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Trailblazer: Sarah Plum

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My regular Trailblazers posts will feature interviews with people who are championing new music off the beaten path. Meet violinist Sarah Plum, who currently lives in Des Moines, Iowa. I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah when she was in Denton for the ICMC last month (thanks to my former student Zo Manfredi for introducing us).

How did you get started doing new music?

My parents are/were visual  artists so I think it just always seemed natural to be involved with newly created works.  I grew up with that – people making art in real time.  So that was the backdrop.  And then, as I said in [UNT’s contemporary performance practice] class, I was lucky to have amazing teachers like Szymon Goldberg who were involved with the music of their own time (in his case Hindemith, who was a friend and collaborator of his and who also, it could be said, saved his life by  arranging  a concert tour for him with his duo partner Lili Krauss to Dutch Indonesia.  He ended up spending the war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and survived the Holocaust) and also  Felix Galimir, who premiered lots of 2nd Viennese School works with his quartet before emigrating to the U. S.

What is your favorite new music venue?

Favorite venue? Well Spectrum is pretty cool. What a wonderful thing Glenn Cornett has made there. I love the space and am very appreciative of what he has created – which is vital and living. I love places like that and am so happy to see them springing up all over these days. And I love playing non traditional venues like Libraries and art galleries. But I also have a weakness for lovely concert halls, like the Philharmonie in Cologne where I used to work. Two recent favorites – the Elias Kuppel Saal in Berlin – a beautiful domed room, with a freakishly amazing acoustic. I would love to record there. Go to Berlin and hear this hall! It is amazing! And I also want to mention New Music San Francisco which is a great place for new music, has great audiences and a really engaging spirit. I really loved playing there – great space.

Do you have a favorite audience? Favorite performer? Composer?

All these favorites! I am fickle – change favorites all the time. I love all audiences. Performers? Gidon Kremer (if you are going to limit me to people that are alive) takes the prize. Great player, great commissioner, someone who has changed the game and created things. And as for composers I have lots of favorites and opinions but they are SECRET!!! As a professional I do it all with gusto! So you have to get me pretty drunk for that list!

Where have you not played yet, that you’d like to?

I would love to play a solo program at Warsaw Autumn, Huddersfield, the BBC Proms (we are dreaming here, right – all for fun!).

How often do you present new music?

I play new music all the time – now starting a presentation where I bring my own tech, speakers and set up to do school visits at high schools and show students the range of music that is out there. And also doing stuff at non-traditional venues. So it is a big part of my life.

How do you decide on new projects?

New projects – well I always have more ideas and people and things and composers than I can support. I commission a lot and believe in it – so lots of names of composers. This is what we do. What I am proud of. The best part of working in new music as a performer is commissioning things and and building a new world of music – the composers deserve it – create it. Happy to have you all on board!

bring back the editor

I see a lot of new and not-so-new scores, and the question of editing has been coming up a lot lately. This fall, I’m teaching a seminar on performance practice and notation of new music, running the UNT new music ensemble Nova, and coaching pieces for the upcoming International Computer Music Conference; I can testify that the care taken in editing the scores my students and I are looking at varies astonishingly. My students and I are enjoying many opportunities to solve notation/realization riddles, some of them more necessary than others. Yesterday, two students and I spent a full fifty minutes working through misprints and instrumental problems, without even starting to “rehearse” – this on a piece that (problems aside) should be easily sight-readable.

An important function of notation is to communicate to the performer. Efficiency – compositional and performative – is paramount. Performers appreciate notation that translates rapidly to physical/technical/musical action. Notation preferences are highly personal (you’ll see some of mine below), but I wanted to come up with an easy and universal checklist which might help. Thus, at 5 am this morning, I contemplated Top Ten Ways to Improve Notation, which I present here.

1. Proof-read (again and again)

Imagine trying to read a book to someone that is filled with garbled words, typos, and markings that look like letters or words (but aren’t). It would be difficult to convey a convincing reading of the text when constantly distracted by irrelevant symbols. Everyone makes an occasional mistake – that is ok! However, failing to proof-read is justifiably annoying, and can seriously undermine the performer’s efforts.

