Read on for a transcript of my interview with DJ Luisa, which appeared as episode 12 of my podcast Sound Meets Sound:

MW: Welcome to Sound Meets Sound. This episode, my guest is DJ Luisa, co-creator of Ask a Freak and Beanalog. She called me recently to talk about how she got her start as a DJ, the importance of community, and the electronic music scene in El Paso, Texas.

L: I want to make El Paso proud, because we’re small but we’re growing, and I just want to put El Paso on the map.

MW: Did your move to El Paso coincide with you sort of getting into DJing and the music technology and stuff?

L: Well, I have kind of a little weird story. I was born in Mission Hills, California, and then my parents — they’re Mexican — so they moved down to Mexico. Three years old, I end up over there. I’m telling you, I saw technology in a different way. I saw black and white computers. [laughs] It was a really small town in Jalisco, and then from there I was eleven, twelve years old when I moved back to the border town. I was in Cuidad Juárez for a little bit, I was living there for two, three years, and then when I moved over here I was probably fourteen, fifteen years old. Just me watching the technology and the way people would approach music and stuff like that, I wasn’t really thinking about DJing at that time. I just know I liked music. I always liked music since I was a little kid, and I liked dancing. One of the things I did grew up around was my dad booking bands. My dad was a promoter. Over there, there’s no such thing as DJs, or at that time it wasn’t. It was just bands and people singing and traveling — I grew up around that stuff. But my dad used to have a lot of eight-tracks, and it was eighties music and rock, you know, like the Eagles. [laughs]

So I was exposed to music at an early age, but I never thought about DJing until I got older. I think I started getting excited because my friend started introducing me to the techno scene in Juárez. There’s this club called Hardpop and Hardpop is actually known globe-wide. Everybody knows, all the big DJs know where Hardpop is. I started going over there — I was actually kind of older, I was barely nineteen or twenty, and I started going out. I loved the energy of the music. I was like, “Oh my god, I love techno!” [laughs] I love techno! I was like, “Oh my god, I can dance to it!” I was sweating. I was dancing from the opener to the end of the night, I was just dancing, dancing dancing dancing. I have a lot of energy and I was just like, “This is what I like.” So almost every weekend I will try to make it out there. The scene here was a little bit slower at the time. We wouldn’t have that many parties, so it was one party every two months, a party once a month. The scene here was different, it wasn’t as energetic as it was in Juárez, and I liked it, but I thought there was something missing, and I noticed that there was not that many girls. I just started looking around to see who was promoting and who was the groups and stuff, because I was like, “This is just like anything else, there has to be groups. There has to be some kind of politics and stuff.” And then I started finding the right people. I started DJing six years ago, but I actually started producing. That was my first thing: I wanted to make music. I wasn’t really into DJing, I was a promoter first. I was selling tickets, inviting people to the parties like, “Come on guys, let’s go to the party, come out to the techno party, come to the tech house party, house music all night long, come out and check it out!” I was really hyped about it, I was really hyped about it. And I was like, okay, so I’m done with promoting, I want to kind of be my own artist too.

So I started producing, and then this girl told me, “You should start DJing.” I wasn’t really into it, I was like, “I’m kind of scared, I don’t think I will be good at it.” So like, “You should try, you should try!” And I was like, okay… I started doing it. She started teaching me because she’s one of the girls that has been around for the longest, and I learned from her. She’s still DJing, we’re still going at it, and it’s been pretty cool. People have been accepting me little by little, and I kind of do all right on my parties. Now I have a group — two, three years ago — and it’s called Ask a Freak. We’ve been good! People have been good to us, and it’s exciting to grow with everybody and not just grow as a group, but everybody’s taking something from everybody. Like, we’re helping each other out, and I think that’s really important for a scene to grow, because I like I said we’re still little. What I do want to encourage a little bit more over here is the girls, because we do have girls, but everybody’s kind of, one is over here, the other one’s over there. I think that if we all got together, it would be a stronger force, but I’m still working on it.

MW: When you said before DJing you started producing, what was your way into that? Did you have a DAW, like Logic or something, or how were you producing at that time?

L: Oh my God, it was ridiculous. I had a Dell computer, and on my Dell computer I downloaded Fruity Loops, or SL Studio is what it’s called now. That thing was so heavy on my computer, it will crash it like, right away. And I’d be so sad, I was like, “Ah, I hate this thing!” But somehow I started reading on the internet, somebody mentioned on one of those groups about  WavePad.

MW: Right.

L: And I was like, okay, I’m gonna download that thing. So my way of producing was sampling sounds and then patching them together from other songs. At that time, like I said, I was into technology, but not so much as I am now, because now I know more. But back then, I was just clueless because nobody wanted to teach me. Nobody wanted to teach me, and everybody was kind of like, “Oh, you want to learn? Oh, yeah, that’s cute.” You know that?

MW: I know.

L: Oh yes.

MW: Oh yeah. I know that. [both laughing] I know that feeling!

L: Yeah. They just wanted to have me on the side. So I was just like, I want to find out, and nobody around me was — electronic music is not something my family was into, you know? So I had to go out of my way and learn myself, and that was one way of approaching music for me. So I was like, “You know what? I might be good, I just have to learn about this and keep going,” and I was so excited that I uploaded a song into Soundcloud, and I started showing people around, and they were just looking at me like, “This girl’s crazy.” I was just excited, and even now, I’m excited! Life is taking me to different places now. I’m gonna open a studio, a recording studio.

MW: So let’s talk about that, because I was also curious when you started DJing, what technology — you said there was a woman that was helping you — what was she teaching you to use, and how did you get into that? And then maybe we can get into what gear’s gonna be in your studio.

L: When she was teaching me how to DJ, I also had a job as a roadie, you know, connecting cables and stuff like that. So that also got me more interested, because I was connecting equipment for other DJs and artists.

MW: Oh, cool!

