Contemporaneous playing Ryan Brown’s Big Dig at Fordham University last month
This Thursday at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, Contemporaneous is delving into some of the most exciting music we know and love from this generation. We are incredibly excited to be presented by MATA and feel like kindred spirits with their mission of championing the work of young composers.
Our program features music by four young New York composers whose music captures the visceral nature of improvised music from indie rock to Central African folk. Each of the four pieces was written for a specific band, and two were written for the composer’s own groups. All of the pieces we are performing involve some element of live improvisation and also draw more generally on the energy and spontaneity of improvisation. We are having a blast with the music and know you will, too!
Best known for his work as an electric guitarist with the indie-rock band The National, Bryce Dessner regularly writes for and plays on the new music scene as well, with such luminaries as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Nico Muhly, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. He has worked with Bang on a Can now for over 15 years and wrote his piece O Shut Your Eyes Against the Wind specifically for the All-Stars in 2010. From the strange and beautiful sound of a bowed electric guitar in the opening, the piece morphs gradually and organically into a driving and manic climax of pulsing rock-infused rhythm.
Passenger Fish is an opera-in-progress that composer/keyboardist Wil Smith is writing for his own band of the same name. The opera takes place in an airport, and our excerpt focuses on the inner struggle of a soul-searching and benevolent flight attendant. As she comforts a crying baby, she reflects on her work with “lazy, dumb, and insincere” adults. “But tears are such a weak defense against the world’s incompetence,” she says, encouraging the baby to be even more of a grown-up than its parents. Contemporaneous soprano and co-executive director Lucy Dhegrae will sing this role in our performance.
Now a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University, California-native Ryan Brown wrote his piece Big Dig for the Robin Cox Ensemble, which was founded by Ryan’s former teacher, composer/violinist Robin Cox. The high-energy rhythms stem from Central African mbira music, in which he was immersed at the time he was composing this piece. It’s a really fun and grooving piece that we love to play!
Our performance on Thursday will be the sixth time Contemporaneous has performed David Moore’s …and then it rained, which he wrote for his 13-member band Bing and Ruth. The score invites the performers to make many decisions of texture, instrumentation, and structure. For this reason, no two performances will be the same, but Moore’s heartfelt melody and arrestingly beautiful harmonies always come through. This piece can be found on Bing and Ruth’s most recent album City Lake, which is released on the composer’s own label Happy Talk.
We can’t wait to share this music live at Galapagos on Thursday and hope to see you there!
— David Bloom, co-artistic director, Contemporaneous
At MATA Interval 6.3 on May 16th, an evening we’re sharing with the explosive C4 Choral Collective at the always hip Galapagos Art Space — a purple-lit water-filled venue that feels like a mix between a night in Bora Bora and a flight on Virgin America — Contemporaneous will be playing new music by Ryan Brown, Bryce Dessner, David Moore, and Wil Smith.
The question is: how did we come up with that list?
The process of programming new music is fundamentally different from that of programming old music. For the most part, the reason to program an old piece falls somewhere on the spectrum between “I’ve always wanted to play ‘insert-masterwork here” and “man, lots of people will show up if we play ‘insert-well-known-work-here.” There’s obviously some wiggle room in there, and some more out of the box thinking, such as “everyone knows ‘insert-famous composer-here’, but do they know his less talented distant relative?!” or “do they know his weirdly awful piece that he wrote as a joke?!”
There happens to be an extremely long list of very amazing and very well-known pieces that have already been written, and if that’s your territory, then finding a justification for which piece you choose to program might very well be the most difficult part of the concert. In the end, it usually comes down to those two sides of proprietary appropriation — “this is our Beethoven 7,” or “Beethoven 7 is what you want to pay to hear.”
Programming new music is not like that.
Chances are high that most people in the audience will never have heard any of the pieces that we’ll be performing. In most cases, most of the performers have never heard any of the pieces that they’ll be performing before we email them PDFs of their parts.
And that is so exciting. Programming new music is its own justification, its own idealistic utopian dream. And for all that perceived conceptualism, the programming of new music is a concrete method of bringing people together and making them feel good.
