For those who prefer reading over listening, I’ve finally finished transcribing my interview with Megan Ihnen, which appeared as episode 4 of my podcast, Sound Meets Sound:


Read on to learn about the commissioning process, balancing day jobs with a music career, dealing with planting again after a big harvest, and much more.

MW: Today my guest is Megan Ihnen. Welcome! So why don’t you tell everyone a little bit about yourself—your elevator pitch.

MI: My elevator pitch usually goes something like: I’m Megan Ihnen, I’m a mezzo-soprano, I’m devoted—rather, obsessed—with the commissioning, performance, and proliferation of new music, or, contemporary chamber music. I write this blog called the Sybaritic Singer—I did a redesign for that that now has a welcome page so it’s a little more front and center: “who are you? why are you writing this?” When I first started writing the Sybaritic Singer I tried to make it a little bit more anonymous; I didn’t want people to only associate me with the writing aspect, because the goal is singing! I didn’t want that to be the thing that takes over. I know that a lot of friends that run other media platforms and podcasts and blogs and stuff like that start to get associated—if that starts to take off a little bit—with, “oh, that’s what you do.” And I was concerned about that, like “no, this is part of what I do,” and after having done it now for years, when I did this redesign I was a little bit more open to saying, “yep this is part of what I do.” And I think people get that, I’m not really in danger of people being like “oh, you’re only a writer”—not like that would be a terrible thing! [laughs]

MW: Yeah I think in the community in recent years it’s become more accepted to wear a lot of hats, like it’s just a necessity in the new music scene to play a lot of different roles. But yeah the site looks really good, it’s a really great redesign.

MI: Thank you! Well big shoutout to Punkt Digital because they are great and they work with a lot of artists, so: people that are listening, they should definitely check it out. I was unsure about doing that [redesign]; [but] they’re also artists themselves, and I was like, you know what, let’s go for it. Let’s do the fancy redesign, I think I’m ready, let’s go for it. Because I wanted to start doing some more informational product-type things without making it seem like some sort of money-grab. I didn’t want to get into that space; but I wanted to start creating different types of ways that people could get involved with or run across Sybaritic Singer, or new music and vocal music in the way that I talk about it. So I started a podcast and started doing these things and being like ok, well, does this work? And I don’t want it to come across as: I’m trying to suck pennies from every singer that I’ve ever met. I’m not into that!

MW: It does not come off as an e-commerce site!

MI: Thankfully!

MW: Let’s talk about your project that you just successfully funded on Kickstarter, it’s a collection of lullabies, right?

MI: Yeah, it’s called Sleep Songs: Wordless Lullabies for the Sleepless. That’s the working title of it, I’m not sure if that’ll be the digital album name, but that was what it was for the Kickstarter. I built this idea because Shaya [Lyon] had mentioned wordless lullabies [to me]—and in fact it’s really funny that we’re talking about it like this [over Skype] because she had interviewed me for an article she was writing that actually just came out yesterday in Chamber Music America magazine. So, we did a very similar thing where I was recording it on my end through Audacity but it only picked up my answers so she was saying that she was listening to it later to transcribe some things and that she would hear me laugh every once in a while—because you can’t hear her side of it, you only hear me go [laughs musically] and then say something after it! And she goes, “you just have such a musical way of speaking, it was really calming and serene to listen to you respond to whatever I was saying.” And she said that was what inspired her tweet that kicked off the whole thing. She goes, “You know, listening to that made me go, man, I would love something that was kind of like this but more musical sounds; instead of just the speaking, like hearing your voice doing this kind of thing.” So, I was like “oh, I like that idea—well, now we’re doing it!”

MW: And then you went and ran a really successful Kickstarter for it! And I think you raised more than your goal, right?

MI: We raised about $1,000 more than the goal was, and that was pretty good. I shot conservatively with the goal so that I could then have a push goal; as part of, you know, good practices, to say “this is definitely gonna cover it.” One of the things you have to be aware of is that Kickstarter has a fee so you need to build that in. I decided to go with Kickstarter because I really wanted that proof of concept before diving in and doing it. Because, you bring me an idea, I’m gonna make it happen, but I really wanted to see whether this is an idea that had legs. And no better way to judge that than ask people to give you money!

MW: Yeah, that’s a pretty good barometer for interest, is if people will give you money for something! And this is a pretty big project—you’re commissioning 20-something pieces from different composers?

MI: Yes 26 composers total. After I went live with the campaign then all of these other composers came up to me and said “Oh are you doing a second version of this? Are you doing an alternates list? Are you doing a waitlist?” And I was joking with some of my friends that it’s going to be like Now That’s What I Call Contemporary Classical 2017! And I’m just gonna pump these out like every year! [laughs]

MW: Sounds great! [laughs] So, that’s a lot of pieces—do you think that everyone will buy into the lullaby concept and create something soothing sounding? Or do you think that they will be a little more diverse in their approach and how they interpret the prompt for this project?