L: I was doing that for three years. So when I got with my friend, I already knew how to connect stuff, but I didn’t know how to use it. So Lina — her name is Lina — so Lina taught me how to turn on everything, what button was doing what. I mean, we were having sessions of an hour, two hours and she was just explaining, she was like, “You gotta learn how to beat-match.” And at that time we were using the CDJ, the Pioneer 2000, and you know what, I feel really privileged, because I know that there’s some people that started with really crappy stuff, you know? But I was able to touch the real stuff, and I was always thankful for that. I was like, “Oh man, I’m on the technology now!” [laughs]

MW: [laughs]

L: So I’m not on my Dell with FL Studio crashing. [laughs] So I was really thankful for her time, because nobody else took their time, and even now, I appreciate her a lot, I love that chick. She took her time, she explained everything with love and patience, and not everybody has that. She’s a techno DJ, she’s a techno-progressive DJ. She’s amazing, she’s the most talented DJ I know locally. She’s so, so exact. She can mix up with anything, but she prefers techno and progressive. She’s so technical, and I really wanted to get that from her. I think I learned some stuff from her. Later on, I kind of explored a little bit more mixers, because I wanted to be able to jump from mixer to mixer without having trouble, because I know that [inaudible] are almost the same thing, you know? Even all the controllers—like the wheel and stuff, the way they work, but on the mixers, everything’s like, it can be backwards, you have more effects — oh, and the EQs! I love playing with the EQs. I really want it to sound good. So that’s how I started.

MW: So you’re starting a recording studio. Why did you decide to do that, and how are you doing that?

L: So, like I said before, our community for techno — the techno scene is — we have a community, but it’s not that big, so I started noticing things, and I was like, how is this community going to grow and bring new people in if there’s not really a community? So, Mexican music here is huge, you know? So, because it’s in our culture, people listen to it when they go to birthday parties, they listen to it when they’re cooking, it’s in our culture. So if we don’t expose our kids to electronic music, electronic dance music or just electronic music in its totality, we’re not really creating anything. Well, it was me, Raymond, and other two guys that decided that we want to get the community together and start just doing it. It was Ray, Barry, and Joe Lebano, and then myself, and I told the guys, “Look, if we don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it. Let’s just get the instruments together, let’s make a call.” So twice a month for a year, we were calling people out, we were like hey, we’re gonna be over here with synthesizers, drum machines, pedals, come out and join us, we’re gonna be doing a jam session.

MW: Is that the Beanalog?

L: Yeah, that’s Beanalog. So, it’s been a little rough, like I said, because sometimes people don’t come. I mean, it’s like everything, you know? We have our ups and downs.

MW: Yep.

L: But we’ve been having a great response, and then we’ve been having kids coming around, and that’s what I wanted. I want kids on Beanalog. Those are the ones that are going to keep this going. I’m going to get old, you know? Like, I’m gonna be stuck on my house music at some point. [laughs]

MW: [laughs]

L: And that’s gonna be the end for me, but for them, they’re going to keep going, and if we help nurture these kids, you know, with whatever they like, and get there faster than I did, they’re gonna do it to somebody else and they’re gonna do something — you know? And I mean, it’s gonna continue and we’re going to be able to grow more, so that’s what we’re working on right now.

So the reason that I decided to open a recording studio was because we were kind of jumping from place to place. The first one was too little. We grew up. We started in a coffee shop, so that’s why the name is Beanalog, because of coffee beans — Be-analog. And that’s also the idea behind it: we’re serving coffee and tea and sweetbread, you know, it’s really good. And then later a friend of ours offered space at his recording studio, but we were still serving coffee, and then I was like, you know what? The last couple of Beanalogs, I was just telling people, like, “You know when you’re picking up your cables?” I just felt that we needed something more stable, like a permanent home. I’m having my family move themselves in and out from places. I need to provide my family a home. I’m creating a family and I don’t have a home for them.

It got to me on Christmas, I was really — yeah, I got kind of sad. I was like, “You know what, I’m gonna be more proactive.” This month, I was just like, come on, let’s go, and I started pushing the guys, the people that we co-created this, I was like, “You know what guys, let’s do it,” and they were like, “Now?” And I was like, “Yeah.” [laughs] Just like, “okay!” So we rented a place, and I’m almost done — well, we’re almost done. Everybody has been so helpful, and it’s like little ants working, you know? Everybody’s taking a little something over there. It’s not as big, but it’s ours, and it’s coming together, and it feels good. So we come out of there after putting a nail on the wall, or painting, we come out all happy about it, and it just feels good. Yeah, it’s really nice.

We have a nice community, it’s growing, people are coming out, they’re feeling better about it. I just feel that they didn’t have a space for them, and that’s really important. It’s only been a month, but check this out: Beanalog’s also doing things for the community, because we’re providing workshops. The reason that we started that is because I also told the guys that I wanted to provide people material to be better artists. For example, not long ago we provided synthesizers — we were building synthesizers, and it was just like an introduction so people could get a little bit excited, you know, like, this is what Beanalog does, we’re a creating team. Another one was for free, it was Introduction to Ableton. We just wanted people to show up, and we were doing great.

Another one was Introduction to Reason 10, also, you know, we had people interested about it, and that one was for free too, so I have a lot of free things for people to be interested, or just if they’re curious to come out, you know, for them to come out and learn something, because that’s the basic thing, we want to learn from each other, we want to grow as a community. I just feel that that’s really important to our society in general. So this coming week, we’re going to be at a high school, Beanalog’s going to be at a high school presenting ourselves. Last year, around October I believe, we did it in the elementary school. We’re taking some of the equipment and then just leaving it there for the kids to explore, and it’s so amazing. I love their energy! I love how the kids are curious — generally curious.

MW: Yeah, and they’re not totally — they’re not inhibited by what they think they should want or not want. 

L: Yes. Last year was a little tough for me. The only thing that would hold me down was music. [laughs] So I never stopped DJing. I was just like, I just need to stop DJing less, because  in 2018, I had like, forty-three shows.

