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Daniel J. Kushner, traipsing through sounds

Posts Tagged ‘New York City

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival and the Invisible Architecture of Musical Taste

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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.

Guitarist Bryce Dessner performs with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus; photo by Mike Benigno, courtesy of BAM.

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.

Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond; photo by Mike Benigno, courtesy of BAM.

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.

Arone Dyer, left, and Aron Sanchez of Buke and Gase; photo by Rebecca Greenfield, courtesy of BAM.

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.

From left to right, Adam Swilinski, Jason Treuting, and Josh Quillen of So Percussion, photo by Rebecca Greenfield, courtesy of BAM.

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.

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.

Vital Vox: An “A&Q” with Gelsey Bell

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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.

Written by winebrick41

November 4, 2011 at 12:43 am

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

More Adz and Ends: Sufjan Stevens Bonus Interview

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In the course of publishing an interview, editing is inevitable. My recent three-part interview with Sufjan Stevens is no exception. In this post comprised of discussions that didn’t make it into the interview proper, the artist talks about the music of Asthmatic Kitty labelmate Shara Worden–who will open for Stevens at his August 2 concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park–architecture,the term “composer,” his perspective on contemporary music criticism, and more.

Daniel J Kushner: Your music has been appropriated for a wide variety of music purposes, as string quartet music, hip-hop samples, and also as ballet music. Does this extrapolation of your work s inform how you think about what you do?

Sufjan Stevens: Yeah. I mean, I think that music has a function, and we forget that it can have mutiple functions and it can be site-specific…And I think there’s something very iconoclastic about going into an H&M store and being accosted by techno music or dance music, because I think that that’s a misuse of form. The form itself, it’s meant to engage with movement and bodies, and you know, the dance floor. And we go in the restaurant, and there are these speakers everywhere and they’re imposing this music on us. And I think that we’ve become even careless in how we do music and exploit it, and it’s part of this constant soundtrack. So I think about function a lot.

One of the reasons why I don’t like to play outdoor festivals is cause I think there’s something really sacrilegious about blasting sound through a huge PA system in an outdoor environment. There’s something very environmentally irresponsible about that, you know? There’s something very strange about that that I’ve always had trouble dealing with. I like to think that music can have multiple functions but should always be sort of deliberate and responsible and sort of accommodating to each environment….I don’t think as a society we’re ever going to grow weary of music. I think it’s always going to be valuable. It’s funny, cause I think of architecture as being vital. Architecture is this sort of discipline in creating space which [sic] we inhabit, and architecture matters more than anything else because it’s all about physical matter that covers us. We live in these rooms, in these spaces.

Music has no physical matter at all, it’s just waves, I guess. I don’t even know what it is. It’s just waves. And yet emotionally and psychologically it matters to us probably far more than architecture. I think people have more opinions and allegiances to songs and styles than they would to architecture, for some reason. And I don’t know why that it is, even though it doesn’t matter—like physically doesn’t have matter. It still matters more to people. It’s a mysterious thing.

Kushner: I wouldn’t ask the question about labels if it didn’t seem so relevant. In talking to contemporary composers, it just seems to be this ever-present issue that some people really take personally. Is it contemporary classical? Is it indie classical? There are all these terms floating out there that people choose either to utilize or avoid. It’s a really perplexing problem without a real answer. The label itself doesn’t say anything or explain anything about the music itself.

Stevens: Yeah, well music journalism and music criticism today is pretty sloppy and irresponsible with language, and there’s actually no accountability in terms of the kind of flagrant labels they use. There are a lot of run-on lists of descriptors and modifiers that aren’t usually very responsible. And I think I’m less interested in these descriptors and modifiers than I am in concrete nouns. I think if you’re going to call something what it is, you should use a noun, because a noun holds up better…

[Writers are] really desperate to kind of describe something, but they describe it as a list of modifiers that are constantly cross-referencing or alluding to previous work. It just feels very kind of insular and circular and reductive….it makes for really clumsy prose, cause as a reader you have to wade through all those references and there’s no concrete terminology on which to stand so that as a reader you feel confident about the subject at hand. Maybe it’s just an inherent problem in music journalism or writing about music, because music doesn’t have shape or form—like you said, it’s ephemeral. It’s extremely subjective, and it’s a mysterious phenomenon, and the desperate need to categorize is indication of how mysterious music is.

