Interviews


MW: Welcome to Sound Meets Sound Sofie Loizou, a.k.a. Anomie, thank you for joining me here on the internet, all the way from Sydney. Sydney to California—so far apart we’re in different days!

A: Hi Meg. Thanks so much for having me. Yeah, I’m coming from the future, so watch out. I can tell you what’s going to happen in the future! No, not really.

MW: Well, it makes sense for an electronic musician to be in the future.

A: Feels appropriate.

MW: I’m always really curious about how people start out because our journeys are so different. We all took very different paths. In your bio, you start out saying “classically trained”, so that intrigued me because I also started out that way, so if you could talk about that for a while, that’d be great.

A: You know, we are a product of our upbringing, and my mother was basically the impetus for everything that’s happened in my life, whether she meant to or not! I think she really probably did mean to, but she’s not around anymore to discuss all of this with, so I do have to spend quite a bit of time wondering what she was thinking when she sent me on this path. She enrolled me in music at the age of four. I was an early starter at school. My first recollection of learning piano was being super excited. My piano teacher was very strict and I was a bit scared of her, but she’d every now and then show a kind of more gentle side, which made me feel at ease, but also at attention. I always felt like going to her was a bit of an auspicious occasion, you know? I had to be on my best behavior and sit up straight, hold my hands a certain way, and remember all these things that she taught me. And, if I didn’t, she’d rouse on me a little bit, but not too harshly, just enough to keep me in line. I learned discipline from a very early age. And I think that’s something that’s really shown to have carried through until now, obviously. Having control of my career, being able to get through all the pitfalls, climb out of the big holes that we end up falling into when creating art. So I think my mother is really the reason why I’m making music today. She also encouraged me to continue with music, she enrolled me in theory. I learned theory from the age of six; music theory and piano from the very formative years has shaped my way of looking at the world and looking at music. I always thought I was bad at maths and it turns out I’m not, because music and maths are connected. And I wish one of my maths teachers had mentioned that to me, because I went through my entire childhood and young adulthood thinking I was terrible at maths. It’s just not true!

MW: This happens with music theory too, though. Where people are like, “I always thought I was bad at music theory” because they had a teacher who couldn’t really reach them. I think with maths, it’s a similar thing, where it’s a rare teacher that can really reach you. Especially, for me, it was definitely a gendered thing. You have to convince yourself that you can.

A: That’s it. And going back to my mum for a second—she was into “women’s lib”, there wasn’t a term, “feminist”, used around the house very much, but Mum was into women’s lib and women’s empowerment. She raised me to be an independent thinker, to question things. She was an agnostic/atheist. All of those aspects of her attitude towards the world rubbed off on me quite heavily. I did come into quite a lot of contact with teachers in a negative way in that I would question them and they would get annoyed with me and throw me out of the class. This happened a lot in maths, to the point where I got chucked out of my maths class because I was upset that the maths teacher called us all “thick as bricks” because we didn’t understand. I just stood up and said, “How dare you speak to us like that? You’re supposed to be teaching us and you’re putting us down. This is no way to be.” Basically, just throwing some home truths in his general direction. That was a little too much for the poor guy, and that was the end of my math life at school, which I would have been about 14 or 15.

MW: Oh, wow. Geez.

A: That was it for maths and me.

MW: Teachers like that who belittle their students…at a certain point you’re just sad for them because how horrible must your life be if you’re looking at all these young faces, and…—

A: seeing enemies.

MW: Yeah!

A: And I went to an all girls school as well, so he must have felt really threatened by us.

MW: That’s another dynamic going on there, especially if you were questioning or not bowing before him, like, giving him the respect.

A: Definitely. I was very upset at the fact that I had very little respect for the way he was teaching me or all of us, really. It was about the way he was speaking to all of us, not just me. I’m an activist and that started early too. I don’t have my mother to blame for that bit, that was my own doing with my own volition. Perhaps a little bit of a push from a great aunt who was very much involved in the anti-nuclear activism campaigns of the late 80s. Meeting her a couple of times in my youth had a huge impact on me and made me ask a lot of questions about the world. I grew up wanting to be an environmental activist, something that was really important to me. I used to spend my Saturday’s out petitioning for the southeast forests, which are still under threat, and a lot of them burnt in the fires recently. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the fires we had here in Australia.

