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It’s time! The Wild Rumpus Kickstarter project is now live. In our first 24 hours, we reached 30% of our fundraising goal, which is wonderful. We still have a ways to go before we meet our goal, though, and Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing. We’d love your help spreading the word about the project, and we’d also be so grateful if you donated!
Last year, Wild Rumpus held our first open call for the Wild Rumpus Commissioning Project. From the 215 submissions we got last year, we commissioned eight composers to write pieces from our 2012-2013 season: Julian Day, Ruben Naeff, Andrea La Rose, Elizabeth Lim, Nicole Murphy, Jonathan Russell, Nicolas Tzortzis, and Jeffrey Treviño. The Kickstarter project will support their commissioning fees, and help ensure that we not only can support emerging artists by producing their work, but that we can compensate them for the huge investment of time and energy that a new work comprises.
Wild Rumpus is dedicated to collaboration with emerging artists. Selected composers are not only commissioned for a new piece, but are invited to collaborate with the ensemble through individual meetings and monthly reading sessions. We believe that, by giving composers a space to experiment and push their own boundaries, we can not only support new music through its performance, but foster the growth and development of emerging artists.
We have an incredible array of rewards available for donors to our project. Would you like go on a hiking brewery tour through the hills in Germany with Andrea La Rose? Visit jazz clubs in Paris with Nicolas Tzortzis or galleries in Sydney with Julian Day? Or would you like Jen to teach you to make Chinese dumplings, or get your power ballad on with the members of Wild Rumpus? Would you like a custom arrangement or a home concert, or recordings of all the new pieces you help support? Or amazing seats at the San Francisco Symphony? You can get all these and much more when you give!
You can donate and learn more about the project at:
Our countdown to this Friday’s concert continues with Jenny Olivia Johnson, a composer and drummer/percussionist currently teaching at Wellesley College. Her new piece for Wild Rumpus is reflect reflect respond respond.Can you tell me a little bit about where you’re from and how you got started as a musician?
Sure, I’m from California, from Santa Monica originally, and then I moved to Claremont when I was nine years old and went to school there. My last year of [high] school, I went to Idyllwild Arts Academy, and that was a formative time because that’s when I started composing.
I didn’t know you went to Idyllwild; that’s awesome. I went up there once and it seemed so magical.
Yeah, [I went] just for a year but it was quite a year. It’s a small arts school up in the San Bernardino Mountains and I went there as a percussionist; I was always a drummer and a percussionist in band and orchestra. That’s the place where I realized it was possible to start composing. I did and it was an amazing year of my life.
It was a really lucky coincidence in a lot of ways. I went there for a summer camp—they have a music summer school thing for two weeks and my percussion teacher, Bill Schlitt, was the teacher up there and he’s the one who brought me up there for the first time. At that stage I was just a teen and I had no idea this would become so important to me. It was a perfect storm of a situation; my parents had to move to New York for my mom’s work and it was too late for me to enroll in school there. It was in August when all these decisions were made, but I had to be at Idyllwild for the camp and I just auditioned while I was there. It also turned out that somebody had asked me to audition a year earlier for the school and my parents said no. I had been playing this Joseph Schwantner piece, which I loved—and the mountains rising nowhere—which has this huge percussion battery and so I was playing that and the pianist who was playing it noticed me and said, “You should apply for school here,” and I said, “What?” I didn’t even know there was school there or the idea was totally foreign to me, I was so clueless. But it all ended up working out in the end. It was an amazing experience.
Was that the year you started composing, too?
Yes indeed. I had been doing some creative music-making of a sort before that with my Casio and my tape recorders, but at that stage I didn’t take it seriously, it was just a hobby. Just making weird sound collages. But when I finally got to Idyllwild and I saw that other people were doing that—namely, a jazz bassist who had written his own piece for his recital, which I thought was just incredible. I went and talked to him and said, “You wrote that? You wrote that by yourself?!” and he said “Yeah,” and I said, “I never ever thought about doing that, but I’d love to,” and he said, “Well, you gotta do it.” And that was all it took, somebody to say to me you gotta do it, those little words. Ray Clemens was his name. He is a great bass player. Thanks, Ray.