MI: I definitely think it will be more diverse overall. I think that there’s going to be a lot of similar elements—it’s for the voice so people feel more compelled to write very lyrically—but I did have some composers say “can I take this into a direction where I’m writing from that sleeplessness side?” and I said yeah, I’m fine with that. I already have a bunch of them in hand, and they certainly don’t run the risk of sounding the same! Because all of these composers are so different and working within different aesthetics, it’s exciting to see what they come up with, with this idea that ends up being more diverse in application. So, that’ll be cool.

MW: Do you think that the composers will try to keep these as short, single pieces? Do you think any of them will want to break them out into different movements or sections?

MI: You know I haven’t had anybody ask me about that—most of them are going to be individual songs. Because of the commission amount I said, do not spend hours writing this, we’re keeping this kind of contained, so we’re thinking like two to three minutes or something like that. But I also have composers that really like to work with the concept of time, and so they said “would it be ok if I wrote you a longer one? Does it have to be time-specific?” And I said no [laughs]. So, there will be certain recordings on that album that are in the ten-minute range just because of the way that the piece is set up; it involves stretches of silence as well as these elongated vocal lines.

MW: Right—so, are these all solo voice pieces? Or are you allowing them to write for accompanying instruments?

MI: So I told them that—to keep this project manageable, because 26 commissions can get a little unruly—I said, you can write primarily for my solo, unaccompanied voice; that’s the general gist of it; if you want to also write for an accompanying instrument, it has to be one that I can play with my skills as-is, along with singing the piece. I’m not going to lay different tracks; it’s going to be happening at the same time. I have some other instruments that I can play—or opening things up for creating things like body percussion—but I also play piano and viola. There are plenty of ways I could incorporate these other instruments. And then I said electronics if I can run them while I’m singing it then I’m more than happy to do that as well. So I do have some composers that are taking me up on that and making, like, baby electronics [laughs], so that it’s not an overwhelming aspect of putting it together. I don’t want to have to learn how to make these elaborate, like, Max MSP files to go with it; so give me something that I can just run, because I have some experience with that but I don’t want any one lullaby to take over all of the time to get ready. I want to make sure that I’m able to devote the time necessary to each one. And if you give me something that’s like: “and then I want you to also find this collaborator and this collaborator” I said that’s just going to take away from what the main idea of this process is for me. Most of them have understood that, and they’re more than happy to work within that. And I think it gives them constraints in a good way where they say “ok, I’m going to challenge myself to write this for this instrument.” There’s an important factor here that I bring up in new music singing a lot: singers are always asked to do something else—like, I’m always asked to play a tambourine or something like that—because my one instrument—seemingly—is not enough. So I asked them to think about that when they write and they desperately want another instrument. I say, ok well do you think the voice is full of nuance and color and difference? Could you play with that? Is a voice enough? When I ask them that then they start to change their mind a little bit [laughs]. So, with those constraints I think we can do quite a bit, but if you’re not willing to see the voice as enough of an instrument on its own, then this probably isn’t going to feel like the right project for you.

MW: Well, and speaking of voice alone I’m a little curious about how you envision the recording process—what is the sound that you’re gonna go for with your voice? Are you going to have a lot of processing, or are you going for a more natural sound?

MI: I want to have a very natural sound in the recording. I would like to play around with some more interesting mic’ing situations and having an engineer help set stuff up for me. That may or may not get teased out depending on—that was kind of what the push goal aspect of the fundraising [was for] so we’ll see if that can work out. If not then I’ll do what I can. But a lot of it will have a very natural sound to it and be in a beautiful space so we’ll get that natural reverberation that really speaks to that warm, personable quality of the voice. I didn’t want to get too far away from that; I didn’t want it to feel sterile. I want it to feel like I’m in the room creating this sound world. I want it to feel—going back to some of the things I wrote about when I was promoting the campaign—there’s this incredibly personal quality to singing someone to sleep—and I wanted to see how I can achieve that in the recording process as well because I want that feeling of being in the room with you. So that’s what I’m working to achieve in the recording process, and I think I’ll have the space and the means to do that in my facilities at Graceland University, so that’s nice.

MW: So you’ll have someone there to do the recording with you? Like, you won’t be all on your own?

MI: I will definitely be working with somebody to do that aspect of it; I have quality people around me that understand the ins and outs of recording a lot better than I do. And I just really value having other ears in that process. Because, you know what you’re feeling but particularly with the voice you also hear a lot of that internal vibration; having the ears that are listening to your tracks right away and aren’t feeling what you’re feeling so you can say “I didn’t really feel great about that” and they’re like “oh but it came across as this, this, and this” and give you words like that—actual words to describe the sound that you’re making. And if that’s what you’re going for then, yay, but if it’s not then you can be like, I’m gonna try that again and go for this, can you compare/contrast for me what you’re hearing as we do this. That’s very valuable to me, just for no other reason besides not being the only one in the room and assuming that my taste is the only taste that matters in that situation.