When you bring new music into the world, as performers and as audience — for listening too is part of the creation — you’re making an attempt at lining people up with just the stories, passions, and experiences that they need. Within new music is the expression of a time that is uniquely our own, the sonic wind patterns of our own lives. Who can deny that feeling of hearing the perfect piece of music for your moment in time, just the right song for a Sunday afternoon, or just the right 2 hour long oratorio for a long drive? New music is about chasing that connection, and finding that harmony between yourself and someone (or everyone) else. With Beethoven, the question is “how do I relate to the music of Beethoven?” With new music, the question is “how do we, this music and I, relate to everything else?”
And so when we decide that we’re going to play music by Ryan Brown, Bryce Dessner, David Moore, and Wil Smith, what we’re really saying is this:
We think you’re going to love this. We think you’re going to love this because we love this and because the people that wrote this love this. We think you’re going to love this because we love this, the people that wrote this love this, and you’re just not that different from us or from the people that wrote this.
Tune in next week for another blog post about why you might love each piece particularly!
Programming for the Wet Ink Ensemble is usually quite straightforward. We play new or recent pieces that were often written especially for us, alongside pieces that were written by us (the latter being much more common). For example, Wet Ink concerts most frequently feature works by the composer members of the ensemble (Kate Soper, Sam Pluta, Eric Wubbels, and myself), and then, for the sake of context, either to re-enforce or contrast with the central thematic or aesthetic arch of a particular program, an additional work (sometimes more), by a composer outside the group, is folded into the program. Of course there have been many exceptions to the strategy above, but it offers a general perspective on how I, together with the other members of Wet Ink, approach the group’s concert programming.
For Interval 6.2, MATA suggested a slightly different approach. Instead of programming a collection of pieces from within the group and then perhaps coloring those works with one from outside the group, they thought I could perhaps do the opposite. So I did. And I choose to program recent works by Simon Steen-Andersen, Ben Hackbarth, Ted Hearne and Sam Pluta (yes, one Wet Ink person in the mix).
Simon Steen Andersen is a Danish composer currently living in Berlin. He is also active as a performer and installation artist. His works often include amplification in combination with samplers, video, low-tech gadgets and everyday objects. His recent work emphasizes physical and theatrical movement in instrumental performance.
The music of Ben Hackbarth is focused on combining instruments and electronic sound in new and unexpected ways. His electro-acoustic compositions revolve around the timbres, gestures and acoustical properties of western instruments. Through mapping notions of instrumental identity, tradition, technique and virtuosity onto electronic sound, he seeks to engage and enlarge our semantic understanding of instruments, emphasizing the perception of boundaries and limitations to create friction and form. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, San Diego where he studies composition with Roger Reynolds.
Ted Hearne is a dynamic composer, conductor and performer. Hearne’s compositions are often socially engaging, exploring the complexity of contemporary experience with visceral power and raw emotion. His Katrina Ballads, a modern-day oratorio with a primary source libretto, was awarded the 2009 Gaudeamus International Composers Award from Music Center the Netherlands, and the recording, on New Amsterdam Records, was named one of the best classical albums of 2010 by Time Out Chicago and The Washington Post.
Sam Pluta is a New York-based composer. He is also an avid improviser on the laptop. As an electronics performer he frequently collaborates with acoustic instrumentalists, mixing these sound worlds to create novel sonic spaces. He has also made audio-visual installations and performed solo audio-visual laptop performances all over the United States and Europe. His most recent audio-visual work was American Idols, an installation for four electric guitars feeding back and 20 televisions.
I choose these four composers because I find in their music a combination of highly refined technical craft, cultural/aesthetic awareness and experimentation. I also find that the music of these composers simply pairs well with the skills of the Wet Ink Ensemble – namely, instrumental virtuosity, group precision and a willingness to take risks.
This is the third of three blog entries by curator Owen Weaver leading up to the 10/26 MATA Interval Series concert at the Actors Fund Arts Center.
This is a place where I will discuss the music and artistic collaborations in the works for this show. Special thanks to MATA and Issue Project Room for making the magic happen!
Episode III: Memory Palace by Christopher Cerrone.
