When Canadian singer-songwriter Basia Bulat takes the stage each night in support of the headlining folk rock band Bowerbirds, she does so without a setlist. This seems rather akin to a trapeze artist performing without the aid of a net. It also reveals an unselfish attitude toward the songs themselves, a conceit that the songs are what ultimately compel the artist’s performance to do what it does, and that the artist can choose to embrace or reject the inherent danger in that vulnerable, “netless” feat.
At a recent Thursday evening concert at The Tralf in Buffalo, N.Y., there was an earnest patience, an indefatigable generosity running throughout her performance. Owning a voice that sounds as if it’s been burnished by the glowing sunrise, she combines youthful exuberance with a knowing gravitas. The multi-instrumentalist’s songs often dwell on memory, specifically the recollection that we’re ultimately beholden to the people and things that hold our hearts captive. “Snakes and Ladders,” the heart-rending but uptempo ballad that arrived early in the set, reinforced this lyrical theme with Bulat’s stirring yet simply stated admission: “I love the way we come undone.” At the heart of the set was “Gold Rush,” a melancholy and restlessly eager song in which the narrator conveys the loss of a loved one who leaves in an ultimately vain search for an unspecified treasure.
In speaking with Bulat prior to the evening’s concert, it seemed that telling tragic stories through song was inexorable, and that there was something inherently beautiful about that reality. She recalled a story she was once told about the First Nations of Canada:
When the Klondike Gold Rush began, one of the tribal leaders at the time went across the river down however many kilometers away to a related tribe—not the same tribe, neighbors pretty much—and said, ‘Here are our songs and dances. Remember them, pass them down to your people because we’re gonna forget our songs. And when we’re ready, teach them back to us’….[the song] ‘Gold Rush’ is more about not forgetting a story even though it’s not the nicest story, even though maybe it’s about greed, and it’s about your own greed, possibly.
Throughout her music, Bulat maintains an awareness about the existence of selfishness embedded in one’s love for another. Her songs unfurl all the complications of love and then repackage them in a three or four-minute span. For all its mystery, an explanation is simple and forthcoming. “There are certain things that I can only express in a song,” she says. “I can’t really say it any other way.”
Bulat doesn’t shy away from the things that only others can express in song either. In her cover of the indie cult classic “True Love Will Find You in the End,” the plaintive simplicity of songwriter Daniel Johnston’s original remains intact. But whereas Johnston sounds detached—as if reinforcing someone else’s hope while implicitly abandoning his own—Bulat imbues the song with warmth it was previously lacking. In talking about her attraction to a particular song or artist, she invokes a fittingly musical analogy.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m just this string, and when two strings are in tune, they kind of vibrate in a different way than when they’re out of tune,” she explains. “Sometimes I feel like I pick whatever I’m most attuned to.”
Basia Bulat’s current North American tour, in support of Bowerbirds, concludes with a show at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Saturday, June 23. Visit the Music Hall of Williamsburg website for more information.
As I left the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival on its closing night, Saturday, May 5, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had wasted so much time—not at the festival itself, but long before.
I had grown up listening to music oblivious to the domineering constructs of ubiquitous genre definition, the invisible architecture of non-substantive taste. I’m not sure which attitude was worse—contented ignorance of how the conventions of constant classification had put unnecessary limits on my musical discoveries, or my more recent belief that the use of genre labels to separate real/perceived differences in music was a necessary evil.
Upon experiencing Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,however— the New York City festival that Bryce Dessner and Aaron Dessner of the band The National were commissioned by Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to curate—genre distinctions emerged more grossly superficial than ever before.
Conceptually, the approach of the brothers Dessner seemed straight-forward and unadorned—invite artists and musicians whom they liked and respected to perform. The performances throughout the three-day festival, which began on Friday, May 3, were distributed among three separate performance spaces at BAM: the intimate Rose Cinemas, which hosted both musical sets and the screenings of nine short films by Bill Morrison, Matthew Ritchie, and others; the versatile BAMCafé, the site of performances by a truly eclectic mix of musicians—the Jack Quartet, Buke and Gase, yMusic, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and Oneohtrix Point Never among them; and the Howard Gilman Opera House, which functioned as a “main stage” for such artists as So Percussion, The Antlers, Tyondai Braxton, St. Vincent, My Brightest Diamond, and Beirut.