MW: Yeah that’s the weird thing about singing is that, in a sense the people that are outside of your body have a better perspective on what you sound like than you have yourself because you are hearing the sound inside your skull essentially, and not outside. That was always very hard for me to deal with when I was studying singing is this idea that the teacher or the coach or the accompanist somehow had a better idea of what I sounded like than I did myself just because of the nature of the instrument.

MI: Yes, yes I talk about this a lot. And you bring up such a good point about being able to trust your own instrument. I worry so much about young singers and particularly those that are going through undergrad/grad school and they’re at that time where they’re getting a lot of information about what their voice sounds like to other people. What can happen—which is very dangerous during that time—is that you totally beat out any confidence in your own production. That singers start to abdicate their sound to other people. They don’t say, “this is my sound and I am comfortable making this sound” or “I know what kind of sound I’m making” they go “no, what does it sound like to you, can you tell me how to fix this, can you tell me what I need to do” and it’s all this externalization of your own instrument that’s inside of you. I think that that can be scary and I don’t think that singers always realize it as they’re going through the process, so I try to make sure that I give my younger singers ways to hear themselves and then also start to develop a better connection of “this is what it feels like”—or, sensation singing: This is what it feels like when I make this sound, and I may not hear it like that but I do hear it in this way and I like this sound—or—I’m working towards this sound. And it doesn’t allow them to give up ownership or agency of their own instrument in their own music-making. Because I really hate for that to happen, that scary feeling of somebody else is in charge of telling me what I sound like. It can be very helpful because you go to coaches and teachers and conductors and they all tell you different things and then you go, yes of course that’s what I’ll do thank you [laughs]. But then, at some point you look back and you’re like, I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore—or—I have to look to everybody else to tell me when I’m doing it right—that’s a really scary place to be. I don’t want singers, particularly singers that don’t go on to study music, to lose that place of saying, I’m in charge of this, I make the sounds that I want to make. That’s a soap box for me at the moment!

MW: Yeah, I mean, I never got to that point in my studies—I’d never heard that term before, sensation singing—I think that would be nice to have that sense of, this is my voice, I do have a say in what sounds I make, and I have to trust how it physically feels when I’m making the sounds. I think that’s a really good point, and—can you teach me singing, Megan? [laughs]

MI: [laughs] Let’s do that!

MW: Sadly I don’t think I’ll be quitting my day job anytime soon to be a professional singer but speaking of day jobs: you teach as your day job, right?

MI: Yep, Graceland. My day job of sorts is all teaching. I teach at two universities and I teach a pretty hefty private studio. Which is great, because when I made that transition from working at an office day job to teaching primarily as my day job—it’s all different income streams, so they all fit together, it’s all just different pieces of a puzzle—so now I’m at a place where all of my income streams essentially reflect the arts in a very holistic sense because it’s a lot of writing and lecturing on different aspects of art, and then teaching and performing are more and more music-based obviously. So when I made that transition from the office job to teaching it was because I needed more flexibility and that’s harder to do in an office setting than it is with teaching. I always tell younger singers or younger musicians—they’re like, I’m trying to make it happen just on earning commissions or whatever and I’m like, wow that’s really intense. Like, it’s ok to find a gig that’s not intense and let that be an income stream for a little while, until you start to really come into your own as a performer or composer. One of my friends, Gaylord, who’s a bassist and if you’re on Twitter you’ve probably met him through musochat or something like that, but he always calls it the Bonnie Jones grant. Bonnie Jones was in Baltimore and working her day job and goes, yeah my day job is just the grant that I give to myself [laughs]. So, he always calls it the Bonnie Jones grant and I totally picked up on that and ran with it. My day jobs have always meant that I’m more available to do the things that I want to do; that takes time to figure out.

MW: I wish I had learned that younger, that to take on a stable income stream that isn’t necessarily in the arts it’s not you failing as an artist. I resisted it for so long because it’s like, oh, I’m not a real artist if I’m doing that and I’m cutting myself off from opportunities if I doing that. And the truth was, that I was working so hard just to make money that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do anyway.