2. Inventing new symbols when standard ones will do

Why does your performer need to learn your special trill notation, for a ordinary trill? While I generally appreciate unusual notations, I dislike special symbols which connote  a return to normalcy – use ord. or norm. instead.

3. Consult orchestra and instrumentation books

A baritone saxophone will never glissando like an electric guitar. A piccolo will never play a fortissimo low Db. Check the books. Earn your performers’ trust, and don’t waste their time.

4. If you create new symbols, make sure they are evocative

Look up other similar techniques in other pieces. Really esoteric symbols should be saved for rare cases. Some of my favorites: ravens as vibrato indications, and sushi and tapas as section dividers. These are memorable and fun. Vertical and horizontal boxes, not so much.

5. Create good instructions, and don’t ignore the obvious (to you)

Do accidentals carry? Trills to semitone? Is it transposed? Are all the symbols explained? Have you included explanations for symbols from another score by mistake?  Give your performer the information they need, but omit the extraneous (see #7).

6. Re-read your score as if the first time

Question everything. Why so many double bars? What is “key breath noise”? What does “with air” mean for a flutist (i.e., is everything else key percussion)? Why do accented sixteenth notes have empty noteheads? Is a natural sign on every single note necessary? Why is the clarinet part on two staves?  Will my performer enjoy a five minute fourth finger trill, or is this a recipe for a performance injury?

7. Remove something (or some things)

Think of Coco Chanel’s advice about choosing fashion accessories – look in the mirror and take one thing off. Similarly, remove whatever doesn’t serve the score. Don’t care about pitches? Take them out! Rhythm doesn’t matter, but speed does? Use featherbeams or grace notes. Want a multiphonic but don’t care about specific pitches? Make a block so the performer can choose.

8. Easy fixes

Dynamics not aligned with the note. Parts not aligned to each other. Combine rests for readability. Double check accidentals. Choose a readable size for the score.

9. Simple gifts

Rehearsal letters. Measure numbers. Page numbers (for the piece, not the movement). Page turns that work. Fingerings that work.  Cues. References to instrumental treatises. Anything a composer can do to streamline the practice and rehearsal process is greatly appreciated by the player.

10. for whom are you writing?

Unless money is changing hands, good notation is the best way to earn a performer’s interest. As a composer friend of mine says, “Notation selects its performers” – musicians who choose Rorem will generally pass up Finnissy, and Feldman fans seldom choose Liebermann. It’s not just the content; we generally know if we’re seeing music of possible interest after scanning a few pages. What performers will sloppy and confusing notation select?

Guest post: Subtlety, intricacy, and hidden complexity: not a manifesto

I am delighted that Andrew May is our guest blogger today. Andrew May_smallis best known for innovative and subtle chamber music, some of which involves computer-based agents interacting with human performers. He has taught composition and directed the Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia at the University of North Texas since 2005. Born and raised in Chicago, Andrew studied composition with Roger Reynolds, Mel Powell, and Jonathan Berger. His music can be heard on CDCM, SEAMUS, and EMF Media recordings, and his solo CD Imaginary Friends on Ravello Records.

I’m honored to be a guest blogger for New Music Pioneer. I’m a
composer, violinist, computer musician, and teacher in North Texas – like Elizabeth, an avant-garde musician dreaming up the future in the unheralded middle of the country. Right now I’m working on a piece of music that is driving me half crazy with the number of dimensions and details I have to pin down to make it work. What will it sound like? Slow, simple, and beautiful, if all goes well.

Then why one earth am I putting all this work into thousands upon
thousands of details? Part of the reason is the computer; I’m creating interactive performance systems, and computers are morons. To get a computer to make musically intuitive choices that any beginning musician would take for granted requires countless hours of meticulous programming, testing, and tuning. This is a great discipline to remind a composer of just how much goes into interpreting simple music in a simple way. As we enjoy the delicious sound of a great violinist playing a single whole note, we don’t necessarily think of the subtle choices and adjustments of bow pacing, position, and pressure, not to mention the left hand’s vibrato, that bring to life this simple thing that is represented on a page by a single oval. On the other hand, a lack of control could create a very complex sound (the crunching of excessive bow pressure, the multiple skittering repetitions of a note from a shaking bow arm, the slide into the desired pitch if it’s hit out of tune, and so on); the possibility of great simplicity is in fact the result of years of arduous work and intense thought. Likewise, back in the days when a composer expected performers to embellish his music with ornaments, it was understood that a heavily ornamented performance was usually the work of a fool or a charlatan, not a great musician (the same can be said of electric guitar solos, or gospel singing, or any number of present-day examples).

