LIVE BROADCAST: Town Music Season Finale

by Maggie Molloy

Every end marks a new beginning—and as the 2016-2017 Town Music series comes to a close, artistic director Joshua Roman looks excitedly toward the future with a program of works by living (and thriving!) composers.

For this Wednesday’s season finale, Joshua conducts members of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra as they perform alongside SYSO alums and musical mentors. The wide-ranging program draws from musical traditions old and new, near and far—featuring a tribute to Haydn by Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw, the world premiere of a new jazz-inspired work by Gregg Kallor, a tango-infused chamber piece by Osvaldo Golijov, a string homage to Hindustani classical by Reena Esmail, and much more.

Join us as we broadcast the performance LIVE this Wednesday from Town Hall Seattle! Download our app or click here to listen to the broadcast online from anywhere in the world, streaming live on Wednesday, June 21 at 7:30pm PST.

Concert Program:

Caroline Shaw: Entr’acte
Reena Esmail: Teen Murti
Gregg Kallor: A Mouthful of Forevers (World Premiere)

—INTERMISSION—

Osvaldo Golijov: Last Round
Christopher Theofanidis: Visions and Miracles
Jessie Montgomery: Starburst


Town Music’s Every New Beginning concert is Wednesday, June 21 at 7:30pm at Town Hall. Click here for more information, and click here to tune in to Second Inversion’s live broadcast.

LIVE BROADCAST: PROJECT Trio Plays Peter and the Wolf, Brooklyn-Style

by Maggie Molloy

You may have heard Prokofiev’s symphonic fairy tale Peter and the Wolf, but you have never heard it like this before. Tune in Wednesday at 7:30pm for a Second Inversion live broadcast of PROJECT Trio performing Peter and the Wolf—Brooklyn style.

Comprised of three classically-trained musicians with an ear for eclecticism, PROJECT Trio brings humor, charisma, technical prowess, and clever arrangements to classical repertoire and pop music alike. Expect jazzy basslines, beatboxing flute riffs, and plenty of personality.

For this concert, PROJECT Trio takes the classic tale of Peter and the Wolf out of Russia and into Brooklyn, turning the animals into other kids and the wolf-chase into a parkside showdown.

Catch their performance live this Wednesday at Town Hall as part of Joshua Roman’s Town Music series. And if you can’t make it to the show, tune in to Second Inversion’s live broadcast from anywhere in the world! Download our app or click here to listen to the broadcast online, streaming live on Wednesday, April 19 at 7:30pm PST.

Until then, here’s a sneak peek of the gang performing their rendition of another classical music staple:


PROJECT Trio performs Wednesday, April 19 at 7:30pm at Town Hall. Click here for more information, or click here to tune in to Second Inversion’s live broadcast.

CONCERT PREVIEW: The John Cage Musicircus

by Maggie Molloy

This Saturday, the circus is coming to town—the Musicircus, that is. Come one, come all for a most unusual evening of art, dance, music, and chaos.

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Created by the avant-garde and always-iconoclastic composer John Cage in 1967, the
Musicircus is more of a “happening” than a traditional classical music concert. The score invites any number of performers to perform any number of pieces (musical or otherwise) simultaneously in the same place.

And this Saturday, Seattle-based percussionist and Musicircus ringmaster Melanie Voytovich has planned a multimedia presentation of this innovative work at Town Hall.

The John Cage Musicircus will feature over 40 musicians, dancers, performance artists, and poets performing pieces written (or inspired) by Cage and his explorations into the avant-garde. Woven in among the chaos are live performances of many of Cage’s best-known works, including the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, In a Landscape for (unprepared) piano, Child of Tree for amplified cactus, Third Construction for unorthodox percussion instruments, Cartridge Music for amplified small sounds, 45’ For a Speaker for spoken voice, and other works of all styles and artistic disciplines.

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Performers will be stationed all over Town Hall, with audience members encouraged to explore how the sonic and visual experience shifts as they wander freely throughout the circus, gawking at the oddities within. Like much of Cage’s work, the event erases the boundary between performers and audience members, beckoning even the most ordinary among us to run away and join the circus.