MI: Well, and, I learned so many skills from those day jobs that I use constantly that help me take care of business. If anybody has ever looked at me and is like, wow she gets a lot of stuff done, it’s because of those [laughs]. Scheduling, and all of this other stuff, it gave me processes for so many things and it also helped me make sure that I set myself up—singing is not a long career, and I know that. It’s based on your biology, and I know that it’s not a long career and if I hadn’t had those day jobs to set up retirement accounts when I got started then there is a likelihood that I’d get to the end of my singing career and then be like, what do I do now? And that was so scary to me as a singer that I would be following a dream so hard that I would get to a point and then be destitute because I hadn’t planned for the fact that—you know, it’s a little bit like pro sports—when your body is done you are done. And they don’t bring you money after that!

MW: Not everyone can create a grill to sell on HGTV.

MI: [laughs] And we don’t have ESPN sports or something like that for me to go be a commentator!

MW: That would be a great thing to have! You know, for retired musicians, but, yeah we don’t have that. But it’s really true and it actually helped my playing, too, the processes you talk about that you learn in these day jobs—it helps you reconfigure the way you think about your instrument and your relationship to your instrument and how practicing works. And you value your time with the instrument more, too, because it’s like, this is the time that I have with it. It’s like you were saying, prepping for a recording, you need that sense of urgency. You need that sense of, if I don’t take it now I’m not gonna have it. When I saw that deadline on Kickstarter, I was like wow that’s not far away; and then you were saying you’re going to record in the summer—that’s a lot of music to learn in essentially two months—do you have a plan, or are you gonna just lay all the scores out in front of you and come up with a plan then? Have you envisioned that at all?

MI: Yeah, definitely, because there needs to be a practice plan otherwise it’s just not going to be efficient. And the beauty of new music is you learn to work on a really efficient timeframe because, this is certainly not the shortest timeframe I’ve ever hard to learn music [laughs]. So this feel luxurious! The pieces that I already have are already slotted in with the other things that are happening; I have a number of gigs and performances in June and then I go to Avaloch in July, so [the project] gets put into that practice plan and then starts to raise in priority level as we get closer and closer. By now I know myself well enough to know what kinds of things are going to demand more practice time, what types of pieces are, yep I got that, this is about how many hours it’s going to take to get it down and then get it to the place it needs to be for recording level so that I can get into my recording process and not be shuffling papers, not doing any of that nonsense, because I know it well enough that I can make it go very smoothly. That’s all part of the practice plan, and the nice thing about the summer—because I’m done with my university course load—then that opens up that time a little, and that just gets immediately diverted into: ok, this is the singing time. It’s all these different waves of, how am I spending my time? Here’s the practice time, and this one’s devoted to recording, I know it’s coming up, it has to get done.

MW: There is this sense—as you mature as a musician—that sense of, it just has to get done. Somehow you’ve got enough experience your brain is like: ok! And then it just makes it happen. That is the nice thing about maturing as a musician, doing something for years and years is that, you can kind of force your brain to do anything. What is the shortest prep time you’ve had to learn [a piece]? Or do you not want to relive that?

MI: [laughs] Yeah they’re a little stressful! Well, last year for New Music Gathering, Nadia Shpachenko lost her voice and was supposed to sing and play, and asked me to just jump in as a voice stunt double, and I said yes because I’m crazy, and so I learned that piece in a day and that was great [laughs]. So that’s probably the shortest. But there’s been some other ones, you know those scores or parts of scores show up the week before or something happens and you’re like, no I thought we were doing—ok we’ll just make it happen it’s ok! [laughs] But that’s the beauty of new music and it’s not always stressful when you’re changing things at the last minute because a lot of times you work on a piece and something’s not quite clicking but you haven’t had a chance to workshop it with the composer until you get there. And you say, hey what do you like about this and can it change to this. Garrett Schumann for example is a composer that I work with quite a bit and he’s always so wonderful about, once we get into that rehearsal process and I say, what do you think about this, do you like how this sounds or would it sound better to you or achieve your vision a little bit more if we did it like this? And he’ll say yes or no; it works very well. So, sometimes it’s not stressful to change it because it gets changed into the thing you feel more comfortable singing anyway. And so you’re like, thank you! [laughs] I really appreciate this! Or, this is so much easier than having to smack your voice against the wall all the time, because you are like, I’m working really hard at this and I’m going to do my best and then the composer says, well would it feel better if we did this? And I’m like, yes! Yes it would. [laughs] Then those changes make you feel more comfortable; sometimes changes go the other way and you go, ok, I will do that [laughs]. But I’m lucky to work with composers that get that. I have a lot of composer-collaborators that are very concerned or careful or thoughtful about working with the voice, and they are always saying, I want to try this, how does that feel for you? And then it’s my job to be honest about it and say, there are lots of things I’m willing to do; being very clear about certain extended techniques that are more tension filled than others—saying, ok you get three of these; I will do one in rehearsal and I will do one in dress rehearsal and let me know how it sounds because that’s what it’s going to be, but I’m not going to do it every single time we rehearse this piece because then the end product just isn’t going to be as satisfactory. You’re not going to enjoy it as much.