Memory Palace is a five-movement solo work for percussion and electronics. Inspired by ancient memorization techniques of monks, it also contains references to specific times and places in Chris’ life. Specifically, the movements are titled Harriman, Power Lines, Foxhurst, L. I. E. (Long Island Expressway, of course) and Claremont. The piece also evokes one of my favorite aspects of music, its ability to trigger long forgotten memories and emotions. Simply drop the needle on a old familiar song and you suddenly remember–for better or for worse–exactly how you felt at that time in your life. In my opinion It’s the closest thing to time travel. The slowly unfolding yet short movements chained together in Memory Palace have a knack for providing a wellspring of memories whether you lived on Claremont or not. All you have do is let your mind wander to your own life and times…
While we were in preview mode before the last June’s premiere at The Stone, we showed off the first two movements at Fast Forward Austin and the Hartford New Music Festival. Below is an excerpt of a previous blog post I wrote back then. It picks up after I described how hearing a recent string of performances of Chris’ music moved me to approach him for a new piece:
|| The haunting, reflective, lyrical qualities of these works stuck with me and I began to think of them as qualities lacking in percussion music, known more for its bombast than coloristic subtlety. I was keen to hear how Chris would treat a percussive medium, and the process has been one of continual discovery. However, I wasn’t much help.
“No big instruments,” I said. “No marimbas.”
“How about vibraphone?”
“Dude, you are killing me.”
When commissioning composers I tend to get obsessed with keeping things small and “tour-able”. This runs the risk of inhibiting the sonic scope of a piece, but Chris picked up that creative gauntlet and got crafty. No marimba? No big deal. Instead, he prescribed that I cut and sand seven boards, fine-tuning them to specific pitches. In our recent test run of two movements at Fast Forward Austin we close mic’d the planks, added reverb, and the electronic component of the piece did the rest. The result? Humming drones from the boards, with the amplification and electronics acting as the resonators of our “marimba”. Other melodic instrument workaround experiments have included tuning metal pipes, plucking pianos, autoharps and zithers, tuning glass bowls with water, and some surprises I’d like to keep under my hat just yet. ||
Now, with a few performances under our belts, things have changed but the piece’s malleability is exciting. Chris and I both strive to improve the piece and the performance every time out, and its duration and depth allow for this. There’s a lot of music to negotiate and renegotiate!
And, it’s another reason why I prefer play brand new music written just for me (and some friends): you get to mess with it as long as you see fit. Try suggesting alterations to the voicing or notation in your Haydn string quartet and see how far that gets you.
Here’s those first two parts, recorded live at the Color Field Festival. The first is for acoustic guitar, cricket field recording, and drones. The second features tuned wooden planks and more drones.
Below is what Chris had to say about our collaboration via the Hartford New Music Festival…
|| “Last summer Owen Weaver called me and asked me for a long percussion piece. Like, TV-episode-long. That scared me, because long solo instrumental pieces are generally not my favorite thing to watch, let alone write. I mean, I can’t think of an experience—maybe a few Beethoven Piano Sonatas excluded—where I really have been captivated by a single performer playing a solo piece for that long. On top of that, a lot of my music has focused on the subtle interplay of musicians. So to write a solo piece would undermine much of what I’d be working on. And not only that: Owen was extremely interested in playing the piece around and touring it in a car. Which meant, in short, that I couldn’t compose a piece for the percussion instruments I usually default to: Vibraphone, Bass Drum, Tam-tam, Etc. It had to be light and portable.
Those were the minuses. So there was some big pluses too. Owen is an awesome percussionist. He’s extremely technically gifted, but having gone to a bunch of good music schools, I have to confess that wasn’t what impressed me. What drew me in much more was the idea that he was basically completely willing to go out on a limb to do anything he could to make the project work. He got 9 other awesome percussionists to join a consortium. He was really happy to have electronics integrated into the piece. And he has been so game to do whatever else is necessary to make the piece happen—including spending a weekend cutting up wooden pieces, shaving metal pipes, and even searching for a zither—that the project has become a real joy and a great challenge.
