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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.
Recently I spoke with Nicolas Tzortzis, one of the winners of Wild Rumpus’ Commissioning Project. We will be performing the world premiere of his work Incompatible(s) VI for harp, bass clarinet, violin, and cello on September 27, 2013 at Old First Church in San Francisco. The work is a thrilling piece of avant-garde musical theater in which the musicians are called upon to portray a dramatic text in multiple languages, while simultaneously executing richly textured and intricate instrumental parts. I spoke with Nicolas about his background, his ideas of musical theater, as well as some specifics about this new piece.
Dan VanHassel: You have a very cosmopolitan background. You’re Greek, but you’ve done a lot of your education in France and Canada.
Nicolas Tzortzis: I’ve studied in more places than I have lived, that’s the interesting part! I moved to France in 2002, and officially I am still living there, even though right now I am in Germany as a composer in residence in a small village near Mannheim. I studied musical theater with Georges Aperghis in Switzerland, but I never actually lived in Switzerland. I just went back and forth; of all the people in the course, practically nobody actually lived in Switzerland. We had classes every couple of weeks for two or three days, so we took the train and then everybody went back where they came from. In Canada I also managed to do it more or less like this because when I started my Ph.D I was also doing the IRCAM Cursus, and the University of Montreal allowed me to not be in Montreal in order to attend the Cursus. I went to Montreal two or three times a year, took the exams, and I got my Ph.D last April without actually living there. So I’ve lived in Paris for the last 12 years, but I’ve studied in more places!
D: Do you find that you identify in particular with French culture? You’ve lived there a long time at this point.
N: I like the French language. It’s very interesting how it’s structured and how it sounds and how different the French mentality is portrayed when you learn the language, because each language is actually a way of thinking, a way of understanding the world, a way of expressing it. That’s what’s very interesting to me about different languages, and that’s why I use different languages in all of my pieces when there’s a voice or a text. Not once have I used just one language! Some things may sound better in French, in German, or Italian, so why not use that instead of just staying with one and using it to the end?
D: How many languages do you speak?
N: With Greek, six.
D: Wow! As an American that’s very impressive!
I’ve also used languages I don’t speak with help from friends. I have used Dutch because the player who was going to talk was from Belgium and I wanted to use the fact that she could speak perfect French and Dutch. I’ve also used Japanese, because there was a Japanese player involved and I wanted everybody to speak their own languages. It creates a collage of languages and sounds.
D: Is your primary interest in using different languages to have a different way of filtering things or viewing things through that language?
N: It has to do with, first of all what sounds better to me in what language. When you translate something into a different language, it changes a little bit either the meaning or the connotation, or the way it is perceived. It also changes the relationship between the different elements of the music. For instance, in the piece for Wild Rumpus, normally most of your audience would not understand the German part, but all of them will understand the English part, and some may understand the French part that Sophie* is saying. So the English part is actually addressed to the audience, while in the other parts the players are talking more to themselves or to the other abstract characters of the piece. When I want the audience to understand, I put it in English. Of course, all of this would change if it was performed in another country where English is not the primary language.
*Wild Rumpus clarinetist Sophie Huet
D: So would you change the text if it were performed in another country?
N: No! But it would change what people understand. The same piece is perceived differently based on who you are. When we listen to music we don’t understand the piece for what the composer or what the performer wants to say. We just understand what we can. Somebody who’s not sensitive to quarter-tones doesn’t hear the quarter-tones. Somebody who doesn’t speak German doesn’t understand the German, so he’s just going to zap it away in his mind; it’s just gibberish for him. But for the one who understands, there’s a different level of understanding. If you speak German you will understand the piece better. If you speak French you will understand it even more. But there are also some parts where the harpist speaks German in reverse. That’s not a language, so you’re not supposed to understand anything there, it’s just the feeling that she’s projecting as a character with no text. There are different ways of using language in order to achieve understanding or not, and to play with the character. In this piece when she speaks German normally she is a little kid, when she speaks German in reverse she is a teacher, when she speaks English she is some different things that could talk to the audience. So it makes the separation of roles more clear.
D: Is there a story behind the piece? I understand that there are the characters of a teacher and student. Could you talk a little bit about the story or the inspiration for these characters? It seems quite dramatic!
N: One of my ideas before I even started the piece was to write for your players. Not to write for any clarinet player, or any harp player, but to try to customize it. Because especially when it has to do with musical theater I enjoy writing off the players, even though I hadn’t met the Wild Rumpus people before I wrote it. I asked for everybody to send some things about themselves, to tell me what languages they speak, and so on. The clarinet player speaks French [in the piece], because she actually does! If Sophie had told me she was of Mexican heritage and she spoke Spanish, then her text would probably have been in Spanish. Naomi* told me she spoke German, and when I visited her website it said that she gave cooking classes in addition to harp lessons, which I found very interesting! I asked her to send me a recipe that she enjoys cooking. She sent me a chocolate cake recipe, which is most of the text of the piece. I had it translated into German. So the text itself is something very neutral. The recipe and the way you say it could be the most boring thing in the world. What I wanted to do was to take this non-expressive text, and think of what I could bring out of the text. The idea is that the text has strictly nothing to do with what is happening. This for me is very interesting, and this also relates to the idea of “incompatibility”. You can take a text and kind of impose theatrics on it that would be more relevant to a different text, then you can focus on how you play it out.
What we understand when we go to the theater, it’s not only the text, but it’s mostly the acting. You could act out the warranty from your fridge, and it could be Hamlet if you’re a good actor! And this abstract kind of musical theater is much more interesting to me than playing Hamlet himself. When the barrier of language is too high, we focus just on what we can get. There are things that surpass the language barrier and we focus on the theatrics. The expression, the movement, the dynamics, all of that stuff!
*Previous Wild Rumpus harpist Naomi Hoffmeyer.
D: It sounds like the theatrical elements are coming closer to a musical type of expression. Is that what’s interesting about it to you?
N: Yes, exactly!
D: It does sound like we’re talking about music in some sense; you can’t understand literal words or phrases, but you’re getting the expressive content.
N: It’s the same thing. You can use language or words as notes, as techniques, as modes of playing. All of that is blended together. For instance, when she is angry, do I make the music angry also? Or do I create a gap between them? In this piece mostly they go together.
D: Is there actually a story though behind the emotions that are being presented?
N: It’s the evolution of the two characters. The student starts out as a nice kid, and by the end she becomes more of a brat. The teacher is supposed to remain calm, despite the fact that she’s getting more and more annoyed, and then she reaches a certain point when she loses it and she’s very angry and the kid is scared of her. It’s a change of roles. After I wrote the piece I realized this is the same idea from The Lesson by Ionesco, only there the change is more gradual. It’s this classical idea of a change of power; the weak becomes the strong and the strong becomes the weak. Only in this piece it is not linear; you can’t tell exactly because there’s not a clear text. And there are the parentheses of the other texts that blur the thing and also communicate with the audience. It’s not supposed to be understood from A to B. You could think of it as if the story of the teacher and the kid is happening on one channel while you zap for awhile to another channel, and when you come back the story has already evolved to the next step. The idea is to understand the theater in it, not the story in itself.
D: Anything else you’d like to add about the piece?
N: I really enjoyed writing this piece! I’m sure it would have been different if I had met the performers before writing it, but I hope that every player can find a little bit about themselves in the piece.
I recently spoke with Australian composer Julian Day, one of the winners of our commissioning project. We will be giving the world premiere of his piece Father at our upcoming concert on May 11, 2013 at Salle Pianos in San Francisco. We talked about the inspiration behind the piece, his massive synthesizer collection, stuttering CDs, and the process of eating one’s own flesh. – Dan VanHassel
Dan VanHassel: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your background as a musician?
Julian Day: I came to music from both pop and classical. I’ve always been very interested in pop music, and my father was actually a singer and an electric guitarist in a band, that was his main activity. So I grew up with the idea of pop and rock in the household. There were always keyboards and guitars and that sort of thing lying around. But when I was in my teens I really rebelled against the whole family tradition of rock music and got into classical music unexpectedly and I went off to study composition at university. It wasn’t that I came through studying piano for twelve years or something. It was from just being a big fan of listening to music and also being quite a big fan of radio. Actually that’s one of the other things I do in my career is host a new music radio program this been going on for some years now. We’ve managed to pull quite a few big name composers on the show like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. We even got Elliott Carter on the show 2 months before he sadly passed away.
D: Wow so that was one of his last interviews!
J: Yeah. So I guess all of that adds up to an interest in things like transmission; the idea of how things transmit through the air, amplification and the way things can distort, the differences between hearing things live and hearing them on headphones. You can hear in the piece I wrote for Wild Rumpus [Father] elements of all of those things in that work.
D: You said that Father was in a lineage of other pieces that you have done. Can you talk a bit about that?
J: Well about 10 years ago I started doing my radio show, and being late night in the studio every week, you get to know the technology very well. I’d often be sitting there playing CD, and having to cue them up, and always getting those little snippets of sound at the very beginning of a CD or a record. Often when you’re cueing a CD you get that classic stuttering CD sound, as you’re trying to find the exact point you want. Also, because I was cutting together a lot of interviews and putting together montages of peoples’ pieces and voice, there was a lot of treatment that I was doing to them and their work to put to air. So I started making creative works out of the little off-cuts and the techniques of trying to find the right cue point on a CD. Over the past ten years I’ve been building a body of works where I might take little fragments or a sample of something, it could be a fragment of a classical piece or a hip-hop track, or something a little more obscure, and finding ways to treat that. Whether it’s stammering through using a CD player or treating it through different processes on the computer, and I try to build acoustic relationships to that when put in a live context.
Listen to excerpt from Sextant: [audio:http://www.wildrumpusmusic.org/wp-content/uploads/JD.Stammer_Sextant_excerpt.1.mp3|titles=Sextant|artists=Julian Day]
For instance, Father is not too dissimilar to a recent work that I did for amplified string quartet and soundtrack, where the soundtrack was from the final ten seconds of an unfinished quartet by Schubert. I put that through a bunch of different filters, and the quartet was effectively skipping their way through various elements of the Schubert. This was also evident in a few other pieces in recent years where live musicians are interplaying with this pre-recorded, “damaged” audio.
D: So is Father based on some other piece like the Schubert quartet?
J: Actually, this was a bit of a departure in that sense, because the soundtrack [in Father] is actually my own piece. I wrote the material that you are hearing through the speakers, and I guess “damaged” my own music.
D: These sampling techniques you mention seem related to those used in hip-hop or electronic dance music. Is that an influence on you?
J: Well it comes out of three things. Being interested in that kind of music; I grew up listening to a lot of electronic music, and a lot of sampled stuff. Also it came just out of necessity. When I first started working in radio, and before that, I just didn’t have that much gear and I needed to find some way forward to make my own music, and these low-fi techniques were just what I had in front of me. The third thing is, a bit of a critique on the classical music canon, especially when I’m using snippets from classical music. I’m trying to treat classical music as less of a fixed score or a fixed object in the canon, and more something that has a bit of plasticity that you can play around with. I feel that sometimes in the classical music world that people can get very stuck on trying to either honor the work so much that you have this authoritative Beethoven recording or performance, or you’re trying to get back to this authentic performance practice, and not feeling like you can have any agency as a creator and as a listener. It’s just trying to treat recordings as a way to be very fluid about what’s out there.
D: But in our piece you’re actually doing this to yourself! Is this some sort of snake eating its own tail?
J: (laughs) A little bit! The word that comes to mind is “autophagia”, it’s when octopuses eat themselves for instance. Even biting your nails is a form of autophagia where you eat yourself.
J: It relates a little bit perhaps to the programmatic element to the piece.
D: Right. Can you talk a bit about that?
J: Yeah, I felt a bit naked putting that in the program note, because it’s a fairly personal story. Basically, my father died a long time ago when I was in my mid-teens. It was a very tragic thing – a very haunting thing – that I’ve only really been able to process over time. My father was the person who basically got me into music. He taught me his songs from his band. He bought me a drum kit and a little Casio keyboard. He was very supportive in that. He even bought me albums by Schubert and classical composers, even though that was nothing like his own taste. So I’ve always wanted to try to reflect on my feelings about my father in my music. I guess that side of things came to me while writing this. In a way it is a kind of a tribute to him, or bringing up the memories of my father from years ago. You don’t need to know any of that to listen to the piece, but those were the kind of things going through my head when working on it.
D: Well, the piece is definitely very evocative even if you don’t know the program. But knowing what’s behind it really gives it an added layer of depth.
J: Yeah, it’s kind of like a little requiem movement for my father. I could actually envisage this becoming part of a set of pieces that deal with the memory of my father, and what I owe to him in a way. And I guess the piece has a sort of classic “sadness” to it, it’s a slowly descending passage. We so often associate these descending patterns with sadness, if we think back to Henry Purcell for instance, and all of those slow laments that are built on a ground bass. Basically what happens on the soundtrack is a kind of sequence that’s designed to keep repeating itself but forever keep sinking lower and lower. There’s a little “mistake” in the sequence that keeps transposing it down further, so you could eventually go right down below the registers of all the instruments. But I just decided to let it pool, and let it become a blurry puddle on the floor, and maybe that whole process suggests a sense of lament or sadness.
D: Let me ask you about how you created the soundtrack. You do a lot with analog synthesizers, and you also have the “An Infinity Room” project. What is your relationship to synthesizers?
J: I love synthesizers. As I mentioned earlier, my first instrument was a tiny little ten-note keyboard that my dad gave me. I’ve collected maybe 50 or 60 synthesizers now, maybe even more. I do a lot of installation works with them, as well as performances. What I’m trying to do with the keyboards is to treat them as found objects, it’s kind of in the Marcel Duchamp tradition, where you take something and do with it what you can do and maybe comment on it in some way. I usually compose just playing around on the keyboard. It might emerge into an “Infinity Room” piece, which is usually very immersive and drone based. Or in this case it might emerge as a work with other instruments. I have a very simple approach to playing keyboard and finding little patterns that I like, and in this case it really was just finding a pattern that could eternally regenerate itself. From there on it was a very simple process. I made that into an audio track from the synthesizer, and then “damaged” that through a few different processes, like stretching it out, giving it a bit of a distorted treatment, and so on.
D: Your description of your process reminds me a bit of some of Brian Eno’s work, particularly in Discreet Music and some of the other early ambient works. Is he an influence on you?
J: Yeah, I love Eno’s work. One difference perhaps is that Eno’s ambient idea is to be quite static, staying still in one spot. What I like to do is to use that type of material, but to give it a bit of a journey, going from one state to another. For instance, in Father it’s starting up very high and going very low. In other pieces it might be shifting from one sort of sound to another, so by the end of the piece you’re in a very different state from the beginning.
D: That’s your classical music teenage rebellion! You want to have more of a through-line through the piece.
J: (laughs) Yeah, exactly.
D: You’ve spent some time in the U.S., attending the Bang on a Can festival, and you’ve been commissioned by the MATA festival in New York, but you live in Australia. I wonder what are your impressions of the American new music scene vs. that in Australia?
J: The scene in the States is insane, it’s so active and busy, there’s so many amazing ensembles, composers, and artists. It’s no exaggeration to say that in the last 50 years at least, America has taken over the crown of where most of the new music innovations have been taking place. 100 years ago it was largely Europe, and the last 50 years it has largely been the States. Not exclusively; there’s been some amazing things happening all around the world. But it’s hard to ignore the impact that American music has had on the rest of the world.
I think that Australia and the States have a lot in common with their music scenes. We just have a much smaller one. There’s 23 million people in Australia, and twelve times that in the States. So whatever scene we have is always going to be smaller. We have an interesting position in the world because we’re buffeted by a few different forces. There’s the Western tradition; we were colonized only a little over 200 years ago by the English, and in the last 50-100 years there’s been a much stronger American influence. So we all speak English, and it’s a very Westernized country. Yet, we’re right next to Papua New Guinea and near Indonesia, and we’re a bit south from Japan and China. We’re basically a Pacific country, so we have this huge Asian influence too. I get the sense that we’re probably not a million miles away from some of the artistic developments that have happened on the West Coast of the States; looking a bit less to Europe all the time and maybe more to our own backyard.
Composer Jonathan Russell’s piece Lament and Frippery will be premiered by Wild Rumpus on our concert this Saturday, May 11 at Salle Pianos in San Francisco. Jonathan is a clarinetist and composer currently studying at Princeton. I interviewed Jonathan while he was still in the process of writing his piece for Wild Rumpus. – Sophie Huet
Sophie Huet: Let’s start by asking you to tell me a little about yourself and how you got into music.
Jonathan Russell: Okay. So I started playing clarinet when I was nine. My dad was an amateur clarinetist, my mom’s a pianist and conductor. I grew up around classical music and started composing when I was fourteen. I went to music camp that summer, and they had a student composer concert there. I was like, oh, if my friends can do that, maybe I want to give it a try too. We also sang the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms that summer, and I went home and listened to the Rite of Spring, and it totally blew my mind.
Oh my God, I bet.
And that’s why I started composing because I was like, I want to do that. I want to write that piece. I had no idea music like that existed before, you know? I knew about Brahms and Mozart and all that, and I knew some pop music but the Rite of Spring really opened things up for me.
What about it was so inspiring?
Just the power of it, and the rhythmic vitality really excited me a lot. The harmonies that I didn’t know what they were, I couldn’t figure them out at all. I tried to imitate them at the piano, and I couldn’t really figure them out either. It was the mystery of it, too. All the orchestral colors, of course.
So then you went to school…
I was basically training as a classical clarinetist all through high school. But also other interests too – I was trying to decide whether to go to conservatory or a liberal arts school. I started playing bass clarinet in college, basically because I was the last chair clarinetist in the orchestra. I got stuck with the bass. The first time I played bass was on Daphnis and Chloe, and it was a disaster. It was on this not-very-well kept up instrument, too. I was just squawking and honking all over the place. I was not very into bass at all, at first. And then I took a class on Jazz music from the 1960s and I heard Eric Dolphy’s bass clarinet playing for the first time. And that was a Rite of Spring moment too, I had no idea the instrument could do that. I still had the school’s bass clarinet so I started improvising on it and fooling around with it and got really excited about bass clarinet from then on. So I finished my undergrad and came out here [San Francisco] to do a Master’s in composition and got much more involved in bass clarinet primarily through meeting Jeff Anderle and playing in Sqwonk and Edmund Welles.
Is that group still around, Edmund Welles?
Sort of. We haven’t played together in over a year, but we are going to ClarinetFest in Italy this summer. Theoretically, the group still exists if the right thing comes along, but I’m on the east coast now, which makes it hard, and Cornelius has gotten interested in other things, and he’s doing a lot of shakuhachi flute playing and more composing for other instruments.
I was in my early 20s, I was writing very Stravinsky/Bartok/Debussy influenced music, influenced by the early 20th century. That’s where my heart was in terms of music I liked and wanted to write. Then when I got out here I started getting more into minimalism and post-minimalism and Steve Reich and Phillip Glass and stuff like that. I was also more into experimental stuff like, I got burned out on classical music for a while and was doing free improvisation and started playing klezmer music and heavy metal bass clarinet quartet music. It was this very exciting period where all these new influences were coming into my consciousness. I really grew up only doing classical music. In my composing I started getting really interested in the idea of crossing genres together, bringing new influences from other genres into my music. Rock or jazz or klezmer music. With Jeff and Ryan we founded Switchboard Music Festival, which was related to that also. Highlighting music that was genre-crossing. San Francisco’s a very exciting place to be for that because there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in that regard.
That’s what I was really into for a while, and then I moved back East in 2009 to be with my now-wife, who’s in Washington, DC. A year later, I got into Princeton Composition PhD program, so I’ve been there for 3 years. I’d say my composing in the past several years has evolved in a way going back to my roots, combining some of the more groove-based post-minimal stuff with more narrative dramatic flavor of more traditional classical chamber music. That’s where I’m at right now.
Very cool! I know this might be a little bit awkward, but can you speak at all of what kinds of things influenced you for the piece you’re writing for us?
It’s still evolving, so it might end up going a very different direction from where it is now. My whole idea for the piece all along was, a year ago I took a class on Supercollider, which is this music synthesis programming language. I wrote a little 8 minute piece in supercollider, using these computer-generated sounds. You can make these patterns and set them in motion and record myself improvising with it. It was very difficult for me, I have no computer programming background at all, and there’s no interface for this program, it’s all just typing code. It’s pretty crazy. I hit a wall with it, but I was pretty excited about it for a while, and made this little piece. My whole idea for the Wild Rumpus piece was to basically take that piece and try and arrange or transcribe it for the ensemble. I was working on that for a while, and then, I totally got sick of it, and was like, I don’t want to do this anymore! I was fiddling around and came up with that thing we read the other day. I like that a lot, and now that’s become the impetus for the piece. I have a lot more sketches for the piece that we didn’t look at because they’re sketching out the general harmonic trajectory. That’s where I’m going with it now. It’s hard for me to characterize it at this point because I’m still figuring out where it’s going.
What I like about it is it has this rhythmic groove quality to it, but with these more discordant harmonies and these scratchy more textural tone colors. Alternating with these more aggressive heavy metal stuff. That’s the basic conflict of the piece. It’s almost like a dysfunctional music box, an evil music box. What I’m trying to figure out with the piece right now is how those things are going to play out with each other and interact.
What are some other projects you’re working on right now?
I’ve had a ton of projects going for a while, a lot of little chamber pieces. One of the cool things at Princeton is they have all these different groups you can write for. I signed on for a lot of stuff this year. This is my last one in a big batch of projects. And then things quiet down for a little bit. In terms of long-term projects, I’m going to write a bass clarinet concerto which I’m going to do with the Princeton student orchestra. In over a year, so a longer term project. I’m also working on a clarinet and cello concerto which I’m going to do with the Peninsula Symphony which is in the South Bay.
I’m really excited for both of those projects; it’s a really different process writing for yourself as the performer than writing for others. I like doing both, but I haven’t done that for a while.
How would you characterize the difference?
You can really take advantage of your own idiosyncrasies and strengths. You know exactly how it sounds because you play it yourself. Anytime you’re writing for an instrument that’s not your primary instrument there’s a certain amount of guesswork involved. You try your best to learn as much as you an about how the instrument works, but it’s still really different from being able to play it yourself. The flip side of that is you can almost be constrained by your own technique. It may be harder to come up with things that aren’t totally idiomatic or don’t come naturally to you. When I’m writing for myself, I try to also work at the piano sometimes, or more conceptually.
For my dissertation piece I want to write a big orchestra piece. Like, a symphony.
Good luck! Anything else you’d like to share? Working with Wild Rumpus?
The reading session was really helpful, especially from a harp perspective. I’ve always been kind of intimidated by the harp, and I’ve only ever written for it in an orchestral context. I’ve basically only written glissandos before. That was something I was really excited about with this piece. It was great to get to try out some of the preparations and stuff. It’s nice to meet the performers ahead of time, know who you’re writing for. Wild Rumpus seems really cool.