Above all, the genius of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry was in the logistics. The performances in each of the three venues overlapped with one another, with festival patrons moving freely from one space to the other. By design, one could catch the beginning 15 to 30 minutes of the film screenings, catch the middle of an Opera House performance, and then head upstairs to the café for the open bar and the end of another set.
The formality that audiences may have come to expect at performances by composer Judd Greenstein and The Yehudim, violist Nadia Sirota, the NOW Ensemble, and others was jettisoned. And by having three simultaneous options at any given time, the experience of the listener/viewer felt varied and organic. Yet because all of the scheduled performances are staggered, as opposed to scheduling acts during approximately the same block of times, the festivalgoer had more genuine choices with which to craft an individual experience of musical discovery. Instead of the masses herding themselves from one stage to the next at the pre-appointed time, it seemed impossible that any two people had the exact same experience.
Apart from Bryce Dessner’s annual MusicNOW Festival in Cincinnati, the Ecstatic Music Festival, established in 2011 by the above mentioned Judd Greenstein, is Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’s most immediate and relevant predecessor. The creative circles of both Ecstatic and Brooklyn Ferry are essentially concentric; several artists, including My Brightest Diamond, So Percussion, Buke and Gase, yMusic, Missy Mazzoli and Victoire, Jherek Bischoff, and Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire have contributed to both festivals.
Such artists are inherently uninhibited by the dichotomy of vernacular versus formal, to which I had subconsciously adhered. And both festivals are excellent environments in which to be stylistically unencumbered.
But while each festival begins with the premise “Let’s have makers of great music all play on one bill,” the central conceits that Ecstatic and Brooklyn Ferry each project to their audiences differ in telling ways. The qualitative difference lies not in the music itself, but in the way the music is presented.
The Ecstatic Music Festival has from its inception clearly delineated which artist was more “classical” and which was more colloquial in each of its collaborative performances: So Percussion with Dan Deacon, Anonymous 4 with The Mountain Goats, composer Rhys Chatham with Oneida, etc.
But the mere acknowledgment of these genre distinctions lend them a validity that I sense is unintended. The result seems to be a contradictory concession of sorts that says using genre distinctions are vital to explaining why genre distinctions are unnecessary. The paradox is typified in the festival website’s heralding of “contemporary ‘post-classical’ music.” If labels were truly inconsequential and ultimately irrelevant, there would be no reason to employ them in the setup. Somehow, it undercuts the authenticity and dynamism of Ecstatic, and credence is given to the invisible yet still perceptible wall between classical and non-classical.
The Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival seeks to showcase the aforementioned borough’s music scene , but makes no effort to address genre at all. This approach suggests a way toward ensuring that the once obtrusive architectural eyesores of musical labels are not merely just invisible, but altogether intangible.
It seems to me that one’s relationship to the monolithic Opera—with a capital “O”—is rarely love at first sight. It’s often much more akin to a slow courtship. Such was certainly the case for the three composers that comprise the core of the Experiments in Opera collective, which presents its Spring 2012 Series at 8 p.m. on both May 10 and 11 at Roulette in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Aaron Siegel’s interest in opera evolved from his enjoyment of theater. “In a way, the vocal sound of the opera singer, was the last thing I became interested in,” says Siegel. Matthew Welch found opera by way of film soundtracks, as he puts it, “getting used to seeing a clearly marked space where movement and characterization is supposed to be happening along with a music source.” For Jason Cady, working with Wesleyan University professor and avant-garde opera composer Anthony Braxton, with whom all three composers have studied, was a seminal experience.