MW: Wow!

L: That’s a lot of shows for a DJ.

MW: It is!

L: I was DJing with bands, because I DJ everything. I mean, I love techno, I DJ techno, I DJ house, I DJ everything. And I try to be everywhere where I can or people need my services. Last year I got kind of sick, and then also my oldest kid, he ended up in the hospital, so I don’t know, it just kind of forced me to slow down, you know? I don’t know how to explain it, my kid’s situation just pushed me to be a better person and artist. I just said to myself, you know what, I’m going to dedicate myself to being more of an artist, because I do want to grow, you know, as a DJ, but I am going to DJ less and I’m going to work on myself as an artist so I can be better and people believe in what I’m doing — actually believing, you know? Because people can support you, but that can be momentarily. How relevant you’re going to be in a couple of years, that’s something that you can only work on yourself.

People believe in what you do because they see you doing it. You’re not just talking. Last year when I decided to go full-time as a DJ, that’s when I decided to — it hurts a little bit, okay? Like, being an artist hurts. But you know what, my dream — I’d rather die as a happy person than die with regrets. I don’t want to die with regrets. When you feel fulfilled in your life, it’s just amazing, and it is hard, but like everything else, I tell everybody, you know, it gets harder before it gets better.

MW: I definitely want to ask you about the actual types of music — you just said you like to DJ everything. Was it techno that really got you into it, or when you’re DJing, is it just the beat that you’re really into, or what’s the music that really gets you going and inspired?

L: You know, I like DJing everything. I don’t like to be limited. To me, limitations, it makes me feel like I’m being stopped from being myself. So my perfect set is, just let me do my thing and that’s it, that’s my perfect set. I’ll make you dance for sure, like, you’re gonna dance, but let me do my thing. But for sure, it just depends on what kind of gig I go, because like I said, I do everything, so I’ve done a wedding, I’ve done a quinceañera, I’ve done fashion shows. I try to be as flexible so I can grow up a market. But if people tell me that I can do my thing, I can be Luisa, I DJ about anything. You’ll listen to some — one of my genres, I guess, that I do like a lot is funk, so I play a lot of funk. I like to mix it with house, I like to mix it with classical music, you know? Believe it or not, there’s stuff out there that’s really, really sinister and you can mix it with techno. There’s a lot of things that go together if you know how to find it and you know how to listen, which is what I think is the main thing: listening and finding a groove. There’s different styles of DJing, you know? Like, you don’t always have to beat-match. I mean, that’s what the people want to listen to — yeah, beat-matching is important to know, because it’s a skill, but there’s different ways of DJing.

Doing this, I met a lot of people that do amazing sets and some of them don’t beat-match, they’re just like stories with their music, and they’re not beat matching. There’s people that do quick mixing, and that’s really energetic, like boom boom, track after track after track, and I mean, that makes you dance. I think it’s just what you have to offer — what story are you willing to tell people? And another thing that I feel is really important is that the music — the people are not used to it, you need to help people digest it better by giving them little by little, you know? You don’t just go play a Vivaldi record, you know? I’m not going to do that. [laughs] I’ll make them fall asleep, you know? They’ll be like, “What the hell is this?” I mean, yeah, the DJ plays what they want to play, but you also have to be mindful of people, because it’s not just about you, it’s about who’s around you. I believe so — I don’t know, probably other people are going to say that no, that I’m wrong, but that’s my intake of being a DJ.

MW: On that note, let’s listen to this awesome mix by DJ Luisa.

L: Hello everyone, this is Luisa from El Paso, Texas, and I would like to thank Meg, aka death of codes, for having me on her podcast. I hope you all enjoyed this episode, and until next time!

Transcript by Veronica Taylor

Read on for a transcript of my interview with Sakari Dixon (now Sakari Dixon Vanderveer), which appeared as episode 7 of my podcast Sound Meets Sound:

MW: Welcome Sakari Dixon to the Sound Meets Sound Podcast thank you very much for joining me and can you just give me a short description of who you are and what it is you do?

SD: Yeah, my name is Sakari Dixon and I am a violist and composer out in Redlands California. Like many musicians I have my time split between teaching, performing and composing. I do a lot of each throughout the week. I am currently working on a couple pieces, one for viola and piano and another for orchestra. I’m performing in different orchestras around here such as the Redlands Community Orchestra and the Redlands Symphony as well. And then I also teach independently and out in San Jacinto with an El Sistema group, so, it’s pretty fun.

MW: That’s cool, that sounds like every musician I’ve talked to on this podcast. They’re doing a million things. So, it’s just the life of the musician. I was reading online your bio and it says you started composing in middle school, is that right?

SD: That is correct. I think the very first time I was introduced into composition was in fifth grade — you know just a little assignment — put a whole note here a half note there, really random. But when it really started to take off was in middle school, we had this project where we would team up with the visual art students and we got into little groups of I think three or four. What we did was we came up with a theme of some sort and then we worked on a painting together and wrote a piece to go with it. After realizing that there was music software in our library at school, I started continuing to play around with it in an after school program when I had free time. And so I was writing duets for friends and things like that.

MW: Oh cool, do you remember what the software was?

SD: It was Finale Allegro.

MW: Alright. So that’s really cool. Is your process a lot different — obviously it probably is — than when you were in middle school. I’m just trying to get to the question of what is your compositional process? How does it start? Do you work directly into a program or do you make notes first?