MW: I saw you were tweeting and retweeting things about that. I feel like I’ve gotten an education about the situation in Australia, especially the fires. Also, big oil trying to destroy Australia.

A: They own the government, so everything that happens here is of their bidding.

MW: That’s amazing that that started so young. You were standing up for yourself and others from a very, very young age it sounds like.

A: It was a big thing for me. I didn’t just get thrown out of maths. I got thrown out of the religious classes. I got thrown out of P.E. I didn’t like the way our P.E. teachers treated us either. There was a lot of being in the deputy principal’s office, and I’m quite proud that the deputy principal called me a social deviant. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, so I learned a couple of new words that day. I was quite pleased with that definition that she ascribed to me. Thanks, Mrs. Seville!

MW: Early on, Sofie was marked a social deviant. When a person like that calls you a social deviant, that’s what you want to hear.

A: At least I’m doing something right!

MW: I love this thread we’re on, but I am curious how you went from classically trained at the piano to electronic music. Was that a direct thing or was there an intermediary step in there?

A: Probably a burgeoning class consciousness as well. Learning how to write for an orchestra seemed like a really stupid thing to be doing when you are a working class person. And, coming to the realization that I’ll never have access to an orchestra to write the visions I have in my mind, not just because of my class position, but also being a woman. I know how hard it is, looking around me and seeing very few role models. I felt really upset about all of that. But at the same time, I discovered through a music teacher at school—the second to last or last year of high school—played me a piece by Guy Gross, who I think is a film composer these days but at the time, he was probably also a student studying at one of the universities here. He wrote a piece called The Dice Waltz. I don’t know if I could ever find this piece again. I’ve got it on a cassette tape somewhere buried in a box. When I heard it, it was explained to me that this piece was made entirely by computers. But, when I listened to it, it sounded like an orchestral piece. I was like, “What is happening?!”

That was my first reaction to the world of MIDI and electronics. I came to it with this idea that maybe I could learn how to create orchestral pieces using MIDI and electronic instruments. But then, of course, while that was happening, I also was being cross-pollinated by the rave era happening in the early 90s. There was Technotronic, Warp Records, Future Sound of London, Ninja Tunes, all this really amazing electronic music coming out, which was blowing my mind from another angle. There was this natural crossover that happened in the late 80s/early 90s, where I discovered MIDI and electronics and [became] interested in learning that and maybe studying it. Then also the rave era and all of the beautiful peace, love, unity, respect politics that was happening around that electronic music and exciting me in the world of warehouses, people, and connecting with other humans. For a long time in my teenage life, I was very depressed and angry. The Gulf War was happening and I was pissed off. I was anti-war; I was an environmental activist, so I was pretty depressed about the way the world was going. But when I discovered rave music and ecstasy, I all of a sudden realized that there was a possibility, like a little bit of hope that maybe humans could come together and solve these issues. I hadn’t felt that before as a young adult, so it really had a huge and massive, significant impact on my life.

MW: It gave you hope for the world and humankind.

A: And, also for a future for myself as well. There was a recession happening in Australia at the time and there was massive unemployment, and that’s why the rave era took off. The warehouses were empty, people were just breaking into them and throwing these massive warehouse parties. It was quite anarchic.

MW: That sort of early 90s technology—what exactly were you using when you started making electronic music?

A: So that’s an interesting story. I didn’t have a computer growing up. My mum had an IBM 286, I think, I remember learning how to word process on and play Castle and Tetris, but I didn’t have a computer growing up, so my first computer was an Atari STE. It was running a crack version of Cubase, that was the only thing I could find. I had a Casio FZ-1. Now, that was a full length keyboard sampler. It had three megabytes of RAM, so you could have a floppy in it and you could load the floppy onto RAM and then you could do really cool things with it. But, it only had a liquid crystal display, the backlight didn’t really work, didn’t really help. It was really, really tough going and editing samples back in those days. It felt like a massive effort, which was why when you listen to those Ninja Tune records and Future Sound of London, you know exactly the kind of equipment they would have been making that stuff on. It just seems mind blowing. How did they do that? Lots of multitracking, I imagine, and lots of Casio FZ-1s.

MW: I think this is the first time floppy disks have been mentioned on the podcast. I remember those, the big LP ones and the smaller ones.

A: Yeah, these were the smaller ones. My first ever synthesizer was a Juno 6 Roland, which got stolen unfortunately. I got a whole bunch of gear stolen, but I got another one. I was determined not to miss out on my Juno action. It’s kind of a staple in my collection. It doesn’t have MIDI and I don’t care, but it has got an arpeggiator, which does appeal to me. So the 90s were hugely significant because I also got involved in putting on raves. I got involved a little bit in the politics, the critical mass stuff. There was a lot of crossover between those two cultures. In Australia, we have a lot of beautiful outdoor areas, so most of the parties I got involved with were put on outdoors. That was a really inspiring time to get a view of the backend of putting on parties and stuff, which is something I ended up doing quite a lot of later, after Red Bull Music Academy. Then, I went to university. I studied for three years. I studied Music Tech and Composition as a double major, which I had the best time. Honestly, having a positive education experience really does make a big difference in one’s life. But, it was expensive and I didn’t pay it off until a few years ago. Being in debt for that long it kind of sucks, especially when you’re a poor musician.

MW: The idea of putting on a rave outdoors. I can’t even imagine the amount of coordination.

A: And a lot of these outdoor raves had multiple stages as well. Sometimes, they didn’t even have proper permission from the authorities, which ended up becoming quite a contentious issue in the end. The authorities cracked down on the raves quite hard in the late 90s. There were a couple of deaths due to different factors—drugs and pushing people out onto the roads after a long night of partying—yeah, so, the cops aren’t completely guilt free, are they ever?

MW: No.

A: I think the authoritarian push against rave culture killed raves in the late 90s, and since then, it’s gone right underground. But, it still exists and is alive and well in the Inner West in Sydney. I still love getting involved in the free party scene and love playing at those parties. In fact, I think my favorite party to play at is a free party. The vibe is different. It’s such a different cross-section of people that show up to a free party. That’s my favorite party. When I was in the 90s, I was just a young woman. I looked very young for my age as well. Even in my thirties, I looked quite young. I didn’t get any gigs when I was in my 20s, really. It wasn’t until Red Bull Music Academy happened that I really started getting opportunities in that area. I used to do some projects like tour managing for Red Bull after I was a participant for a while. I came back to Sydney all vivacious and excited about what Red Bull Music Academy could do for Australian musicians and Australian artists and started encouraging everyone to apply. I did that for almost seven years. I put on a lot of tours, I toured people like: Gaslamp Killer, Flying Lotus, Theo Parrish, Blue in Exile, they were amazing. So many amazing artists from overseas, and that was all thanks to Red Bull Music Academy injecting some culture money into our scene; that dried up a while ago. But it was great for a while, it was a beautiful little thing they did for us here.

MW: That’s amazing. What was that like to your 2003 experience if you feel like we’ve touched on the 90s enough?

A: Yeah, for sure.

MW: I love the 90s—it was a special time.

A: I feel like it’s having a resurgence, though, Meg.

MW: It is. It’s funny to see college students, like 18 years old, listening to Nirvana’s Nevermind.

A: I did that for two years while I was unemployed. Every morning, I’d wake up and listen to Nevermind, ate muesli for breakfast, washed my hair with this particular conditioner so that whenever I hear Nirvana’s Nevermind, I remember the smell of that conditioner.

MW: That’s amazing. I love that.

A: This is what we do when we’re unemployed, eat muesli and listen to Nirvana.

MW: My time in New York City—there are a lot of sense memories there with music. Especially when you’re down on your luck or you’re struggling, music is sometimes the only thing that keeps you going and getting you up in the morning. You end up eating things like muesli or dollar slices of pizza for every meal. Just really not good for you. But, that New York pizza.

A: Here, we have one dollar mie goreng.

MW: What is that?

A: Mie goreng is a noodle dish from Indonesia. Really spicy. The staple for the desperadoes of us out there.

MW: Bagels and pizza in New York is what you eat when you’re poor. An Indonesian noodle dish sounds a little more hearty.

A: But if you eat too much of mie goreng, it will kill you. Those little plastic sachets.

MW: Do you really think of your life in terms of before and after Red Bull 2003?

A: I think talking to you like this, yeah. There is a real clear delineation. It’s not that much different to the delineation between before and after taking my first ecstasy tablet, like that little bit of hope. It’s like a bone that gets thrown in your direction, a little tiny sliver of hope. Maybe you’re not going to have to be on struggle street forever. It means so much to us artists, doesn’t it?

MW: It does because we get so little of it.

A: We get so little. Any kind of tiny little opportunity—but Red Bull was a massive opportunity. The impact that it had on my life was as big as being introduced to the rave era in the early 90s.

Meeting Robert Moog, getting advice from his wife—to put it in a nutshell, this was 2003—about not giving up, following your passions and dreams. For them, seeing a lot of people in their lives getting to do that, Wendy Carlos, for example, getting behind people who aren’t necessarily always the stereotypical person that you would see in the limelight. Hearing from them that I have just as much a chance as anyone else at having a stab at it was really nice and validating. Also, getting to meet other artists like her. I made a really close contact at RBMA, a guy called Dawid Szczesny from Poland. I always pronounce his surname wrong. Sorry, David if you’re listening to this. David and I started writing music together—soft, gentle, experimental and a little bit glitchy, sample-based electronic music together—with lovely vocal contributions from Natalia Grosiak, another Polish artist who ended up going to the Red Bull Music Academy. The three of us collaborated on quite a few tracks, one of which I’ve released called “Millions”. That was a self-release out on a record label called Radical Nature, which is my very first record label. I have two now. Basically, I start up a new record label each time I can’t find a record label to put out my record.

MW: Record labels especially in the electronic scene where genres are so multifaceted and there’s so many different things. I totally get that. I’ve only not done that because I’m too lazy. [laughter]

A: [laughter] [Any] self-releasing is definitely not the domain of the lazy. It is a hard slog and I know this because I’m right in the middle of a release at the moment. In fact, I’ve got a release coming out tomorrow. It’s called Fat Chance Sucker, and it’s a bit of a middle finger to anyone who tries to manipulate you or take you down or act all fascist on your ass. You just say to them, “Fat Chance Sucker”.

MW: I love that! I was glad you said it because I was going to ask. I assumed it was a general middle finger to fascism. I love video, too. You’re just sort of like, “Uh-uh, Fat Chance.” That’s great.

A: Specifically when I wrote it, it was because this guy had done this really horrible thing, which I won’t get into because that man does not deserve any airtime. But I had that whole experience in mind. He really hurt a lot of women really badly. He tried to crawl back into my life and I was like, you know what, “fat chance sucker!” It’s something I say in my mind anytime someone tries to do something like that. Whether it be in the wider world, at work, if it’s a boss thing, you know. It just works in so many different situations.

MW: It’s great, I love it.

A: I wanted to keep it general for that reason because everyone’s going to have their own reason to say, “Fat Chance Sucker”.

MW: It’s something I could immediately relate to. When I saw the title I was like, “Fat Chance.” Although, it sounds better in your accent. Suckerrr just doesn’t sound as great as “sucka”.

A: Yeah but it is Americanism. We are saturated in Americanisms here in Australia and it’s so hard to know how they ended up here. For example, one of the things Australians say, which is really weird is, “I reckon? Do you reckon?” We say “I reckon” a lot. I don’t think Americans say that anymore.

