You're So Post-Post-Rock Right Now

Daniel J. Kushner, traipsing through sounds

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“Shara Worden: Conspiring in Song” at NewMusicBox

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My latest article, a profile of composer and singer/songwriter Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) can be found exclusively at NewMusicBox. Below is the accompanying video–complete with interview footage and performance clips–produced by NewMusicBox Executive Editor Molly Sheridan.

Shara Worden: Conspiring in Song from NewMusicBox on Vimeo.

Written by winebrick41

November 18, 2011 at 5:18 pm

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

Beautiful Mechanical : yMusic, The Ready-Made Collaborators

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Chamber music ensembles tend to form because of a palpable chemistry felt between the individual players. But yMusic isn’t quite like many of its contemporaries. The New York-based sextet– clarinetist Hideaki Aomori , trumpeter/French horn player CJ Camerieri, cellist Clarice Jensen, violinist/guitarist Rob Moose, violist Nadia Sirota, and flutist Alex Sopp–came together because it sensed an unnecessary musical disconnect between its individual members and wanted to correct it. During a concert at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2008 for which indie rock sensation The National had hired violinist/guitarist Rob Moose, trumpeter/French horn player CJ Camerieri, and clarinetist Hideaki Aomori as backing musicians, Moose noticed a lack of musical intimacy.

yMusic, left to right: Hideaki Aomori, Clarice Jensen, CJ Camerieri, Rob Moose, Alex Sopp, Nadia Sirota; photo by Ilya Nikhamin.

I remember during one of the songs at The National show, seeing CJ standing like 60 feet from me across the room and not being able to hear him, and we’re playing the same song but we’re not even having a shared experience. [I] was just feeling like, You know, it’s really great that bands are having more instrumentalists play with them, but the experience was feeling a little bit lacking in terms of actual interaction and arrangement-wise, things were starting to feel a little thrown together…. Since we view the music of these bands with the same amount of integrity that we would put into a chamber music performance, there should be a group that is able to do both things.

Similarly, Camerieri saw a need for a new ensemble:

Nadia was at the after-party, we were like, Why wasn’t Nadia playing? This is insane. Hideaki was on different songs than me and Rob were on–we were like, Why aren’t people using all of us? And they we sort of realized it was because we hadn’t made it obvious that they should be using all of us. So in a weird way, yMusic , the first time we thought conceptually about the group, it was just to make it obvious to other people who we wanted to play with when they hired us for gigs. If you hire me, you should know that I’m gonna want you tor hire Hideaki to play clarinet.

Three years and seven commissions later, yMusic’s debut album Beautiful Mechanical was released on September 27 via New Amsterdam Records. The album features the works of six composers–among them indie singer-songwriters Gabriel Kahane, Annie Clark of St. Vincent, and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, all of whom yMusic had worked with extensively in the past. “In the end we realized that we have these two branches,” says Moose. “We are a commissioning ensemble that performs independently and we’re an auxiliary ensemble that performs with bands and can create arrangements for them and really help put that whole experience together.”

As an ensemble, the musicians’ cohesion transcends that of many professional ensembles entrenched in the classical tradition. Rather than interpreting the music as a group of instrumental layers that merely interact with one another, the players create a fully integrated fabric of sounds inextricable from one another. While many chamber ensembles attempt to sound as one voice, yMusic achieves it.

Beautiful Mechanical is singular in its execution: “contemporary classical” compositions packaged in a pop album context of seven tracks and a breezy 43 minutes. Each cut is a self-contained sound world all its own–from the skittish propulsion of Ryan Lott’s (Son Lux) title track to the cinematic undulations of “Daughter of the Waves” by Sarah Kirkland Snider to Judd Greenstein’s pinpoint post-Minimalism on “Clearing, Dawn, Dance.”

yMusic has created something stunning and uncanny–a vital document of the indie-classical movement that simultaneously resists and transcends the connotations associated with the subgenre. Programmatically, there is an implicit narrative of collaboration at work. Four of the six composers were featured as part of the Greenstein-curated Ecstatic Music Festival earlier this year, and three of the seven compositions were premiered at Snider and Worden’s March 16 Ecstatic concert. yMusic is also the featured band on Worden’s upcoming My Brightest Diamond album All Things Will Unwind, out October 18 from Asthmatic Kitty Records. In speaking about the ensemble’s collaboration with Worden on that record, Camerieri had this to say:

[Shara Worden] didn’t write a flute part, a clarinet part, and a viola part. She wrote an Alex Sopp part, an Hideaki part, and a Nadia Sirota part…she wrote for their individual characteristics and how they play and what’s significant to the way they sound. So it’s really specifically these people, and not their instruments….All of her special relationships with us and the way we play really come through super clear on the record. That’s sort of what yMusic is all about. It’s about us forging these releationships and making this music happen that wouldn’t normally happen, we don’t think, without the collaborative process.