SD: Interestingly enough I do still attach my composition either to an image in my mind or at least to a vague narrative. I wouldn’t say a lot of my music is programmatic in the sense that oh, this happens here or there but I do tend to have somewhat of a picture in my mind. Which is funny because I haven’t really done much drawing or painting since I was little. I would be embarrassed to draw anything now. A lot of it does kind of have something visual attached to it or a feeling or things like that. I normally start writing on paper actually. I find that it’s less distracting and I also tend to do a lot of scribbling and here’s a little bit of this section and a little bit of that. So it’s actually a real nuisance to start putting things in right away. I also find that especially working on a laptop you also have this small screen, it does kind of skew your perceptions of phrase length and things like that so I try to stay away from it early on. I also tend to do a little bit of improvising, maybe find a melody, put this in somewhere and work off of that. I guess what I think is pretty odd — I don’t know, maybe it’s really normal — A lot of times I’ll come up with a melody, a little idea, and then especially if that piece isn’t for a deadline it just kind of sits there. And then I’ll get distracted with something else, and then when I actually need it, it’s like oh year I wrote this one violin melody a while back maybe let’s see, I’ll go dig it up and then work from there. I guess it’s a little less daunting than dealing with a purely blank page.

MW: Right, it’s like little gifts you’re giving to your future self.

SD: That’s a good way to put it yeah.

MW: Blank page or the blank score is really intimidating and sometimes all you have in a moment is that little germ, you know that little melody or seed or whatever. Sometimes you don’t want to force it into anything, you want to let it sit for a while. So then, once you have the ideas that you’re doing and you’ve sort of done a sketch, how do you go about really flushing that out into a final piece? What are you thinking about in terms of structure? Cause for me I write little electronic pieces and the hardest part for me is structuring it. Is it something that happens organically or do you really think about, okay this will happen here and this will happen here?

SD: I would say it’s about fifty-fifty, I definitely struggle with structure as well. If you see a lot of my paper sketches, this is going to go somewhere in the middle of the piece and that maybe towards the end. I often don’t have an idea until things start to get filled out a little bit more. Then it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, oh, this makes more sense here. It’s funny I was working on something the other day — my viola and piano piece — and I thought it would be closer to the beginning and once I started developing it out, no this, it’s not really developing, it’s more calmed down, it needs to go towards the end. It’s definitely all over the place.

MW: How is it that you think about development? Is it that one line happens and then the way the next instrument or line layers with that determines the next thing or is it more all at once? A texture at once? — Is that making any sense?

SD: Yeah, it’s making sense. I do tend to think in a linear or layered fashion. I have a piece feRal for saxophone and string trio and that was definitely a lot of the — when I was writing it a lot of the saxophone came first and then strings were commenting on everything in a way. And then there were some parts where the viola has a melody, it’s taking over, then I wrote the context around that. So it’s more a linear fashion in that sense.

MW: Yeah, that’s what I was noticing when I was relistening through the pieces and especially feRal — and it’s easy because you have a YouTube with the score — so you can see how the lines are going together. I want to ask you about these two pieces you mentioned, for orchestra and viola and piano. So with the viola and piano, viola I can see that’s your primary instrument, and I assume it’s probably relatively natural to write for you — or maybe it’s not, correct me if I’m wrong — but I’m also curious about how you write for piano, as a single line instrumentalist. How do you accomplish writing for piano?

SD: It’s funny that you said that viola would come naturally, cause it does. In my lessons Rina — the lady that I study with — pointed out that I often start writing melodies in alto clef. Which is also interesting because I actually started on violin so it’s not like I can’t read treble or bass it’s just that I often tend to think of melodies from that mid voice range, that kind of speaking voice register. Piano has definitely been more of a challenge for me because I haven’t as much for piano. I’m finding that it’s forcing me to think more texturally, of course you can do melody with piano but that’s not really, you’re missing out on so much if you just approach it from that standpoint.

MW: You kind of answered one of the questions I was going to ask, which was how does being a violist influence the way that you compose? You were saying that the mid voice range, the viola also has to my ear, a very unique timbre. Even separate from the other string instruments, the viola has this very unique timbre that’s kind of like a speaking voice. It’s a little — I can’t think of the — Megan Lavengood just wrote a dissertation on timbre and I really need to read it, I don’t have the words for this. I have it to read but I just haven’t read it yet. It’s kind of a rich but grainy texture to me. You had mentioned texture in the piano so, how do you think about texture? How do you think about it and how do you get it onto the page?

SD: Yeah I definitely, I like to kind of play with — It’s funny because you start talking about timbre and all the words, it’s like you’re describing the thing but you’re not really describing the thing. I actually, what I’ll do sometimes is I’ll just simply — along with the sketches of the piece I’ll have a melody and just some notes I’ll start writing things in like glassy or sparkly and things like that and then find techniques or registers to fit with it. So I guess I work backwards from — I was going to say plain English but that’s not really plain — I’ll find more poetic terms and then find something to communicate that if that makes sense.

MW: It makes total sense. It’s funny, if you say glassy sound you can kind of hear that. It’s enough to say that I want sparkley or glassy or roughy or whatever. So then the orchestra piece, talk about timbre. How are you approaching — again there’s the question of structure — but then the instrumentation are you writing for a full orchestra here or is it more of a chamber orchestra or modified orchestra?

SD: This one’s for a full orchestra, including harp. There’s a lot of that in there, which is fun. It’s another one of those pieces that’s starting out — I think it was originally for violin — I wrote a melody and then just left it in a notebook somewhere and then decided I wanted to work on this piece. That melody is actually — I’m trying to think of one time that it’s played plainly in the violin at this point — because it’s like, I want to move it around to this instrument, or split it up between a bunch of different ones. Working with an orchestra, it’s interesting because there’s so much available in that palette. You can’t just start everything in there. So I’m having to think a little bit more about, not just what’s practical because I want it to be at a level that a good community orchestra could play it. I’m not only thinking about what’s practical but what are the strengths of different instruments, what combinations of instruments playing the same line, can create new colors, it’s been a fun experiment.

MW: Are you pretty good hearing these things in your head or do you use a notation program or a digital workstation to plug these things in and test?

