] Henry Brant passed away. He was one of the first American composers to use space as an essential aspect of his composition—it’s just as important as pitch and rhythm and timbre. He left me a bunch of vintage percussion instruments from all over the world in his will. I went down to his home in Santa Barbara to pick up and ship these instruments. Then as I was at UPS, I had an idea. I called Trimpin and said, “Can I just ship these directly to you?” 

I started working with Trimpin on transforming these vintage percussion instruments into a set of robotic orchestral chimes, a robotic xylophone sawed in half and a robotic glockenspiel. I had previously worked with Andrew Schloss on transforming a Yamaha piano and I included that as well. And I also decided to bring in two string quartets.

JK: Why is the piece called “The Space Between Us”?

DJ: Partially because it’s written in homage to Henry Brant, who was so interested in spatial writing. “The Space Between Us” refers to my relationship with Henry and kind of conveys the idea that he’s gone but somehow still present.

There’s also the element of physical space between instruments. I’ve scattered the instruments all around the hall, which means I couldn’t write music where all the instruments play together—the speed of sound is too slow. The piece has a lot to do with making connections across space. The instruments begin together, wander off and converge again. Because of the location of the instruments, everybody in the audience hears their own piece.

I also thought a lot about the concept of six degrees of separation. Whether it’s true or not, I was interested in the ways people bridge distances between each other and connect.

David Jaffe with Trimpin

David Jaffe with Trimpin.

JK: In this piece, you connect the ideas of two very different composers, Henry Brant and Trimpin. How did you find similarities between them?

DJ: Henry and Trimpin were interested in collaborating, but they never got to do so before Henry died. To me, the collaboration would have made a lot of sense. Brant was not at all a straight-laced academic. He broke a lot of rules, but he was also extremely practical. He worked in Hollywood, and back then he could get whatever instruments he wanted–Four contra-bassoons? No problem!–so he was able to experiment with different combinations of instruments. Trimpin is like that, too. He’s his own artist. And like Brant, he has an attraction to old junk. They both inhabit the same funky, artistic, creative, non-academic, imaginative world. I’d like to believe that i also inhabit that world. In reviews about me, people have said things like, “I don’t know what to make of him, but he’s definitely original.”


JK: It sounds like originality is really important to you.

DJ: It’s sort of the only way, as I see it. It’s hard enough to be a composer. The financial rewards are limited…the only reason to do it is because you absolutely believe in what you’re doing. I want to reach people in my music, but I want to make it accessible without compromising…without making it elevator music. I want to be really clear about what I’m expressing, whether it has to do with birdwatching, kung fu, or the craziness of having two kids under 3.

 

JK: Do you have a composition process? What does it look like?

I have a very definite process, and I can credit Henry Brant for that. When I started composing, I tended to start at the beginning of the piece, with the “once upon a time.” But Brant taught me to think of it like being on an airplane. You start at 39,000 feet, where you look down and see the general layout of the world, and as the plane starts to descend, you see a few more details. Then, finally, when you get to the ground you see each blade of grass.

I usually start by allocating some amount of time for free association, like a week or so. I write everything i have on index cards or a little notebook. It could be inspired by politics, history, looking at books at a bookstore or being in nature. There could also be musical ideas in there, some little riff or motive or orchestration idea or texture. Then—this is the hardest part—I lay all these ideas in front of me and find connections. I throw away things that don’t work. Eventually i start to get the view from 39,000 feet. I can lay out the piece on a single piece of paper. Then I’ll do another version that’s a little more detailed and takes three or four pieces of paper. I look at the part that seems most well defined in my mind and I write the other parts based on that. It’s sort of like Sudoku. 

I don’t know how I’d compose without a structure and schedule like this. I’m usually working on a deadline, and at the same time I have a job doing music software at Universal Audio, so I only have a finite amount of free time.


JK: What’s your biggest musical accomplishment to date?

DJ: That’s like asking me to choose a favorite child, but I do tend to think about my bigger projects when I think about accomplishments. I did a 70-minute concerto for Schloss and his radiodrum, accompanied by an orchestra of plucked strings, where each of the seven movements was about a different wonder of the ancient world. “The Space Between Us,” frankly, is something I’m really proud of.

I think my biggest achievement is that I’m still composing after all these years and following my own musical path. Once I was sitting in a classroom of composers, and Karel Husa told us, “In 20 years, only a fraction of you will still be composing.” I’m happy I’m one of them. Sometimes I think of composing as a curse, because it’s so much work. But if I wasn’t composing, I’d have a huge emptiness in my life. It’s the most rewarding thing I do.

The Space Between Us, for 8 strings, and robotic percussion instruments was supported by New Music USA. To follow the project as it unfolds, visit the project page.