Violist Nadia Sirota clarifies the unifying principle of yMusic:

I don’t think we ever really set out to be like, Oh man, let’s have this rock sensibility and apply it to chamber music or let’s have a classical sensibility and apply it to rock music. I think part of the reason we gravitated towards each other is because all of us have very, very wide-ranging tastes, and we like to be involved in projects where we just perceive the music to be good, no matter in what side of the aisle it lies…. to be a successful player of orchestral instruments in the early part of the 21st century means finding a niche and doing some weird stuff there.


“We Added It Up” from the forthcoming My Brightest Diamond album All Things Will Unwind (release date October 18).

In collaborating with the ensemble, composer Ryan Lott sees yMusic’s virtuosity extending beyond technical ability in a way that distinguishes the group among its peers. “If you want to call them classical musicians, they’re classical musicians for an iPod world, where Mozart and Mos Def are together on a playlist,” says Lott. “They’re the product of a world in which music is profoundly diverse, and they have the skill and the open-mindedness to embrace all of it.”

Lott’s contribution to the album is the title track, the name of which is indicative of yMusic’s overall style, according to Rob Moose. “I think sometimes the danger in classical training and classical music is that you get lost in the pursuit of the technique or the craft, and can lose sight of the music behind it,” says Moose. “So our group’s aesthetic is obviously to always project those things simultaneously and let them energize each other. The name of that piece kind of sums up how we approach music.

Composer/singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane explains the group’s singularity in this way:

I had taken for granted the rarity of their masterful hybrid musicianship as individuals, and as a group, by which I mean: nowhere else will you find a group of players who have both an innate sense of phrasing in the more ‘legit’ classical sense, and at the same time have exquisite sense for rhythm–not the case among your average highly-trained classical musician–and pop-oriented groove. It’s a real glory when writing the kind of music that my peers and I do to have such intuitively resourceful musicians to interpret it.

Beautiful Mechanical Compositions In Focus

Composer: Annie Clark (St. Vincent)

Track: “Proven Badlands”

  • Compositional Features: A coolly seductive flute melody underscored by an unsettling cello ostinato and punctuated by cityscape trumpet accents.
  • What to Listen For: Echoes of “Marrow,” from 2009’s Actor, particularly the four-note motive reminiscent of the line, “H.E.L.P./Help me, help me.” You can hear Clark’s voice in the flute melodies. More overtly, “Proven Badlands” is a continuing exposition of the central melodic theme of “The Sequel.”

Composer: Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond)
Track: “A Whistle, a Tune, A Macaroon”

  • Compositional Features: Woodwind-centric textures—including what sounds like sonic archery—and plenty of quivering tone colors,
  • What to Listen For: The clarity of melodic tone, tranquility, and an uncluttered and deliberate splatial sense reminiscent of “If I Were Queen” tranquility from A Thousand Shark’s Teeth.

Composer: Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond)
Track: “A Paper, a Pen, a Note to a Friend”

  • Compositional Features: Worden’s most vivid and idiosyncratic writing for instruments yet, full of fits and starts and loaded with nuanced articulations. Tongue-in-cheek for the ears, this a subtle and deceptively complex work.
  • What to Listen For: The danceable opening groove is a close relative of the expressionistic percussion painting of “Ding Dang” (from the forthcoming All Things Will Unwind) and the thumb piano motives in “Apple” (from a Thousand Shark’s Teeth) and “Everything is in Line” (from the former album). A continuation of the overall playful, almost coquettish quality of the instrumental writing from All Things Will Unwind.

Composer: Gabriel Kahane
Track: “Song”

  • Compositional Features: Spacious Americana courtesy of the trumpet, complete with the characteristic inscrutable melody and chromatic movements; plenty of chord suspensions with delayed resolutions
  • What to Listen For: Significant chordal accompaniment in the guitar, as on the forthcoming Where Are the Arms; the flute contains traces of a descending melody from “Craigslistlieder I: You Look Sexy.”