SD: Yeah for the most part I do my best to try to hear it in my head. I find that especially in a piece like this where timbre is so central I have a lot of it in Sibelius right now but when I’m creating material I try to stay away from it because you start to hear squeaky sounding entrances, it skews your perception of what it’s actually going to sound like and so it’s hard to trust it. I find especially because I still perform pretty actively and probably the majority of the performance stuff that I do is in orchestra. I try to do my best even when I’m in rehearsal — if there’s a moment that I like — how is this being put together here? A similar thing even when I just go watch other concerts I try to really lean in and see, they have this going at the same time as that.

MW: I always wish I had learned a string instrument because you’re in the orchestra, you kind of have a leg up as a composer. As a violist in orchestras do you play mostly canon repertoire? Or are the groups you play in playing contemporary music as well?

SD: I do play a lot of repertoire in the canon but one of the reasons that I joined the Redlands Community Orchestra — besides the face that it’s super local and convenient — is the fact that I initially heard that they were having a call for scores. They’ve been doing this every other year or so. They started it even before I joined. They draw from pieces from local composers, so people going to universities or living in the area. So it’s nice to get to meet people who are — composers who are here. There are a good handful of composers who are in the group, which is nice. The conductor is also good about choosing programs that are — yeah there’s something canonical, like Beethoven five or something, everybody knows that. But he’ll also choose something that’s slightly off the beaten path that is probably a great piece for the audience to know and also for the musicians to learn, so it’s great to have that mix as well. I find that it gives a lot of variety.

MW: I didn’t know where Redlands was until I looked it up for this interview.

SD: That’s okay, that’s most people.

MW: I was going to ask about what kind of community you have around you, in Redlands? If you feel like you’re hooked into an artistic scene or community or do you spend a lot of time hooking into other cities’ scenes — like Chicago, New York, Baltimore? I think every podcast I’ve done so far talked a lot about community because it’s really hard to exist alone as a musician.

SD: That is true.

MW: Do you feel like you’re part of a community in Redlands?

SD: I do. It’s a relatively small town. I guess to say compared to San Bernardino and Riverside and other places nearby it’s a town where there’s a lot of tradition and people who have been here for generations so there’s a lot of that small town spirit in a way. Which is interesting because driving through it’s not that small but it feels small. You go to Trader Joe’s and run into three people. I would say the music community here is pretty strong. There’s the Redlands Community Orchestra and a lot of people there are pretty tight knit as friends. There’s also another small chamber orchestra that I perform with called Musica Viva, it’s a small chamber orchestra and actually a chamber choir as well. So we get together and do concerts, there’s also the Spinet Club which I’m part of and — it’s over a hundred years old this organization. Basically, once a month we’ll meet, someone will host maybe at their house or a church or if they have access to some other facility they’ll host these little recitals. It’s nice because there’s this built in audience and we’ll usually have a reception or potluck. I feel that the music community is a little more hidden compared to say, going to LA where you see performances everywhere. It’s there and everyone kind of knows everyone, it’s really fun.

MW: When you finish the viola and piano piece, do you have performers in mind? Is that something that will come later?

SD: So that piece, I’m going to perform it with a pianist in the Spinet Club in January. So It’s coming soon.

MW: It’s always nice when you have a built in performance. In January, oh my gosh that’s so soon. And you’ll perform the viola part. Do you have plans for recording or are you more in the writing phase and you’ll think about recording later?

SD: I’m a little more in the writing phase right now. I definitely want to record it, it’s just nice to have good recordings of everything.

MW: I guess I’m a little curious about your teaching. Is the teaching a big part of your musical life or is that just something you’re doing to — not necessarily just for the money — but something you’re doing because you need to have these other activities going on? Or is teaching something you’re really passionate about, how do you approach that?

SD: It does help that teaching is relatively really consistent financially but I actually really do like teaching. I don’t remember if I mentioned that I teach both viola and violin and I have a handful of individual students and some students in the after school El Sistema program. I find that it’s really enlightening and refreshing to see really young people especially approach learning an instrument with new eyes and ears. It’s almost easy to forget — even though I didn’t start that young I started around nine or so — it’s easy to forget being in that season of your life. Where, why don’t I hold the bow this way, this feels more comfortable?

MW: I’ve always heard and in my experience too, as a teacher you learn from your students. That’s what I was forgetting, I wanted to ask you what is your experience with El Sistema? What is it — I don’t really know what it’s about? Do you mind talking about that?

SD: Yeah I can talk a little bit. I’m actually fairly new to working at it so I’ll do my best. I started working with the program over the summer. They have a one month summer strings academy that was held in a local arts center in Hemet. At least in this program the kids come to class two or three times a week, depending on their level. Before they can even get their instruments they’ll make cardboard instruments and they learn a little bit about music theory as well, which is nice because I’m really into having that well rounded kind of learning and not just here’s how to put your finger there. There’s a strong communal aspect as well because they involve the parents really early and the parents are volunteering and helping out with things. I think that’s what I find most notable about the program is that strong communal aspect. There’s someone to support them all the way through.

MW: I don’t know if you had this but from ages ten until college I always felt kind of less than — “I didn’t start early enough”, when I got to college I really started to feel like the people around me had been playing when they were in the womb. It seems very daunting. Did you feel like you were behind or was your experience different especially when you got to college?

SD: I would say it’s probably very similar actually. I started learning in public schools and at that point I wasn’t very self conscious of it because everyone I knew that was playing violin or cello was in the same kind of program. It started to occur to me that I was a little behind the pack so to speak when I was doing honor orchestras or other local competitions and realizing that these kids have had private lessons since they were two.

MW: Your degree is in composition or is it in viola?

SD: Yes, it’s in composition.

MW: Did you start college thinking “I’m going to be a composer” or did you start as a violist and then decide to move to composition?

SD: When I auditioned it was for composition. At the University of Redlands they are pretty adamant about having their composers still be performers. Which I wanted to do anyway. I still auditioned on viola and I was still in orchestra and all the other things. I did a recital on viola as well. Originally I wasn’t sure if I was just going to do composition or if I was going to do a double major. I decided that would be too overwhelming because I was also doing a Spanish minor. You can only juggle so much. I did composition and made sure I took lessons and did a lot of the performance stuff along the way.