And so without further ado, allow me to introduce you to just a few of this weekend’s circus performers:


melanie-voytovichName: Melanie Voytovich

Performing: John Cage’s Third Construction and Composed Improvisation for snare drum

Describe your pieces in one word:
Third Construction: Historic
Composed Improvisation: Exploration

What makes your pieces unique? Cage composed Third Construction in 1941 during his time at Cornish. Through this work (and others in his Construction series), he sought to recreate the effects of tonality and harmonic progression upon traditional aspects of musical form—but using only non-pitched percussion instruments. The result was what Cage called a “micro/macrocosmic structure”: a musical form in which the grouping of units of time was the same on the small and the large scale.

Third Construction calls for four performers and a large assortment of exotic and unorthodox instruments, including a teponaxtle (Aztec log drum), quijadas (jawbone rattle), lion’s roar (a washtub with a small hole through which a rope is noisily pulled), and an assortment of cymbals, shakers, claves, tom-toms, and tin cans. By exploring these otherwise unconventional percussive colors and timbres within a controlled musical structure, Cage creates a work that is endlessly inventive—yet surprisingly unified.

Composed Improvisation for snare drum alone is similarly oxymoronic. Composed in 1987, the piece was composed using chance procedures derived from the I Ching: an ancient Chinese classic text that is commonly used as a divination system. The “score” for Composed Improvisation is literally just two pages of instructions which build the structure to the improvisation (number and duration of sections, use of implements, preparations, etc).


ania-ptasznikName: Ania Ptasznik

Performing: John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s HPSCHD, live coded

Describe your piece in one word: Transparent

What makes your piece unique? In the year when HPSCHD first debuted, computers were in their infancy.

What was extremely complicated to do then is surprisingly simple now. This performance, among other things, is a reflection on the evolution of technology and the changes that have taken place since the work was first created.

Live coding is the act of composing music with computer code. Unlike Ed Kobrin, the original computer programmer behind HPSCHD, one can now create music in real time, on the fly. As I execute functions based the patterns of I Ching hexagrams, the code will be available for everyone to see. I intend to bring the audience into the bare, yet elegant language of the computer while providing a subdued backdrop to a room of human performers. What makes this piece unique, I think, is in the dualities that take place: between head and heart, “high art” and debauchery, visibility and invisibility, and human and machine.


kerry-obrienName: Kerry O’Brien

Performing: Alvin Lucier’s Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra and John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)

Describe your pieces in one word: Shimmering

What Makes Your Pieces Unique? Alvin Lucier’s Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra (1988) is a solo for amplified triangle. Typically heard as part of an orchestra, the triangle is lucky to be struck once or twice each performance. There’s value in this: triangles can teach patience. But the triangle has other lessons to teach. In Silver Streetcar, Lucier instructs a percussionist to examine this instrument thoroughly, discovering the peculiar ways it can clang and quiver, reverberate and sing. With one hand, I’ll strike the triangle, varying the speed, intensity, and location of my striking, while with my other hand, I’ll dampen, mute, and manipulate the triangle to create further variations. As it turns out, there’s a world of complexity inside the shimmer of a triangle. 

Every so often, I’ll take a break from triangle playing to read the first few installments from John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)a mashup of musings that may shimmer with relevance (or shimmer with contradiction) given America’s recent politics. If you listen closely, you might hear some of these musings amidst the Musicircus chaos.


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Name: ilvs strauss

Performing: John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing

Describe Your Piece in One Word: Wordy

What Makes Your Piece Unique? I’ll be using Cage’s text as a starting point for discourse, both literal and physical.

 

 


michaud-savage-2Name: Michaud Savage

Performing: John Cage’s Eight Whiskus, Aria, and 8 Mesostics Re: Merce Cunningham

Describe your pieces in one word: Someantics

What makes your pieces unique? These pieces speak to Cage’s interest in disparity and cohesion, seen realized in three inventive approaches: sketch, collage, and notation.


tom-bakerName: Tom Baker

Performing: The Cage Elegies (original work inspired by Cage)

Describe your piece in one word: Elegiac

What makes your piece unique? The Cage Elegies is a “conversation” between myself and John Cage. The piece uses Cage’s recorded voice as its main material, around which the electric guitar circles and interacts.

It is in three movements, entitled: 1) Nowhere 2) Middle 3) Questions, with improvisations as prelude, interludes, and postlude. Many aleatoric procedures were brought to bear on the composing of this work, including the spoken text and length of all sections. 


jesse-myersName: Jesse Myers

Performing: John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (for prepared piano)

Describe your piece in one word: Ever-changing

What makes your piece unique? The piano preparation process and sounds in this music are always changing. The music is a process in itself which transports the listener through a series of moods based on Indian aesthetics called ‘rasas.’ This music is alive as the sounds, preparations, music, and process is ever-changing.


bonnie-whitingName: Bonnie Whiting

Performing: John Cage’s Third Construction and 51’15.657″ for a Speaking Percussionist (an original, solo-simultaneous realization of Cage’s 45′ for a Speaker and 27’10.554″ for a Percussionist)

Describe your pieces in one word: Third Construction: Joyous; 51’15.657″ for a Speaking Percussionist: Multiplicity

What makes your pieces unique? Cage’s 45′ for a Speaker and his 27’10.554″ for a Percussionist are vintage pieces: music from the mid-50’s and part of a series of timed works that he enjoyed mixing together and referred to in notes and letters as “the ten thousand things.” A culmination of 14 months of work and study, this version is the first to feature one performer executing both pieces in their entirety.

Cage subjected several of his lectures to chance procedures, and the result is his quirky and imaginative 45′ for a Speaker. Additionally, this particular version of Cage’s 27’10.554″ score is a very faithful realization, focusing on a performer-determined search for most uniquely beautiful and interesting sounds: a fusion of traditional percussion instruments as well as an array of found-objects, non-percussive sounds, and electronic sounds.

This idea of simultaneity: of layering rather than true interpolation is one of the most fascinating branches of Cage’s output. He stumbled upon it in his work with collaborative (and life) partner dancer Merce Cunningham. In some ways, this realization of these pieces is a microcosm of the (later) Musicircus idea, making it a great fit for this event.


stacey-mastrianName: Stacey Mastrian

Performing: John Cage’s Experiences No. 2 for voice, The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs for voice and closed piano, A Chant with Claps for voice and hand claps, and selections from Song Books for voice with or without theatre and electronics

Describe your pieces in one word:  Eclectic

What makes your pieces unique? The first three pieces I will perform come from the 1940s—early in Cage’s output—when the voice appears in a simple and unaltered manner but is paired in unusual ways, whereas the last grouping of pieces spans the artistic and stylistic gamut, employing speaking, singing in various modalities, other noises, and electronics.

Experiences No. 2 (1948), for solo voice to text by e. e. cummings, was originally written for a dance by Merce Cunningham. Cage writes a straightforwardly beautiful melody that is interspersed with measured silences, and the singer can choose a comfortably low key in which to perform the work. This performance will feature nine dancers from Souterre, with world premiere choreography by Eva Stone.

A Chant With Claps (194?) exists only in manuscript form, and C.F. Peters and the John Cage Trust have graciously granted me permission to perform this rarity. This very brief, unpublished work bears the dedication “For Sidney,” which likely refers to ethnomusicologist Sidney Cowell, the wife of Cage’s former teacher, Henry Cowell.

Guitarist Mark Hilliard-Wilson and I will perform a version of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942), with alliterative, imagery-rich text fragments from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake that describe the infant Isobel; Joyce himself said this passage was inspired by a piece of music. Cage’s piece has a rather conventionally notated melodic line, but it is composed of only three pitches, which gives it a chant-like quality.

Song Books (1970) embrace far more than singing. In this iteration I will be performing Solos for Voice No. 7 (which involves me building an object resembling a wigwam out of toothpicks and tissues), No. 43 (I utilize electronics and improvise a duet with myself), No. 53 (I vocalize in ten different styles and five languages), No. 57 (I must achieve immobility), No. 71 (I write a card with note or sketch in ink), and No. 78 (I take off my shoes and put them back on).


Name: Michael Schell

Performing: John Cage’s Cartridge Music

Describe your piece in one word: Noisy

What makes your piece unique? A milestone of live electronic music and a classic of indeterminate notation, this uncompromising work from 1960 directs the performer(s) to use ceramic phonograph cartridges with various objects other than a conventional stylus. These objects are then “played” by the performers, along with auxiliary sounds created by attaching contact microphones to various objects, the resulting mix being amplified and projected through loudspeakers.

Performers build their score independently using Cage’s graphic pages and transparencies. The result is a sound world built from typically “undesirable” sonorities (hum, white noise, mechanical shuffling), small sounds (sounds of soft amplitude that take on very different characteristics when greatly amplified), and sounds that partake of more conventional meaning (such as toys or standard musical instruments played unconventionally and amplified using contact microphones). What gives the work coherence is the common electromechanical origin of its sound sources, and the consistent, largely non-metric, rhythmic milieu enforced by its unconventional notation and performance directions.

In other words: this is a rare example of an indeterminately-notated, non-improvisational composition that has a recognizable character and always comes out sounding good.


maggie-molloy-headshotName: Maggie Molloy

Performing: John Cage’s Dream and In a Landscape for solo piano, and an original zine titled Diary: How to Read John Cage

Describe your pieces in one word: Translucent

What makes your pieces unique? Dream and In a Landscape are both pretty tame by Cage standards: there are no chance operations, no graphic notations, no amplified cacti, no screws or bolts inside the piano. In fact, each of these pieces is comprised of just a handful of notes and a whole lot of sustain pedal. The melodies drift slowly and freely from one hazy note to the next, with the pedal blurring all of it into a beautifully simple and ethereal dreamscape. And although these pieces are certainly a far cry from most of Cage’s more daring compositions, they are still unmistakably Cagean: the gently meandering melodies evoke his quiet nature, his slow, thoughtful manner of speaking—his utter willingness to lose himself entirely in sound.

If Dream and In a Landscape are explorations of Cage’s character, then my next piece is an exploration of his mind. Diary: How to Read John Cage is a zine I created in response to Cage’s monstrous five-hour art piece, Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse). Written and recorded in the years leading up to Cage’s death, the Diary’s contents range from the trivial details of everyday life all the way to the vast expanse of history, philosophy, and global politics—and all with an idiosyncratic dose of humor and wit. Over the course of eight weeks, I read and listened through Cage’s entire Diary and created my own personal diary tracking the experience. Copies of my John Cage Diary zine will be available free of charge at the Musicircus.


The John Cage Musicircus is Saturday, Nov. 19 from 7-10 p.m. at Town Hall Seattle. Second Inversion’s Maggie Molloy will present a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

LIVE VIDEO STREAM: Town Music at Town Hall: Duos wtih Joshua Roman & Caroline Goulding

Join us Wednesday, October 5 at 7:30pm (PST) for a live video stream from Town Hall featuring our Artistic Advisor, Joshua Roman and the “precociously talented” violinist Caroline Goulding performing duos by Kodály, Ravel, and Handel-Halvorsen. If you’re in Seattle, we’d love to see you there! Get your tickets here and be sure to hello at the broadcast table in the lobby.

If you are expecting something small and dainty from this slim chamber music configuration, think again—the works on this program showcase the full power of these two world-class soloists. Halvorsen’s Passacaglia converts old harpsichord music by Handel into an epic display of Romantic virtuosity, while Kodály’s Duo channels the rustic energy of Hungarian folk music. In Ravel’s Sonata, a bewitching tribute to Debussy, the violin and cello produce a staggering array of colors and textures.

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NEW VIDEO: Movement for String Quartet and Piano by Andrius Žlabys

On May 24, 2016, Town Hall Seattle concert-goers and Second Inversion listeners were fortunate to hear the world premiere of Movement for String Quartet and Piano by Andrius Žlabys. If you missed it, we’re pleased to present this video production on the Town Hall stage!

Joshua Roman sat down to chat with Andrius about the piece and his composition background.

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

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

JR: What style did you improvise in?

Improvisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credit: D. Matvejavas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JR: How does the feeling affect your compositional process?

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

JR: Is that the ostinato?

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

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

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

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

LIVE VIDEO STREAM: Town Music at Town Hall Season Finale

Tonight at 7:30pm (PST), join us for a live video stream from Town Hall, featuring our Artistic Advisor, Joshua Roman along with violinists Johnny Gandelsman & Arnaud Sussman, violist Kyle Armbrust, and pianist/composer Andrius Žlabys!

In the meantime, be sure to read our Q&A between Joshua Roman and Andrius Žlabys about his world premiere, A Movement for String Quartet and Piano.

The program also includes Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No.2 and Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor, Op.57. We’ll be streaming the audio on our 24/7 channel, too!

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And also to tide you over, here’s a sneak peek of the Britten from a rehearsal last week!

If you’re still waiting for the broadcast to begin, hop over to our 24/7 stream to hear our eclectic mix of new music!

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

by Joshua Roman

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

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

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

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

JR: What style did you improvise in?

Improvisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credit: D. Matvejavas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JR: How does the feeling affect your compositional process?

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

JR: Is that the ostinato?

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

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

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

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

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

Joshua’s May 2016 Playlist