In college, did you keep playing? Did you keep composing regularly?
I did. I auditioned for the Columbia Orchestra, and I got in and I was very happy because I knew I was competing with grad students. It was just a lucky thing, they needed a lot of people that year. I kept playing in orchestra. I was also writing this really weird piece that I had started the summer before. God, it’s a long story, but it was a spoken opera and all my friends were involved. People I went to Idyllwild with, a lot of them had moved to New York or nearby, including the visual artist Nate Lowman, television writer Angelina Burnett, and cinematographer Ava Berkofsky. Nate and Ava were in my band in high school. Nate came to New York to go to NYU and he played guitar in this piece. I was writing that piece for a long time, and we finally actually put it together. We produced it by ourselves; I went and got a job to pay for the production costs, which were about $2000, to put it on in someone’s apartment/theater in Koreatown. We did it! We all just put it together by the skin of our teeth. It was a lot of fun.
I kept doing stuff like that, and then finally I got it together to take some music classes at Columbia. Barnard, where I went to school, had a tiny music department, so everybody who wanted to do theory and composition especially had to go over to Columbia, which was great for me. I finally ended up taking some counterpoint classes with Jonathan Kramer, who later became my teacher. Nothing cohered until the end of college, when I started taking real lessons and writing for ensembles that were hired from Juilliard, and really working with musicians who had been classically trained rather than whoever I could grab. All the people I initially worked with were great, but a lot of them were rock musicians. In a way, I have been trying to return to those roots of writing hybridized rock and classical and experimental music that I initially did when I was at Idyllwild and early college, but it wasn’t until late college that I started working with semi-professional musicians.
I’m curious whether you feel that all that early time you spent as a percussionist and a drummer influence the work you do now. I know that you and I have discussed in the past our share of 80’s-type things, and you mentioned working with Casios and tape recorders. I’m curious if you could talk about how your early sound world may have affected your later sound world.
My love for repetition and slowly evolving forms comes from being a drummer and from finding uniqueness within repetitive patterns, and just being obsessed with that kind of continuity—what’s possible to shift within a very static sound field. Trying to work within a very fixed rhythmic grid, trying to work harmonically in a way that’s interesting. The actual harmonies themselves that I tend to favor come directly from the pantheon of 80’s music that I adored. My experiences listening to radio in the car—somehow I just always feel like that was a big part of what made me into a composer.
I wonder if some of that comes from growing up in southern California. It’s such a freeway culture. At least for me, so much of the music listening I did was in the car. So much time was spent in the car.
I’ve never thought of it that way, but I think it’s a huge part. I spent so much time in the car, whether it was going to school every day or just with my parents, going to work. They had to drive at least three or four hours a day from where we lived to downtown LA. We were always just in the goddamn car. Radio became this very familiar presence. It was a subject in my life.
When you commute that long, you almost don’t have time to listen to music at home!
It was rare that we did! When we got home, it was the baseball game, the news, the TV. Once in a while, my dad would pull out the Elton John records and play them really loud, or the Beatles, but I didn’t really learn how to listen to music just for its own sake, on tape or CD until I was eight or nine, which is pretty late for a musician.
I think for me it was more like college!
I still feel kind of pathetic about my music [listening habits]…I mean, I have a ton of CDs but it’s not really a part of my habitual life to put a CD in. It’s more likely that I would turn the radio on or go for something random. Just turn on some object that makes noise and see what happens. I think you really hit it on the head in terms of the earliest musical influence [being] the randomness of the radio. It’s not that random; it’s Top 40 and songs that you hear over and over again—
But to us there’s still a moment-to-moment uncertainty as to what will come next.
There were also stylistic and genre continuities to the different stations that my parents programmed. There was always the easy listening station, the classic rock station. But more the easy listening station. KOST 103. “Love Songs on the KOST.” I used to listen to it at night, falling asleep, because I thought it was so interesting that people would call the radio. To me, the radio was like God. It’s like you’re calling the ether and saying “please play my song.”
I remember calling in to make a request to the radio and what a thrill it was, to know that your song was going to be played all across the Southland.