MW: Did you do a lot of that in college, working with a specific flair and developing a piece with an instrumentalist or have you done much of that?

SD: Probably most of my pieces were like that in college. For example the piece feRal for alto saxophone and string trio, I think I started writing it at the beginning of my senior year. I literally put up a poster in August in the music department hallway, “Who wants a piece and is willing to perform it?”. It was a silly little wanted poster.

MW: I like that.

SD: My friend Kelsey approached me and she wanted a piece. We originally were thinking of doing a saxophone concerto but it wasn’t going to be done in time for the — there was a concerto competition but it was in November. Pretty soon we realized, that’s really really soon so let’s do it for the spring and we can do a chamber ensemble. At that point I realized I still kind of want that saxophone and strings sound so I just reduced it to — it was originally for string quartet and then I decided I didn’t need two violins so I even reduced it from there. So it was fun writing little sketches and taking it to her to see what it would sound like or having her play a melody and growl along with it. I also have another piece for bass, flute and percussion and that one was commissioned by another student — the bassist. He came to me and wanted a chamber piece so I got to work with him on that.

MW: Is that Oak or — I’m trying to remember which one.

SD: Bailando en la sombra de locura — Dancing in the Shadows of Madness.

MW: I know a little Spanish, I know it’s dancing. That’s right, I listened to that piece. It’s interesting you said that about feRal because when I was listening to it — it’s interesting that it started as a concerto because I was like “this is a really good show piece for an alto saxophonist”. It really shows the range of the player, obviously she was really good. It had that concerto vibe and even kind of a mini cadenza. Bailando, I liked the textures in that piece, when you’re writing for bass it’s also kind of writing for classical guitar because they’re not very loud instruments. That sets a lot of — not necessarily in a negative way but — it sets limitations on what you can do if you’re trying to showcase the bass.

SD: It’s not as boomy as people expect and that’s a problem.

MW: Because in an orchestra there’s five, six, seven of them. That’s why they sound that strong. Those are interesting challenges to take on as a composer — from my perspective anyways — writing for alto sax and bass because those aren’t really standard solo instruments.

SD: That’s true — now that I think about it — that is true.

MW: Those are interesting challenges to take on. I forget the details now — you did something about, in reaction to a NewMusicBox article about ageism in the classical world. There was something about writing for composers over forty?

SD: Oh yeah. There was a call for scores for composers over forty. The article, I think it was simply titled “Agism in New Music” and I read it and I — I had kind of heard of the topic before but I hadn’t really thought about it that deeply I guess. So I was kind of, really impulsive and I was like, I’m just going to put up a blog post and say “Hey, let’s do this”.

MW: That’s great!

SD: It was pretty impulsive.

MW: Those impulsive things, you have the impulse for a reason. As a developed musician you have instincts so why not use them? So it was a call for scores for you as a violist to play music for composers over forty. You got a lot of submissions and you chose three of them?

SD: I only opened the call for about three weeks because I actually wanted to take the time to go through what I would get. It was mainly — I also did a short call because I really wanted to perform stuff that people had already written. Some things were written really recently or — I guess some wrote them in that time but — a lot of them were pieces that were completed previously and I got, I think it was over ninety pieces. Which really shocked me and I did listen through them. So I picked three pieces from there and I’m actually still in the process of working to put that on as a recital or something. At the time that I did that call for scores I was working full time in an office job and still teaching lessons and whatnot. Honestly most of my practicing was “okay there’s this orchestra concert coming up”, a lot more short sighted stuff. So my work schedule didn’t change up until around this spring or so. I’m finally starting to get back into composing more and working on side projects and trying to start some chamber music things, that’ll be nice. It’s still on my music stand.

MW: If you’re all listening it’s still there.

SD: I haven’t forgotten.

MW: Yeah that time management thing has come up a lot too in the podcast, about balancing things teaching and the need to pay bills but also really nourishing — giving the time to the things you actually want to do with your life. What are your long term goals — as a musician, composer, violist — what is on the distant horizon or what would you like to be on the distant horizon?

SD: I definitely see myself doing music full time at some point. Whether that’s teaching, performing I’m very comfortable with the idea of it being a mixture of multiple things. It’s actually gotten to the point even if I could find one job that paid all the bills, even if it wasn’t music, just one thing I think I’d get really bored — that’s kind of scary to me.

MW: I know what you mean.

SD: I definitely see myself doing that full time. I really like chamber music and new music and I hope to be able to work with ensembles and collectives to get that going on a more regular basis. It’s kind of my dream at some point to have maybe a teaching program for kids not only learn to perform and learn to read music but also were very active in composition because kids are so open minded. They’re not afraid to make weird sounds. Even some of the kids that I’ve taught in private lessons, sometimes they’ll bring me music for an audition or something — it’s a middle school piece but maybe it has a random five-four bar — I’ve seen adults that say “why is this here?” and the kids are like “how do I play this? Oh that sounds cool.” They’re just so flexible. I think getting really on people to compose is really underestimated. I hope to be able to give that back.

MW: Thank you Sakari Dixon for being on Sound Meets Sound. I’m really looking forward to what comes next with you.

SD: Thank you for having me on the show.

Excerpt from feRal by Sakari Dixon

Transcript by Melissa Goodchild https://goodchildgradyduo.squarespace.com/

I awake from my long music-reviewer slumber to tell you about two recently-released albums I’ve been enjoying: Moments from Michael Vincent Waller, featuring pianist R. Andrew Lee and percussionist William Winant; and Autumn Winds from Kirk O’Riordan, featuring pianist Holly Roadfeldt, soprano Ann Moss, and violist Peter Dutilly.


Album Cover - MomentsAlbum title: Moments
Composer: Michael Vincent Waller
Performers: R. Andrew Lee, piano; William Winant, vibraphone
Released by: Unseen Words on October 4, 2019
Link: https://unseenworlds.bandcamp.com/album/moments

Moments presents eighteen autobiographical pieces that each evoke a certain spirit or imagery. Waller’s compositional voice draws the listener in with its care and sincerity, and the album’s diaphanous atmospheres and delicate expressions are faithfully captured by pianist R. Andrew Lee and vibraphonist William Winant. The first track, “For Papa,” establishes this approach with its tenderness and the sense of openness provided by F Lydian. This is followed by the first of a four-movement work titled “Return from L.A.,” which embraces that space where yearning and gladness join hands, wonderfully expressed by Waller’s use of D Dorian.

“For Pauline” pays homage to Oliveros and her accordion with its alternating quintal harmonies and sense of stasis. I can imagine watching Lee perform this live and hearing the notes hover and intermingle within the body of the piano as an exercise in deep listening. The final track on the album, “Bounding,” also seems written so that the pianist is imitating another instrument, this time a Flamenco guitar, performing for the bulk of the piece a slightly modified Andalusian cadence. The Nocturnes, meanwhile, are fully pianistic, continuing in the vein of their predecessors in their pensive tranquility, with Lee eliciting great sensibility from the slow, undulating melodies.

The album includes a four-movement suite for vibraphone called Love, beginning with the aptly titled “Valentine,” which sounds like a metal-tined music box—with brief bop-like flares—haunting in its juxtaposition of intricacy and innocence. The middle section of “Baby’s Return” has Winant performing complex polyrhythms, while “Images” blurs together notes of the octatonic scale to create spiky but alluring harmonies. “Sizing” provides more polyrhythm, the number of lines in its polyphony seeming almost more than is possible for one person to play. Love, it seems, is a complex undertaking.


cover of autumn winds CDAlbum title: Autumn Winds
Composer: Kirk O’Riordan
Performers: Holly Roadfeldt, piano; Ann Moss, soprano; Peter Dutilly, viola
Released by: Ravello Records on February 14, 2020
Link: http://www.ravellorecords.com/catalog/rr8029/

 

The title piece is a fifteen-movement song cycle for piano and voice, each setting a haiku by Matsuo Basho. A study in stillness, many of the songs inhabit a liminal space; like Autumn, they tremble between one state of being and the next. As Roadfeldt puts it in her liner note, “each deals with [the image of Autumn Winds] as a literal image and as a metaphor.”

In the first two tracks, voice and piano both hover in a soft dynamic, scattering sparse lines across a fleeting span. The third song opens with Roadfeldt performing a rocking, dissonant ostinato as Moss sings in full voice for the first time so far in the cycle. She returns sotto voce in the next song, as the piano’s melody climbs around the keyboard. Moss’s voice radiates crystalline in “bright red” and “speaking out”; Roadfeldt’s vigorous might is on display in the rhythmically active “blowing stones” and “though autumn winds blow.”

The final three songs of the cycle cross the liminal threshold as autumn winds transform into trembling graves. Proceeding from two of the cycle’s sparsest songs, Moss’s dramatic exclamation “shake, oh grave!” introduces a kind of final awakening, in which tremolos “tremble, oh my grave-mound,” and angular, fluctuating vocal lines rise and dip, before the music slowly fades to black.

The album opens with Four Beautiful Songs for piano, voice, and viola, with text by Lee Upton. The cycle features dramatic shifts in mood with moments of frenetic activity, melodious repose, and yearning lines in counterpoint. Roadfeldt, Moss, and Dutilly blend such that each part coalesces into a whole; no part is written for primacy over the others, and the group expertly combine and trade off to create a holistic piano-voice-viola timbre. Though writing diatonic music, O’Riordan deftly shifts expectation from harmony to gesture, beckoning the listener to hitch on for the ride. The fourth song, “The Blouse,” is especially tender and enticing.

Bookending the title song cycle are two standalone pieces. Prayer Stones is a tour de force for violist Peter Dutilly, with wide-ranging melodies and extended sections of rich double stops. Roadfeldt introduces a dramatic panorama, expansive and stark. Dutilly enters with a keening supplication, soaring over the piano’s landscape. The piece then moves into a more pensive mood, with the piano providing shimmering figures like sparks of light falling from the sky, as the viola speaks in harmony with itself. The energy gradually increases in the piece’s final minutes, exploding into a joyous coda.

The album closes with Beautiful Nightmares, whose forceful outbursts alternate with troubled spinning and churning. Even before reading in Roadfeldt’s notes that it is a serial work, I was seeing in my mind’s eye colors and shapes reminiscent of early 20th century expressionist art, typified by Schoenberg’s painting “The Red Gaze.” Roadfeldt moves through the complex lines and textures with discernment, emphasizing the piece’s turbulent spirit.

One last note for engineer Andreas Meyer, who created impeccable atmospheres for each of the four worlds this album inhabits.

I proposed the following paper to the Society for Music Theory’s 2018 national conference but it wasn’t accepted. Because I did do quite a bit of reading and creating/staring at spectrograms for it, I thought I’d share it here for anyone else who’s interested in studying timbre. It’s a very nascent analysis, so feedback and thoughts are welcome!

A formal analysis of Kaija Saariaho’s Du Cristal achieved through the spectral identification of timbral structures

Taking the recorded object as the basis for analysis, I capture and analyze spectrograms from Kaija Saariaho’s Du Cristal in order to characterize its spectral profile, develop a method for functional interpretation based on this profile, and elucidate the piece’s formal structure. This undertaking will provide answers to some of the questions that Saariaho herself poses in her writings about the ability of timbre to carry formal structure. I use Megan Lavengood’s methodology as the basis for my timbral analysis of Du Cristal. Lavengood’s use of contextual oppositions (as opposed to a priori oppositions) to define markedness and unmarkedness particularly suits my purpose.

I pair Lavengood’s methodology with Saariaho’s theory of spectral form, which posits that timbre meets the criteria for “form-bearing elements in music” (ICMC 1985) and that there exists the possibility for directional musical tension along a “sound/noise axis” (CRM 1987). In her writings from the 1980s Saariaho seems concerned with creating a hierarchy of timbre; this is where she and I part ways. My study focuses not on attempting to discern hierarchical classifications of Du Cristal’s timbral structures but rather on oppositions (a concept used by both Lavengood and Saariaho) and interpreting the piece’s unmarked and marked structures within its own sound world.

Within the sound world of 1980s pop music Lavengood posits the timbral profile of a clean electric guitar as being unmarked. For Du Cristal’s sound world I define unmarkedness by the overall timbral profile of the piece: “noise” (per Sarraiaho, diffuse and rough) is unmarked and “sound” is marked (pure and smooth). I refine these terms by layering onto them the specificity of Lavengood’s definitions for the noisy/pure sustain opposition, and add into my analysis her soft/percussive attack opposition and rich/sparse pitch opposition. Each of the terms to the left of the slash represent the unmarked sound of Du Cristal.

Example 1 is an annotated spectrogram of 8:25-10:30 of Du Cristal, in which I label the spectral characteristics present. This section, while containing for the most part the unmarked qualities of noisy and rich, is marked by a series of percussive attacks, whose rate of occurrence increases into a period of extreme richness and amplitude. The opening transition is characterized by the amplitude of the frequencies moving downward, while the closing transition is characterized by the reverse.

saariaho_smt2018_ex1.jpg

Example 2 is an annotated spectrogram of 11:30-12:50 of Du Cristal. It is unmarked by its noisy sustain and soft attacks, but contains several marked moments of sparseness. Similar to Example 1, the rate of occurrence of the unmarked quality increases into a loud and rich apex. The opening transition is characterized by relatively pure sustain ending abruptly in relative sparseness, while the closing transition is an extended moment of stasis, characterized by the disappearance of the sparse moments.

saariaho_smt2018_ex2-1-e1551296478653.jpg

I analyze the entire piece in this manner, i.e., by locating patterns in marked timbral events and extrapolating small and large-scale patterns therefrom. This enables me to perform an interpretation of the overall form of Du Cristal.

Works cited

Stephen McAdams and Kaija Saariaho (1985) “Qualities and Functions of Musical Timbre,” Proceedings of the International Computer Music Conference, 367­­-374

Kaija Saariaho (1987) “Timbre and harmony: Interpolations of timbral structures,”

Contemporary Music Review, 2:1, 93-133

Megan Lavengood (2017) A New Approach to the Analysis of Timbre, diss., The City University of New York

 

Matthew created this sound palette by pulling out the stops only partially, to a very precise measurement (hence the yellow measuring tape on the console). He then had me press the keys down only partway, which is why I’m wearing gloves in the first two sections because maintaining the partial-pressing of the keys meant gripping them in a way that would wear out my hands without the cushioning of the gloves. They also helped me to stop myself from accidentally pressing the keys down all the way! In the middle sections I’m pressing the keys down all the way, doing a partial recreation of Brahms’ organ chorale prelude No. 4, a piece I’ve been playing since the early 2000s. My first few practice sessions with Herzlich I had to stop myself from recreating Brahms’ “romantic” phrasing. I was really impressed with how Matthew approached writing for a tracker organ, and I love that every time I play it I hear new sounds, wonderfully multifaceted, pulsing sounds. Thanks for my piece, Matthew!

 

Music composed for a deep listening that fixes you in the present has fascinated me for well over a decade now. As someone who is constantly thinking of the past or the future, I find it incredibly challenging to stay with the present. When I do manage to rise to the challenge I always find it transformative, and I’ve never risen to that challenge without the help of present-focused music.

We Who Walk Again by Ghost Ensemble—released on May 18th—is full of such music. Indeed, the ensemble “takes as a common touchstone the Deep Listening practice of Pauline Oliveros,” whose work Angels and Demons is featured. Beautifully performed and recorded, these unique pieces get their full due on this album.

60 Degree Mirrors by Sky Macklay (also the oboist on this recording)

After an abrupt full-ensemble pulsation, shards of high, biting clusters cut through sparser moments and the occasional swooping scalar motion, evoking the kaleidoscope implied by the title. Towards the middle of the piece these high clusters take over the texture, the piercing sounds demanding your attention without ever moving you forward in time; that is, keeping you in the present. This section transforms into a texture that incorporates lower sounds and a rhythmic lick that recurs unpredictably. The piece ends again in the high register, with slow-moving clusters.

Angels and Demons by Pauline Oliveros

Dyads and intricate, denser chords float in and out of the air against a backdrop of quiet cymbal scraping. Suddenly a growling contrabass line interjects into the gossamer texture, which then begins to swell in volume, growing into a body-felt sound mass. Skittering blocks and a tumbling rhythm give way to breathy grunting and accented harp chords. The sound mass returns, enveloping, pulsing, and eventually dissipating. A frenetic wind line cuts through a low-resonance foundation just before the piece fades to silence.

Wind People by Ben Richter (also the accordionist on this recording and the ensemble’s founder)

The piece emerges out of a hushed stasis, the contrabass lines repeating two notes in unpredictable rhythmic patterns amid an almost drone-like sustaining texture. Subtle, deep moaning gestures appear after about 4 minutes, effecting an eventual transformation of the drone-like texture into something more unsettled. The descending gestures persist, seemingly pulling ever-deeper even as the volume subtly increases. Winds and accordion pierce through this around minute 8, but the pull into the deep continues. Three minutes later the piercing sounds return, raising the volume considerably. Deeper and more resonant the piece continues, in a multifaceted texture that evokes the primeval. As the end approaches, the entire ensemble focuses in on one note, swelling loud and soft, before diminishing by nano-decibels over several minutes into silence.

I’m listening to: conductor Barbara Hannigan. Here she is conducting and singing a Stravinsky aria: