Category Archives: performance

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: Alyce Santoro

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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!

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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.