MW: Yeah you have to protect yourself. That’s another aspect of the scene that I really like is that—from what I hear from performers—most composers are willing to trust the person who’s the expert on their instrument and say this works or this doesn’t work, or this hurts or this doesn’t hurt [laughs].

MI: I only get one of these. I only get one. It’s my job—if I want to keep doing this, if I want to keep having this job—to take care of it. As you age you need to be more and more aware of it. There are so many great examples of women who are new music singers that are maybe so many years ahead of me in their careers who are such clear-minded singers about their own technique and about what they can and can’t do. It’s really inspiring, so I try to take that example and try things out and then know myself well enough to say, yes this is positive I can keep doing this, or, no—and trying not to let that side of me that wants to say, sure I’m amenable to all decisions!—to temper that side a little bit and say, no look at the big picture. I’m in a pausing point between two big performing sprints and in the middle of one of those I became really vocally tired and that means less of the things that I can normally do, or less rehearsal where you show up and I’m like, sure we can totally rehears for six hours no big deal! And then I’m like, no Megan calm down! [laughs] You have to be the person that says: I need to take a break because I can still do this well right now but I won’t be able to do it later; that is disappointing to me and I wish it weren’t the case, but I have to take care of that.

MW: Yeah especially with the voice you have to be so careful! Well, are there any other bits of wisdom you want to share or anything else about the project you want to talk about?

MI: I do want to say, about the Kickstarter: I did put this Kickstarter together and I ran it in seven days and I had a lot of people talk to me afterwards about it saying, wow congratulations it was so fast and how did you do that? And I said well, yeah I ran a seven day Kickstarter after ten years of building a community! So I would like to encourage people to really focus on being an active part of their community and then when you need to ask for help, then your community will show up for you. Because you’ve been building and you’ve been participating. You’ve been helping other people for that whole time. There’s literally no way I could’ve shown up after grad school and run a seven day Kickstarter to fund a recording project of 26 commissions. That is just not something that would’ve been available to me. I mean, that’s me, my own personal example; I’m not saying that other people can’t do it, I’m just saying that I have had students ask me, how do you do this? And I say, well, actively participate in a community for ten years and then we can talk! And then let that be your first Kickstarter project. That doesn’t show the number of Kickstarters I contributed to and that doesn’t show the times that I helped other people or showed up for jobs and showed up for volunteering and helped moved the chairs around at venues and things like that. … Your projects are always in the context of where you are in that given time and [you and I] were just talking about barren fields and I did one of those, where you go through seasons. I had some moments before this where I was realizing that I was in a very big season change of my career and that’s a little scary. So these seasons change and I felt like I was really harvesting with different projects and felt really good about that but then when you’re done harvesting you have to plant again! The scary part of that is that it demands of you to find beginners mind again and say, ok I learned all of this stuff in all of these previous projects but that’s not the same thing as what I need to learn right now. Beginner’s mind—when you’ve been working for quite a while—can be a scary thing. To ask yourself to stay humble and go, well I don’t know that yet. I needed to ask myself: Megan, where are you going to follow some curiosity and find something new and challenge yourself to learn about it? So I’m doing a lot of planting again and figuring out what this new season looks like—and, that doesn’t always feel good. [laughs] I want people to know that’s part of it; those projects that go really well and you harvested and you’re like, I feel so great! And then, when the harvesting is done you have to plant again and the planting is a lot of work!

MW: Yeah by the time you’ve gotten to that harvesting you’ve kind of forgotten about the initial planting that led to that harvest! It’s a shock to wake up back in that place.

MI: And people think that once you get to a harvesting season you’ll just keep harvesting! Like, once you get to your initial harvest season it’s just harvesting from here on out! But that’s not the case!

MW: I think that’s why it’s so dangerous for any artist to harvest too big too young because that can be so shocking. But, then, as you get older, it becomes harder to start over—like you say, be humble. And it has to do with that identity thing, like, oh my identity was in this thing that I harvested and now I’m reconfiguring my identity.

MI: You can see where I’m going with this! That that’s a really important thing to figure out. And give yourself a lot of care at that point where you go, oh ok it’s ok to start again and I’m going to wrap my identity up in this but I’m going to also let it go every single time.

MW: It’s true, embracing the change and the way you’re going to—I don’t like to use the word evolve—but to grow as an artist. For me, being such a goal-oriented child and teen and twenty-something, learning how to embrace the journey—which sounds really cheesy but it’s so true—just the journey of making something. And you have to always have goals and go towards them but you can’t let yourself not enjoy the journey or it’s just all going to be a misery!

MI: Exactly. I talk about that a lot with my students, making sure that singing stays exciting. Even though we’re getting ready for things like auditions and we’re getting ready for contests or competitions—how you approach those things is going to determine how you have those experiences. Because if we start now thinking that every time we have contest, you have to go, oh my God I’m just so nervous and the judges are going to be mean to me and they’re going to give me feedback! At which point I’m like, except that’s our whole goal! This is what we’re showing up to do and you’re actually excited about that! If you watch all your friends and they just want you to be nervous and scared with them then what kind of relationship are you going to have with singing? So I’m also practicing that lesson; if I approach every single project as, I just have to get this done and just focus on this—then I’m going to lose every aspect of, I get to be the person who unwraps this composition for the first time and shows what exciting things are in store here—if I lose all of that because I created some sort of crazy artificial deadline for myself, or I said yes to somebody else’s artificial deadline, which isn’t to say that all deadlines are artificial, I’m just saying that we are the masters of our own curriculum at this point. We are the people choosing these things! I want to make sure that I’m going, oh yeah, I signed up for this and I’m in charge of how I experience it even if I’m choosing—beginner’s mind—to start again at the very bottom of a new track that I haven’t learned before. That’s the point, that’s what I’m here for. Rather than being like, ugh this is so stressful—like, I could be doing anything with that attitude and it could be really stressful!

MW: It’s true, as musicians we signed up for this. It’s really important to be patient with yourself and with the world in general. To remember that no one here in this room or your room or listening has to be a musician, certainly the economy is not demanding that!

MI: No! [laughs] It’s not knocking on doors looking for people to sign up! This is not a draft, folks!

MW: It’s not even a scouting! We’re doing this, we’re making it happen on our own. There’s plenty of other paths. My first music theory teacher in college was like, if you can find anything else that will interest you and you can put your heart into other than music drop this class and go major in that now because this is not an easy path. I was really shocked by that but also, like, actually this is the only thing I could see myself doing so I have to deal with that. That’s my responsibility to make that doable.

MI: Liz Gilbert has this quote about when somebody says, what would you do if you couldn’t fail, and she says, I think that’s just bs, you have to find the thing that you would be ok with failing and you’re going to do it anyway. And I’m like, sign me up! I’ll run this thing into the ground and be like, let’s do it again! I’m ready! I ran it into the ground and that gives me a lot of information about what to do next time, let’s do this!

MW: That’s the thing, as a musician, as an artist, you’re going to fail over and over and over again, whether by your own standards or someone else’s standards or society’s standards, there’s always going to be failure and rejection.

MI: And I’m not going to glamorize the failure part of it, because that blows. So, glamorizing failure is like a trendy thing that people are doing right now and I’m like, ok ok calm down! [laughs] That part is not great, but it teaches you a lot.

MW: Yeah crying about it in a New Yorker article is a step too far for me. I mean there’s value in talking about the nature of criticism, but—Anyway, that’s a whole other topic!

MI: We’ll have to talk about that sometime, too!

MW: Actually that would be a great podcast.

MI: I would love to chat about criticism! Because I love music criticism, I love writing about performances, but oh boy is it a tricky little spot to be in.

MW: Well, ok, now that we’ve figured out the next conversation—And, you know, you’ve got a voice to save!

MI: Yeah, I gotta go practice!

Big thank you again to Megan for appearing on Sound Meets Sound!

Back in July 2011, at Exapno New Music Community Center, I interviewed composers Matthew Hough and Kate Soper about their music. We listened to clips and projected the scores so that the audience could follow along. The afternoon began with Matthew’s “You should all be shot! [2]”, written in 2011 for alto flute and alto saxophone, the latter of which replaces the spoken word of the original 2009 version. In this piece, the performers interpret texts written by Matthew; the recording features Nicole Camacho on alto flute and Matthew on alto sax:

MW: Can you describe what you and Nicole are doing in this recording?

MH: I lived in this area [of Manhattan] for a long time and when I left I wrote these little stories, almost like a diary, these things that happened to me which were sort of horrific and funny at the same time. When I wrote the piece the original conception was Nicole, who’s the flute player and a friend of mine–I basically read aloud these stories and she played along; she had a part, but she was doing a lot of improvisation based on the material that I gave her. However, I was doing this concert [recently] and I was concerned–the stories have a lot of cursing in them, and really nasty stuff happens–so because there were young kids coming to this concert, I thought “how could I censor it and still do the piece,” and I thought maybe I could just play the saxophone and “read” the stories while I’m playing.

MW: Just to clarify, you’re not a saxophonist.

MH: Yeah, I’m not really. I’m sort of channeling, not just the text, but the way I feel when I’m reading the stories, because for a while it was hard for me to even read them without getting really worked up and animated. And then there’s this whole other level to it; I can’t really play [the instrument], but that interests me, the idea of that type of limitation.

Next was Hough’s “Since We Don’t Understand…,” a work from 2007 for piano and guitar, recorded by Eric Wubbels (piano) and Matthew (guitar).

MW: This piece is a lot different from the first piece by you we heard today. What happened for you, artistically speaking, between 2007 and 2011?

MH: Definitely a lot changed during that time. It’s hard for me to talk about without being disparaging of my younger self…I was thinking a lot back then about “can I be a composer?” I wanted what I did to be really good, I wanted people to really like it, and so in this piece I chose notes and harmonies that are pretty pleasant for people to hear. At a certain point I realized I was thinking too much about how I was being perceived and not thinking hard enough about why I’m doing what I’m doing and what composition means for me.

The second half of the afternoon began with a video clip of Kate’s emotionally charged “Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say,” written in 2011, with lover’s-quarrel text by Lydia Davis, record by Kate (soprano) and Erin Lesser (flutes).

MW: This is definitely a virtuosic work, for both instruments. What was your inspiration for writing such a gymnastic vocal line?

KS: I’ve been a singer/songwriter for a long time and once I joined the ensemble Wet Ink in 2006 I started singing more new music. I’m really interested in finding ways to push myself vocally and see what I’m capable of. I tend to write very difficult material for instruments; I wanted to write this piece for Erin Lesser, who’s the flutist in our ensemble, and I wanted to do something where I felt like I was challenging myself to the level that I challenge my colleagues. I just wanted to kick it out there and see: what’s the highest note that can come out of my mouth, and the lowest one, and what kind of freaky sounds can I make with my voice.

Next was Kate’s “Prelude: May Kasahara” from her cycle Voices from the Killing Jar, written in 2010-2011 and recorded by Kate and the Wet Ink Ensemble. Kate’s program note for this movement reads: “In ‘Prelude: May Kasahara,’ the titular sixteen year-old of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle speculates on the true nature of the force underlying all human existence. In increasingly agitated fragments, she describes the essential malevolence of this force and admits its influence on her to commit acts of violence and cruelty.”

MW: How did you go about writing the words for this piece?

KS: For me, both singing and writing texts were something that when I was younger I felt prohibited from doing because I assumed I was unqualified, not having a vocal or a writing degree. Also, I’m constantly searching for texts and it’s really difficult to find something like the Lydia Davis where I feel like “yes, this is exactly what I want to work with,” so it finally occurred to me that I could just use the Murakami novel [as a basis] and make my own words. This whole cycle is about allowing myself to craft the narrative in terms of writing the texts and selecting these books and plays that have really meant a lot to me.


This interview originally appeared in the October 2011 ETM newspaper.


Below is my 2011 interview with awesome composer Ken Ueno for the Ear to Mind newspaper:

Ken Ueno occupies a peculiar space within the world of contemporary music: An actively performed composer and Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Ueno is a skilled throat singer and fluent in visual programming software such as Open Music and Max/MSP. As a composer, Ueno draws deeply from within his own experience, as in one of his latest compositions, “On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis,” which features Ueno performing in counterpoint with himself via the use of a recording he made at the tender age of 6 years old.

MW: You’ve spoken before about a sound embodying a feeling. Can you talk a little bit about the feelings that different sounds embody for you?

KU: Yes, for me, some sounds have an expressive power in and of themselves. These sounds give me a feeling that I can’t quite put into words or express in any other way.  I believe that is why, despite all the sophisticated developments of communicative modes in diverse cultures, we still have and need music. But since you asked, I will try to give some sense of what I mean. Some of Coltrane’s multiphonics and Hendrix’s feedback are like tidal waves of empathy. They scream something primal and reach in to the core of my body. It’s at once like a deep-tissue Shiatsu, it bruises my body, but heals my soul, for it seems to say something that I’ve known all along, but the rest of the world ignores. I will say what Stravinsky said of Webern: those sounds are like an eternal Pentecost for all who believe in music. See? When I try to say in words what I mean, it takes too long (though not enough!), and it comes out all cheesy. Multiphonics and noise help me express those things without having to apologize for what I feel. The discourse of words demands a different tenor. I want to give space for non-semantic expression. Looking back, I think it’s something I’ve felt my whole life. I have memories from before I could speak. I remember understanding language, but not having the dexterity to speak intelligibly. I remember adults not understanding me. But, when I made non-semantic sounds, they seemed to understand. Later, when I was a toddler, I used to record sounds on my cassette recorder. Just for fun. I also recorded multiphonics and noise-like vocalise I sang too. All of this, I have a hunch, is somehow related.

MW: Similarly, you’ve spoken about the ability of sound to transform one’s body. How do you feel your body reacts to certain sounds?

KU: Learning music, practicing our instruments, we transform our bodies. Here’s text I wrote for a theatre piece for Kim Kashkashian to recite:

On my neck, I have a scar

where my instrument has transformed my body,

carving out a space,

hard work of past loves,

which re-sculpted my body,

earthquakes shifting the landscape.