Later on, it became KROQ’s Loveline, that show where people would talk about their issues, and I had a friend call in who actually got on the radio with the Poorman and Dr. Drew. It was a big deal…Even people talking is a big musical memory for me. Like Dr. Laura and her crappy advice, and some other guy who would just talk about politics, Reagan administration. I have these very deep memories of listening to commentary.
I think [one thing] from that particular memory does carry over, which is that I tend to set text—I [often] write vocal music but I don’t often care what the voices are saying. I often choose words for their Formant value—their timbral value. Obviously, there is some scaffolding of meaning that accrues to the texts that I choose because I’m thinking about this story, and I’m piecing together the lyrics and the poetry, but I don’t even call it poetry because it doesn’t serve that function. It’s more a gateway to a certain sound of a voice. A certain lilt and cadence.
For you, music often has a strong visual connection. Are you synesthetic?
I am, and it’s a weird thing. I’ve written a lot of about synethesia; my dissertation was about synesthesia. In recent months, I’ve given up thinking about it so much because I got just burned out from all the research. I also became—I really hit this crossroad that a lot of synthesia researchers who are not in neuroscience reach, which is that it’s this completely subjective, perceptual experience that one cannot verify and is actually hard to describe in any meaningful way. I often feel that people ask me, “What color is this chord?”, and I tell them and they’re like, “Wow, what about this chord?” and they think that I have perfect pitch and I’m like, “No, actually, I don’t.” I have very strong associations with certain pitch sonorities and pitch collections but it’s actually more timbral, there are so many different factors and parameters that I can’t even really sort it out.
The reason I’ve stopped trying to figure it out is my figuring it out was becoming a deterrent to me using it as a tool. Its chief value to me is that I use it as a tool to compose. I knew, for the piece I wrote for you, for instance, that it had to start very red, and so I chose appropriate pitches and appropriate timbres and rhythms to some extent. I chose lengths of phrases based on that, types of color shifts that I was imagining. But I know that doesn’t have meaning for anybody but me. Unless I were to accompany it with something visual.
It’s a tool, a language for you.
Once in a while, especially in the piece that I wrote for you, for the first time, I was really wishing I could have somebody choreograph dance to it. I really see dancers. This is the first time.
Listening to the piece, it feels very grand in scope and I can only imagine that once it’s paired with the delay lines that will be even more of a thing. I could easily picture it having a very visual dimension to it. Maybe we could do it again, get some people!
That would be phenomenal. That’s the next step for me. I have a year off; I’ve been blessed by Wellesley with an early sabbatical. It’s blowing my mind! I feel it’s really incumbent upon me to take this time to figure out all the things I’ve always wanted to do and said, “Oh, if only I had time or space or whatever I would try this,” and really just frigging do it just for once. That’s something that I really want to think about, types of collaboration I haven’t tried yet. Dance is definitely one I have not tried and would love to. There are others. It’s interesting this is all coming together at this time in my life. Maybe down the line we could do this again; I would advocate for something like that. We’ll see how it is in the concert version.
We were talking about your text and your relationship to text, and you alluded to the piece you wrote for us. Can we talk about that a little more?
Most of my pieces that involve these types of voices, and there’s a few of them, I have a story in my head and, it’s not a straightforward narrative at all. It’s a collection of tableaux, and usually what happens is I start piecing the work together—stitching it, really—suturing it with different random word ideas or phrases. The phrases usually come from some other poem or some other person’s work, but I’m usually culling other fragmentary lyrical ideas from a variety of different texts that usually have nothing to do with one another.
One of the cases in point that I always think about is a piece that I wrote in 2005 called Leaving Santa Monica that is a combination of texts from Luce Irigaray’s [When Our Lips Speak Together], a post-structuralist feminist essay about lips and about multiplicities of identities and sexuality. I took one sentence in French from that and I paired it with some of my own text, and I also quoted the Song of Songs here and there in an English translation from King James. I was literally shovelling all this stuff together and for some reason it made sense to me and I can’t really explain why. But that’s usually how my pieces come together.