Video for Experiments in Opera’s January 2012 concert
Progressing from its inaugural concert this past January at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village, Experiments in Opera continues to showcase its co-founders’ current opera projects—Siegel’s Brother Brother, Welch’s Borges and the Other, and Cady’s Happiness is the Problem. And while Cady emphasizes his desire to present works that someone would readily identify as genuine “opera,” all three artists are united in an active effort to resist bottling up one notion of opera as one Authoritative and Unequivocal Thing. According to Siegel, choosing not to explicitly define opera enables the trio to “raise more questions.”
I think that our idea is that anything can be under review… —Matthew Welch
This seemingly evasive conceit reflects a decidedly nuanced approach to the storied, well-trodden path that is Opera—openly acknowledging more recent “experimental” precedents even while turning further back in operatic history for creative inspiration. Inevitably, it seemed, my recent discussion with all three composers frequently made reference to the spoken word of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, the overt use of percussion in the works of Steve Reich, and biopic operas such as Philip Glass’s Satyagraha and John Adams’s Nixon in China. And yet the members of Experiments in Opera cite pre-20th century techniques as significant to their current projects. “We internalize some of the forms and we choose to isolate certain ones over others,” Welch asserts.
His opera Borges and the Other—in which the author Jorge Luis Borges, while in a dream state, encounters himself at a different age in life—employs the kind of melismatic phrasing one could readily find in vocal music from the Renaissance and the Baroque. “There is something inside the word at least that is worth exploring…how you can take a word and sit on it for a long time and give it various shades of meaning, or throw in old ideas of word painting,” explains Welch.
Similarly, in Jason Cady’s Happiness is the Problem, which is simultaneously rendered in comic book form by Nadia Berenstein , the composer finds a seemingly antiquated method—Baroque-style recitative—to communicate vernacular English. “I wanted to use the recitative, but of course I don’t want to write something that sounds like Baroque opera,” Cady says of his reboot of the form.
One third of Aaron Siegel’s Brother Brother—detailing the relationship of the historical Wright brothers and the fictional siblings red and blue—is comprised of choruses, which are often noticeably absent in many contemporary chamber operas. “Choruses are interesting parts of what’s going on,” says Siegel. “It gives you a little bit of chance to get out of the intensity of the individual soliloquy and allows you to have little bit more of a distanced experience.”
It would appear at first odd that Cady, Siegel, and Welch have each chosen to draw from Opera’s comparatively distant past to help form their versions of its future. That said, it seems apparent that opera’s relevance has less to do with genre distinctions and stylistic choices, and more to do with how the Gesamtkunstwerk (as Wagner put it) engages us. Siegel makes the connection to our present day in this way:
We live in a time where we are starting to all think in multiple medias all the time, and it’s not just about multimedia, but it’s just part of the way that we live. That’s the story, that we live in an operatic time, in a way.
For more information on the May 10-11 events, visit the Roulette web site.
My latest article, a profile of composer and singer/songwriter Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) can be found exclusively at NewMusicBox. Below is the accompanying video–complete with interview footage and performance clips–produced by NewMusicBox Executive Editor Molly Sheridan.
On November 5, singer-songwriter Gelsey Bell presents the premiere of her song cycle Scaling at this year’s Vital Vox Festival, a two-day series dedicated to expectation-defying vocalists as composer-performers. In an attempt to defy our own expectations for our interview, Bell and I decided to experiment with the format of our discussion. A modified “A & Q” ensued, in which I offered statements and the composer responded with a question as often as possible. Here is the result:
Daniel J. Kushner: The world premiere of Scaling will be presented as part of the Vital Vox Festival. According to the press release, the performance will involve a borrowed piano, a house plant, and a pair of shoes. It seems like these three items have a certain prominence in the cycle that one previously may not have given them before.
