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Daniel J. Kushner, traipsing through sounds

Posts Tagged ‘contemporary classical

Uncovering the Mystery Behind Bryce Dessner’s St. Carolyn by the Sea

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Album cover for St. Carolyn by the Sea; Deutsche Grammaphon/Universal Music 2014.

Album cover for St. Carolyn by the Sea; Deutsche Grammaphon/Universal Music 2014.

Since Deutsche Grammaphon/Universal Music released conductor André de Ridder and the Copenhagen Phil’s St. Carolyn by the Sea–a collection of orchestral compositions by both The National’s Bryce Dessner and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood–on March 4, Dessner’s seemingly nonstop schedule has shown no signs of slowing.

The composer and guitarist has since contributed to the Kronos Quartet’s 40th Anniversary Celebration at Carnegie Hall on March 28, and  a reunion with the quartet for a world premiere at Barbican Concert Hall in London is scheduled for May 13. And while his “Murder Ballades” will be performed in the states of Oregon, New York, and Ohio throughout the month of April, Dessner has a full slate of tour dates with The National through August.

In a recent interview, Dessner spoke at length about writing orchestral music, the lesson that rock music teaches, and what ultimately attracts him to contemporary classical music over pop.

 Daniel J. Kushner: What influence did your orchestral song cycle “The Long Count” have on your progress as a symphonic composer and the trajectory that led you to the compositions on this new recording?

Bryce Dessner: Part of that experience really  gave me a real appetite for this music and for developing–you know, further–my own voice, and so, out of that, “St. Carolyn by the Sea” is in a way a much more, I think, developed composition. It uses some of the same techniques that I was using in “The Long Count”, specifically the mirror, kind of canonic behavior in the guitar writing….in “The Long Count” some of the guitar behavior is more sort of riff-oriented, whereas in “St. Carolyn,” the guitars are sort of treated as a section of the orchestra, so they sit timbrally like in the orchestral color, like the winds or the brass or the strings.

DJK: What relationship, if any, does the piece “St. Carolyn by the Sea” have to the concerto as a form? It doesn’t feature the guitar in a conventional means for a concerto, but I’m curious if there’s any correlation.

BD: I think a lot of my favorite electric guitar playing actually behaves that way, where the guitar is used as a kind of shading or a color, and less the kind of rock-driven tendency,  rock tropes. Playing pentatonic scales over orchestral music is not something I want to do or listen to. That tends to be what you think of for an electric guitar concerto, so I really didn’t want to write a traditional concerto in that sense.

I think that [in] orchestral music, there’s a mystery–the communion you get of so many musicians working together, [there’s] a kind of elusive energy about that that to me is one of the great human aspects of art, in the orchestral tradition. Where else in modern art do you see 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 people making something in real time? The mystery and the magic of that to me feels much more exciting than playing out my solo lines over the top of it. But I would say that doesn’t mean I don’t want to write a concerto, but I don’t think I’d do it for the electric guitar first. –Bryce Dessner

DJK: Is there a particular  instrument that you would be keen to explore in a concerto first?

BD: I think that writing for solo violin, [there are] just so many incredible players nowadays, and young people who are doing really exciting programming, so that would probably be my first. I would say violin or cello.  I’ve really developed as a string writer in the last four or five years, and I think I have enough to say now with those instruments that writing something like a concerto would be a really exciting goal for me.


DJK: In comparing your collaboration with Kronos Quartet on the album Aheym, this new recording St. Carolyn by the Sea has that intense, mesmerizing rhythmic quality that seems characteristic of your work. But here the compositions seem to expand and take shape at a slower, perhaps more brooding pace. Is this in part a result of writing for different instrumentation, or because there are different musicians involved?

BD: The larger pieces are slightly less anxious I think, they have a little less of that driving energy about them. I’m not sure if I made a conscious decision about that or if the instrumentation led me to that. I think specifically in the case of “Lachrimae”, it has to do with the musicians I was working with–so the Amsterdam Sinfonietta commissioned that piece. You know, I often try to think about–when I write instrumental music, the hardest thing is finding an idea. Once I have an idea, the music kind of comes. But I try to find a way into the piece, is what I always say. That may be these kind of non-musical references that I make, but more often actually, it’s who I’m writing for. So in the case of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, they’re a really great conductorless ensemble and sinfonietta in Amsterdam–really , really phenomenal players. Really, It’s probably one of the best groups like that in Europe. And they play beautifully–they can play Renaissance or Baroque music, but they also can play new commissions and they’re just really good at both. So I think that’s part of what led me to “Lachrimae,” is I wanted to do something that kind of sat in between those two spaces. And so, the piece itself, being based on the John Dowland “Lachrimae”…there is something kind of peaceful about it, you know, and I think that I wanted to write a piece of music that was breathing a bit deeper in a way and less sort of hurried.

DJK: How do you feel that your music and that of Jonny Greenwood’s compliment each other on this album?

BD: I think Jonny does some really inventive things with harmony, and maybe my music is sort of more centered around what’s happening rhythmically…People ask me, ‘Does the rock music experience benefit at all, writing these kind of longer-form, more ambitious concert pieces?’ And I think that there’s something you learn as a rock musician about the immediacy of sound. That doesn’t mean poppiness, catchiness. It means actually just the kind of primary element of material and keeping things focused in a way, and I hear that for sure in his music, and I hope that it happens in mine.

DJK: You’ve been very successful at balancing your work as a composer with your very busy schedule as guitarist in the band The National. Do you think you’ll have to choose at some point to focus on one more than the other? If so, does one feel closer to your heart?

BD: My life in The National is really about my relationship to my brother [guitarist Aaron Dessner]. We’re twins….The National is a place that we really thrive together, and that relationship is kind of fundamental, the most fundamental thing. I’m basically a born collaborator being a twin, and if you look at pretty much all of this music you can see it in that light…I call The National my family, and I’ll be doing that as long as I want to.

That said, the reason that I do this other music….I find the kind of adventurous spirit of contemporary music–audiences, ensembles, composers, whatever it be–I find there’s a real open-mindedness that you don’t find as much in the kind of pop world or whatever. I think there’s an adventurousness and a kind of  excitement about taking risks that is what draws me to it. I think ultimately, for my life, I see myself doing that forever. I can imagine myself as an old man writing music for choir or orchestra. I don’t know that I’ll be touring six months out of the year in a rock band when I’m 60.

For more information about composer Bryce Dessner and St. Carolyn by the Sea, visit


Experiments in Opera: Under Deconstruction

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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.

SONiC Festival Interview (#5): Du Yun

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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.

Written by winebrick41

October 18, 2011 at 5:03 pm

SONiC Snapshots: Oscar Bettison and Rebecca Stenn/Konrad Kaczmarek

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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.

Part One–I spoke with composer Oscar Bettison about his 65-minute opus O Death, excerpts of which will be performed on Wednesday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. by Ensemble Klang at Symphony Space. (This is SONiC Festival Interview #3.)

Daniel J. Kushner: So the inspiration for the piece is a folk song of the same name. Could you talk about striking a blanance between directly quoting a piece and writing something that’s more suggestive of the overall mood of the original work?

Oscar Bettison: I wanted to set this big immovable object in the middle of the piece—it ended up being the fourth movement…in the song “O Death” the idea of the character pleading with the figure of death not to take him away so soon, it’s not so different from certain things in the Requiem Mass, although in that sense people are asking for absolution or something like that. But still, the idea of a kind of pleading struck me as interesting. So then I started thinking about how this would work as a kind of loose Requiem structure….in fact, actually I think the structure of the piece is much more akin to a symphony than it is to a Requiem Mass, but that was my original intention.

There is more of a blues influence in that melody. I was really interested in the idea of things crossing over oceans, and of course that “O Death” melody and the “O Death” words started off as an English folk thing that was passed, obviously this was taken as immigrants came to the States, and the melody changed substantially.

DK: “Chorus No. 2″ has a kind of muted, almost antiquated sound. It sounds as if it’s coming from a phonograph. Is that effect a way of referencing the historical nature of the source material?

OB: One of my original ideas was to actually have samples of blues records, and that didn’t work out in the end…I nixed the idea of having blues records playing, but in the sixth movement, there are these really loud sections, and they contrast with these really quiet sections. We recorded the loud sections deliberately kind of badly—originally it was going to be like a handheld Dictaphone but we found a more elegant way of doing it—and they get played back through the quiet sections as a kind of shimmer to the sound. That was definitely playing with the idea of the blues as a recorded genre. The blues and jazz were the first genres that exist purely on record.

