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Wild Rumpus presents pieces that reinterpret and reinvent existing materials in “Migrations”, on May 3 at 8 PM at the Center for New Music (55 Taylor Street, San Francisco). The program features two world premieres commissioned for the ensemble by Lee Weisert and Eliza Brown.
Lee Weisert – Minutiae (2014) (World Premiere)
Eliza Brown – …in hora mortis nostrae (2014) (World Premiere)
J.M. Gletle – Ave Maria
Daniel Wohl – Pixelated (2010)
David Lang – Stuttered Chant (2011)
Asha Srinivasan – Dviraag (2010)
Eliza Brown’s In Hora Mortis Nostrae will be performed on Wild Rumpus’ upcoming concert on May 3, 2014 at the Center for New Music in San Francisco. I recently spoke with Eliza about her music and her interest in historical and literary influences on her music. More of her work can be heard her website: http://www.elizabrown.net/Site/Home.html. – Sophie Huet
SH: Thanks so much for talking with me. We are really looking forward to performing your piece, In Hora Mortis Nostrae on our next concert. To begin, what got you started as a composer?
EB: It goes way back. I started playing cello when I was seven, and I went to an elementary school that had a really strong writing program. They had this sort of mantra of writing a lot. My mom’s theory is that I just applied this mantra to cello lessons and assumed that if you play an instrument that also means you write music. I started composing pretty much when I started taking cello lessons.
SH: What made you you decide to focus on composition instead of cello?
EB: Well, I went to the Walden School [a summer camp for young composers]. I applied one summer to a string camp and a composing camp, and I was accepted to composition camp, not string camp. It’s nice to be wanted, but also Walden School is a great place. I think I felt because composing and music were so integrated to the life of the campers, it could be something integrated into your whole life rather than a side thing. It was an empowering experience, to imagine that music be infused into your whole existence.
SH: That’s very Walden – this idea that music is part of everything and not separate from anything else in life.
EB: There’s a bridge between the social element of summer camp with lots of kids who don’t know each other from all different places and turning that into a cooperative unit of people. You can’t separate the music making of Walden School from that project of trying to make a cooperative group of all of these people from different places.
SH: Does that sense of social element inform your compositional process?
EB: Definitely. I think that I’m always asking how it can be more that way. In a very real way I think that’s affected my whole life as a musician. Teaching for me is all about creating this collaborative environment in the classroom, where my students feel like they are part of a conversation they can contribute to that conversation.
SH: I feel like this sense of conversation and collaboration definitely plays into the piece you wrote for Wild Rumpus, which is based on an Ave Maria by Gletle.
EB: The piece for Wild Rumpus is, like many things I write, a conversation with some elements that are from another time or place. It’s influenced by trying to communicate across time and space and empathize with where these objects come from and what was the reality for the people who created these things originally.
SH: It’s a beautiful piece, but what drew you to the Gletle and inspired you to use this particular piece?
EB: I found the piece because I met Michael Leopold, the theorbist, when he came to Chicago to play theorbo for a production of Dido and Aeneas. I was looking up more of his work on the internet later, and I found this video of him playing this Gletle piece with a singer, Marina Bartoli. The piece is beautiful but I think if I had just encountered the score and the piece as it exists on paper I wouldn’t have gone through with it. It was really their performance that put it over the edge for me. They are just both such great performers and the performance is idiosyncratic in some really nice ways. They are really tasteful in the way they pull the tempo around, but they don’t hold back! I mean, their tempo is sometimes pushed almost up to double time. It’s bold and ends up feeling very organic. Sometimes you really lose the sense of meter or you’re just sort of floating in these arpeggiations and soaring vocal lines, but they always come back in at the right moment when you need to land on a cadence. The sense of meter returns just enough for you to feel you’ve arrived where we expected to arrive.