Gelsey Bell: Let me know if you agree: I’m hoping to use the theatrical and metaphorical world of certain everyday objects or everyday situations within the fabric of the piece…I feel like often in musical contexts there are things like, OK, we’re borrowing a piano, or this is the piano of the space, and I want to think about how to actually bring that situation into the artwork itself, so that we’re not ignoring that fact. Maybe some people don’t ignore that fact. It’s wrapped up in what kind of performance you’re doing. And then maybe the house plant and the change of shoes will make more sense within the context of the show, and maybe it won’t. That probably depends on how people are making sense of things.
DK: It sounds like you’re giving the audience more responsibility for the narrative, like a narrative is a more subjective thing that results from an audience member’s perspective rather than an authoritative version of what’s happening.
GB: Do you think that that is that unusual?
DK: No, not necessarily. I don’t think it’s usually so overt. It happens all the time in art, and it’s important for art to do that, but I don’t think we’re usually so conscious of it. It happens more or less automatically when art is effective, but it’s good to challenge oneself and challenge others to come to their own conclusions more actively. I’m all in favor of anything that engages somebody in a way that they haven’t previously been engaged.
GB: Yeah, totally. I can only hope that that’s something I’m able to do. Have you noticed how oftentimes playfulness doesn’t show up in the more serious art contexts, how seriousness can really overcome what would otherwise be playfulness?
DK: Yes. I think it’s something so ubiquitous that I don’t even think about it. You being a singer-songwriter, I think this really ties in well—singer-songwriters who make “serious music,” whatever that means, they seem hesitant to do things that make them seem more lofty or somehow give them more responsibility than they think they’re do, specifically in regards to the idea of thinking of themselves as composers. And if you’re thinking about things in a pop song idiom, you’re somehow taking yourself less seriously.
GB: I feel like I don’t want to answer this as a question so that I can actually engage with what you’re saying. I’m part of an ensemble called thingNY, which is a group of composer-performers, and I’m the singer in it. Other people do both popular music and classical music, but I very much have not taken on the composer title for a very strong reason, and I talk with them a lot about this. I really feel like the way I compose music is song-based, and for a lot of people in that world, I think they think it’s really silly of me to keep the singer-songwriter title, because there’s a hierarchy between the two, and they don’t understand why I’m embracing the lower of the hierarchy.
But for me, I kind of get this punk rock attitude, like, Come on you guys, I’m not going to take that hierarchy seriously, and I really think of music in terms of song, and I really think of myself on a trajectory with singer-songwriters, and I don’t look at one being more serious than the other. That’s really just an institutional myth that has been put in place to help people get funding and to feel better about themselves. That’s something I feel really strongly about, as being someone in both of those worlds. For this song cycle, I’m very much musically, taking a lot from the singer-songwriter part of the world that I’ve been in. We’ll see how the non-singer-songwriters feel about that.
DK: Historically, it’s not factual to say that there’s a dichotomy between composers and singer-songwriters. Schubert was a songwriter, Mahler even, obviously Ives. Those are just a few.
GB: Yeah, and I think part of the difference, too, if you look at the history of classical music for instance, it also has to do with performing your own music, and I think part of the mystique of the composer comes from composers who don’t perform their own music. But it’s like you say, you go back to Bach, he performed all of his stuff. Or Liszt or something like that, so I feel like the term that I’m seeing more and more of—the composer-performer—is really the same as the singer-songwriter, only singer-songwriters are vocalists and composer-performers are not necessarily vocalists.
DK: It does seem to me that with the phenomenon of the composer-performer, the current generation is involved more than ever with the execution of its own work.
GB: Yeah. And why do you think that is? (I feel like I’m Socrates or something.)
DK: I think it’s out of necessity, mainly. I think that it’s in order to promote one’s work and to make sure it gets presented to the public. It’s a function of practicality. It also makes a lot more sense particularly because composers’ work is more inter-related with other composers’ work. There’s less a sense of exclusive ownership—This is a piece that I wrote.
GB: I wonder—I haven’t thought of it that way. I certainly think it’s so that the work will get put out there, and I think a lot of composers are put into situations where they realize their work is never going to be heard if they’re not part of performing it. And I also think that a lot of composers end up learning a lot from that experience, in many ways influencing how they then go back to writing. I haven’t thought about how it’s connected to not feeling ownership. Are you connecting that to sampling and how the lines of ownership have changed so much just because the music business has been changing so much, in terms of recording?
DK: Not necessarily—I‘m thinking about the extent to which composers in the New York scene seem to be collaborating with one another and within other disciplines.
GB: And do you think that’s connected to the band situation, how for so long, it would be like OK, well, the Beatles wrote this? You know that the songs John sings, he wrote, and the songs Paul sings, he wrote, but all together, it’s all under the moniker of the band, and you never know what people come up with and what they don’t come up with. So the ownership ends up being a more collaborative thing, period.
DK: Yeah, I do. I would venture to say that the majority of composers working today either grew up with or have otherwise been influenced by rock music, hip-hop, or any other music style that has galvanized youth culture within the past 60 years or so. It’s a reference point that a lot of people have.
GB: Not only is everyone being influenced musically by the strand of mainstream rock ‘n’ roll and popular music, which is the majority of what most people are listening to, but also that the way those people deal with their music is influencing the classical, or contemporary classical, or new music—or whatever term I’m supposed to use now. Just because you can see, They’re forming a band, they’re going on tour or They’re putting out a record, and that’s how people are getting to know their music or They’re going about funding their lives as musicians this way or the social interaction they’re having with their collaborators and with the producer is happening this way. I feel like all of those situations that surround the lives of popular music musicians—people who are coming out of more academic situations are starting to see that, and there’s starting to be more of a cross-pollination between those two social worlds around music, not just in terms of the music style or how people listen to it but how the musicians themselves function in their role of I’m a musicians, this is what I do for a living.
DK: I would be remiss to not talk about art song. I’ve found that “art song” can mean different things to different people. Someone can pick a single attribute of art song and use that attribute to form his or her definition—maybe it means more chromatic chord progressions, maybe it means through-composed as opposed to verse-chorus-verse-chorus. Arts songs can exist in a pop song guise and pop songs can exist in an art song guise. The fluidity of the definition is interesting—it doesn’t seem like something you can pin to the wall and display in a butterfly case.
GB: I don’t know what to think about the category of art song at this point, actually. I feel like the strongest place where I can put it on the wall as a butterfly is when I’m looking at Italian art songs from 150 years ago, and I can say, Alright, well that’s an art song. This is part of a category of this historical group of art songs. Today in the contemporary world, in all honesty, it’s not a term that I use, although I guess I could. But I feel like if the term is used, it’s used to “up the rep” of some music in a way that it doesn’t necessarily need to be, or it can indicate, I’m going to sing a song in a classical style, and I’m gonna sing Bel Canto, which normally doesn’t mean pop music. And then the big difference is the compositional writing and the arrangement, but it’s also literally the kind of vocal technique you’re using, and when that’s used with non-classical voices, then it becomes this issue of Why do you need to “up the rep” of the music you’re doing?
I’m using the term “song cycle” for Scaling because I’m really grouping these songs together. If I was making an album, I guess I could say it was a “concept album.” But I’m also just thinking of the piece as a theatrical whole, if that makes any sense. I wrote the songs knowing that they would be performed live. One of the things I do with the song cycle is I play the piano in unconventional ways while I’m singing songs. And so I’m grouping them together, thinking about it as a theatrical, coherent performance, and in that way, the term “song cycle” made a lot of sense, but I didn’t necessarily think of it as I need to put these pop songs together, and if I call it a song cycle people will take it more seriously, and I can do it in different venues.
DK: Perhaps you can go into specifics about what makes the piano playing unconventional.
GB: One of the songs in the cycle I wrote so that I’m lying on top of the piano and I play the piano while I’m singing from on top. So I’m playing the keyboard from the other side, which is a totally different way of engaging with the keyboard. I basically use that physical position to enhance the emotional quality of what I’m singing about. Often when I write songs, I’m playing the piano, and I think, Well let’s say I want more minor chords, because that fits the mood or Let’s say I want this kind of rhythm because that fits the mood of the emotional energy behind the lyrics. I wanted to take that to another level, where I was keeping in mind What are the physical positions of my body, and what do they say about the words I’m saying?