DK: It strikes me that there is a definite focus on human frailty in this composition. When you think about it, pleading with death is an ultimately futile proposition. It sounds like those considerations were at the forefront of your mind in terms of thematic content.

OB: Death has been an everyday occurrence for humanity right up until fairly recently. But now this is a taboo; it’s rarely discussed. It just strikes me as a strange thing in the modern world. That was also in the back of my mind—this is something that is of course common to all humanity but in our modern industrial age is something we try and shy away from. And it seems to me to be very dishonest.

Part TwoI recently sat down with choreographer Rebecca Stenn and composer/pianist Konrad Kaczmarek to discuss the premiere of their work Zone A, which they will perform at Joyce Soho as part of the 10 p.m., Wednesday, October 19 event “SONiC AfterHours: New Sounds, New Moves.” From the outset of the collaboration, their interest in improvisation and happy abdication of autonomy led the two artists to deviate from the conventional dichotomy of “music first-choreography-second” in favor of simultaneous creation. (This is SONiC Festival Interview #4.)

Daniel J. Kushner: Because this is a pretty rare occurrence in that both of you are performing the work, the audience is going to get a rare look at the often unseen dynamic between the composer and the choreographer. How has this collaboration influenced your perceptions or attitudes about this relationship?

Rebecca Stenn: I’ve always worked with live music—that’s kind of what, in fact, my company is known for, in a way. And not just working with live music, but we’ve been interested in having musicians on stage, interacting with us physically, etc. So for me, that’s integral. I really don’t like performing to [canned music].

The feeling for me with that onstage collaboration—especially in this case because Konrad and I are leaving fairly substantial sections in the piece improvised in a sense, so it’s going to be different every night and it forces us to tune in to what the person is doing—and I think it makes a very present live experience for the audience and for us. But I want the musician/composer onstage. That’s been important to me all throughout my career.

Konrad Kaczmarek: Something that probably wouldn’t have occurred to me until it came up by chance in one of our last workshops was thinking about your proximity to me, because I’m going to be at a grand piano, incorporating that in a dramatic way. That’s a whole other element that we have—physical proximity between the two of us—so in a sense I become a kind of choreographed element to the performance.

RS: Totally. It’s not a solo, it’s a duet. That’s how I think of it. If you weren’t there, and we pressed play on a tape, it would be a completely different experience.

DK: What comes first? Is it a musical gesture? Is it a particular movement?

RS: It’s a bit mysterious, isn’t it?

KK: Things just kind of condense, things coalesce.

RS: In our first rehearsal, I started moving, he started playing. I was listening, he was watching. We started assigning names to ideas or feelings or sections. We have something called “Lop-sided Loop” and something about pointillism, we have “Intimate Delicate”—these are just quiet terms…that started to emerge from the feel created in that improvisation, and then we would say either, “Oh, I really like this, let’s play on it again” or “That one fizzled—moving on…”

KK: That was one of the most interesting and rewarding things so far in this project. It’s sort of like hearing my music through her ears.

DK: So it’s like creating a language that both of you can understand.

For more information about the SONiC Festival, visit the official SONiC Festival website.

Written by winebrick41

October 17, 2011 at 7:50 pm

SONiC Festival Interview #2: Wang Lu

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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) will venture 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 Wang Lu, whose Flowing Water Study II for orchestra and video will be premiered by the American Composers Orchestra at the SONiC Festival’s opening concert at Zankel Hall on Friday, October 14.

Daniel J. Kushner: Can you talk about the origins of this new composition?

Wang Lu: I have been studying this Guqin piece. [It's] a very ancient piece which had a lot of different interpretations over the history. The earliest one is more than 2,000 years old, but the version I was interested in—I listened to it many times—was from the late 19th century, and I studied this solo piece called Flowing Water…I found it very interesting because it’s kind of improvised in notation, it doesn’t show any pitch names or rhythm. The noises are created by nails and sliding pitch after the regular attack, so it’s kind of unique. So I studied this piece, I analyzed this piece, I listened to it many times, and decided to write an orchestra piece that’s related to this. It’s also about flowing water…

DK: So the notation is not like Western notation at all in that there aren’t any specific notes?

WL: Right. The notation [Jian Zi Pu] basically looks like Chinese characters, one after another, but it’s not Chinese characters. It’s made of part of some regular characters that mean where on the string you use which hand, which finger, if you use nail or complete flesh, or switch from the flesh to the nail…when you think of this poetic image…basically you know the positions and you have to find the pitch on the string and there’s no rhytmic indication at all. I find that very interesting.

The tradition notation of Guqin, Jian Zi Pu

DK: What do you view as the video’s primary role in the piece?

WL: [I came up with] the piece first, and then I gave the score to Dan Iglesia, who made the video. He’s also a regular composer himself, my colleaugue from school. I gave him the score…[the video means to] in an abstract way to show the poetic images behind the story, behind the score, and also just to indicate the notation, but not by showing the characters one by one. So there will be some brushstrokes moving along the music in the piece, and there’s a lot of images….The strokes will be moving but you actually don’t see a complete character [that shows] you recognize how to play this specific note, but it looks like the process of drawing the characters.

Also the important thing is that the video will be played live, which means he will follow the conductor and the score and trigger different images. For example, if there’s a texture of running notes fast, he might trigger this image he composed for this particular moment, and it will happen when this passage is over, when the music is quieter and the notes get more sparkly,and then he will trigger a different image.

DK: Were there any particular obstacles to combining music and video in this way?

WL: Not really. This music, Flowing Water—that I chose to study and to write about—gives enough very clear descriptions on what kind of images the music is about. It depicts different conditions of water already. So there will be like very small rivers, and small rivers running into each other and going down, and then running against the stones.

DK: At times your music can be rather bombastic. Did that affect how you approached achieving the balance between music and video?

WL: This piece is different from the other pieces I wrote, a lot of them, because this is a very different aesthetic. This music about playing very few notes, but to really emphasize the subtlety between notes other than the orchestra piece maybe you heard.

For more information about the SONiC Festival, visit the official SONiC Festival website.

Written by winebrick41

October 11, 2011 at 4:31 pm

SONiC Festival Interview #1: Alex Temple

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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) will venture 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 recently spoke with Alex Temple, a composer of one such work, whose Liebeslied for female voice, electronics, and chamber orchestra will be performed by the American Composers Orchestra at the SONiC Festival’s opening concert at Zankel Hall on Friday, October 14.

Alex Temple performing with new music ensemble The Sissy-Eared Mollycoddles.

Daniel J. Kushner: You’ve described your new composition, Liebeslied—which will be premiered by the American Composers Orchestra and soprano Mellissa Hughes as part of the SONiC Festival—as a “dreamlike refraction of love songs from the 1940s and 50s.” Can you talk about your specific inspiration for this piece?”

Alex Temple: The piece I wrote for ACO and Mellissa [Hughes], it was inspired by a realization I had while listening to the song “Till There Was You” [from The Music Man]…So I was listening to “Till There Was You,” and I was listening to the lyrics, and for some reason it occurred to me to take them literally, and I thought, This really scary. “There were bells on a hill, but I didn’t hear them ringing/Till there was you”—well that’s really kind of a frightening idea. And then I was thinking about “I Only Have Eyes for You,” which is the opposite but equally scary. Rather than being unable to perceive the world until the singer meets their beloved, in “I Only Have Eyes for You,” the singer—as a result of being with the person, can’t perceive the world. And I was thinking about the line “I don’t know if we’re in a garden or on a crowded avenue”—I’m like, this sounds like something out of Last Year at Marienbad or something, some kind of disorientingly [sic] surreal film. And then the other thing I was thinking about is that a lot of music from that period sonically also seems very eerie to me, partially because the vocals are mixed a little too high with respect to the instruments—which makes them sound somehow enlarged or heightened—and partially because there tends to be a lot of reverb….

[In Liebeslied] there’s sort of an introductory passage which is simulating reverb orchestrally, but once the voice comes in it starts out more or less being in the style of a ballad from the 40s or 50s. But it kind of is edging in towards German Romantic orchestral lieder too in certain spots because I was interested in the idea that those two repertoires are more similar than they’re sometimes given credit for, both textually and musically. I found some really strange chord progression—I can’t remember what it is now—in Tony Bennett’s “Because of You,” and I was thinking, Strauss could have written this and it wouldn’t have seemed out of place.

And the piece as it continues gradually starts taking these cells apart and abstracting them and taking them into darker and stranger places, but the initial impetus for it was really specifically conceived of in reference to an existing musical repertoire, and I feel like that’s true of 75-80% of the pieces that I write. I’m very interested in commenting on the musical and cultural history. “Commenting” makes it sound like there’s a specific message, which isn’t necessarily true. And “playing with” sounds a little too humorous, maybe. The best way to put it would be “engaging with.”

DK: It sounds like Liebeslied takes the already existing lexicon inherent in these love song standards and makes them literal and interprets them in a way that’s more true to the experience of falling in love.

AT: That would be a very cynical view of love. I think if anything it’s a critique of how love is portrayed in those songs. I find a lot of the ways that love is portrayed in art in general, both popular and formal, to be very creepy. It tends to be obsessive, it tends to be stalker-ish—it tends to be overwhelming to the point that it destroys your ability to function. I don’t think that’s what a good relationship is like. I don’t think anybody who has good relationships thinks that what a good relationship is like. And so I look at these songs and I think, What a horrible idea, that love would actually make you blind to the world around you. For example, another song I was looking up is “Laura.” That one’s interesting ‘cause it’s in the second person, actually. So the listener is put in the position of imagining themselves as somebody who lost a lover at some point in the past and just absolutely can’t stop thinking about her. “The face in the misty light” and the “footsteps you hear down the hall,” everything that the fictional listener hears or sees is Laura. And again, I’m thinking, That sounds awful! I don’t think it’s romantic, I think it’s distressing.

Alex Temple’s A Presentation to the Board
AT: I’ve written a lot of pieces that are stylistically referential, but I‘ve been moving increasingly over the course of the last nine years or so toward being interested in the meanings of the things I’m referencing. Because when I started out doing it I originally just thought of it as fun and playful, and increasingly I’m interested in it as—well, initially as an oblique cultural commentary and then more and more as actual social critique….Definitely part of my intention is to say, “Hey, wait a second: the images we’re using to represent love—and although those songs are not current the ideas are still around—these images are actually really disturbing. I don’t want to say too much about the ending of the piece because I want it to be a surprise, but I’ll say that the protagonist of the song—I don’t think the relationship that she’s in is such a good one.

For more information about the SONiC Festival, visit the official SONiC Festival website.

Written by winebrick41

October 11, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Closing Arguments: The Ecstatic Music Festival and Exploding the “Steak vs. Candy” Debate (Part 3 of 3)

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Since January 17, Judd Greenstein’s Ecstatic Music Festival has presented New York City audiences with one-of-a-kind collaborations between composers and performers who share the creative impetus to explore the musical environment between the monolith of “classical music” and the divergent “indie” aesthetic which draws from popular music traditions.

But beyond the readily observable stylistic hybrid, what has the Ecstatic Music Festival really been about? This three-part series delves into the seminal influences that contributed to the conception and execution of the festival, and what it means for the dialogue between traditional classical music and emergent compositional styles.

For Missy Mazzoli, composer and leader of the chamber band Victoire, the loft culture is a reminder of the hard reality facing today’s composers–the struggle for survival and creative autonomy. “I always go back to Philip Glass–who’s one of my mentors,” says Mazzoli, “and think about how he was playing music in parks and in art galleries and in lofts; just in unconventional spaces, as much because he couldn’t get programmed anywhere else as because it was a cool, interesting thing to do…

My reasoning behind founding Victoire was really because I didn’t want to wait around for another group to decide to program my music. I wanted to be able to program a show myself, and decide where it was gonna be, and decide how the audience was gonna experience the music, and to go in there with a solid group of musicians who knew my music really well, and do it. And I wanted to be able to tour like a band. I wanted to be able to play in clubs and bars and art galleries as well as concert halls, and I wanted to make CDs. So all these things become very difficult if you’re just writing for an orchestra, and you have to wait for them to clear it with the union, and then decide to put it on a CD, and maybe only put out one CD every five years.

Indie favorite Dan Deacon turned to pop music because of similar artistic motivations:

“When I got out of school, I was like, ‘How am I gonna find a 15-person ensemble to learn this symphonic score, and be like, Hey I’ve got no money, and no audience, and no venue–do you wanna learn this piece and we’ll rehearse it every day for weeks and then play it for no one?‘” he remembers.

“…So playing basement shows and adapting to the model of the DIY scene and the underground, and working in the noise circuit seemed to make a shit-load more sense than trying to like submit scores to festivals and you know, journals of new music, and stuff like that,” explains Deacon. “That just seemed like such a backwards way when my whole goal was to have as many people as possible hear the music I was making.”

John Schaefer, a self-described “public radio music journalist” and host of WNYC’s Soundcheck and New Sounds programs, has covered New York’s new music scene for nearly 30 years, and sees this musical Darwinism as a response to the ever-evolving realities of the recording industry. He maintains that major publishing deals and long-term, major-label recording contracts are no longer realistic goals for young composers. “It’s kind of like the big, lumbering dinosaurs are finally dying, and all these nimble little mammals who’ve been scurrying around underfoot are inheriting the earth,” Schaefer says.

Additionally, Schaefer has found that the term “indie classical” is well suited to describe the music these mammals are making. “The neat thing about the term is it sort of indicates that this is music that’s being made around the edges, off the mainstream,” he points out. “And there’s a certain DIY aesthetic that is analogous to what is happening in the world of indie rock, where you have composers taking control over not just the writing of their music, but the recording of it.”

Violist Nadia Sirota, who hosts WNYC’s Nadia Sirota on Q2, finds “indie classical” less apt. “The term is terrible just like everything else. It’s complicated–genre, blah blah blah,” asserts Sirota. “I think what people are searching for with that term is allowing classical music, specifically new classical music, to be vibrant and fun and sexy in a way that pop music tends to be.”

However succinct or clever, just beneath the surface of the phrase “indie classical” is a classic debate, in which seemingly age-old questions emerge: What makes music serious? What makes music non-serious? What makes something “classical?” What makes it “pop?” Is music both classical and serious, or pop and not serious based on the vibe it gives off, i.e. the stereotypes or connotations associated with it? Or is that determination based solely on what the actual composition process is?

When I posed those questions, Deacon gave a seemingly novel, but clearly nuanced answer:

I think there are even greater questions like, What’s so important about being serious? Does being serious about something make it art? Or if you’re not serious, it’s not art? What’s the difference between steak and candy? I think that’s one of the main things–is that people consider art music steak, and pop music candy. Where I think to the greater population of the world, I think a lot of people consider pop music steak, and art music salt. I think that cultural divide is changing…There was a lot of weird stuff that started to happen a hundred years ago. Charles Ives and his dad were doing weird, crazy shit a hundred years ago. Satie was doing shit that was weird.

Ecstatic Music Festival: Dan Deacon & So Percussion from Guy Werner on Vimeo.

To hear Missy Mazzoli try and suss out the serious vs. non-serious dichotomy, it’s really just academia messing with our heads. “There is this sort of split between serious academic music and more accessible popular music,” she explains. “Even if your teachers are accepting of the music that you write…and your peers are accepting of it, there’s still this sort of voice in the back of your head that says, Well what if this isn’t serious? What if this is frivolous? And it’s just sort of all this kind of nonsense in your head that doesn’t mean anything once you step out of academia.”

Sirota seems to have little patience for this line of analysis, and instead relies on the nature of the music itself to lend validity to her artistic endeavors. “Here’s the thing seriously: No matter what the fuck you think about what you’re writing, you have to think that music is a form of communication. You’re trying to communicate some emotional thing via music, and it needs to reach somebody else at the end of the day.

Ultimately, the dubious nature of the term “indie classical” aside–and all the philosophical cul-de-sacs and nonsensical semantics that come with it notwithstanding–the artists of the Ecstatic Music Festival continue to communicate without sacrificing creative sovereignty. “About ten years ago, we’d probably be called ‘crossover,’ explains composer and multi-instrumentalist Caleb Burhans. “But that means that we’re actually crossing over from something, and I feel that most composers that I’m working with aren’t actually crossing anywhere–they’re just staying true to what they do.”

The Ecstatic Music Festival runs through March 28 at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City (129 West 67 Street). The festival is comprised of 14 concerts, during which participating artists who are “re-defining contemporary music come together for collaborations exploring the fertile terrain between classical and popular music,” according to the festival’s web site.

Featured musicians include: Nico Muhly with the Chiara Quartet; So Percussion with Dan Deacon; the Bang On a Can All-Stars, performing world premieres by Bryce Dessner, Karsh Kale,and Nick Brooke; Timo Andres and Gabriel Kahane; Nadia Sirota and Thomas Bartlett with Owen Pallett; Sarah Kirkland Snider with yMusic–and many others.

For more about the Ecstatic Music Festival, including ticket information, visit


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