Note: The phrase “ready-made collaborators,” referenced in the article’s title, is attributed to Nadia Sirota.

For more information about yMusic’s Beautiful Mechanical, visit New Amsterdam Records here.

Creatures of Habit: A Response to Gabriel Kahane Concerning Spotify

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This past week, composer/singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane wrote a poignant editorial about the emergence of the music service Spotify and how it may adversely affect the way we consume music.  As someone who has recently begun to use Spotify as a resource, I found his opinions to be particularly timely.

And yet I was somewhat troubled by what I perceived to be a prevailing idea–that the medium with which we listen to music ostensibly dictates how we listen:

I’d like to propose a third stream: that the problem we face is not one of economics, but of the spiritual nature of how [we] consume music. That is to say: what Spotify and illegally downloaded music have in common is that they both spiritually devalue music by making a surfeit of it too accessible.

Mr. Kahane seems to be saying that universal, unparalleled access to all music is somehow inherently bad.  This seems dangerously paramount to saying, “The devil made me do it.”  It’s not the mechanism with which we consume music that makes or breaks our listening experience, but rather what we do with that mechanism.  How do we use Spotify and other technologies in an intelligent manner that rewards diligent and deliberate listening habits?

Ultimately, we as listeners must take personal responsibility for how we consume music.  I concede that mediums such as the record player/vinyl challenge us to listen more intently, and in a way I consider more positive than others.  But I can’t accept that listening to music digitally makes the experience any less meaningful because I now have access to more of it and will somehow listen “less.”

Discovering Spotify did not cause me to investigate more music less thoroughly.  Rather, I applied my existing listening habits to my use of Spotify, particularly as a way to supplement my experience of a particular artist’s biography or to listen to specific recordings of a seminal work.  In this way, the service can be used advantageously by completists or by intrepid listeners seeking to compare different recordings of the same composition.

Mr. Kahane refers to the onset of Spotify and “the demise of curation as it applies to one’s music collection” as cause-and-effect.  But with regard to Spotify’s practical function, is that really true?  Users may “star” songs and entire albums for later perusal, and there is of course the ability to create playlists.  This latter function is arguably the most important aspect of the Spotify experience.  How else can one organize a seemingly limitless library of music but through the use of personalized playlists?  If this isn’t curation, what is it?

New developments in music consumption are inevitable, and increased access is part and parcel.  Soon enough, the heir apparent of Spotify will emerge from the primordial sludge of technological innovation.  But was our listening experience decimated in the path of the last digital music victor,in the wake of iTunes and the iPod and their irrevocable trajectories?  No–essentially, we merely transferred our music collections to another format.

Now here is where Spotify’s function differentiates itself, and the subject of “complete access” becomes especially contentious.  Is it really my music collection if I have access to everything?  And herein, I think, is the underlying crux  in Mr. Kahane’s perspective:  What constitutes a personal music collection?  Beyond a matter of spiritual value, I think Spotify raises vital questions about ownership and music-as-commodity.  

Unfortunately, this is also where our topic, “Spotify and the Personal Listening Experience,” becomes derailed and turns instead into an economic  quandary.  By allowing users to access a vast cache for amounts ranging from free to $9.99, Spotify obscures the monetary value of music and fosters a communal atmosphere.  And this is a real  problem in an era in which the avenues for artist compensation are increasingly unclear.   And  as the following articles attest, Spotify similarly seems to have been largely ineffective in compensating artists for their craft.

First, some background history:

 Guardian, August 2009 - http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2009/aug/17/major-labels-spotify

The Music Void, October 2009 - http://www.themusicvoid.com/2009/10/spotify-labels-win-artists-lose/

The latest events:

Billboard, August 2011 - http://www.billboard.biz/bbbiz/industry/digital-and-mobile/century-media-label-pulls-music-from-spotify-1005309442.story

Music Ally, August 2011 - http://musically.com/blog/2011/08/11/spotify-payouts-top-100m-as-it-responds-to-indie-label-critics/

Monetary issues aside, it’s important that we the listeners hold ourselves accountable for how we listen to music and how we use services such as Spotify. If we have caught ourselves devaluing the music listening as a spiritual experience, perhaps the enemy is us.

Written by winebrick41

September 4, 2011 at 5:18 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

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