Category Archives: contemporary music

he said what? new music specialists

I am a big admirer of Alan Gilbert. While I’ve never worked with him, or seen his concerts live, I’ve enjoyed many a live-stream. His programming is actually interesting sometimes, even to a die-hard new music person like me.

So I am understandably disturbed by his recent interview in The Log. I wish he was familiar with the old saying, comparisons are odious!

His comments smack of provincialism. If it didn’t happen in NY, it didn’t happen. If it happened in NY, but not by a venerated ensemble, it wasn’t good enough.

I think I can speak for most of us who passionately love and advocate for new music. We do not see ourselves as superior to other musicians. We do not see our music as better. But it is different, and has different challenges.

New music deserves to be played. It deserves to be heard. The promulgation of new works doesn’t denigrate common practice music, nor the players who focus upon it.

Why do people who prefer early/new music get labeled as specialists, while people who prefer music from 1750-1900 are seen as owning the entire repertoire of concert music? Just wondering….

The players of the NYP are among the best in their field. They have specialized, but not in my area. They are certainly capable of giving wonderful performances outside their specialization – as am I! This doesn’t make them better than other musicians.

Could it be that they have a different style of playing? And perhaps that style is more appealing to Mr. Gilbert, who is dedicated to the same milieu?  In my experience, orchestral players bring a great deal of refinement to their performances of new music. Surface beauty and technical mastery can make for glorious performances for many pieces, but there are many other works in which the opposite approach is called for.  Some composers are interested in drama, technical and expressive extremes, fragility, vulnerability, the zone between mastery and loss of control….  I haven’t yet encountered orchestral players who fully embrace this awkward aesthetic and technical terrain.

While I am familiar with Mr. Gilbert’s work, he will likely never admire mine- he doesn’t know anything about me. I doubt he keeps up with the goings on of a TX new music flutist. But he shouldn’t make generalizations about musicians he hasn’t heard. He’s welcome to any of my concerts – with Sounds Modern, with Calliope Duo, even with my Nova student ensemble. The human dimension is certainly there, along with “pretty damn perfect” playing.

Trailblazer: Joseph Klein

klein_portrait_09-16c

photo credit: UNT Photo / Adriana Salazar Caro

We’re presenting a concert of works in Denton on September 19, featuring the works of Joseph Klein. It will include seven of Klein’s solo pieces, alongside his new ensemble work Canetti-menagerie. To mark the occasion, I thought it’d be fun to feature my colleague as our next trailblazer.

EM: With this upcoming event, I’d love to hear more about how these Canetti writings have inspired you since 1997 (or perhaps earlier?).

JK: Oddly enough, I discovered Elias Canetti‘s writings through the work of another composer, Magnus Lindberg, who himself had been influenced by Canetti’s seminal work Masse und Macht (Crowds and Power) in his 1985 composition Kraft. Intrigued by the concept behind Lindberg’s composition, I immediately went out and got a copy of Canetti’s book and was fascinated by his analysis of power systems and group dynamics, as well as his distinctive writing style. I was a doctoral student at Indiana University at the time, and several years later, after coming to UNT, I discovered Canetti’s Der Ohrenzeuge (Earwitness) at our local used bookstore — a quirky little book containing fifty brief character studies of the most bizarre, surreal personalities imaginable. It was quite the opposite of Crowds and Power, which dealt with human behavior in groups: these were paradigms of individual behaviors encapsulated into ironic, pithy caricatures. Halfway through the book, I realized that these characters were perfectly suited to musical interpretation as a series of works for various solo instruments. That was almost twenty years ago, and I have thus far composed sixteen solo works based on these characters, with more to come. In recent years, I began thinking about how these characters might interact with each other at a social gathering of sorts, and came up with an open-form chamber work titled Canetti-menagerie, which uses the material in each of the individual solo works as the basis for semi-improvisational interactions between the various performers.

EM: How has the culture of new music in North Texas (and at UNT), changed since you arrived here 2 decades ago?