Kushner: I was wondering what you thought of the current music scene in New York, particularly the Ecstatic Music Festival?

Stevens: [Shara Worden] did a My Brightest Diamond show with all new material…I was kind of blown away by Shara’s new songs because they’re really exuberant and very generous and dynamic, and they were very confusing too. I was having that conundrum, that labeling conundrum, wanting to to reduce it to a formula, form or term, and afterwards I was just baffled by it all. And I kind of liked being really confused. Some of it was like weird 60s Gospel/Broadway theater, there was like a theatrical element to it, there was dance. Some of it was just real simple folk, but then it had all these really kind of dense wind arrangements, tone colors and flourishes. But then it had these big fat beats too. It was very beat heavy, and it felt kind of like poppy and hip-hoppy. She’s becoming more soulful…I was really confused by it all, but where her other previous stuff has been very focused, you know? She was doing this dark gothic rock thing, and all this new material is really turned away from that and is much more dynamic, more joyful.

Kushner: It seems like she’s emerging into the most natural version of her creative self, or a fuller representation of her creativity. I think that was the nature of that festival as a whole. I think if you walked away confused in terms of how to categorize something, it’s probably a good thing. For me, this happens in your music too. In the cases of songwriters like you and Shara and others, I don’t really separate composer from singer-songwriter. I think you’re all composers who happen to use song as your medium of choice.

Gustav Mahler is a composer, but he’s most well known for writing songs. Technically, he was a songwriter, but no one refers to him as a songwriter. I don’t know what distingiuishes someone from being a composer or not being a composer. I don’t make that distinction, but as we’ve determined, that distinction doesn’t matter so much.  [Editor's note: Upon initial publication, the quote contained in this paragraph was incorrectly attributed to Sufjan Stevens.  This quote was in fact spoken by the interviewer.]

Stevens: Who cares what I think, too, because I think that my hesitation with the term composer, it’s like personal hang-ups with the connotations of that word, composer and composition. And my instinct is to dumb down what I do. I always just want to keep it simple. People ask me what I do for a living, I say, “I write songs.” They say, what kind of music, and I just say, “Pop music.” End of conversation. It’s such a vague, kind of all-encompassing term, but it’s good enough for me.

Kushner: Is the connotation of the composer that it’s too complex and not accessible enough?

Stevens: Maybe, that it’s too important, more important than I’m willing to concede.

Kushner: Maybe music somehow feels more personal [than architecture]. You can take ownership and make it your own more than you can take ownership of that great building you walked by. I think that’s what it is, at least in part…

Stevens: An object, just by the nature of its physical being, resists possession in a way because it’s an object, you know. You can’t carry around a building obviously. You can’t possess it, in a way. I guess you can own it, like real estate, but that’s short=lived anyway. Music is nebulous. We talk about intellectual property of music, but that’s just politics. I don’t know what that means. That’s why I really believe that the song sustains its own consciousness and is dispossessed of its owner, and then it basically yields to the multitudes of listeners, of consumers, and everyone owns the song.

It’s such a relief for me to acknowledge that because I feel far less possessive of my own music, and I feel lest earnest and less despairing about its worth, or its value, and more willing to just make it, create it, do my best work possible, and then give it away.

Kushner: Precisely because it never belonged to you to begin with?

Stevens: Yeah. It’s not concrete so it doesn’t feel like I own it. It feels nebulous.

Kushner: The implication that you’re presenting is really interesting, which is that the physical things that one can make into a commodity or possess, those are the things that you actually can’t control, and it’s the things that seem totally intangible and unattainable, and those are the things you can really own. I think that’s a really epiphanic thought. It’s kind of revelatory, and it flies in the face of our culture for sure…

Stevens: We’re born into this world naked and screaming, with no possessions. And we leave in the same way, you know? We can’t take it with us. All we have is our bodies and our souls and that’s it. I don’t even think our bodies are our own. I think that’s just borrowed. So give it away, that’s what I say. Give it away.

NOTE: Sufjan Stevens’s August 2 concert at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn is sold out. For more information on the August 3 concert, visit Celebrate Brooklyn! here.

Written by winebrick41

July 25, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Adz and Ends: An Interview with Sufjan Stevens (Part 3 of 3)

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Following rigorous U.S. and European tours supporting Adz, Stevens and his band set upon the Prospect Park Bandshell as part of New York City’s Celebrate Brooklyn! summer festival on August 2 and 3 to sing the (seven) swan song of The Age of Adz tour.  

Among the stage show’s inluences, Stevens cites such distinctive influences as Royal Robertson, Sun Ra, Parliament, the dance aesthetics of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and the movie Tron. In part three of my interview with the artist, Stevens talks about striving to write the perfect song, his gravitation toward noise, and Royal Robertson and the cliche of the tortured artist.

The Age of Adz; photo by Josh Higgason.

Daniel J. Kushner: How do you feel about genre labels and their level of usefulness?

Sufjan Stevens: Yeah, I think they’re only useful in commodity, in kind of an economic sense. They’re useful in just categorizing for marketing. And I guess as listeners, unfortunately we’re obsessed with identifying and categorizing and putting everything in its place. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s necessary for our understanding of it and relationship to it and proximity to it. But for me, I guess I decided now that I shouldn’t concern myself with categories, and just let the music be its own thing, and speak for itself.

All the lines are blurred now, more than ever. The music industry’s much smaller, and I think that that gives songwriters and musicians and composers greater freedom to meander from one form to another without too much, there’s very little backlash or criticism, I guess. I wouldn’t say I’m a composer. I still say I’m a songwriter. And my objective is to write the perfect song.

Kushner: Do you think that’s something you could ever achieve?

Stevens: No, I don’t think it’s attainable but I think that the effort itself is the achievement, more so than the song. I don’t think it’s identifiable—the perfect song. The perfect song is different to everyone.

Is there anything I failed to bring up?

When I did press for The BQE, I was always shocked that nobody talked about the film, and The BQE was the film, like it was a movie, and they would talk about the music as if it was like an album. And the same thing with this Age of Adz, I’ve had a lot of conversations with writers, and they never asked about Royal Robertson. I just assumed that maybe they knew everything and they would just kind of fill in the blanks themselves.

Get Real, Get Right from Asthmatic Kitty on Vimeo.

Yeah, that’s a good point. Definitely, the album made me more aware of Royal Robertson, and then having recently seen the documentary Make, that definitely filled in some other blanks. It seems that in pretty much all of your work it’s definitely very theme-centric. I know that’s a very generic thing to say, but the music itself almost functions like a documentary in that way. And I’m wondering if that’s something you’re conscious of and of this latest focus on Royal saw you approach the way you write about subject matter differently.

Yeah, because of the emphasis on sound, and a lot of the subject is on emotional well being, or mental health and physical health, the sounds are much more kinetic and I think inspired by that, by the nervous system in the body. I’m glad that you can kind of perceive that in this music, that there is a language to the music and the arrangements that’s communicating, documenting something that’s not explicit necessarily in the lyrics. And I think a lot of listeners have a hard time managing that. They’re obviously aware unconsciously of how the music affects them, but I think that most of us are probably predisposed to hone in on the lyrics and the subject itself as it’s manifest in the narrative of the song. And I don’t know if the lyric-writing on this record is strong enough to kind of stand on its own. I think it really requires the environment in which it’s contained, the sounds themselves. A lot of that’s coming from Royal because there’s script all over his paintings and drawings, but it’s nonsense or it’s non-sequiturs, it’s grammatically flawed, and full of expletives, and he disrupts himself, interrupts himself. And you kind of have to take it all as a whole, and none of it is very appealing or beautiful necessarily as a whole. It’s all very problematic.

There’s almost this sort of duplicity in his feelings toward his estranged wife Adell. If the phrase “love-hate relationship” was ever more apt, I’d be hard-pressed to find the context. He obviously really loved her, but his work is totally infested with this vitriol against her. Do you feel that dual nature of relationships present in the album?

Oh yeah, oh yeah. Royal’s a real messed up guy, and I think it’s frustrating to engage with that malicious quality in his work. It’s really frustrating. I don’t know why, I really felt akin to that in some way. I felt that I also had these issues of really longing for and desiring something, but then also feeling repulsed by it. And I think it comes out of that quality of masochism in my work, ‘cause I’m drawn to the disorder and the cacophony, and al the disruptions and the noise. And I’m drawn to all of that, and I find that as I engage with it, even if it’s an unhealthy kind of obsession with noise, that I really want to draw from it an experience that’s joyful and beautiful and satisfying. But then I often leave feeling kind of disturbed and injured. And I don’t know where that’s coming from or why that is.

Sufjan Stevens in the spotlight; photo by Josh Higgason.

You mentioned in your show last year in Toronto that the story of Royal Robertson is in part a cautionary tale about the potential “disease of the imagination.” Could you elaborate on that and how might relate to your own creative process?

Yeah, I wonder if “disease of the imagination” is just a euphemism for mental illness or schizophrenia. And I don’t know where I stand on this issue, but I sometimes feel that all creative endeavors are in some way related to mental illness or madness, because the imagination is such a kind of unwieldy, limitless environment in which one can reside for long periods of time and lose track of reality, ordinary life. I mean royal was really, really sick, and isolated for years and years. I definitely don’t have a mental illness, and I’m not autistic or schizophrenic—I don’t hear voices. But I do know that when I’m really fully engaged in writing, music, or whatever, that I do feel a kind of, like a sense of losing my foundation, like losing sense of reality, and sense of what’s kind of like normal and ordinary. I become kind of asocial and I spend a lot of time alone, and stop shaving and stop doing the dishes, kind of thing. And ordinary life becomes really disorganized, a mess. Yeah, I kind of forget about ordinary living.

Do you think that being tortured is almost a prerequisite for making art, or quality art?

I don’t know if it’s torture but I do think there’s fundamentally there’s a necessary masochism involved, especially with the kind of work that I’m doing, which isn’t natural. It’s very unnatural, and requires kind of a habit of risk-taking and a habit of running into obstacles, and there’s a kind of inherent masochism in that. And I think I get a thrill out of punishing myself through creative effort. And a lot of people I work with suffer the same kind of of symptoms of the creative willpower. I don’t want to romanticize mental illness, and I also think that the tortured artist is a cliché. I think it’s work, and effort, and you know it’s sort of our curse is to toil and labor. Creative life is no different than the sort of working class, blue collar life of labor. I feel like they’re more related than we might think.

Is noise a sonic manifestation of masochism, do you think?

No, maybe I’m sort of unethically imposing that term on the sonic environment that doesn’t really have any meaning necessarily. But I think a lot of people are really afraid of noise. There’s a sense of obligation and duty in the songwriter to arrange sounds in a way that they’re really beautiful and harmonious, and most people would rather switch to something that’s pleasing, but there’s a big part of me that really likes noise improv, and that kind of disorder. I was never really into punk rock or anything, but I would go to these shows where, back in the day when Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo would just like do feedback for an hour, and everyone would just stand there kind of simultaneously appalled, bewildered, and pleased by the whole effect. It gives you a headache, but it draws you into a meditative environment.