Your piece is no exception. What happened is I started writing these lines, these triadic lines, in a combination of Ab and Eb Major, and I was kind of singing them up and down. I was thinking, this kind of reminds me of “Jesu, Meine Freude.” I don’t know why, it doesn’t have anything to do with it musically, but those are the worlds that I was hearing to it. So I just went with that. I followed that initial weird impetus and it became a story unto itself. It became another dimension to the story, that the two people in question, these mythical creatures, were also choristers. I started thinking about the orphanage that Vivaldi taught at in Italy, and student choir members, because that’s a large part of my student body here [at Wellesley]. It was all just conflating from a variety of different narrative ideas and experiential things that were happening to me at the time. That was one part of it. At the end of the piece there’s this Latin from the Narcissus myth. I was just piecing it together from Ovid, taking out fragments that I thought sounded good, that to me suggested emotions like loneliness, sorrow, despair, but also colors. I chose a lot of words based on the color. That’s how it came together. It’s an opera that doesn’t have a straightforward story; it’s more a collision of different emotions and colors.
You can learn more about Jenny at her website, or just come to the concert, because she’ll be there!
This week, we’ll be counting down the days to our spring concert with a series of interview with our composers. Yao Chen is (literally) days away from his doctorate from the University of Chicago. His new work for Wild Rumpus is called O…What An Awakening.
Can you tell me about where you’re from, and how you got started as a musician?
I was born in China. I am originally Cantonese, but I mostly grew up in the northwest of China. I went to the music high school affiliated with the Xinghai Conservatory of Music in Guangzhou. After I finished high school, I moved to Beijing to attend the conservatory. I was a singer and then pianist, but then my music life started to change after a short meeting with a piano professor in Guangzhou. He said I was probably too old to get into [conservatory] as a piano major, [but] maybe I can get in doing composition. I thought, “Okay, as long as I can get into the conservatory and as long as you let me play piano, I’ll be happy to do anything.” However, as my music composition gradually took up my time more and more during my high school years, I decided to be a composer. I did my bachelor’s degree in music composition in the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. And after that, I came to Chicago, and I’m going to receive my Ph.D. in two weeks.
When did you decide you wanted to be a musician?
Since I was very, very young. I was maybe seven or eight. I was into music from the very beginning; there was no doubt. Even when I was very little I really loved listening to music, and danced with music all the time, though I had no idea what kinds of style I was dancing, and I followed the rhythm. Even now today, I still believe that music is part of your body, not just your brain. It’s really integrated into your life and physical movement.
Very often I would improvise on my voice, and the first audience was always my grandma. When I was nine years old, I finally got a real piano after practicing on several different electronic keyboards for two years. I stopped playing with other kids outside, and stayed at home practicing the piano as much as I was able to. Since then my will of becoming a better musician never changes.
“Poem I: Sough” from Two Poems
“Poem II: Glowing Autumn” from Two Poems
When you talk about movement and flow, is it less about the literal physicality of playing as it is about capturing an intuitive kind of momentum in your pieces?
I’m trying to convey a sense of nature in my music. What does nature mean, it means something really harmonious but also at the same time, has a kind of randomness in it. It’s really an interplay between your natural human being and the artificial craft. In composing, we sometime care so much more about our craft that we forgot our human natural randomness. I do pre-compositional structuring, but I always spend much more time on feeling my music, and readjusting the timings among my notes and phrases according to my blood pressure. This procedure sometime would last until the premiere, and even the second performance.
Maybe it’s part of my earlier music education in China; I basically studied music under Russian pedagogy. It’s all about your feelings, your passion and your devotion on music before you can have any rational thinking. Every next note comes from your sub-consciousness, and the phrasing of music is directly from your breathing. I also love French music, which is also about sensuality and sensibility; we talk so much about colors, feelings, textures in French music. For example, in my orchestral piece Two Poems, I wish my audience to feel it viscerally at first.
Starting in high school and college as an undergraduate at Central Conservatory, were there any early composers or early teachers who were important to you?
My teachers are all important to my growing as a composer. My high school composition teacher really let me be myself and search new sounds. A good composer/theorist friend, my high school classmate, tremendously influenced me with his huge music knowledge and opened many doors to me. Those great classic music works I have heard and studied were very influential. When I was in high school, I was very fascinated by Messiaen’s music. I borrowed every available score and recording of his music from the school library to study. I read some Chinese translations of the treatises of Olivier Messiaen, though I don’t think I really understood them deeply enough. I was seriously intoxicated in his sound world and religious fascination. I even tried to imitate his style. I remember my first song I did during my freshmen year, Floating for piano and soprano, that piece is really Messian-esque.
Also in my high school, someone introduced me to Sofia Gubaidulina’s music, and I also met her in person in France in 1998. I love [her music] so much because it’s not totally Western; it also has an Oriental concept of time and timbre playing. I can not remember how many times I have listened to her violin concerto Offertorium. These two composers [were] seminal in my understanding about new music. My chamber piece Transience and string quartet Afterglow, they all have connections to these composers’ musics.
Later on, I started to learn other composers. Recently, I have been quite into Sciarrino. I’m interested in his way of dealing with timbres and effects. Sometimes he almost uplifts the timbre, using sound effects in a structural way so they’re more than just effects—they’ve really become the chief structural forces of the music. Of course, Baroque music, I’ve been listening to as well.
Did your interest in Baroque music begin as a pianist, or was it a later development for you?
Later, much later. Just in the past recent years, maybe first from [Cecilia] Bartoli’s many Baroque opera recordings. At the beginning I was very stunned by her vocal technique, but then I started to pay more attention to the music she sang and then Baroque operas and instrumental music. It’s really fascinating because we barely found that kind of steady rhythm, pulsation and musical form in contemporary music. We contemporary composers tend to break the rhythmic pattern or the pulsation, and not much repetition, we always want to go away and create something newer and newer. In Baroque music, we have the da capo form, coming back to the original idea with lifted emotions. I don’t repeat history but I do want to find my way to utilize these interesting devices to make enough impressions on people. I think my Wild Rumpus-commissioned piece O…What an Awakening definitely exposes my fascination on Baroque music in many unspoken ways.
You’re in school right now at University of Chicago, set to graduate in a couple weeks, and we’ll be missing you [at our concert] because you have a doctorate to get!
Yeah, I really feel too bad. I have to miss you guys and miss the premiere, because the premiere will be on June 8th evening and my graduation parade and ceremony and hooding will be on June 9th morning. But I trust Wild Rumpus, they are really committed and experienced group! The premiere of the piece is actually announcing a new beginning of my life will lead to so much unforeseen, which totally echoes my graduation. In the program notes, I implied that I was searching a way of composing, a new stage. The piece also has some significant indeterminate elements. What a coincidence! But I’m kind of worried because there is one section with all the silent gestures and no sound, and how can I ensure this be done in a profound way instead of superficially.
Can you talk a bit more about performing the action in a profound way?
You ask hard questions! In new music, we have to have lots of communication because the expressions are so specific, so individual. As musicians, it’s really important to know what a composer is trying to express, and at the same time, you must also integrate your own voice with sheer confidence. I really like the idea that when you play chamber music, each musician is an individual actor or actress. Particularly for this piece, I address that, each voice of the piece has a significant aspect of individuality and theatricality, and musicians’ physical involvements are definitely demanded and shall be choreographed.
Can you describe what that physical involvement might look like, or if there’s a specific style or goal or objective that you’d like the physicality to convey?
Yeah, I mean, in this particular piece, musicians have to lift their sensibility up to a visible level. Breathing, expressions, characteristic motives, accents in the music should be seen in their physical movements. The intensity and relaxation in the music shall also be seen. The silence and activity in the music shall be seen too. Everyone needs to be hyper and a wild creature for this piece! There is no specific style, and the objective or the goal but that musicians need to let their bodies to react the sounds they are playing and hearing. That is the only way to convince audience without imposing superficiality.
I think another way to say it is to say each gesture is very strong in character. It’s not just theatricality in terms of staging or movement, it’s about a certain strength and precision in terms of the perceiving and conveying the individual character of each idea.
Indeed. Sometimes I can be so convinced by performance that I can forgive imprecisions of notes or intonations. Performance is such an important element of the realization of music composition. I’m very flexible in that way. I’m not like, “Oh, the soprano is not reaching the right pitch!”, but if the emotion is there, the intensity is there,and the expression is there, it’s good!
Can you tell me a little about the text for the piece? How do you imagine the declamation for the singer, for Maria?
At the very beginning, I asked you to get a recording of Maria’s singing, and she sent me these two pieces. I instantly liked her bright tone color. One of the pieces she gave me reminded me Mozart’s operatic arias. I right away decided to embed some Mozart music association in my piece. The climax of the piece, inside the gusty surging of every other instruments, Maria is singing one short phrase La ci darem la mano… from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Besides that, I also wrote about my daily experience with Buddhism into this piece. We tend to talk about Buddhism in a very meditative, very sacred way, a very ethereal and antisocial way. However, I wanted this time to write [about how] to be enlightened through your daily life—how you understand the world, how you position yourself in such a chaotic, competitive world—there are so many sounds in one’s life, it’s about speed, it’s about noise, and how much you can make your voice out there. Can I enlighten myself by living? That’s why I set so many daily life sounds into my piece, including sounds from my friends’ names such as Wang, Dan, Dong, and Ling. I also used the name of my friend’s cat, Nadja. Anyway, it has all kinds of words, Chinese phonetic sounds, pinyin, as well as English, Sanskrit. I also included some Buddhist mantras, for example the “Om mani padme hum”—”oh what a beautiful jewel in the lotus”, that’s what it actually means in Sanskrit. It’s all mixed. Sometime the sounds are related to the local timbre context, and sometime the words are organized according to some characterized alignment of vow and consonance. Life is a mix of everything, so now the piece is coming along in that kind of sense.
In your bio, you mention drawing on Western and Eastern influences. I was wondering if you could talk a little about what specific ideas or techniques or interests you draw from that you consider Western or Eastern, and to what extent do you feel that the relationship between the two is important to you as a composer?
It can be explained and at the same time cannot be explained. I grew up in China and lived there for twenty-four years and then came to this country. Having lived here for more than 10 years, now I think I have gained a new kind of humanity which mixes the Western and Eastern. I am sure one can make distinctions, but as a composer, I don’t really think too much when I am called by an idea, and don’t really identify where my techniques and approaches come from. So for lots of times, I can not explain and I prefer not to explain. But I do think that time perception is an important issue which we could have some explanation. In Western music, there is so much emphasis on the organization of time. Time is the key to shape the structure of your musical materials. You never lose the time in Western music, and you are actually driven by it. A good musical time will give you perspectives. While in the Eastern part, time is diffusing, more of the vertical than horizontal. It is a kind of musical time that will let you lose yourself. It’s so common in Chinese music that a single pitch material can be lingering around for so long and does not go anywhere. What actually matters in this situation is that how much nuance and how many colors can generate from this lingering. You savor the note and you don’t follow the note. It is hard for a composer to achieve this idea and let different people enjoy it. This is definitely one of important things to look for in my music. There always exists the intercrossing of two different times, such as my recent piece Yearning for zheng and double bass and Jun for pipa and double bass.
This week, we’ll be counting down the days to our spring concert with a series of interview with our composers. Florent Ghys is a composer and multi-instrumentalist living in New York City and originally from Bordeaux, France. His new work for Wild Rumpus is called Homage to Baligh Hamdi.
Where are you from, and how did you get involved in music?
I’m from France, from Bordeaux. I played classical guitar for about seven years, then I switched to electric guitar in high school, and I began writing rock songs and stuff. I switched to the electric bass when I was sixteen or something and I still was writing music, but it was more weird things—we had this band with some friends and each piece was a different style—like, one jazz piece, one funk piece, one rock piece, one experimental piece. That’s why I say it was weird music, because I didn’t have a style. I was trying things out. I switched to the double bass around eighteen and I’ve been seriously into composition since I was twenty-something.
After high school I went to the music university. I studied musicology and classical bass and I have a masters in ethnomusicology in Arabic music, Egyptian music. Then I stopped the musicology side and went to the conservatory and studied ear training, harmony, counterpoint and all the boring stuff. (laughs)
When did you start composing actively?
When I was in Paris. We had a really great teacher who was organizing open composition evenings so you just needed to find musicians to play your music and there was a concert. I did a few of those and I was very lucky to have my friends and my family be very supportive; they really liked the music and [said things like] “It was great!” and “You should carry on, you really have something!” I think that’s very important at the beginning, to have supporting friends because otherwise you’re never happy at the beginning! I spent several years in Paris studying, then I went back to Bordeaux.
