posted on February 21st, 2014
posted on February 17th, 2014
Risk and Reward — Whaling and World Premieres
There are two kinds of projects that excite all of us at Contemporaneous more than any others: premiering new music and performing epic, large-scale projects. As you can imagine, we relish the opportunity to do both at the same time, which is one reason why we are all incredibly excited to premiere the West Fourth New Music Collective’s collaborative creation Moby Dick: Extracts on Death and Other Curiosities.
Many of us with Contemporaneous have known and worked with Matt Frey, Tim Hansen, Molly Herron and Ruben Naeff of W4 for a long time and we finally started a conversation about a W4/Contemporaneous collaboration a little more than a year ago. We quickly settled on the idea of the four of them writing an evening-length work for us and eventually decided that Moby Dick was full of the ingredients for the kind of grand work we were all interested in. There are so many sources of inspiration — the boldness and audacity of the crew, the daunting and perilous task they take on, the immensity and literary nuance of Melville’s work, etc. — that it was a perfect fit.
In a real way, the content of this classic novel matches the form of the adventure that we undertook at this embryonic stage. We were launching into vast and uncharted waters, wherein no precedent existed to measure the level of danger. It is always a significant risk to devote time and energy into brand new works, especially works of this proportion, but this risk taking is part of the excitement of programming and performing new music. As it turns out, the piece that has W4 created is surely going to offer an incredible reward for our venture! The work zooms in alike on intricate details and overarching themes of the novel to great effect, really drawing out a unique and original drama that the music elevates to a thrilling experience.
Since we received the completed score about a month ago and especially now that we have started rehearsing, I have been thinking a lot about how well this project exemplifies what we do with Contemporaneous. We make it our mission not only to present the most exciting music of our time, but also to provide composers with an outlet for unbridled creativity, in which we encourage possibility, risk and challenge with a desire for the best music possible. We feel so fortunate to be able work with W4 and MATA to bring this vision to life next weekend!
David Bloom, Contemporaneous co-artistic director
posted on February 6th, 2014
The composers of West Fourth New Music Collective (W4) gathered recently to answer some questions about the inspiration behind and creation of their new oratorio, Moby Dick: Extracts on Death and Other Curiosities. Collaboratively written by composers and W4 co-founders Matt Frey, Tim Hansen, Molly Herron, and Ruben Naeff, the evening-length piece composes through Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick, focusing on themes and events related to mortality, identity, and the hunt.
How did you choose what themes/sections of Moby Dick you wanted to write about?
MATT FREY: As a group, the four of us – Tim, Molly, Ruben and I – had several important creative meetings over the spring and summer of 2013 where we tried to identify the themes, moments, and quotes that we felt were integral to presenting the core ideas in the book. From there, we each selected a few main ideas that we felt individually interested in exploring musically. Much of the writing in Moby Dick I found incredibly verbose and not at all suitable for the way I prefer to work with text; however, I came across a few succinct quotes that had an immediate appeal. These quotes centered on themes of death and obsession – so I felt that I should head in those directions to create my movements of the oratorio.
TIM HANSEN: I consider myself more to be a theatre artist who uses music to tell stories. So the sections I were drawn to tended to be the ones that painted very clear, immediate staged images to me. I don’t expect that these pieces will ever be staged, but I find that if I can’t create an image of what a staged version of any of my pieces might look like then I tend to get very stuck. Luckily Moby Dick isn’t exactly devoid of drama so finding three scenes that appealed to me was pretty easy.
RUBEN NAEFF: I was immediately struck by the cruel, suspenseful and bloody scenes, which I found a great contrast to the other chapters, which were more cerebral or scientific. I also thought these scenes would work very well for being set to music, and I think these movements contrast nicely with the other movements – just as they contrast in the book.
MOLLY HERRON: There are so many things about Moby Dick that interest me and that I wanted to explore in the music I wrote. I could write three more oratorios! In the end, the things that I found the most fascinating weren’t what necessarily drew Matt, Ruben or Tim, and that made it clear where I needed to focus. Watching each of them react to the book made my individual connection more clear. I found a thread winding through the book that explored identity. In myriad ways, Melville asks the questions “Who am I?”, “What makes me?”, “How am I connected to the world around me?” Following that thread led me to write the movement “Call me” which is about the difficulty and necessity of our interdependence and brings it back to that famous first line. As tough as it is, at the end if the day I think we all want to be seen for who we are and named by those around us.
How did you approach adapting the book’s text into a singable libretto?
MH: As soon as I started thinking about setting the text, I realized how naturally Melville’s words lend themselves to music. Melville wrote a lot of poetry in his lifetime, but none so great as Moby Dick. I loved the exploration of setting the text in different ways and I took a very different approach in all three of my movements. In “At the Mast-head” I only use four short phrases. “The Sea” is absolutely flooded with text. “Call Me” is somewhere in between.
MF: I, on the other hand, didn’t find a lot of the text from Moby Dick to lend itself to a musical setting – mostly because I like to work with words more obliquely than my collaborators. Therefore, when I found a few quotes that spoke to me, I started with those – for example, “Some ships sail from their ports, and ever afterwards are missing” – and built the rest of my libretti around them. For the “Some Ships” movement, I found inspiration in the idea of sailors setting out on a journey with the knowledge that it was very unlikely to return. I searched the novel for other phrases that would support this idea, and knitted these words and phrases together into a unified moment.
TH: Each song of mine is different: the Hymn was straightforward enough; Melville had done all the work for me. “Wind, Sea and Stars” was a little more work, but still relatively easy, since Ruben, the technological genius that he is, had set up a document for us all to search using the “find” function in Word, and since I knew this piece would be made up almost entirely of references to winds, seas and stars I just had to think creatively and type in as many of each as I could think of. “There She Blows” was a little more involved. It’s about the chase, the climax of the whole book, and I feared it would be very easy for it to become suuuuper corny. So I decided to keep the lyrics entirely made up of dialogue said by the characters. I figured this way I would never let the singers become “narrators”, which to me could smack too much of pantomime or something.
RN: I took the texts that I found captivating, and then followed the natural rhythm of the words and sentences very literally. Certain words naturally demanded for a specific setting: words like high and low, for example, and the endless bleeding of the whale is illustrated by an endless repetition of the main musical motive. I enjoyed the passages the most where I could juxtapose the dying whale with the celebrating sailors, which happens in the book as well. In a musical world you can really create a polyphony in these scenes, while a literary text always works linearly: you don’t have two lines being ‘read’ at the same time.
MATA Interval 7.2 presents composer collective W4 and Contemporaneous in the world premiere of Moby Dick: Extracts on Death and Other Curiosities on Friday, February 21 at 8:00 pm at Brooklyn’s ISSUE Project Room.
posted on December 17th, 2013
From curator Ray Evanoff:
It’s concert week! This Friday, Issue Project Room will host Mabel Kwan in her New York City debut recital as she works her way through engaging, prickly pieces by Stefan Prins, Aaron Cassidy, Evan Johnson, Ramteen Sazegari, Eliza Brown, and myself. As the concert approaches, I thought I would set the scene by providing some glimpses into how we got ourselves here.
February 2013: Mabel and I are huddled around my laptop, pouring over scores by Evan Johnson as I wax hyperbolic about its extraordinary impracticality. I mention that Evan has an as-yet unpremiered toy piano piece from 2007. Mabel is intrigued. The following day over coffee we discuss, among many other things, Mabel’s recent performance of Stefan Prins’ Piano Hero #1 and her interest in learning #2.
July 2013: I ask Mabel if she’s interested in proposing a joint project for MATA’s Interval series. Mostly it’s an excuse to dream up a bucket list-esque program with Mabel showcasing some of our favorite composers and people. She’s in. We kick ideas around. As much good music gets excluded as included as we whittle down the works to a set for the proposal.
September-November 2013: We’re accepted! What follows is a bevy of email exchanges as we try to sort out the pragmatics of obtaining the instruments involved. MATA Executive Director Todd Tarantino scours the greater New York City area in search of a clavichord. One person is worried about how we will amplify the instrument (“condenser mics positioned overhead: we promise not to touch the inside!”), another is concerned that we will pluck/scrape/etc the instrument’s interior (“we promise not to touch the inside!”), and many an otherwise-promising candidate is turned away for not being the specific make up we need (a four octave unfretted clavichord – they can differ a fair bit in the particulars). By the end of the process, we realize that, there just aren’t any clavichords available to rent in New York. Todd suggests we start a clavichord rental business, but immediately rescinds, realizing the clientele would be limited, to say the least.
December 2013: With the above in mind, Mabel loads up her car with a trio of toy pianos and a clavichord and makes the drive from Chicago to New York City.
That’s just a small window into our road to Friday. It’s already been a great experience, from working on the program order with Mabel to getting to know Todd and Alex Weiser, MATA’s Manager of Operations and Development, albeit through a purely electronic medium. I can’t wait to have us all in the same room, after months of planning and preparation, to finally sit back to appreciate the whole reason we go through this trouble: the music. Yesterday in an email with Mabel, she said, “I will say, I love every single piece on this program, so I’m really excited about the music.” And that’s all that really matters!
posted on December 11th, 2013
From curator Ray Evanoff:
I first heard Stefan Prins‘ music at the 2011 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, during which the insurpassable British pianist Mark Knoop premiered the original version of Piano Hero #2 (since revised) alongside a performance of Piano Hero #1 (both of which will be performed by Mabel on our forthcoming Interval program). The pair of works made for an exhilarating and bewildering 25 minutes that left me feeling like Alice upon completing her journey through the rabbit hole: I remember coming away asking myself, what just happened?
Like a lot of Stefan’s music, what stands out about these pieces is their overall sense of disorientation and too-much-ness. These impressions are born among other things from the array of media used: prerecorded video, live video, and triggered samples equally supplement and confound the piano. The instrument is dissected through prerecordings that explore the acoustic properties of its innards. The piano’s guts are exposed and harassed in a way that would give all but the most liberal stage managers nightmares.
Piano Hero #1 focuses on this deconstructed instrument in isolation, laying the piano bare. Piano Hero #2 ups the ante by incorporating these samples alongside the acoustic piano. The combination provides a kaleidoscopic view of the instrument’s sound world in which the generally civilized keyboard we’re familiar with is exposed as a sham, possessing a vulgar interior that escapes in Pandora’s box-like fashion. As the beginning of an on-going cycle, Piano Hero #1 & 2 seem to raise questions more than provide answers. If anything, this only serves to further emphasize the piano’s multifaceted make-up and musical history.
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Compared to how I discovered Stefan’s music, my introduction to Aaron Cassidy’s work was a much more subdued experience, involving internet searches on the recommendation of a friend (funnily enough, I discovered Evan Johnson’s work, which I discussed in my previous blog post, through that same round of searches). As with Stefan’s, Aaron’s music initially left me more curious than anything else.
Violin 1 Excerpt from Second String Quartet (2010), by Aaron Cassidy
For Aaron, sound is inherently physical action; there is no divorcing the two where acoustic instruments are involved. As such, he focuses his compositional energies on the sound-producing physical actions themselves. There’s a viscerality to his music that speaks to the kinesthetic empathy of simply being alive: its rips, strains, and sputters are understood on the bodily level at least as much as the mental level. I would liken this understanding to how a viewer appreciates athletics: just as we recognize great physical feats through our own knowledge of the body’s capabilities, one can relate to Aaron’s music through the extreme physical situations it enacts.
10 Monophonic Miniatures for Solo Pianist is an early application of this philosophy to the keyboard. The piece features a range of unorthodox striking techniques – with the knuckles, fingernails, and from various heights and angles – that are captured in sound through their interaction with the instrument. Motion becomes crystallized. It’s a beautiful, playful piece whose full effect is only experienced when witnessed live, where the pianist’s calligraphic gestures can be seen as well as heard. I can’t wait to see what Mabel does with it.
Aaron and Stefan are about as different a pair of composers as you can find, which makes Interval 7.1 all the more special an opportunity to see their music together in person!