I think it’s the difference between listeners whose relationship to the song is predicated mainly on having a pleasant experience and listeners whose relationship to song is more about a reflection of what they’re feeling, and those feelings aren’t always particularly beautiful. Why do people like Joy Division? Is it just because they’ve come into vogue as this seminal band? I mean I guess that’s part of it. I mean their music isn’t particularly pretty. It doesn’t necessarily sound very good. Ian Curtis is not a particularly gifted singer, but it’s able to resonate because it’s so authentic to so many experiences for whatever reason.

I agree. I think you’re talking about an indescribably phenomenon that we might call authenticity or honesty or truth. I tend to use the word realness. The value, the substance of realness, of a man’s work, of a person’s craft. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s just resonance as real, as true.

NOTE: Sufjan Stevens’s August 2 concert at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn is sold out. For more information on the August 3 concert, visit Celebrate Brooklyn! here.

Written by winebrick41

July 23, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Adz and Ends: An Interview with Sufjan Stevens (Part 2 of 3)

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Following rigorous U.S. and European tours supporting Adz, Stevens and his band set upon the Prospect Park Bandshell as part of New York City’s Celebrate Brooklyn! summer festival on August 2 and 3 to sing the (seven) swan song of The Age of Adz tour.  

Among the stage show’s inluences, Stevens cites such distinctive influences as Royal Robertson, Sun Ra, Parliament, the dance aesthetics of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and the movie Tron. In part two of my interview with the artist, Stevens talks about his period of disillusionment, discarding his signature whispered vocals, and the prospect of alienating Illinoise era fans.

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Sufjan Stevens and band performing "Too Much;" photo by Josh Higgason.

Daniel J. Kushner: Your temporary disillusionment with songwriting was fairly well documented, particularly on the Asthmatic Kitty web site. How did you ultimately rediscover the value of the song?

Sufjan Stevens: Well I think I just got fed up with my own existential quandary, and got really bored with this sort of circular, philosophical pondering and my obsession with naming things and categorizing things. I think I wasn’t so much [disillusioned] with songwriting as I was disillusioned with form, and I was really frustrated with the limitations of the song. And I think a lot of that was suffering the repercussions of The BQE and having spent way too much time investing in that project and trying to render something meaningful out of this ugly modern urban expressway. And I really wanted to challenge the form, the format of the song. And that piece, by making it a film, and making it a soundtrack, and making it a photo-essay and exposition, and everything else except for song…when it was all finished I realized that I felt really sort of creatively spent but unsatisfied, you know?

It made me really question, well what is a song? Why are we so limited by these parameters? And then at some point I just got fed up with the kind of whiny, existential questioning, and I realized that really wasn’t my business to differentiate these categories, that my role was to do the best work possible, and not try to categorize it beforehand. I also got really sick, and you know, and couldn’t write for a while, cause I went through all this crazy physical stuff, and then when I came out of that, I sort of felt kind of this necessary revitalization, and I just felt like I had a second lease on life. I was really excited about writing—didn’t even want to question it anymore.

Kushner: You were trying to reconcile the difference between song and symphonic work, or something that’s other than song, and then trying to categorize it?

Stevens: Yeah. I think I was getting tired of my creative habits, and I was trying to challenge all of that by imposing all of these other kind of variables. Who’s to say a song has to be four minutes long? And wanting it to have multiple movements within sort of one comprehensive form, and really questioning the role of the voice and the narratives, and even melody—you know, everything, I was just kind of like taking apart and over-theorizing.

And I think that generally the least common denominator of the audience—they don‘t even care. They don’t question these things. They really approach everything on instinct, whether you like it or don’t like it. Does it sound good? Does it have a beat? Does it make me feel good? Most people aren’t really too preoccupied with the kind of theorizing of music, and I actually think that I learn something from the audience, from the consumer, and deciding that the creator, the artist, doesn’t need to be so preoccupied with knowing and the theorizing. ‘Cause I think intention—an artist’s intention—is kind of irrelevant. It doesn’t have much bearing. ‘Cause I think the song—its greatest realization—becomes its own, has its own consciousness, speaks its own truths, and belongs to the listener more than it belongs to a writer.

"Vesuvius," Age of Adz tour; photo by Josh Higgason.

While writing The Age of Adz, was there any concern that the record would alienate some fans of your music, particularly those who had fallen in love with the Illinoise era?

I was aware that the textures and the sonic environment was a little dirtier, more cacophonous, or whatever. I was aware of that, cause I feel like I was also extremely aware during the making of Illinois of how much effort I put into making it listenable. It’s such a populist record—there’s just so much effort in appealing to the listener, you know there’s such a kind of a pageant of sound, and it’s constantly entertaining and rewarding, and it’s just sort of a patchwork of this sort of harmonic beauty, harmonic what do you call it, I don’t know—It’s very harmonious.

You know, The Age of Adz, these are pop songs, but they’re based on sound experimentation and noise. They’re more aggressive, and even my tone of—the way I’m singing—it’s more in my throat and not always pretty. So I was aware of that, and I just felt like an imperative to experiment with these tones, and generally, I think now more than ever, I’m making music for that elite 5%—you know, the listener who’s been with me from the very beginning and understands my interest in electronic music and noise and in sound sculpting and minimalism and all that stuff. So I think that that record, The Age of Adz, is really for that listener, you know? I don’t think it’s meant to be for the casual listener who likes the song “Chicago,” which is fine. There’s no condescension at all in that remark. I don’t condescend to any of my music or to any listener. But I just am not in a season right now of feeling that kind of populist thrust. I don’t feel motivated to make things so listenable.

"I Want To Be Well," Age of Adz tour; photo by Josh Higgason.

In the summer of 2010, All Delighted People was released, and it was really the first indication, that compositionally something had shifted, particularly in your vocals, which now seem less whispered, and much more emotive and vulnerable even. Can you expound upon that a bit?

Yeah, I think my voice is my Achilles’ heel, ‘cause I’m not a great singer and I was involved with music very early on but I didn’t start singing until I was in my 20s, and I’ve always felt really self-conscious about my voice. And I think maybe that might explain all the sort of dynamic arrangements, and the shifts in styles and fashion from song to song, and also it might explain why I use so many background singers, cause I always feel like I’m so limited vocally. But then in terms of instrumentation and arrangement and style I don’t feel self-conscious at all, obviously, ‘cause I’m kind of jumping all over the place.

And so recently, in the past few years, I decided to really be more engaged with my voice and try to be more expressive and soulful, and to kind of step up and be a singer. And I was getting tired of the kind of coy and fey whatever-you-call-it, kind of assertive innocence or sensitive whispery tone of voice—what I’ve been using for years. I sang like that partly out of self-consciousness and partly just because I was singing to myself and writing in isolation and so my singing was very kind of quiet and intimate and almost like conversational. More recently, I’m becoming more emotive and dramatic and dynamic, and even kind of trying to be more for soulful. I guess I felt sort of like I needed to be more responsible as a singer and to take more challenges, more risks vocally. Whether or not I could hit a note, it didn’t matter, like I just kind of try go for it.

And I toured with Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond, and she’s a singer of great facility, and she’s extremely soulful and she’s got a pretty wide range. She’s been really inspiring, ‘cause sometimes when I’ll write a line in my mind myself I always think of her, I think of someone like her. And then when I actually sit down to sing it in the studio, it’s like this kind of challenging gymnastic trick that I have to do multiple takes.

I feel like that might even be perceptible on the EP and the latest record, in that it seems that in parts some of the lines are a little more florid than maybe they were in the past.

Yeah. Less breath and more body, too, you know? I’m singing more in my throat or through my nose, and it’s a little more nasal. It’s not as beautiful. I’ll admit to it: I think it’s prettier when I sing more quietly. To me, sometimes the quiet singing feels put on, pretentious, and a little bit coy. And I really just want to be more human and more real.

NOTE: Sufjan Stevens’s August 2 concert at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn is sold out. For more information on the August 3 concert, visit Celebrate Brooklyn! here.

Written by winebrick41

July 22, 2011 at 10:44 pm

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