That type of interpretation is already doing some of the kind of work I like to do as a composer, to take things and stretch them in time or by expanding their spectral bandwidth so that things get pulled in and out of recognition or familiarity. The conversation is actually bigger – it’s Gletle and two interpreters who did the Gletle and now me and Wild Rumpus also, because this piece is also very much filtered through my love for that particular interpretation.
SH: So it’s this interpretation in particular that you’re exploring – how does Wild Rumpus fit into the conversation for you?
EB: This conversation with Wild Rumpus is the one I felt most intensely about. The instrumental parts are pretty spare in the score and there’s actually less fussy composer-ly details in this piece than in some of my other scores.
SH: You mean fewer markings on the paper, right?
EB: Absolutely. I think that comes from my awareness of how important interpretation is to the Gletle or any piece that’s melody and continuo. I’m trying to leave space for the ensemble to make some decisions. It’s not as open-ended as actual continuo, but there’s a lot more room for interpretation in the score than in some of my scores or in some other new music composers’.
SH: Yes, I remember you saying in the reading session how you wanted there to be more play with the edge of playability with the fragility of the parts, to explore that sound area, even if the piece ends up sounding pretty different every time.
EB: That sort of momentary presence is very important to me, and I think that also relates to my interest in communicating with the dead. We can’t actually talk to Gletle, because he’s not around, he never will be around, and if he were around now, he wouldn’t be the same composer who produced this music. If we want this music to exist then we can’t actually talk to Gletle.
SH: That is something I’ve never thought about, and it’s also a little creepy.
EB: It is totally creepy! I’m always so interested in history, getting close to the human experience, and understanding what was lived human experience for someone in another time and place. What do I have in common with that person and what is unbridgeable between me and that person. Thinking about historical people magnifies some of the pathos of interacting with people who are in our own time. You can never know someone as completely as you want to get close to them. Then adding the time element, there’s another dimension along which you can have this longing and this separation.
That relates to the idea that I like to create music-making situations that are somewhat fragile. The fragility of the sound or the unpredictability of the sound or the ensemble situation means that that moment is not replicable in a very intentional way. Any musical moment that you hear in the piece also has this quality of longing for it to return but it will never return.
SH: I wonder how this emphasis on the exact moment and fragility of sound affects your attitude towards recordings of your pieces. I imagine it complicates your feelings toward them.
EB: There are recordings of my pieces that I really like and are fantastic. I don’t know. Recordings are sort of practical to have to show people something about what we do. But I guess as much as I am grateful for the presence of recordings and the ability of recordings to get my music to more people, I feel like ultimately they aren’t really are my piece. Ultimately, a recording isn’t really – I feel like this is mean to say – isn’t really a real instance of my piece. It’s one potential instance of my piece, but there’s no such thing as a real instance of my piece.
SH: That’s really interesting to think about. It reminds me, going back to Walden, of Pauline Oliveros and her pieces or even John Cage’s music, where the pieces are different each time they’re performed. This idea that there is the score and the recording but neither is really the piece what is a piece of music, and what does that even mean?
EB: Absolutely. I’m very interested in those questions. There are composers whose work probably asks those questions in much more overt ways than mine does, but if I problematize those questions, it’s on this level of sonic detail. The detail of the moment is only here once and then it’s gone forever. It’s not so much a structural part of the work, the way Pauline Oliveros or John Cage might do, but it’s an internal questioning of the work. I got that from continuo, and from history. How far can you stretch a piece for solo instrument and continuo until it’s not that piece anymore, and what are the limits of interpretation of that piece?
SH: What do you hope the audience takes away after hearing In Hora Mortis Nostrae for the first time?
EB: Well in a way they’re part of the conversation too! I have no agenda for what people get out of it. On a purely sensual level I hope that there is some sensual beauty in it. I think that’s something that many people could access in the piece. I recognize that all of these layers of meaning that a piece like this has for me are not going to be the same for everyone. I’m always interested in hearing what layers of meaning other people put into my music. It’s very flattering that they would even spend the time and headspace to think about those layers of meaning. I think I’d just like to let people participate in the conversation.
SH: This idea of a non-definitive meaning makes me think about novels and writing – the idea that when a writer writes something there is meaning and interpretation they didn’t necessarily intend but that is still present in the work beyond the author’s intentions.
EB: This is partly why I’m very interested in 20th century literary criticism! Sure, there’s something of that there. If I was a hardcore semiologist, I would say that the work is a collection of signs and their interpretation is culturally contingent, and there’s a limit to intentionally constructed meaning on the part of an author.
SH: Does that limitation of intentional meaning on the part of the author – is that freeing for you as a creator or is that frightening? That you don’t have control over the meaning of the work you create?
EB: Part of it is that the work that we do is in new music is ultimately in a small corner of the world. The idea that I can’t control interpretation would scare me more if I felt like people’s lives were at stake or something, you know? But since I don’t think that lives are at stake, then it’s freeing. I sort of can’t imagine thinking about it in any other way, partly because I am a story-telling, music-making thinker. I can’t imagine thinking about what I do without thinking about what it means. I also recognize how convoluted and subjective a lot of my own meaning-making process is. I can’t ever imagine my thought process being duplicated. Not that mine is so great, but it’s so specific. We all have these thought processes of what something means that is very specific to us.
There’s this Borges story about the guy who wants to write Don Quixote [“Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote”] but he wants to do it authentically from his time and place. Just produce Don Quixote because he needed to. The absurdity of this premise is so apparent, but I think when you take that away, it comes back to the question of whether people are going to interpret things the same way.
SH: I always think of that story being more about the absurdity of literary criticism, this idea that we can interpret the same text in such different ways by pushing criticism to its absurd limits. The story to me is just as much, if not more, about poking fun at critics than at authors.
EB: I agree with you, and here we are proving my point. We both read this Borges story and I don’t think either of us is wrong! But we get out of it what is most meaningful to our own purposes. For me, I create art and I’m really interested in history, so it’s like a cautionary tale. It’s saying, okay, you can love this stuff from history but, there’s some cliche quote, history is something you reference, not a place you live. I don’t know the exact quote.
SH: To bring this conversation back to the beginning, what other projects are you working on?
EB: I am working on an opera scene that will be part of the Darmstadt Festival’s contemporary opera workshop. Speaking of history, it’s about a Spanish noblewoman who was a potential heir to the Spanish throne in the 1500s. She was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, and she was on paper heir to Isabella’s throne. But she was labeled as crazy and imprisoned for the last 40 years of her life. There’s a question in the historical record as to whether she was actually crazy or whether this was a plot on the part of other men who resented her power to get her labeled as crazy and out of the way.
SH: That’s really fascinating. And it definitely plays into this idea of unreliable stories and conversations.
EB: That’s an expression of this sort of gulf. I feel so much compassion for this woman and what must have been a horrible situation. She was imprisoned, and they took her daughter away. And so she said, “I’m not going to eat until you bring my daughter back,” and they said, “Oh, the queen won’t eat – she is crazy!” There’s this psychological war going on and people’s lives are in the balance when you’re talking about political intrigues in Renaissance Europe. The subject is fascinating, but we can’t really know what was going on in this situation. We can try to uncover it – there’s a really fantastic book about her by Bethany Aram [Juana the Mad], but even the best history can’t tell us whether she was crazy or not, or whether the story was more complex than that. We just can’t know entirely what happened.
After 404 submissions and a lot of listening, we’re delighted to announce the winners of the 2013-2014 Commissioning Project! Thanks again to all who applied! Here they are:
A musical omnivore and a passionate collaborator, David Biedenbender is inspired by a diverse array of interests and experiences. His present creative interests include working with everyone from classically trained musicians to improvisers, acoustic chamber music to large ensembles, and interactive electronic interfaces to live brain data. He has had the privilege of collaborating with many talented performers and ensembles, including Alarm Will Sound, PRISM Saxophone Quartet, Stenhammar String Quartet, United States Navy Band, Philharmonie Baden-Baden, VocalEssence, the Eastman Wind Ensemble, Detroit Symphony Orchestra bass trombonist Randy Hawes, and the Atlantic Chamber Ensemble. He recently completed a doctorate in music composition at the University of Michigan and has also studied at the Aspen Music Festival and School, the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, and carnatic music in Mysore, India. His musical mentors include Michael Daugherty, Bright Sheng, Evan Chambers, Stephen Rush, Kristin Kuster, Christopher Lees, and David R. Gillingham.
David Bird is a composer and producer from Laguna Beach, California. He is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and currently studies composition at Columbia University. His work frequently employs the use of live electronics with aims to strengthen the relationships between acoustic and electronic instruments. His music has been a “Staff Pick” on Vimeo and featured on their homepage, as well as publications such as The Atlantic and The Plain Dealer. A review from Pitchfork’s Altered Zones has described his expansive sound as, “vibrant, shirt-staining, color squirting… amidst swirling layers of white noise and choir… I do believe a lie-down is in order.” He’s participated in workshops on MIR (music information retrieval) at Stanford’s CCRMA facility, and has been an artist in residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida and the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada.
Originally from Cazenovia, NY, Chris Cresswell (b. 1988) is a young composer who is gaining recognition for his work in a wide variety of music genres. Praised for his idiosyncratic sense of sonority, Cresswell’s music frequently explores the timbral possibilities of acoustic, electro-acoustic, and electronic only sonic worlds while still retaining an emotional core that is central to his expression. Having received awards and commissions from the American Composers Forum, the Jerome Foundation for New Music, the National Band Association, the Renee Crown Honors Program, the Setnor School of Music, Sar Shalom Strong, and the Society for New Music, his music has been presented by Kathleen Supove’s Music with a View Festival, Hot Air Music Festival (SF), Rhymes with Opera, ETHOS Society, the Syracuse University Wind Ensemble, among others, with additional performances at Syracuse University, Hamilton College, San Francisco Conservatory, The National Opera Center, the Tenri Cultural Institute, The Firehouse Space, The Flea Theater, MoMA, and the Kennedy Center.
Cresswell had a busy 2013, with premieres of hesheyoumeus at the Hot Air Music Festival in San Francisco, Description of a Lost Thing at the Tenri Cultural Institute, After Beauty at the National Opera Center, and Stone Seeking Warmth at Syracuse University. The Steve Weiss Percussion Group will premiere Some Faraway Outpost in April 2014 in Lancaster, PA and the film score for Dorian Green will have its premiere in June 2014 in New York City. Upcoming collaborations are planned with Tempus Continuum Ensemble, trombonist Kevin A. Virgilio and pianist Holly Roadfeldt.
Graduating Magna Cum Laude from Syracuse University in 2011 with a Bachelor’s of Music in Composition, Cresswell has studied with Donald Bohlen, James O. Welsch, Andrew Waggoner, Gregory Mertl, and Nicolas Scherzinger. In addition to composition, he has studied tuba with Raymond Stewart, Michael Coldren, and William Harris, conducting with James O. Welsch, and classical guitar with Kenneth Meyer. He currently lives in Astoria, NY and studies with Zibuokle Martinaityte.
Emma O’Halloran is an Irish composer who writes both electronic and acoustic music. Her works have been performed by Concorde, Crash Ensemble, orkest de ereprijs, Yurodny, Dublin Laptop Orchestra, and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, and has been featured at festivals including the International Young Composer’s Meeting, New Music Dublin, and Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival. Emma lives in New Jersey, and is currently a doctoral fellow at Princeton University.
Ben Richter is a composer and accordionist from New England. His music is concerned with consciousness and transcendence, the intersection of memory and imagination, and the evolution of worlds and beings, focusing on the immersive totality of musical experience.
Ben Richter is the founding director of Ghost Ensemble, dedicated to performances of experiential and experimental music. He has composed for the American Symphony Orchestra, Nieuw Ensemble, S.E.M. Ensemble, Ostravska Banda, Da Capo Chamber Players, Ensemble Royaal, accordion duo Toeac, and New York Miniaturist Ensemble. He also produces recorded electronic music, film and theater scores, and installation sound pieces, and has performed with the Da Capo Chamber Players, S.E.M. Ensemble, and rock, jazz, and klezmer bands. From 2004 to 2008, he was musical director of New York’s Surrealist Training Circus.
Ben Richter’s principal teachers include Pauline Oliveros, George Tsontakis, Joan Tower, and Kyle Gann. He studied composition at Bard College and received his M. M. from the Royal Conservatory of The Hague with research focused on parahypnotic phenomena in music.
Stefan Weisman is a composer living in New York City. Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times described his music as “personal, moody and skillfully wrought.” When his song “Twinkie” was featured on the nationally syndicated program The Wendy Williams Show, the host said, “Very unique…You’re not going to hear opera like this anywhere else…Fabulous!” His compositions include chamber, orchestral, theater, dance and choral pieces, and he has specialized in vocal works that explore edgy and compelling topics. His opera Darkling, commissioned by American Opera Projects, was included in the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process series, premiered to great acclaim at the East 13th Street Theater and toured Europe in 2007. It was released by Albany Records in November 2011. His one-act opera Fade, commissioned by the British opera company Second Movement, premiered in London in 2008 and also had successful performances in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Brooklyn. He is currently developing an evening length opera, The Scarlet Ibis, for the PROTOTYPE opera festival, co-produced by HERE and Beth Morrison Projects. Among his other commissions are works for Bang on a Can, Sequitur, and the Empire City Men’s Choir. In 2012, Inside Jersey Magazine selected him as one of twenty-one artists from New Jersey who are “breaking big.” He is a graduate of Bard College (BA), Yale University (MA), and Princeton University (PhD). His composition instructors include David Lang, Joan Tower, Daron Hagen, Martin Bresnick, Steven Mackey, and Paul Lansky. Presently, he is on the faculty of the Bard High School Early College in Queens, New York. He has also taught at Juilliard School’s Music Advancement Program, the City College of New York, CUNY, and the Princeton University Department of Music. His music is available on New Amsterdam Records and Albany Records.
Joshua Carro’s Spectral Fields in Time will be performed on Wild Rumpus’ upcoming concert on February 22, 2014 at Trinity Chapel in Berkeley. I recently spoke with Josh about his diverse background as a percussionist and composer, and the influence of doom metal and just intonation on his work for Wild Rumpus. More of his work can be heard at: http://cition.bandcamp.com/ – Dan VanHassel
Dan: Tell me a bit about your background as a musician.
Joshua: I started out pretty late – I started at age 10 learning drumset. I was really interested in rock and jazz but also in improvisation. That’s really all I had growing up – I had really humble beginnings. I was just practicing drumset seven hours a day. I was also discovering music like Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, and John Cage, and a lot of electronic music like Richard James, Aphex Twin, Merzbow. Then, in Middle School I was in jazz band and all the concert bands. In high school I was in marching band and jazz band. I got a scholarship for percussion performance at ASU. Then I taught for five years after that, just on my own, and I did a lot of writing and arranging. I eventually got to CalArts, and then studied with Ulrich Krieger and Wolfgang von Schweinitz, studying the music of just intonation and experimental music. In between there, I also learned tabla.
Dan: The piece you wrote for us, Spectral Fields in Time, is influenced by doom metal. Could you talk about that, and the genesis of the piece?
Joshua: Sure. When I went to CalArts, I was away from that sort of music but it was always a part of me because that’s where I started. I found bands like Sunn O))), an experimental doom metal band. Also Boris, a doom metal band from Japan, and Earth, another doom metal band, but some of the members in there are the same as Sunn O))). I became extremely interested in this music because it was very drone-esque. It was very focused on sound and listening, which is a big part of what I do now. I found this piece by Sunn O))) called “Big Church” which is a piece for 4 electric guitars, a synthesizer, 3 trumpets, 2 flugelhorns, 4 part voice but only sopranos and altos, trombone, percussion, and voice. I was extremely interested in this piece; it’s just long drones and long chords.
I did a full transcription of it, and ended up hooking with those guys, who are Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson. We collaborated, and I ended up arranging the whole piece for full orchestra. We performed it at CalArts with a lot of success. Stephen put it on his website and it got a ton of press. Within days, there were thousands of plays on my Bandcamp of that piece, and he started recommending my music to other people. I started thinking, these pieces are inside of me if I could transcribe them. Between you and me, it’s really hard to hear 4 electric guitars tuned down to a low A, and then one of them is playing low A, one is playing a B-flat, and one is playing between an A and B-flat, and to be able to hear those notes and pick them out. I spent hours and hours just figuring out one measure of that piece. Just through that practice and listening to it really informed my writing. I had these pieces inside me, like Spectral Fields in Time that I wrote for you guys. Really it was being inspired by these musicians who’ve taken a medium of music like rock music to new experimental levels where it’s not just them jamming in a band, but it’s informed. These guys, like Stephen O’Malley, you see them on the street and they look just like rockers, but they’ll sit with you and talk about Xenakis and Boulez all day long. They know more about it probably than you and I. It was a true inspiration for me to come across that music and see how deep it was. That’s where Spectral Fields came from. Plus since I studied with Wolfgang von Schweinitz who took over for James Tenney, who was the leading just intonation composer of our time. I learned so much from that guy. I thought I had decent ears before, but after studying with him, being able to hear the partials up to 44, 45, the difference between those was really enlightening. I also felt like Sunn O))) was also like just intonation because they use a lot of effects on the guitar such as distortion which outlines the harmonic series and resonates them to extreme levels to where you can actually hear them. That’s where I was going with Spectral Fields in Time.
I also do a lot of stuff with experimental amplification and recording. I like to record things through tam tams, or put condenser microphones two millimeters away from a cymbal and play super quiet but turn the gain way up so that you can hear every single sonority in the cymbal. I started doing that with other instruments. I thought why not write a piece that is informed by all of these things that I’ve been doing for a while.
Dan: When you’re dealing with these influences and this kind of music, and then you’re writing a piece for classically trained musicians, how do you deal with the potential disconnect there?
Joshua: Luckily, I had an upbringing in classical music because not only did I do my undergrad in percussion, I studied music theory from the beginning all the way to vectoral analysis, complete serialism, and set theory. The music of Xenakis goes even further than that, which is using concepts in nature. That leads to just intonation, because that is the sound of nature. I was very obsessed with classical music too. I studied all the piano repertoire from very early stuff all the way to Rachmaninoff and further. I have knowledge about the literature, theory, and practice. I had to learn a lot of really hard pieces for percussion.
I feel like I can use part of that to relate to them, but I also have the upbringing of being a rock musician, where you can sit in your garage and pound on your drums until you’re sweating. That’s something that most classical musicians don’t have. They didn’t look forward to getting home from school so they could play their violin until they’re sweating their ass off. That’s something I try to show them about the music.
It definitely is a challenge. I had a piece played recently called An Imaginary Place and it’s for guitar soloist, which is electric distorted guitar, and full orchestra. It’s basically a Tenney score, where it starts super soft and eventually over minutes gets as loud as humanly possible, and then minutes later goes back to nothing. In the middle of this piece, it’s ffff and everybody in the ensemble is playing as loud as they possibly can, and everyone is amplified, and there are percussionists rolling on bass drums, three tam-tams, timpani, snare drum, and cymbals. It’s not too loud for me, but definitely too loud. Getting ensembles to do something like that is definitely a challenge. Somehow, I made it work. I’ve gotten a lot of annoyed personalities, because it seems like classical musicians these days don’t really play very loud. If you go see an orchestra concert, and you see something like Rite of Spring, it’s never actually loud enough. It’s never even quiet enough, either. I feel like that’s what I’m doing with my pieces as well, I’m trying to widen the dynamic range and make them play loud and soft.
Dan: There’s something very physical when you’re dealing with extremes of volume. Is that sort of what you’re after?
Joshua: It is because it’s like when you’re doing something that’s physically demanding, after a while it’s like running. You hate it at first, and then you get used to it, and then you are kind of stoned, and you don’t even realize it hurts anymore. And then it’s over. It’s something that, in my practice I did because I was obsessed with the drumset and playing it over and over and over, playing really fast pieces, like blast beats really fast. It’s difficult, it’s a challenge, like a sport. I like extremes. I’m also a visual artist, so I don’t think of music as music, I think of it as art.
Dan: How does your experience as a performer inform your writing? The piece you wrote for us, there was the demo recording you made, and that’s you performing on there. Is that normally your process for writing?
Joshua: It’s not the same all the time. Sometimes I start with sounds, like in this case for Spectral Fields in Time. I started with the cymbal actually, by experimenting with this close amplification technique I’ve been using. Once I found the sound I wanted where you could hear all the sonorities in the cymbal, I transcribed the sonorities I heard on the cymbal. All the notes that are in the piece come out of the cymbal. The interesting thing is that the cymbal is not a definite or perfect instrument. When you play a string it has a fundamental pitch, say a C, but the fundamental pitch is not also maybe B or a little bit flat C at the same time, it’s one note: C. But the cymbal is an imperfect piece of metal that’s hammered and sort of tuned by an artisan so you hear not only one fundamental, but a couple of fundamentals which means that the harmonic series is much more complex. That’s where all those notes came from, maybe they don’t come out of a fundamental C but they come out of a fundamental B or B-flat. That’s how I started that piece. Sometimes I don’t start with sounds, I think about, say, the ensemble or just a simple concept like what can this ensemble do, or what’s beautiful about this ensemble that I can expose. In this case, I started with the cymbal and then I orchestrated the partials and the harmonics in the cymbal to make a piece for chamber ensemble.
Wild Rumpus will be performing Never Not, a new work commissioned from Leaha Maria Villareal on February 22, 2014 at Trinity Chapel in Berkeley. Wild Rumpus’s Vanessa Langer recently spoke to Leaha about the piece, her influences, and the advantages of working with text. More about Leaha and samples of her work can be found on her website: http://www.leahamaria.com/
Vanessa Langer: Hi Leaha! Congratulations on being a Wild Rumpus Commission Project Winner. I’m really enjoying delving into the sound world of Never Not you have written for Wild Rumpus!
Can you tell our Bay Area audience about yourself? What got you started as a composer?
Leaha Maria Villarreal: Thank you. I’ve been super stoked about this for a long time! I’m a composer here in New York and started out at the University of California at San Diego. It was a very wonderful place to learn about music and unbeknownst to me when I entered the program, it was a great place for experimental music. One of the best in the nation and one of the best on the West Coast certainly: it really gave me my language to work with. I hadn’t experienced this before in my more traditional piano studies and singing. So it was something completely different for me and really spoke to me, and that’s when I started to write and learn. I loved it so much that when I got out I knew I wanted to come to New York because that’s where it is all happening — a big pocket of it anyway. I’ve been out here since 2005.
I started playing piano when I was 8. That was the early formal training that I had as well as singing in choirs around that time in my church. I knew I wasn’t going to be a performer and so I was casting around for the right thing when I got to college. I studied extensively during that whole period and I found composition as an elective. It spoke to me and that’s been my course ever since.
V: How has living and working in one of the most vibrant cultural capitals of the world- New York City- influenced your composing and music making today?
L: I really gravitated toward the Bang on a Can folk and that tradition. I’ve been really lucky to study with Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe at NYU where I was pursuing my Master’s and I’m just so lucky to be here with a whole bunch of incredibly talented people. I’m excited that I’ve been able to get a little bit of a dialogue now with things like Wild Rumpus and having some friends back home, bringing that East Coast and West Coast vibe together.
V: Can you tell us a little bit about Never Not and any inspirations you drew upon in creating this work?
L: I knew I wanted to take advantage of the fact that Wild Rumpus had a voice and such a nice large ensemble to also complement the voice. That’s a really special thing. At the time I was working with Hotel Elefant, getting a commission off the ground for our composer and performer Kirsten Volness. She did a song cycle for us with playwright Adara Meyers writing some text for her. Having heard her work with Kirsten, I knew I loved her words. So I asked her what else she had. And she was very kind and sent me some materials to work on to catch my inspiration and the piece really evolved from there.
V: Could you also tell us about the text you use from the play Birds by Adara Meyers and what it means to you?
L: Adara and I spent a lot of time talking about our mutual love of Samuel Beckett. This very romantic very absurdist language, things that are very terse and delicate and kind of packed with meaning but brief! Her play Birds is full of dialogue like that between the Bird and the main character Neil, going back and forth; this idea of kind of not being in time. You know, the idea of the double negative: “never not” and things being ahead of you and behind you and opportunities and things that have passed and things that are yet to be. Just that whole idea of not knowing who you really are. [I wanted to explore those feelings when] you stop and you start; you are going forward and back. That feeling of suspense after a while… Where does that leave you? It’s a theme I’ve seen in Adara’s works and I’ve definitely experienced in mine so that was a nice meeting point to get the piece off the ground.
V: You have a history of work with vocal composition. What is your relationship to text in general vs. purely instrumental compositions?
L: The thing I love about text and poetry is that it gives you a character in a way that a purely instrumental piece can’t. You can have sarcasm; you can have implied things. It’s a little bit more atmospheric when you are just doing instrumental work. If it’s about something very specific or political or personal you really have to make sure people read the program notes and understand that going into the work in order to describe what you are trying to say. With voice you can just say it directly to people. You can speak and it can be a conversation. That’s why I really love writing for the voice. I really love this interplay between orchestrating and interludes and having the voice: who gets the final say and where is that dialogue as well– not just between the performer and the players to the audience but also within. How do they navigate that space? Who has the main line or the main gesture, the leitmotiv or whatever you want to call it? How do you navigate that ground? That’s always the most exciting part to me whenever I write for voice.
Certain times in fact, in the middle section the voice is not the solo line. It’s really an instrument in the truest sense of the word and blending the colors very constantly with the orchestra or ensemble.
V: You recently debuted at Carnegie Hall with your New York based ensemble Hotel Elefant. What was that experience like as an emerging composer?
L: It was incredible. We had the very good fortune of participating with the co-founder of Hotel Elefant and composer Mary Kouyoumdjian to premier her new piece This Should Feel Like Home. It was a week of working with wonderful musicians from all around the country, even a composer from Mexico. So it was just a great cross-section of vibrant new voices, new groups coming together to learn, a big sense of community. Probably the greatest thing I took away from that is how lucky we are to be in this community. And it’s not just about being New York-centric or L.A.-centric or San Francisco-centric or Europe vs. the States. It was just about music. New music. And it was a great feeling to be part of that.
V: Who are some of your musical influences?
L: For this piece I was rocking out to a lot of Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond, and Sarah Kirkland Snider who did the Penelope song cycle and that kind of lives in this world that I wanted to get into for Never Not. Definitely Lang, Gordon and Wolfe…but then I also love my Crumb and my Berio, things that are out there, push the envelope, a lot of Kaija Saariaho.
V: What do you enjoy doing when you are not making music and administering the arts? What are some of your hobbies and obsessions?
L: I love swing dancing actually. Old school 1940’s style Lindy Hop. Movies, concerts, hanging out with my friends.
V: What do you hope the audience takes away after hearing Never Not for the first time?
L: Gosh! Well I mean I hope they like it. A sense of mystery, of beauty would be the main thing I hope they can take away.