JK: I think the most significant change at UNT since I’ve been here has been the dissolution of an arbitrary barrier between acoustic music and music technology that existed within the composition program at the time. When I arrived in 1992, there were computer music composers and acoustic music composers — different teachers, different students, separate courses, separate teaching assistants, even separate concert series and different performance spaces. There was relatively little integration between the two sub-groups of composers at the time. Among some of the faculty, in each camp, there was an underlying antipathy for the composers from “the other side.” Of course, this attitude was passed down to the students as well, and was not a healthy environment for building a robust community of composers, which we truly have now. Composers who are currently in the program — both faculty and students — are comfortable working in both realms, and there is much more understanding and mutual respect between what were previously two distinct areas. Needless to say, we no longer separate students, teaching assistants, or concerts based on this distinction either. I think this change in attitude over the past quarter century or so has been a natural by-product of our increasingly technological society — most people under the age of 30 take technology for granted these days, as a ubiquitous part of their lives — but sadly, there are still many composition programs around the country that practice a kind of segregation between these two worlds, which is such an antiquated mindset and completely untenable in the long run. I suppose as younger faculty are hired to these university positions, these old attitudes will eventually become a thing of the past.

As far as the performance of new music at UNT, the increasingly professional level of the Nova Ensemble (due in large part to your leadership, Elizabeth!) and the creation of a related field in contemporary music for graduate performance majors have certainly elevated both the level of new music performance and the awareness among faculty and students in general to the issues we deal with as new music practitioners. I feel that we could do an even better job creating opportunities for composers and performers to collaborate here at UNT, but I also believe that the overall quality of new music performances among students has vastly improved over the past decade or so.

EM: Your biography discusses fractal aesthetics and other abstract models for musical thought. How do you reconcile that with your engagement as a performer, and your sensitivity to the practical issues of communicating and creating music?

JK: I guess my interest in these abstract models and systems comes from my fascination with science and natural phenomena since I was young. (I was a microbiology major through my sophomore year in college, so this interest was strong enough that it almost became the basis of a career.) Perhaps the use of these processes in my music is a way that I could have my cake and eat it too — living vicariously as a “scientist” through my work as a composer! However, I am also very interested in performance, the inherent theatricality of the concert experience, and the engagement of an audience by the performers. I think it is relatively easy to square these two seemingly disparate concerns in one’s work: nature is elegant and inspiring and beautiful whether or not you understand the complex processes behind it; in the same way, a work of art can move people whether or not they understand the underlying method. This just speaks to the depth and richness of music — and nature — and how both can be appreciated and experienced in a multitude of ways; and the most engaging musical experiences to me are those that work on multiple levels.

EM: We have a shared lineage in our mentor Harvey Sollberger. I’d like to learn more about your mentors.

JK: It’s interesting that we both have Harvey as a mentor, but within two different worlds! I first met Harvey when he was a guest artist at UC San Diego during my first year in the masters program there, back in 1985. I got along with him immediately, and was inspired by his energy, passion, and ideas, and the fact that he is such a versatile musician (also a conductor, of course, as well as a flutist and composer). Even though I had just started at UCSD, I decided then that I wanted to work with Harvey for my doctorate at Indiana University, which I eventually did. While at IU, I also had the pleasure of playing bassoon and contrabassoon in the New Music Ensemble there, which Harvey directed, and served as assistant director of that ensemble for a time. To this day, I consider Harvey to be one of my good friends and a very important role model. When Harvey left IU (to teach at UCSD, ironically!) in 1990, I finished my studies with Claude Baker, who was also an excellent mentor, and quite different from Harvey in his approach. Backtracking a bit, I should also mention that at UCSD, my major professor was Robert Erickson, whom I had the good fortune to work with during the last few years of his tenure there; however, I would be remiss if I did not mention another important UCSD mentor of mine, Roger Reynolds. I only had the opportunity to study with Roger for 10 weeks (during my first year in the program, when the new graduate composers were required to rotate faculty studios throughout the year); but In hindsight, those were probably the most critical ten weeks in my artistic development, as I credit Roger with setting me on my future trajectory as a composer.

EM: You are a great advisor to students. Do you have any general advice to practitioners and advocates of new music? Audiences?

JK: I think performers, composers, and other devotees of new music have an obligation to build audiences by creating opportunities for interesting and challenging programs, as well as providing listeners with the proper tools to appreciate unfamiliar music through various types of audience outreach. With so many traditional ensembles dependent on ticket sales and filling concert halls in order to survive, a lot of the contemporary repertoire has been watered down by mediocre music that has been commissioned and programmed in an effort to pander to their patrons — which I think is an insult to both the artists and the audience. Composers and performers have an obligation to meet the audience halfway in order to raise their awareness and create an environment conducive to more demanding music. To this end, performers should create opportunities to share their insights as interpreters, demonstrating musical passages to help guide listeners; composers should do the same by providing insights on the creative process, thus enhancing the listeners’ experience and elevating what we can expect from our audiences. I have heard some composers claim with a tinge of haughtiness that “the music should speak for itself,” that it is somehow a weakness of the work or the composer to explain one’s compositional process to an audience. I think this is a cop out — a lazy excuse not to engage with an audience and allow them to experience one’s work on a deeper level. If it enriches the experience, why not provide the listener with these additional insights?

Maintaining one’s integrity as an artist can be a real challenge if one wants to succeed in the current musical environment. With that in mind, there are a couple of quotes that are worth referencing here, and which touch upon my own philosophy as a composer. The first is from Frank Zappa, who once said: “I [compose] to amuse myself. If I like it, I release it. If somebody else likes it, that’s a bonus.” The second quote is by Steven Stucky, from his article “Listening to Contemporary Music”: “…a composer’s duty is not to any particular listener of any particular imagined audience: a composer’s duty is to the work itself.” I consider it a luxury to have a university teaching position, which frees me up to do the things that truly interest me as a composer, and not to depend on accommodating commissioning bodies, ensemble boards, and marketing departments. That may sound a little selfish, I suppose, but it is also liberating to be able to take risks and push my own limits without concern for the financial consequences. And hopefully, the work I create will be of interest to a few others along the way.

trailblazer: Alyce Santoro

Alyce_flame_flute_Albuquerque2

Alyce Santoro is an amazing West Texas artist. I had the pleasure of collaborating with her last year, when we premiered Unset in Marfa, Texas (one year ago today!). She is an inspiring creative force, and I am delighted she consented to an interview.

EM: How did you become interested in playing new music?

AS: I think my interest in playing new music must have begun with an early fascination for listening to the out-of-the-ordinary. I was fortunate to have been raised by parents who, while not musicians themselves, were very earnest listeners with eclectic tastes. Early on, I recall being exposed to Babatunde Olatunji, Ravi Shankar, and Oregon on vinyl records. In the New York metropolitan area we had access to incredible radio…in the mid-1980s I remember hearing Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, and Laurie Anderson on WNYC’s New Sounds with John Schaefer. It was Laurie Anderson’s tape bow violin that inspired me to put an electric pick-up in my flute at age 15 or 16. At that time a group of misfit friends and I formed an experimental/improv/post-punk group…this was an extremely formative time for me, though we had no idea what we were doing, or where we could find guidance for our nascent interests in new and experimental music. Though I’d been playing the flute quite avidly as a young person, it seemed to me that the only options open to a flutist on the college level would be a strict study of classical music…which wasn’t really my interest. Morton Feldman and SUNY Buffalo, or music programs at places like Hampshire or Oberlin were just not on my radar.  Instead I decided to study science as an undergraduate. After finishing a biology degree (with bioacoustics, sound, and music mixed in whenever possible), I went on to pursue a degree in scientific illustration. Though much of my current artwork has a visual bent – inspired in many ways by science – sound and music have always been part of the mix.

EM: You presented works of John Cage in Marfa a few years ago. What was the response?

AS: In 2012 my then-partner/now-husband composer/guitarist Julian Mock and I, with the help of a couple of friends, put together a program for John Cage’s 100th birthday. We presented it at the wonderful Marfa Book Company. For a town with a population of less than 2,000, we felt it was very well-received! Aside from the community performance of 4’33”, in which about 15 local musicians participated, the packed house seemed to enjoy the Improvisation for Amplified Cactus (regionally appropriate!), Pauline Oliveros’ Tuning Meditation, and several other works on the program. We definitely got the feeling that, while most attendees were at least somewhat familiar with Cage, some were being newly exposed. As part of the event, Marfa Public Radio featured a Cage special earlier in the day. All-in-all, we felt that Cage had been well-feted in rural West Texas!

EM: Your work ranges from theory to performance to instrument design to textile design, and I’m leaving out plenty. How would you describe the common thread that binds these varied directions?

AS: In general – no matter what medium I’m using – I’m looking for ways to highlight the interconnectedness of all things – disciplines, peoples, geographies, etc. I think of nearly everything I make as a collage…whether it’s a visual collage or a collage of sound, I am often weaving together seemingly-disparate elements as part of a kind of “delicate empiricist” (Goethe used this expression to describe science that allows for the qualitative in addition to the quantitative) approach to exploration into the Grand Unification Theory.

EM: Having left New York City for a relatively remote mountain town in Texas, you’ve maintained connections in a variety of ways. What have you found to be the most effective ways of staying connected to your artistic community? Do you feel more or less isolated than when you were in New York?

AS: I think of my website  as a virtual studio, gallery, cabinet of curiosities, and archive. It’s important to me that anyone with a connection to the internet can freely access the information and ideas behind the work. In many cases, the pieces I make are ways of illustrating concepts…the ideas, to me, are often more important than the resulting artifacts. I’m grateful that these intangible elements can be shared and “owned” by anyone who comes in contact with them.

I never really expected or wanted to be a web designer or social media maven…but, for a creative practitioner who lives in a remote place and yet wishes to make work that is accessible, I find these skills essential. I use FacebookTwitter, and am just getting started on Instagram. I also belong to several email lists for professional discourse related to the intersections of art, science, and ecology.

I also occasionally attend residency programs (Blue Mountain Center is one of my favorites) and conferences related to my fields of interest (for example, ISEA 2012 and New Music Gathering 2016).

Though I sometimes long for closer, more consistent proximity to fellow artists and receptive audiences, the environment in which I live has become so integral to my work that I hesitate to be away from it for any length of time. I think both urban and rural experiences can be isolating and aggregating in different ways…for me, alternating phases of each would be ideal.

EM: You’ve designed a new set of tools for cognition and practice of diatonic theory. Do you feel that a change is needed in the way music is taught? How do your materials fit into your ideal approach to teaching music?

AS: As a flute player without advanced training in music theory, the Tonal Relativity project came out of my own desire to become more fluent in modality. I am always seeking to improve my skills as an improvisor. Over the years I’ve intermittently set out to study the modes, always coming away feeling like I wasn’t quite getting the big picture. Early last year I was determined to fully grasp the modes once and for all. I sat down with a 3-by-5 card and a pencil to make myself a kind of “cheat sheet”…I mapped the Modes of the Major Scale using shapes…squares for whole steps, and triangles for half steps. When I did this, a pattern was revealed that suddenly helped me to understand the modes as a holistic system.

Here is the original doodle on a 3-by-5 card that led to the development of the Tonal Relativity project:

I am no expert on the way music is taught, but I think the same is true in almost any discipline: gaining a full, functional understanding of a subject tends, in the long run, to produce far richer and more interesting results than, say, rote memorization. As a scientific illustrator, I am interested in figuring out ways to convey complex information efficiently. For me, the traditional methods of learning the modes weren’t clicking. I hope others – teachers, students, and independent practitioners alike – may find the Tonal Relativity project as useful as I am finding it!