Modern composers’ music is often quite overtly complex. Since I’ve
proposed that the performance of something simple is a complex
business, I’d prefer to call this notational intricacy rather than
complexity (I may get in trouble with friends and colleagues for this,
but that’s life on the Web). There are scores that have easily
hundreds of times more instructions per second of music than, for
example, a slow movement by Corelli. What’s striking about the
experience of listening to these works (to take a beloved example,
Brian Ferneyhough’s flute solo Cassandra’s Dream Song) is that the
audible complexity in performance does not reflect the degree of
notational intricacy. Many of the instructions in the score (like
those I give to the computer, actually) have to do with nuances of
timing, dynamics, timbres, and other elements that shade the meaning of the music, but don’t produce lots of individually perceptible events. In a way, this sort of notation is a way of micro-managing the subtle art of performance. Perhaps in some cases it grows from a fear (often justified) that a performer’s approach to new music might lack subtlety. It certainly tests the performer’s technical and mental abilities, which selects a particularly wonderful sort of performer to become a devoted interpreter of this repertoire (I’m thinking of Elizabeth here).

People have sometimes commented that my music looks easier or simpler than it is. I suppose this is deliberate. I want to invite subtlety, not force it – but my music dies without it. That’s why it’s a lot more fun for me to work with a great performer than with a computer – and why even when I do work with computers, there are always live performers involved too: to quote John Cage, “other people think.” If my score elicits thoughts, feelings, intuitions that a performer can bring to the performance (or even ornamentation – I suffer from Baroque envy), then the resulting performance has a layering of complex ideas and actions that no complexity in the world could capture on paper (let alone in software). The simpler the notation, the more room there is for it to elicit subtle and meaningful nuances. The composer’s burden becomes finding the exact right notation (Morton Feldman, the king of deceptive simplicity, set great store by the “notational look” or “notational image” as a primary element of composition). The visual appearance of the score, of an individual note even, speaks volumes to the experienced interpreter. Get it right, and magic can happen. Get it confused, and the performer’s interpretation may be at cross-purposes to the composer’s intention.

All this may help to explain why forward-looking composers (i.e. those who don’t want their music to sound as if it could have been written long before they were born) so often tend toward intricacy. Subtle simplicity requires a great deal of invisible work and painstaking consideration; it also requires intense empathy for the performer, and above all trust that one’s work will be treated with respect and insight. Most composers have had far too many experiences that eroded that trust, and it’s hard to rebuild. It can be comforting to spend those lonely hours in the composer’s studio putting lots of information on the page and trusting that this, at least, will get the job done. Luckily, whatever approach one takes as a composer, there will be some performers who will get it and will run with it. As I once proposed to Frederic Rzewski at the end of a long evening (and he agreed at the time), “it doesn’t really matter what you write as long as it’s played by the right person.” So this truly is not a manifesto for simplicity, or even for subtlety, and it’s certainly not a rant against complexity or intricacy. It’s more a confession to myself that the painfully long hours I spend making minute decisions about the details of something apparently simple – for better or worse – are exactly what I need as a composer.

Introducing Oddities


Many blogs include a regular feature which summarizes relevant items. Oddities will be NMP version (with a nod to Roger Reynolds, of course).

On to today’s features:

July 10 marks the release of my Tornado Project CD with Esther Lamneck, clarinetist, and six wonderful composers. This CD was something like 10 years in the making! Hopefully, Tornado Project will resume performing together soon. Read a review here. Buy it here.

Sounds Modern is busy gearing up for our upcoming performance at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, TX.

Enough about my projects. At the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth on August 1, Applause Music Festival will feature new works for viola and piano. While I am not familiar with this festival, I appreciate their mission.