Another thing that led me in a direction that I thought meaningful is that Owen had mentioned he’d really liked the short album ‘Five Days’ that Pink Pamphlet Records had released in 2010. Five Days is an album of short ambient works that I had created while a grad student at Yale. It’s a series of one-takes that I had written quick quickly while there. The idea of creating an EP of music for Owen, 5 semi-self contained pieces further reduced my anxiety about creating a grand, long 25 minute piece.” ||
The upcoming MATA Interval performance of Memory Palace is very special. For this Chris enlisted the aid of a photographer Lucas Foglia who selected five photographs, each paired with one movement of the piece. If you come to the show you will find five iPads with headphones in the lobby. Each one will contain one of Lucas’ photos along with an audio file of Chris’ music–electronics only–from one of the five movements. Make sense? Think of it like a wine and cheese pairing except with a still image and sound. The idea is that you, the audience, can take in the exhibition before or after the performance and meditate on what memories stir inside that busy head of yours. Take some time to dwell. Then you can take them into the concert, or home with you after. Or you can, as they say, leave it on the court.
I’ll leave you with one of the Lucas’ beautiful images but won’t reveal its musical counterpart. You’ll have to come see for yourself.
This is the second of three blog entries by curator Owen Weaver leading up to the 10/26 MATA Interval Series concert at the Actors Fund Arts Center.
This is a place where I will discuss the music and artistic collaborations in the works for this show. Special thanks to MATA and Issue Project Room for making the magic happen!
Episode II: Missa Materialis by Ian Dicke and Sculpture Piece No. 1 by Lisa Coons.
With one week to go until Interval 6.1 there’s a lot going on. Pots and pans. MAXmsp. Intensive choir practice with Tigue Percussion. And I received a HUGE box in the mail from Lisa Coons with a gnarly metal sculpture inside…
In today’s post I’d like to discuss two more pieces on the program, how they came to be, and who is in on the fun.
A Mass for Junk…
Missa Materialis was composed in Austin, TX at the behest of myself and dear friends/former classmates line upon line percussion. We were in the grad program at UT Austin, they had their consummate chamber percussion band thing going as I was trying to find my thing, and we decided that it would be fun to collaborate.
Ian devised a theatrical five-movement requiem mass for consumer culture–with a lot of found objects and trash–fitting somewhere between Kagel’s Dressur and STOMP. (I know, it’s hard to reconcile those two worlds, but imagine it in the best possible way)
The piece was largely inspired by Vince Hanneman’s Austin landmark the Cathedral of Junk, which drew local and tourist gawkers alike to his backyard for decades until it was recently condemned by the city (progress, folks).
(more photos and words here:http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/the-cathedral-of-junk-austin-87157)
Later, Ian prudently revised the quartet into a trio so that line upon line could keep it in their extensive touring repertoire. In this format I’ll perform it next Friday with Amy Garapic and Matt Evans of Tigue Percussion. They are a new and fantastic percussion band from NYC via Ohio State University and The Eastman School of Music. Excitingly, we are only the second ensemble to perform the piece on this, the NYC premiere. The three of us have had a blast putting it together with musical saw hijinks, boomboxing, a rare duet for ratchets and lots of work on three-part vocal harmonies. Amy even taught herself how to whistle just for this concert. Dedication.
As a teaser, here’s a video of the third movement from a line upon line recording session:
Art That You Hit…
I was lucky that my studies at the Hartt School overlapped with Lisa Coons’ one-year teaching fellowship in composition. We were paired for a performance of her improvisatory Sculpture Piece No. 1 on Hartford’s Women Composers Festival. Our collaboration clicked as we rebooted the form of the piece, which hadn’t seen a performance in a few years. She also lent me a bunch of different implements with which to attack her sculpture, including a paint scraper, guitar strings, and crazy sticks she made with old-school telephone bells mounted on the end. I was sold.
She is the type of person who might linger near a construction site just to listen to the interplay of noise, and I love that about her.
The thing itself is not friendly. Welded together by Lisa from rebar and electric fence wire from her family’s Missouri hog farm, twisted metal branches flare out in all directions. When I first met Lisa and her sculpture she asked me if my tetanus shots were up to date. Apparently, the last performer was prone to some bloodletting in performance…
In practice it functions not unlike John Cage’s amplified cactus–if the cactus were made of big metal spikes, not tiny needles. As with the cactus, a contact microphone amplifies every pluck, flick, and caress, revealing a Whoville of sounds on every tine. Contact mics=sonic microscopes.
The result is a structured improvisation for amplified sculpture that explores and relishes all the noises–beautiful and less so–that can possibly come out of this thing: