Brian Baumbusch: Interview

In celebration of Lou Harrison’s centennial, Wild Rumpus is premiering a work by Brian Baumbusch, Kings, which is an homage to Harrison’s music, on Friday, May 5 at St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Here, guitarist and Executive Director Giacomo Fiore interviewed Brian about his new piece, his background, and upcoming projects. Learn more about Brian’s music at his website.

GF: Your piece Kings is conceived in part as an homage to Lou Harrison; in what ways has Lou’s music informed your own through the years?

BB: I’ve been listening to Lou Harrison’s music since I was probably 17. The first recordings of his that I got into were on John Schneider’s Just West Coast album. At the time, I was just getting really into alternative tunings, and, being a guitarist as well, I was really attracted to that album. From there, it was Rhymes with Silver, and then Linda Burman-Hall’s album of harpsichord and cembalo pieces in different well-temperaments, which ended up being the one I’ve listened to the most. I learned some of [Harrison’s] pieces on guitar, including one of the Jhalas and Scenes from Nek Chand. I was never particularly interested in his gamelan music, though recently I’ve really enjoyed some of his American gamelan pieces, particularly the Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, which I’ve been playing with Willie Winant. I think I never got into his gamelan music originally because I was also much more in the Balinese camp. Also, I wasn’t particularly supportive of the idea of tuning gamelan sets to just intonation because for me, gamelan tuning was much more about embracing inharmonicity; but i’ve since given up on such idealism.


GF: The third movement, “Boru”, features a rather unusual instrument—a resophonic guitar tuned in just intonation, devised by Harrison towards the end of his life. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

BB: So guitar is my original sin, although I am more actively a percussionist and gamelan musician as of the last 5 years. I had one of those JI guitars made for me (with the generous help and support of one Giacomo Fiore, mind you), because I was hoping to bridge my interests between guitar and alternative tunings. However, I never got around to composing much for it because the full-on just tuning seemed to pigeon-hole the instrument into a certain modal language, which I like for re-tuned piano stuff like LaMonte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano and Riley’s The Harp of New Albion, but wasn’t able to capture in composing for guitar. Nonetheless, I’ve still remained interested in Harrison’s JI guitar and have hopes to write something more extensive for that instrument. The story behind “Boru,” in fact, was that I composed the piece for a subset of Balinese semar pegulingan (seven-tone) gamelan instruments last summer, with the intent to incorporate it into a longer piece that I had written for those instruments + electric guitar and electric organ.

I originally thought to have the piece played on gamelan at one point in the composition, and then later on organ at another point; I later realized that it actually fit really well on the guitar, so I planned to have it played as a solo guitar piece to open that whole performance, but eventually I scrapped it altogether. Then, as I was working up the music for Kings, I decided that that piece would actually work really well in its arc, and that it would probably sound fine on the JI guitar. I had to adjust a few notes from what I originally wrote for guitar (or really for gamelan), so as to avoid as many wolf-fifths as I could, but I turned out liking it on JI guitar more than any of the other iterations. Also, the name ‘Boru’ comes from the King Brian Boru of Ireland (11th century), which is actually the person whom my mom named me after. So that piece is kind of special to me… One of the only solo guitar pieces I’ve ever (formally) written also.

GF: You could say that the piece uses different tunings. Do you consider yourself to have a flexible approach to intonation?

BB: I strive for that more and more, and it is actually something that I hold in an extreme high regard these days, that is the ability to find meaning in all tunings (even equal temperament!) and in mixing them together. I would say that there was a time when I was quite inflexible in that I wasn’t really interested in any music in equal temperament. I’ve since grown out of that and learned to like each tuning that I come across for its own possibilities and individuality. Lately, I’ve been really interested in mixing tunings (so, often equal temperament and something heavily inharmonic like gamelan or other percussion instruments). This piece has an aspect of that with the mix of the metal tubes (which although tuned to a concert pitch, have really complex spectra that interact in unique ways with the other harmonic instruments in the ensemble), and especially the brake drums combined with the clarinet, violin, and piano. I’ve been into Charles Ives lately, and especially his father’s obsession with hearing two different ensembles performing simultaneously; I’ve been approaching new pieces by trying to design that sort of interplay with poly-tempo and poly-harmonic relationships.

GF: Indeed, there’s some intricate poly-temporal stuff happening in the interludes. As a composer, what’s your approach to this sort of device? Do you relate simultaneous tempos to acoustical phenomena, sort of like Cowell described in New Musical Resources?

BB: I’m often going for a swarming/flocking aesthetic (schools of fish are good) when using multiple tempo relationships; my hope is that each individual line will be semi-indescernable, but that the lines will have a cohesive motion as a flock, and “change-directions” in concert with each other, for example. In the first movement of Kings, it’s all about creating strobing through the four lines, as they phase and tessellate with each other so fast that secondary and tertiary patterns emerge, both in the fundamental frequency register as well as the higher part of the spectrum, which is a lot of what I am listening to. The last movement is kind of new in my poly-tempi exploration in that I’m going for very slow moving non-coincidental tempo relationships, so that as they pull apart and align, we derive some sort of meaning from how patterns emerge from this generative process, almost like in deterministic chaos. Sometimes I’m thinking of the tempo relationships in terms of their large scale poly-rhythmic relationships, like some large 3/2 that shifts to a 4/3 over time, or something like that, which you could say is reminiscent of Cowell, although I don’t think of it the same way as he did. Rather, I would say where I agree with Cowell is that any simple ratio (2/1, 3/2, 4/3, 5/4, etc..) will have musical significance whether applied to frequency relationships or tempo relationships.

GF: What is the Lightbulb Ensemble?

BB: A neo-gamelan group that I put together during the end of my time at Mills while completing my master’s. We mostly play on a set of instruments that I built which are inspired by Balinese instruments (especially with regard to their tuning), and the tuning embraces a theory of inharmonicity which was put forth by William Sethares in his book Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale.

The Balinese kind of broke the question of tuning wide open by designing audible beats into every pair of instruments, so that the instruments are always beating with one another as a feature of allure and attractiveness; most other tuning theories have been based on eliminating beats, treating them like the enemy. Through my work with Balinese music, I’ve learned to embrace difference-tone beats and inharmonicity, and find those sounds to be some of the most attractive to me.

GF: Tell us what else you have going on in terms of projects and commissions.

BB: I recently won a generous grant from the Gerbode Foundation that will commission a new piece of mine on the Other Minds music festival in San Francisco, a little over a year from now. I plan to compose for the Lightbulb Ensemble, although I might build some new keys for the instruments to start working in a different scale, and also incorporate several 12-tone instruments to have some poly-ensemble capabilities. I will certainly be exploring poly-tempo relationships in this piece, which will actually involve an extended collaboration between my bother Paul, who is a poet and playwright, and Chis Bisset, a South African video artist. We will produce a silent film inspired by German expressionism (and commenting on the historical rise of fascism), and I will compose a long piece (around two hours) that Lightbulb will perform along to the video, inspired in part by early minimalist aesthetics.

William Dougherty: Interview

WilliamDoughertyWilliam Dougherty is one of the winners of the 2015 Commissioning Project, and we will be premiering his piece, the new normal, at our concert this Friday, Feb 24 at the Universalist Unitarian Chapel. Here, guitarist and Executive Director Giacomo Fiore interviewed William about his new piece, his background, and upcoming projects. Learn more about William’s music at his website.

GF: the new normal, the piece you’ve written for the Wild Rumpus Commissioning Project, uses a variety of sound sources for the fixed media part. Can you tell us about how you went about selecting them, and what they have in common?

WD: In the new normal I used collage as a method, connecting short samples of six different musical passages.Each of the two movements features three external sound samples as its source material. Some of the samples are heard in their original forms in the fixed tape part while others are filtered, stretched, and/or orchestrated and performed by the instrumentalists. The first movement contains samples of a recording by 20th century ethnomusicologist and folklorist Alan Lomax of Black prisoners at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman in 1947 chopping wood and singing Old Alabama. The harmonic backdrop for the first movement comes from Ahi Troppo, ahi troppo e duro, an aria from Claudio Monteverdi’s 1608 Ballo delle ingrate (Ballet of the Ungrateful). In the aria, a women damned to Hades because of her lack of love, laments her return to the underworld after having felt for one last time the sun and fresh air of Earth. An orchestrated sample of Japanese noise artist Merzbow’s 1996 album Pulse Demon also features prominently in the first movement. The second movement similarly uses an ancient song for its harmonic backdrop. In this case it is a small section of Henry Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Marya work written and premiered at the funeral of Queen Mary II of England in 1695. The harmonic material comes from a passage titled In the midst of life we are in death. The non-voiced pops, clicks, static, and beeps of police radio recordings from recent mass shootings and murders of unarmed Blacks by police officers are layered to create dense heterophonic textures. And a recording of Simon Loeffler’s 2012 work b for 3 musicians, 3 neonlights, effectpedals and a loose jack cable also features prominently in the second movement.

In short, the new normal is my response to the violent and worrying events of the summer of 2016 (when the piece was written)—a particularly dark time in the world. I chose these external sound sources intuitively for the web of layered meaning they might conjure in the mind of listener. But my intent is not to make identifying the sound sources the main focus of the work. I believe the layers of intertextuality that listeners will build in their minds regardless of whether or not the sound sources are specifically identified, will far exceed those of my own imagination. So, on a more abstract, less referential level, I also chose these specific sounds for their evocative, purely sonic properties.

GF: the new normal employs tunings other than 12-tone equal temperament. What’s your approach to intonation?

WD: I have a deep interest in non-tempered tuning systems, believing that there exists certain expressive possibilities in pitch intervals and harmonies outside of the realm of 12-tone equal temperament—especially in those derived from the harmonic series. I choose not to limit the expressive capability of my music, so I look beyond the confines of 12-tone equal temperament, especially when excellent new music practitioners (like the players of Wild Rumpus) are easily able to execute specific microtonal deviations from the tempered scale.

GF: The way I look at it, you have both just or quasi-just tunings going on in the new normal (in the guitar part), as well as other microtonal divisions of the octave in the strings, and fixed pitched instruments that cannot accommodate either. How do you bring these different tuning “worlds” together, from a compositional standpoint? 
WD: I like when two or more different tuning systems collide. I find it less exciting as a compositional exercise to strive for a “perfect” tuning—one that attempts to preserves the simple whole number ratios between intervals of the harmonic series, for example. After all, each tuning system has its flaws, its upsides and downsides. As you say, certain microtonal divisions are not even possible on certain instruments! So rather than restrict myself to one tuning system, I enjoy bringing out the clash of two or more unreconcilable ones. I find that the interaction between these systems and their respective pitch collections can often bring out the most compelling sonorities.

GF: What was your path to becoming a composer?

WD: I grew up playing the piano, starting lessons at the age of five. While I hated practicing, I loved to improvise. In addition to the hours I spent sitting at the piano creating long, drawn out improvisations, I also began making quite detailed “compositions” on my father’s fancy Casio keyboard. (It had the possibility of recording eight individual tracks, which was pretty amazing for me at the time). I picked up percussion in high school, playing in the marching band, drum set in the jazz band, and also singing in the choir. As any good stereotypical high schooler, I also self-taught myself the electric guitar and started playing in a band, recording songs with friends in my parent’s basement. Meanwhile, I began taking a class in music theory and composition led by my enthusiastic high school band director. This was the first time I discovered the underlying structure behind the music which had all along been such an important part of my life. The idea that building sounds was a craft that one could study and never exhaust was deeply inspiring to me. And the quasi-mystical “otherness” of music also appealed to me. I still find it amazing that after being able to articulate all the structural elements of a piece of music, one by one, that there is still an undefinable “other” that makes certain moments in music so moving to me. After a mentorship at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore and many months putting together an ambitious portfolio of compositions, I decided to enroll at Temple University as a music composition major.

GF: Tell us about your experience participating in the Wild Rumpus Commissioning Project. What were some of the most beneficial elements in the process? 
WD: The Wild Rumpus Commissioning Project has been a great experience so far. Players have been really responsive and helpful when I’ve reached out for advice or guidance on technical and artistic questions. Despite some of my atypical request (like asking the percussionists if they’d be willing to play electric guitar), everyone I’ve been in touch with has been very receptive and enthusiastic, which is often not the case. Having an openness for dialogue is a really important part of my compositional process, especially early in the process, and so I appreciate the players of Wild Rumpus keeping an open mind and taking the time to help bring to life my artistic vision.

GF: What other projects have you got cooking right now?

WD: I’m currently working on a piece for solo zither and sine tones for the Austrian zither player, Martin Mallaun, to be premiered at the 4020 Festival in Linz in May. The piece uses small speakers placed inside the body of the zither to create an autonomous layer of resonance that emanates from the traditional alpine instrument. The work is inspired by Austrian illustrator, printmaker, and  author Alfred Kubin’s dystopian novel The Other Side (Die andere Seite).

Nathan Heidelberger: Interview


Nathan Heidelberger is the first composer from our 2015 Commissioning Project to write a piece for us, which we will be premiering at our concert this Friday at the Presidio Officers’ Club at 6pm. Here, clarinetist Sophie Huet interviewed Nathan about his piece, his upcoming projects, and why he chose to write for the ensemble of bass clarinet, trombone, contrabass, and soprano. Learn more about Nathan’s music at his website.

Sophie: How did you get into composition?

Nathan: I started composing in middle school – I was taking piano lessons at the time and I’d started on the french horn. I didn’t really like practicing very much, so my piano teacher encouraged me to try composing. I started writing some stuff for the piano, and then I had a really encouraging middle school band teacher who encouraged me to write more and write for instruments in the band. She taught me the ranges of the instruments and things like that, so I was writing for my middle school band. Things took off from there.

How did you end up in Buffalo?

I came here for grad school, at the University of Buffalo. I got my doctorate last spring. These days, I have a day job as a copy editor at a children’s educational publishing company. I am doing that to pay the bills and writing music on nights and weekends.

I join you in the day job life. I have a day job at a small software company. I feel like more and more people of our generation are doing this. in some ways, it gives you the freedom to do what you want to do without worrying about the money side.

Absolutely, yeah. I thought for a long time that I would try and find a teaching job or something like that but the longer I spent in school, watching other people struggle with adjuncting and trying to get into that world, it just doesn’t seem like something I want to do. Having the pressure to succeed as a composer be coupled with the pressure of demonstrating my success so I can get tenure. I don’t want any part of that. I’m really happy with what I have right now.

To talk about your piece: first of all, I really love it. The rehearsals have been really fascinating. One of the things that really strikes me is I know you had talked about variation in the piece. I was wondering if you could talk about your vision for the movements and how you structured the piece.

I had mentioned at some point that a few of my recent pieces have been dealing with repetition and variation on a very local level. There would be short motive that would get repeated and would evolve over time, over one section or the whole piece. For this piece, I was more interested in looking at the bigger picture and having a larger chunk of music that would then go through this process of repeating and changing over time. A lot of it came out of the text that I was working with. It’s from this work called The Pine Woods Notebook by Francis Ponge, which goes through pages and pages of prose notes he’s trying to describe these woods that he was visiting one summer in 1940. He takes all these notes trying to get the description exactly right, and he’s looking for the perfect word. He keeps going to the dictionary to make sure that all the words he’s using mean exactly what he wants them to mean. He tries to distill all that down into a poem, and he goes through 20 drafts of this one poem, trying to get it right. This resonated with me a lot in terms of the compositional process of working through a process of drafting and reworking your stuff, but I also just liked seeing the way words would change over the course of these drafts. He’d put a different word in where he’d used one earlier, or the order of the lines would change. That really spoke to the way that I work with my musical materials, developing them over time, reshuffling the way they happen, trying to change the ways they relate to each other. I was really hoping to capture that over the course of these variations.

Even with the repetition, there is a sense of growth over the whole piece. The ending is so cool!

One thing I was thinking about, is if there’s one thing that’s repeating or slowly developing, that either some other aspect that goes through this very clear linear progression over time. One particularly clear way to do that is through register, so over the course of the whole piece the four movements, things slowly move higher and higher through register, which I think is very apparent. Working my way up to this higher register at the end of the piece is a culmination of that. And I guess it could work if you’re thinking about moving up a tree that’s being described in the poem, from the roots up through the trunk into the branches and the pine needles at the top.

How did you end up selecting the 4 specific variations from the 20?

That’s a good question. I think I retyped them all and printed them out on individual pieces of paper, and I put them all next to each other. I was trying to maximize a bit of variety – some of them are much more similar than others, some of them follow the same basic line order. The ones I ended up picking, there’s a bit more variety in terms of the order the lines come in, that was appealing. They all bring a different ways of dealing with the same image. For example, the last lines of the second and third movements of my piece:

“But ribbons woven of sleepless atoms” vs. “Beneath taut-strung ribbons of sleepless weave”

They’re both getting at the same image, and it’s clear how, given one, Ponge could have arrived at the other, but they’re also quite different each other. And then, in the last movement, those lines turn into “…to tell of sleepless flies.” So there’s that balance of continuity—being able to trace an image from one version of the poem to another—and variety—changes of wording (“woven” to “weave”), the introduction of small, new elements (“atoms,” “taut-strung,” “flies”). Not all the drafts offered that, particularly the variety part.

Did he end up with a final draft, or did he give up at the end of it?

He pretty much gives up in the end. In fact the last poem that he arrives at, which is the last one that I set, he breaks it down into these modules. Each module is maybe 2 lines or 3 lines and he says, well actually you could put these in any order. Now that I’ve arrived at this particular wording and these particular groupings of lines, we could just reshuffle them however you want and it would work. Which was also really cool to me as a composer, thinking about mobile forms and things like that. This idea that you could have a poem that would shuffle itself around. So in the end the order of the lines that I chose for that isn’t the way it’s printed in the book, but he says you could have reordered them in any of these ways.

Did that resonate you with what you were saying earlier about you moving the musical materials around and reshuffling those?

Absolutely. I think this is the best possible solution – that he arrives at this point where it generates all these other possibilities beyond itself. I hope there’s a sense of that in the piece, that there are these different gesture types or materials that appear in the ensemble in each movement in a different way, developed in a different way, lined up with a different part of the text also, the idea that you could keep reshuffling that for ever and ever.

What are some other projects that you have coming up?

My dream project right now is a solo piece for myself, actually. On piano and melodica, simultaneously, and vocalizing too. In a lot of my music, performers may be called upon to vocalize, non vocalists may be called upon to vocalise. We have a concert coming up in Buffalo, with a lot of pieces like that where performers are doing multiple things at the same time, which is really appealing to me. I’ll also be writing a piece for voice and cello soon, setting a Psalm from the Bible for a whole recital of song settings for voice and cello.

How did the reading session and our approach to this commission, was this helpful for you, and how did this affect the end result of your piece?

That was extremely helpful. When I initially got this commission and I was asked to suggest instrumentations, I was really excited about this really wonky sounding ensemble. Bass clarinet, trombone, contrabass, and voice sounded really great to me, but when it came to actually writing the piece, it became much more of a challenge to juggle that. Having that opportunity to read through the draft of the one movement was extremely helpful because it was really hard to get my head around that at first. I think it highlighted things in that initial draft that were pretty muddy and denser than they should have been given the register and the instruments. Figuring out ways to scale back on that and push things into the higher register as the piece went along really helped.

What made you suggest this combination of instruments to begin with?

I was pretty much looking for the most outlandish thing I could do, I guess. Then I had to follow through on it.

Jenny Olivia Johnson: Interview

Jenny_Olivia_JohnsonWe last interviewed Jenny Olivia Johnson in 2012, when we originally commissioned Reflect Reflect Respond Respond. Soprano Vanessa Langer checked back in with Johnson, speaking more about her piece and her inspirations. Join us tonight to hear the revised version. You can learn more about Jenny Johnson’s music at her website.

Let me start out by saying we are thrilled to be performing this new incarnation of Reflect Reflect Respond Respond for Wild Rumpus. Even as it has its own particular challenges of endurance, it feels like a crossbreed of Wagner, Philip Glass and Bach.

That’s the most amazing compliment I’ve gotten in my life, as those are two of my paragons. I’m a huge Wagnerite despite all of his horrible politics and personality.

You are a native Californian?

I am from Los Angeles. I actually just came from there today, but I’ve been living in New York and Boston for a long time, but I’m a Southern Californian girl. I love the Bay Area though, God!

Well it sounds like you might be coming out to tinker on our upcoming album.

I would love to actually. I love recording. I just did my first album, and I just got obsessed with the whole studio process. It’s also something I would just love to learn how to do myself, be an engineer. That’s a weird aspiration of mine.

What was your source of inspiration for writing this piece, and why do you feel you had to communicate this body of work at this particular time?

I wrote this piece in 2012 and as you know I just re-did a big arrangement of it, but when I think back on the original impetus of this piece, it was really about teaching counterpoint. It was about teaching theory, about teaching Bach chorales and becoming newly obsessed with what those chorales meant to me as a composer, and especially the Jesu meine Freude set, because Bach set that melody in E minor so much. So I became obsessed with teaching through that chorale, through those different settings of it. For me, it’s incredibly sad, and I was interested into in the concept of sadness. What does it mean to lose something? What does it mean to obsess over something that you can’t have, and that erupted for me over this melody that you could set so many different ways, but each way being a different lens into this idea of loss. So I wanted to express all of the various lenses of the different Bach settings that I had studied as a kid into this piece about loss. I wanted it to be this multivalent repetitive delayed miasma about loss. And I wanted it to be this ecstatic version, because that is something I have studied a lot when I’ve done scholarship on trauma. I’ve thought a lot about the energy that is generated around negative feelings and sometimes that energy can be very euphoric. Sometimes it can be the energy that propels you into a new state of being. And so I wanted to think about sadness and loss as this sort of propelling energy to a new phase of life. I wanted to look at sadness from a lot of different angles. That’s when I took this idea of the Jesu meine Freude chorale and set in a repetitive, energetic, intense, circle of repetitions and had these idea of delay lines that would mirror it out into the universe and create this energy that would be propulsive, that would propel you into another state.

In terms of loss and euphoria is there a point in the piece that the transformation happens that the audience can look for?

Well you know after the singers sing “Jesu meine Freude…will you sing my sad songs…if I can’t touch you let me gaze.” That for me is a transformational point where it’s clear that actually what I am experiencing is not real. But let me still gaze upon it, let me still experience this simulacra of my emotional state in the most intense way I possibly can, even though its not real. That intensified, repetitive fast part ‘let me gaze upon you’ which I gather is really hard for the musicians to do, to me that is traumatic repetition. That’s the repetition compulsions. That’s the compulsion to repeat because, as Freud writes in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” we have this drive to repeat things that are traumatic for us that we don’t yet understand. There is a weird way in which we gain another kind of pleasure from trying to understand where we come from, even though we know we don’t have all of the information around it. We gain pleasure from the pain of the past. For me, that’s the point at which the piece hinges and turns toward the recognition of loss.

What can you tell us about the instrumentation you chose?

I was really excited about the idea of any stringed instruments as plucked tear drops, that was something I was playing with vis a vis my studies of Purcell and early music. What we the call the affect and lear, the theory of affects, different types of keys and also instrumentation techniques for evoking emotions is something I wanted to play with a lot. But at the same time that I was obliquely reference early music I was at the same time interested in a big sound. And so at that point and this point as well, what ever you guys have I’m going to write for it. So when Dan said, “Okay, here is out new band,” I said, “I’ll take them all!”

Your mythological reference to Narcissus and Echo and the play between self love and self destruction is a really fascinating one. Is that personal?

It hit home. I had been teaching a couple of classes on psychology and music, psychoanalysis in music. And I was interested in the concept of narcissism and what that means. And you know it always has this very negative connotation. You know, “Don’t fall in love with a narcissist, you are going to get your heart broken. And everything terrible is going to happen to you.” And in a way I’m thinking we are all narcissists. What does it mean to examine that, examine the idea of having a relationship with yourself and examining having a love relationship in which you really confront yourself. Which I think is what happens in all love relationships. I wanted to concentrate on that feedback loop of what happens when you are examining yourself and what happens – why is that necessarily good or bad. I wanted to remove the reductive veillance that our society gives narcissism and think about the fact that we are all narcissists, we have to be constantly examining ourselves when we interact with each other.

In a way, it’s impossible and in a way all of these terrible things that can happen to you when you confront a narcissist or your own narcissism are so important. It’s so rich you know, and I wanted to celebrate that richness. I didn’t necessarily want to just write a morality play about this. It’s just an inevitable fact about being a human being. You are going to be a narcissist and run into narcissists.

In a way we are discouraged from being narcissists. It’s so sad that we are taking selfies of ourselves but in a way with or without the camera we are always doing that. Everybody that we encounter is a selfie because we are always getting reflections of ourselves off of other people. And learning how to acknowledge the other with the inevitable fact that we are going to be “selfie”-ing with the other, always!

Favorite book?

Well Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a favorite no doubt. It’s a beautiful science fiction book about adolescence in space, having to engage in a battle that they don’t know they are fighting. They think they are training to fight a battle and then they find out they are actually fighting this other species and they kill them. And actually that’s what this tattoo is on my arm with the carrots. What happens is that this young genius is charged with killing this race of insectoids, these aliens that are like insects. And he thinks he is training. He doesn’t know that in fact he is going to destroy their planet and destroy their species. But there is one cocoon left that he eventually discovers after the war and it communicates with him telepathically. And the way that that telepathic communication is indicated is with these carrots around the word yes. And that is the word that the cocoon conveys to him. Yes you have found the right spot for us. Put us here so that we can eventually regenerate and regrow. So for me this idea of intuitively knowing something is right is very powerful. And having somebody else just be able to communicate that yes this is right telepathically is like a load stone for me. That is everything.

Dream project?

Oh man, well it’s funny, my girlfriend is writing an opera that she wants to put on a beach and I think that is so great, but that is her dream project, so I’m not going to take that on. For me a dream project is actually having an opera in an art gallery, in a hall of mirrors, and the audience has to be in that hall of mirrors and it’s very disorienting. Definitely sight specific opera, like the Industry in L.A. what they are doing in limos and cars is blowing my mind. That kind of opera really excites me.

Joanne de Mars: Interview

headshot 2012At our upcoming concert on Friday, October 16 at the Berkeley Arts Festival, we will be premiering “For the Sea” by our very own Joanne de Mars. Joanne will also be performing this work for solo cello. Wild Rumpus soprano Vanessa Langer interviewed de Mars about her piece, the contrast between composing and performing, and her history of working with Wild Rumpus. Join us on Friday to hear this and other amazing works!

What inspired you to compose For the Sea for unaccompanied cello?

I was commissioned to write this piece by a family friend of my mom’s. His daughter is graduating from college, and he wanted to giver her something that was a little unusual as a graduation gift, and that is how the commission came about. Musically, it’s a piece for unaccompanied cello and the theme that he wanted was something about ocean or relating to science and life as his daughter was an ocean science major. So, the topic was pre-chosen for me, but I have a deep connection to the ocean of my own, being from the West Cost not only on the Pacific Ocean but the Puget Sound. I’m fascinated by the way that the water has a certain rhythm but it is totally random in its movements on a smaller scale. Using a lot of those influences is where my music came from.

How does that oceanic randomness tie into musical ideas for you in this work?

I used a series of randomly repeating groups of two’s and three’s that I generated with a random generator online to create the middle section of the piece. From there I extended it into an overall wave form that I worked outward from the middle into a larger palindrome.

What are the challenges and advantages of writing for unaccompanied cello?

The advantage is I can play the piece myself. I don’t have to depend on anybody else to recreate my idea of how it should sound musically. Harmonic structure is an important element of music for me personally, and definitely in writing for any kind of solo instrument, there is an element of harmony that has to be there. To create a sense of harmony other than melody and rhythm with a solo instrument can be challenging. But at least with the cello you have multiple strings so that you can create chords and play off of that, so you can have an implicit harmony.

As you know, Jenny Johnson’s piece Reflect Reflect Respond Respond makes reference to Bach’s “Jesu meine Freude”. Do Bach’s unaccompanied suites influence you at all when you think about unaccompanied cello?

Either consciously or subconsciously I am influenced by them. They are the greatest works for unaccompanied cello to date and most iconic. So I cannot say that they did not influence me. The harmonic aspect definitely influenced me in how he incorporates that element into a work for a solo instrument, having bass notes and voice leading was a key element in my head. That being said, I came at it from a different angle. For the Sea is a very stand-alone piece whereas the Suites are a collection full of those now famous dance rhythms.

Has the piece evolved since you performed it in the workshop at the Center for New Music back last fall?

No, you know I finished it. I feel like it’s done. I haven’t changed anything. Maybe it sounds weird to say but the more I practice it, the more I’m discovering about my own writing and the piece. Kind of like finding the places in which I can lead more, bring out more of the melodic structure. I wrote it very thoughtfully but pretty quickly and even now having the chance to perform it gives me more insight into the piece as a musical endeavor rather than just a compositional idea.

What is it like performing your own piece versus someone else’s composition?

It’s different in that I have no one to blame for how hard it is but myself. I’m trying to come at it like this is someone else’s music and trying to make the music out of it from what I see on the page, rather than feel like I have the freedom to change what it is because I wrote it. So I’m really trying to stick to what is on the page and what I can do with the notes that are given.

Does it help you to disassociate somehow? What does it help you to do?

Absolutely! I think I can create more music from it. Especially having had the break from when I originally wrote it in 2014 til today, I feel a bit of a fresh eye and a fresh ear to the piece having a little distance, not feeling so married to it as a piece of mine. It’s just a piece for cello now.

Has this process helped you feel inspired to continue composing?

I would really love to continue writing music. I don’t know if it will be for cello. Obviously, it’s a convenient medium. I would like to perform this piece some more and I’m really excited to have this premiered for this concert.

How long have you played with Wild Rumpus, and how did you discover you were interested in new music and even in composing?

I’ve played with Wild Rumpus since 2012. As far as new music goes, I first discovered new music when I was fifteen years old. I played in the Seattle Youth Symphony, and we played Aaron Jay Kernis’ Symphony No. 2 and I was obsessed from that point on. Its funny; everybody else did not get the idiom. They couldn’t stand it, what is this crap, whereas I felt o my gosh this is amazing! So I knew there was something to it, which led me into discovering new works. In my undergraduate training at University of Washington I was active in the new music ensemble performing new works and performed in a contemporary improv quartet. I’m really happy to continue my passion for it with Wild Rumpus. It’s exciting to work with composers at this close a level.

How do you want the audience to approach this piece on a first listen?

Even though the piece is based on a random repeating motif, it is very repetitive in a classical composition sense in that I have a mode and I modulate with the mode and play different transpositions of such mode. So if you listen with a classically informed ear it will be pretty self-explanatory. The sonority is a little different than you would experience in say a piece by Brahms or Bach or anything classical.

What role does the audience play for you in this context?

Well since I’ve been a performer, I feel like such an intermediary between the theoretical composition of music and what it actually is – I believe to communicate and grow some sense of deeper connection with other people. I believe it’s a very connective force that we have as humans to be able to transform sound waves and affect us on a very emotional level. I think it’s my job usually as a performer to effect that change in people. Usually since I am performing other people’s compositions it’s my job to interpret what perhaps their intended emotional construct or communicative construct would be and be able to communicate that using my voice with the cello and as a performer. To communicate that to an audience and effect some change in them or some sort of connection for them with the music. As a composer, I feel that, it’s interesting but it makes you take that one extra step back from that sort of level of connection. I connect to the ocean and this piece is about the sea. Using that sort of connection is how I feel I came up with the tone of the piece. However, I did not have the audience so much in mind. Its more about my connection to the sea.