I think that composing changes the chemistry of my brain. It’s probably transformed how I perceive the world. For me, music mainly exists in memory space. And memory is related to the physiognomy of the brain.

MW: Where do you see yourself within the world of contemporary music? Do you ever think about your music contextually, as it relates to past and present composers?

KU: I think that the contemporary sense of identity is becoming increasingly manifold. I am a Japanese-American. Which actually means that I am both Japanese and American AND neither at the same time. When I think about historical artists, the narrative of their lives are often neatly teleologically linearized by historians. Beethoven and his three periods. How Pollock became Pollock. But when I think about contemporary artists, like Gerhard Richter or Damien Hirst, their works transcend any one stream of style or medium. Their works, and therefore their artistic identity, float much more like internet channels. I feel I fit into that kind of contrapuntal manifold as well: a composer of written works for classical ensembles, a throat-singing vocalist, an electronic musician, and a professor.

As far as how my music fits into the world with other composers, what I try to do is figure out how to just make music that is honest to me. At the same time, I recognize that classical music is a neo-colonizing agent and I have to contend with to what degree I am comfortable being colonized by it (not belonging to the dominant cultures). There is no way to compete or wrestle with Beethoven. He’ll always win that game. But, you know, there’s not many multiphonic-singing composers who know how to use Open Music and Max/MSP to analyze what they are doing vocally to orchestrate those frequencies for orchestra.

Yes, that little patch of sand on that deserted island surrounded by the sea of history and everyone else. That little patch of sand is mine!

MW: As a professor, do you feel there is a separation between the academic and non-academic contemporary music communities?

KU: No. I say no, because I don’t know what “academic” means any more.  It’s so overused by everybody that it doesn’t mean anything anymore. I think in the vernacular sense, people like to invoke that word for something they think is intellectually snooty, i.e. something that makes them feel intellectually inadequate. How about we say here what it really should mean? Henceforth let “academic” mean any music that was created by anyone who was ever trained at any conservatory or department of music at the college level. One reason for that word being used so much is probably because academic composers have fetishized the hipness and wide appeal of rock musicians for a while now. But, you know what Babbitt and Radiohead have in common? Esse quam videri. They both are, rather than seeming to be.

Performing “the newest music for the oldest instrument,” Ekmeles (ancient Greek music theory term for “disallowed tones”) is a new vocal group that performs solely contemporary music. I caught up with the founder and director of Ekmeles, Jeffrey Gavett, to ask him a few questions about the group:

I know you formed Ekmeles with the thought in mind that new vocal music needs an advocate in NYC. Who are some contemporary composers of vocal music that you feel people should know about?

“There are many established composers whose vocal works still go unperformed in this country. Salvatore Sciarrino‘s work with the voice informs every aspect of his instrumental music, yet excepting a few rare opera performances, his vocal music is not heard in the US. The fantastic Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and Hilliard Ensemble are two groups that have commissioned countless works by great contemporary composers, few of which are ever performed in the US. I hope Ekmeles can bring these great works to New York, and inspire the imagination of local composers and concertgoers.”

How did you choose the other singers in the group? Are there plans to expand the personnel to perform larger choir pieces?

“I chose the other singers in the group from my colleagues in both New Music and choral singing circles. The group is conceived as flexible, allowing for a range of the number and kind of voices needed for a performance. Our first few shows are small, duos and trios, but upcoming performances involve four and five singers. Eventually, the core of the group will be six or seven singers, covering the range from coloratura soprano to basso. There is also a great repertoire of pieces for 12 and 16 voices, like Lachenmanns Consolation I and II, the Ferneyhough Mass, and Xenakis‘s Nuits, all of which I’d like to perform some day.”

You compose as well as sing — do you have any plans to write for Ekmeles?

“I don’t have anything in the works yet for Ekmeles, mostly because there’s already so much great repertoire that I want to perform with the group! Maybe if I find a program that has a place for me to fit into I’ll write a piece for the occasion, but right now I’ve got a spreadsheet open with 210 pieces for a cappella voices in it, and it’ll take a while to get through it.”

Here’s a clip from the first movement of Kaija Saariaho’s 1988 From the Grammar of Dreams, performed by Ekmeles’ own soprano Christie Finn and mezzo soprano Rachel Calloway.

Ekmeles’ next performance will take place on November 8th, 7pm, at The Tank.

Say hello to Kate Soper! Kate’s a New York City-based composer and vocalist and is a co-director of the Wet Ink ensemble.  She graciously agreed to answer a few questions about herself for me yesterday. Below is a video of my brief interview with Kate, which is followed by a piece she wrote this year, called Voices from the Killing Jar, where you can here her sing (the track playing underneath the interview is also by Kate, called Wolf).