Interviews


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.

Image

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).