EM: What would be your ideal artistic venture right now, and its ideal audience?

AS: I’m extremely interested in improvised music and interdisciplinary collaboration. With all that’s going on in the world, I feel there is much to be gleaned from the successes and failures of mid-20th century experimental communities like Black Mountain College, the Pulsa Group, and the Creative Music Studio. I have facilitated several “happenings” inspired by these collectives under the auspices of the Synergetic Omni-Solution, the Dialectic Revival, and the Obvious International. These events have, thus far, not been particularly music-oriented. My ideal now would be to facilitate or participate in kind of residency program in which listening, atmospheric phenomenology, and the exploration of musical/sonic ideas would be the central focus.

EM: What is on your music stand? Where will you next be playing?

AS: At the moment my stand is laden with theory books, staff paper, the Mode Charts, some compositions by my husband Julian Mock, and a stack of 3-by-5 cards with various musical ideas scrawled on them…these are frameworks for improvisations that Julian and I are working on collaboratively. We have been incorporating some of the modal ideas into partly composed, partly improvisational dialogs between the flute and guitar. I’ve got an exhibition coming up in spring 2017 at a gallery in Albuquerque in which the Tonal Relativity project will figure largely…we don’t have any concrete plans as yet, but these sound pieces will definitely be part of it!

20150613_095030

What’s “new,” pussycat? reprint

See below for a repost of an July, 2015 article for the blog signalsforimages. The original site is down (not sure if permanently). I haven’t changed the article, other than to omit references to signalsforimages.

I am asked all the time – what is new music? People love to categorize everything, and art is no exception.

In the enormous world of commercial western music, I view “my” music as highly marginalized. If classical music is small sliver of the western music pie (let’s make it blueberry), contemporary classical music is maybe comparable to a blueberry seed in that pie?

What about nomenclature? New music can refer to any type, really. Contemporary isn’t much better, and can have other connotations; Christian contemporary describes religious themed pop music (decades ago, a So-Cal radio station advertised “soft and contemporary,” but sadly they didn’t mean Feldman). Avant-garde has already happened. Experimental implies that it isn’t fully worked out yet, suggesting it is unfinished, unpolished, or perhaps of poor quality. Recent describes the chronology, but says nothing about style. For me, a useful distinction was suggested by a pianist friend who differentiates between contemporary (“of the time that pushes the art forward; composer might be living or dead”) and recently composed (“recently written but in an older or conservative style; probably the composer is still alive”).

I’ve noticed lately ensembles and series that describe themselves as “new music” specialists, even though they program very little new music. I am not sure why they are doing it – maybe it is good for grants? I compared a season of one such series, one such ensemble, and two professional orchestras in a major metropolitan area. The orchestras programmed 10% contemporary; the self-proclaimed “new music” presenters programmed 20% contemporary. I find this bizarre – at 20%, why not be a classical music series instead? If an orchestra programs 20% (not likely, these days), will they be a new music orchestra? By the way, I’d like to ask precisely when playing music by living composers became the exception, rather than the rule? This is the subject for another article.

The aim of a college ensemble (like my student group Nova) is education – both for the students playing in the group, and also the students who attend the concerts. With that in mind, I often program significant repertoire of the last century – pieces I don’t consider new, but still important for the students’ experience (Pierrot Lunaire is over a century old, after all!). For the purpose of teaching new music, I sometimes include works that students would be unlikely to have the opportunity to study otherwise, because these works are still outside the canon of the typical college studio or ensemble (the contemporary music related field at UNT was created to give the students encouragement in this area, particularly).

This leads me to suspect that many self-proclaimed (faux) presenters of new music view themselves as educators of their audience. Many times, as an audience member, I’ve endured embarrassing and condescending concert banter, even describing new music as medicine (“we know it tastes bad, but trust us, it is good for you!”). As a presenter of new music outside of an academic environment (in my solo and chamber concerts, and my series Sounds Modern  and ACME), my goal is for people to experience the art, and hopefully enjoy it. Learning about art can enhance the experience, of course (this is a good reason to include program notes), but in my opinion knowledge is not essential for enjoyment.

I am also often asked about how I deal with audiences, as if audiences are a problem! I have found it quite the contrary. My goal is to present music I love, and hopefully give great performances. Even playing hyper-technical harsh complex contemporary music in circumstances one might imagine to be unreceptive (a community church concert in a tiny Midwestern town, for example), I have found audiences to be warm and enthusiastic. The only times I had bad reactions from audiences were my graduate recitals at UC San Diego. UCSD  is world – famous for its emphasis on highly intellectual new music, but the local newspaper described our recitals as merely, “student flute recital, free.” Inevitably, I’d have someone storm out during the first piece – I think they expected Chaminade, or something similar, and were thus terribly disappointed! This demonstrates how helpful accurate labeling could be. Imagine if I take my young son to a movie, expecting a nature documentary (his current favorite), and instead we are subjected to a war film. Similarly, if I want to attend a new music concert, I’d be pretty disappointed to hear a concert focusing upon standard classical repertoire.

This is not to say that I don’t like combining old and new repertoire – I actually think it is a great idea! The new music group Ensemble Signal  has been featuring J.S. Bach alongside new works in a special series, and the presenter Da Camera  regularly programs inclusively, with a wide-range of repertoire. In some of my own favorite flute programs, I played Donatoni and Ferneyhough alongside C.P.E. Bach. What is essential is to present a clear programming vision so that the audience won’t be disappointed. A number of new music presenters have explained that they have “dumbed-down” their programs, yet their audience remains small and unenthused. I suspect that the middle ground pleases no one – lovers of traditional classical music might be put off by music labeled as new, whilst lovers of new music won’t be interested in conservative recently composed works.

Hearing something new has always been incredibly exciting to me. When I started performing new music, it never occurred to me that anyone would feel differently about it. As a high school flutist, I regularly went to record stores to shop for classical recordings. In a mall in Indianapolis, I heard a minimalist piece playing, and I was transfixed. I had never heard anything like it, and bought it on the spot. Glassworks  was my gateway to the other minimalists, and later experimental rock and performance art. I stumbled onto the Carter string quartets at the public library- wow! I got season tickets to the local symphony (a gift from my parents) and my favorite concerts invariably included a world premiere (the ISO did quite a few premieres during those years; sadly, orchestral premieres are a rarity now). I found I wasn’t alone in my reaction. Later, when I worked as an usher for that orchestra, at an inner-city outreach concert I saw the kids rave about the contemporary piece (it was by Christopher Rouse).

To fulfill my cravings for new sounds, I changed my shopping strategy. Instead of looking for the usual flute records, I would browse the miscellaneous classical bins at the record store, and look for composers with unfamiliar names. I’d flip the album and check for date of birth. If the composer was living (or only recently dead), I’d buy it. An accurate description of the genre would have saved me a lot of time and money (by the way, I still browse for CDs in the miscellaneous bins at Recycled Books)!

To this day, I love hearing and playing music that is truly new. To me, it is just music, but even more fun! I love collaborating with composers to create new repertoire; I love the challenge, the head scratching (and, I’ll be honest, cursing) that happens when facing new and demanding compositions. I love the electric atmosphere of a first performance; even more than premieres, I love developing and evolving the work with subsequent repeat performances. I love sharing these stimulating, innovative works with audiences, especially in unexpected venues and places. Perhaps, in my search for the new, I have described my search for a musical thrill?

So in the end, what’s new for me is a new experience – whether mine, or a colleague’s or student’s or audience member’s – that takes our imaginations to a new place. Everyone’s old and new will be different, and at this point in my life, my threshold is pretty high! I trust all of you to take the leap and have a great time.