Also in Fort Worth, the Mimir Chamber Music Festival has been focusing upon the standard repertoire, but have included works by Bartok, Messiaen, Zwilich, and Kenji Bunch.

Ensemble 75 has a new series at the Goss-Michael Foundation in Dallas, which strives to “serve as an intersection between contemporary visual art and instrumental and vocal music” – a mission rather like that of our very own Sounds Modern. Nova member and UNT student Mia Detwiler performed with them on their recent concert, which featured works by Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern.

Sounds Modern had a reprise performance of trios for violin, cello, and piano at gallery UNT on the Square, playing works by Andrew May, Steven Harlos, and Astor Piazzolla, and improvisations (and photographs of flowers).

What’s “new,” pussycat?


I am delighted to be a guest writer for new music blog Signals for Images. For her new blog, Jolene has assembled five other musicians to join her in writing about new music. Five of her group are students of mine, either current or former, in the Contemporary Music Performance Practice class I teach, the student new music ensemble I direct, the Contemporary Music Performance related field I coordinate, and in dissertation and thesis preparation. Their blog is in the early stages, and I am excited to see how it develops!

The topic I chose to write about I’ve been thinking quite a bit: defining new music, and as an extension of this label, exploring how we reach audiences. Read the full article here.

Sounds Modern: Framing Desire in Music

The series I direct has a concert coming up:

May 16, 2015 at 2:00pm
Auditorium: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St.
Admission to concert is free

Sounds Modern is a vibrant and exciting concert series featuring contemporary music that makes the works on display in the Modern galleries come alive in the concert hall.

In our next concert, Sounds Modern will present Framing Desire in Music, a concert of recent works in which composers express their longing, sentimental and magical, for an unattainable and distant reality. The program includes works that celebrate particular people and places – and especially beloved pieces of music that composers refer to (even incorporate), reframing them much as photographs and video reframe and reinforce elements of the visual world. These musical acts of sympathetic magic provide a sonic dimension to the Modern’s exhibition Framing Desire.

Works will include and then I knew ’twas wind by Toru Takemitsu, Garden of Joy and Sorrow by Sofia Gubaidulina, Tender Intervals by Andrew May, and Primavera Porteña and Verano Porteño by Astor Piazzolla. Performers will include Elizabeth McNutt, flute; Jaymee Haefner, harp; Daphne Gerling, viola; Steven Harlos, piano; Andrew May, violin; and Kourtney Newton, cello.

got rhythm?

Over the years, I’ve heard recordings in which performers distorted rhythm or tempo in ways I found surprising and extreme. I wondered why–as in, “why did they get so slow here when the score suggests otherwise – do they know something I don’t? Did the composer change the piece?”

Lately, I was in conversation with a wonderful musician/performer, who answered these questions for me: the performers took extra time because they couldn’t play in time. Duh!

This isn’t always the fault of performers. Sometimes, composers write awkward or even downright unplayable things. What is the performer to do when this happens? A common approach is to distort the tempo or rhythm in order to “fit in” all the unplayable notes. Is this the only solution? Or the best solution?

Pianist Marc Couroux (among others) has published an article discussing his approach to Xenakis’ massive piano work Evryali – a piece literally unplayable as notated. Couroux argues that the tempo and energy are paramount, and that some pitches must be sacrificed (i.e. omitted).

Like Couroux, I believe these decisions depend on context. Sometimes the pitches are not the most important element: the gesture, energy, timbre, mood, character, trajectory, rhythm, and tempo might be more essential to the music than the precise pitches. But how does one decide what is the best way forward?

I suggest one let go of the notion of “should,” as in, “I should be able to play this as written.” Yes, indeed, and I should be a statuesque millionairess! Shoulds aside, diligent practice is crucial before resorting to score adaptions (transcriptions?). When you are considering revising a score, you owe it to the composer to fully consider his/her notational choices. Next, solve the problem. This may involve compromises to the score. The necessity of these compromises might change as you grow and change as a player. Therefore, be open to revising your compromise – revisit your solution periodically, to see if it it still the best solution for you and the work.