When I met you at [the] Bang On A Can [Summer Festival], you were still living in Bordeaux, right?
I was just trying to figure out what was next and Bang On A Can was very inspiring for me, very encouraging, so I decided to go back to the country and spend most of my time working on my stuff. I had a one year hermitage in the country, working in Bordeaux but mostly working on my stuff.
Were there other composers or bands or pieces or songs that were important to you at the time, that you felt like were influential?
At the time, I was listening to a lot of Arvo Pärt and I remember discovering Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich. I was like, I want to compose this piece! The same!
When you went home and you had your one-year hermitage, it sounds like a really intense period of time and a really potentially productive period of time. Were there certain issues you were trying to investigate musically, or were there ideas that you really wanted to think through [during] that period? Did you feel like the music at the end was different from the music in the beginning?
There were two things for me. The first is all the pieces I wrote before were very simple and largely using canons—one musical idea and canons and canons and canons to create a mass. It was great but I needed to find other ways to deal with counterpoint, try to find different techniques. The second thing was to try to find a way to play my music live with my bass. At first, it was a technical issue with the computer and which software to use, and then [it was deciding] what to do and how to do it.
I remember the music I heard at Bang On A Can and some of the music that I have on your CD—a lot of it deals with multiple layers of your own voice. Not only is it really personal—since it is your voice—but, contrapuntally, I thought that that’s a very interesting texture, a very interesting challenge, since you’re dealing with multiple equal instruments all in the same register. How do you differentiate textures, when are voices independent and how to establish that independence. It’s a really interesting treatment of texture. Was that something that was on your mind while you were working with those pieces? Or was it more a byproduct of using what is available to you? Or do the two feed off each other in some way?
At the beginning, I was writing pieces with different parts, and I was just like, “Okay, so ho can I record these multiple parts? I have the double bass, I have an electric bass, I have a guitar, I have a voice, okay, let’s do it with multitracked guitar, bass, and voice.” Then at some point, I realized the different kind of textures I could get with fifteen basses, in pizz, in arco, twenty voices, and thirty guitars. ”Maybe I can have ten guitars on the high [end] and the bass here”…and then I was working with textures.
Also I’ve been influenced by music from the Renaissance. At this time people were writing music with different parts where you could sing the music, you could play it on the violin, and transpose it if you can’t play it in this octave. I like this idea of having a piece which is mobile in terms of which instruments play what. I like working with orchestration, with instruments and the way they sound, but it’s almost the opposite of orchestration. It’s like the absence of orchestration. I like it too.
It’s really interesting, the idea of counterpoint or harmony divorced from orchestration; these pieces are flexible in a different way. So, Flo, after the year-long hermitage, what happened to you? Where did you go?
I went back to New York at some point and from then I tried to come to the US almost once a year. I had the chance to be a part of the Bang On A Can Marathon. I’m also very thankful to Bang On A Can because they were very supportive of my music. That was something very strong for me because in Bordeaux the music scene is very conservative. My music is not that contemporary or inaccessible, I even feel it’s very accessible, but still, in Bordeaux, it’s weird because it’s neither like rock or classical or contemporary. In France, music is really in boxes.
I came back to the US several times and then I had the opportunity to release a CD on Cantaloupe—I think it was 2010, we did the first EP at the end of 2010. I’m kind of confused in years… [Note: Flo’s first EP with Cantaloupe, Baroque Tardif: Soli, was releated in 2009.]
I remember bumping into you at the Marathon in 2010 and you told me the story of how the CD came to happen. It’s a good story; can you tell it again?
In Bordeaux, I was working, but I had most of my time to compose and play, so I was very productive. In four years I did five albums or something, so every time I’d go to the US, I was bringing a new CD and giving my CDs to everybody I could meet in New York. One morning in September I had this message from Michael Gordon who was like, “Do you want to have your CD on our label?” And I was like, “Yeah!”
And the rest is history! Now sometime quite recently you were commissioned for a piece from the [Bang On A Can] All-Stars, right?
I was commissioned to write a piece for the Bang On A Can All-Stars, by Bang On A Can because it was their twenty-fifth anniversary. The project was called “Field Recordings”. The idea was to write a piece using something already existing; it could be anything you wanted. At the beginning of the year, I was working on some excerpts from John Cage—especially his diary; at the end of his life, he was reading a lot of lectures about his life. I was working on this and that’s what I did for the Bang On A Can All-Stars, using also the ”speech melody technique”, where the melody is following the intonation of the voice. I wrote this very simple piece where the musicians are playing along with John Cage.
I felt very happy for you when I heard the announcement, but also proud that we commissioned you first! And I was like, “Yeah, we’re early adopters!” Now, Flo, can you give me a general overview of the piece you wrote for us? Any things you were thinking about when you wrote it?
One of the main things I was thinking about while writing the piece was the voices and where the voices would be, what to do with the voices. I like when the voices are considered more as an instrument, with a different timbre.
It’s a combination of different things. I was eyeing a few Max/MSP patches; I made some note generative patches I was working on. I was thinking of this use of my voice in my own pieces and the fact that I like when the voice is equal to the instruments. At the same time, I was also looking at some old videos by Egyptian composers from the 70’s—[in some ways], it’s not a good example, because the voice is really in the foreground [in this music], everyone is waiting for the singer, and it’s really one singer with an orchestra. But what I like in those pieces generally [is that] there are very long introductions where the singers are just sitting in front of the orchestra—it creates an expectation, waiting for the singer to sing! I like this thing. The piece is called Homage to Baligh Hamdi. He’s one of my favorite Egyptian compsers of this era; he wrote a lot of very beautiful music. I like to write an homage to the people I respect.
There’s this great theatrical expectation established by having you wait and wait for the singers to enter. And yet, when the singers enter, it’s not this big aria, it’s a very sheer, very instrumental moment. I was curious what your thoughts were on that, because to me it was an interesting juxtaposition. You expect the supremacy of the singer, it’s established by making you wait, but then when Maria and Kali do begin to sing, it’s not what you’d expect. There’s this element of surprise to what you get instead. Were you thinking about a tension between those two?
I was definitely thinking about this. It’s the combination of what I was talking about at the beginning, playing with expectation, and then what you’re expecting doesn’t come, something else comes, more instruments, like they were playing instruments—the surprise of waiting, waiting, and then what comes is not what you were expecting.
Now you’re at Steinhardt, at NYU. How long have you been there?
It’s the end of the first year. I decided to go back to school to really study composition, because actually I never studied composition in school. I’ve been accepted to NYU, that was also a good reason to come to New York. I did the first year and it’s a two-year program, so one more year.
Are there any pieces or composers that have been really influential to you? Or that have influenced your musical language?
That’s a tough question. I have a lot. I could give you composers like Bang On A Can composers or I bet you can guess when you listen to my music. The funny thing is when you look at my iTunes library, I think most of the music I listen to is not classical or contemporary. It’s more on the pop scene.
What are you listening to right now?
Right now, I’m listening to Hauschka, a German pianist doing a lot of multitracking; I’m listening to a lot of electronic music by Taylor Deupree, it’s very beautiful, ambient electronic music; and also I’m listening to Pandit Ram Narayan, an Indian sarangi player, the Indian violin, I really like his music. That’s not really contemporary…
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I’m very excited right now because tomorrow we have the premiere of my new band [Bonjour], I’m putting together a quartet with James Moore on guitar, Eleanor Oppenheim on bass, and Ashley Bathgate on cello—two double bass, cello, guitar quartet. The first concert is tomorrow.
You can learn more about Flo at his website, and hear more samples of his music on his Bandcamp and Youtube pages.
It’s almost time! The Wild Rumpus spring concert is fast approaching, and we’d love it if you came down and joined us for the show! We have a fantastic program lined up of newly-commissioned works written just for us:
Jenny Olivia Johnson
Friday, June 8, 2012: 8 PM
For those of you who aren’t in the Bay Area, we might be able to offer live streaming of the concert; we’ll be testing it out this weekend. Stay tuned! We’ll let you know soon if it works out!