So I have a song where I’m playing the piano from the other side, which is really disorienting, and also, Where is she? Why isn’t she sitting in front of the keyboard? Or I have a song where I’m playing it with my knees, and so the physical position I’m in while I’m doing that makes me literally feel very different. Or I have one where I’m playing the keyboard turned away from it, so it’s as if I’m chained to the piano, like I have to keep playing it but it’s like I’m trying to get away from it, and that very much is tied into the words I’m saying, and to ultimately how I’m trying to explore what it means to really be tied to an instrument, or we can think about that in even bigger metaphorical terms. And I’m trying to really bring that out more of my singer-songwriter world, because that’s where I really engage the piano, whereas the stuff I do as vocalist in experimental contexts is often just the voice.
For more information on the Vital Vox Festival, visit the official website.
It is no secret that the new music community has found a vital home in New York City in recent years. The creative minds behind what is known as “contemporary classical music” are innumerable, and gaining prespective can be an overwhelming task for audiences.
Beginning on October 14, however, the SONiC Festival (Sounds of a New Century) ventures to make sense of the scene–particularly as it pertains to composers under the age of 40–with a 9-day festival in New York featuring a staggering 100-plus composers and more than 17 word premiere performances of newly commissioned works.
I spoke with composer Du Yun, a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) who will present her work Vicissitudes Alone for guitar and electronics, featuring guitarist Daniel Lippel of ICE , at The Kitchen on Thursday, October 20 at 8 p.m.
Daniel J. Kushner: How does Vicissitudes Alone relate to your previous work?
Du Yun: This is actually a small, solo cadenza section of a larger ensemble work which is called Vicissitudes No. 1. [That work] has this middle section where the guitar comes by itself, so [audiences will hear] the guitar solo from that bigger piece.
DK: Vicissitude means a sudden misfortune or change.
DY: To me, it means the flow and ebb of changing events in life. That was always something really interesting to me. I often feel like life has so many events. Things happen—one event makes a big change. But at the same time, we’re still us. So I’m trying to investigate that kind of relationship between lots of changes while some things still stay the same.
DK: So you do that compositionally?
DY: Yes, especially for that serious piece. The beginning of that piece is very much about big changes, bursts. The guitar is not even included in the ensemble until a third of the way in—the guitarist walks up to the stage to do the solo. So the idea is that one event happens to another event, but somehow for the audience it has to be very organic—“Oh, of course it’s to be there”—even though compositionally, structurally, it might not be that this pitch relates to that pitch.
DK: So in the full piece with the cadenza included, the guitarist comes onstage in the middle of the performance? Why did you choose to do that?
DY: Well, because it’s a very dramatic moment. And in a lot of Japanese theater and Chinese operas we have characters that you’ve never seen before. And all the sudden, they come up, but it changes the events surrounding it.
DK: So it’s sort of like the Vicissitude within the Vicissitudes. How would you characterize this October 20 performance within the context of your ongoing relationship with ICE?
DY: I started at the end of college—I went to Oberlin—so I know most of the people from those college years. And as we grew up, and I wrote more and ICE got bigger too. In a way, you grow up together. They have played my music so many times, so they really understand my vocabulary, my musical sensibilities. When they see my music in a score, they already know what kind of sound I want….It’s an inherent understanding.
DK: Vicissitudes Alone, like much of your other work, utilizes electronics. What is it about electronics in general that you find particularly compelling?
DY: It’s not really coming from the ‘60s modernist way of using electronics, and it’s not really spectral. I’m a very textural composer. I care a lot about textures and gestures. Electronics add so much to that. It’s like a flavor—it creates so much texture.
For more information about the SONiC Festival, visit the official SONiC Festival website.