MW: Either it’s isolated, like the southern Appalachian type of thing. Like, “I reckon”, you know? It’s not something that we say in normal—it’s something like you think of an old man [saying], like, “I reckon back in the day”. But, they say that in England a lot too, don’t they?

A: Maybe we got it from them!

MW: I have a feeling it was brought over to Appalachia from Britain. It was weird being an American, and when I was 18 getting a chance to travel some, seeing how pervasive the culture was and being like, “That’s really weird.” It was a little unsettling to me how pervasive it was in other places.

A: Hollywood has a lot to answer for, Meg.

MW: They absolutely do. They really do.

A: So much unlearning in my brain has stemmed from things I learned in Hollywood films.

MW: Same. It’s pretty crazy. Although, now Hollywood is having to bow down to streaming sites, which I think is a good thing. Anyway, we got way off topic. Your release—both of the tracks, they’re so amazing and if we can get to more about your process and gear for this release—people say this about your music all the time, I see the reviews—the production is just impeccable. It’s really amazing how spatial your mixes are, but unified also. Really powerful. Especially if one has attempted to do these things, you can really hear you’re nailing it!

A: Thanks! So glad that it’s coming across like that. You know, in my head it all sounds so different. I try not to do a lot of A-B-ing against other people’s music for a reason. I want my mixes to have their own individual production flair. I don’t really want to try and kowtow to production tropes. Although, they always end up getting in there. But I try not to consciously do too much of that. I don’t want to be over formulaic. I want to be spontaneous as much as possible. I want to leave in some of the errors, not all of them, but just enough to give it humanity. That’s really important to me as a production value. With these two tracks that I’m releasing—”Fat Chance Sucker” and “BANG BANG”—I did both of them in a very similar way, I set up my synth so that I could play the lines in live. I was tweaking all the knobs, the frequencies, the resonances, the envelopes live. And, doing full passes through the full track. Trying to get a sense of it. I just wanted it to have a human feel to it. That’s really the overarching—because I feel like I haven’t done enough of that in my previous tracks. From Permanent Revelation, for example, there was so much painstaking production work that went into that to make everything so clean and fresh. I wanted to bring a little bit of dirtiness and nastiness back into my mixes. Also I got this really great spring reverb, so the musical instruments that happen to come into your life at the time sometimes influence your production values as well. The Vermona Lancet, which is a spring reverb with a filter in it and an LFO, so sticking some drums through that in “Fat Chance Sucker” gave it a nice, dirty spring reverb sound.

MW: This is maybe the hardest thing to talk about as an artist, but when you’re writing, laying down tracks, what is it that’s inspiring you in terms of the actual track and the lines that you write?

A: It feels like it’s just happening without any effort whatsoever, honestly, Meg. This is something that’s changed over time. It feels like a channeling, and I feel it in my body. It comes from above the top of my head and it goes down my spine. I remember mentioning about sitting up straight as a kid. Maybe that helps, but I feel this lovely energy flow through the top of my head when I’m in that zone and it flows through my spine. It goes out my hands, through my fingers, and everything seems to happen in that way. There’s not really much thought process going on. It’s a very instinctual thing. I guess that’s because I’ve been doing it a long time. I was four when I started playing, so it’s hard to say what is intentional and what’s instinctual anymore because it’s all happening so naturally. Now that I’m a full time worker and I don’t have as much time to create as I used to when I ran my own studio and worked as a record producer/engineer full time, that my time is so precious now and any kind of snippet of time that I get, it’s just overflowing, in fact. Overwhelmed by this desire to create. Give me five, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 hours in the studio and it just pours out of me. Honestly, Meg, I can’t stop it once the faucet is on.

MW: It’s amazing how fast time goes by in the studio.

A: It sure does. There’s a sense of timelessness, almost. You don’t really know whether five minutes or five hours has passed.

MW: It’s an amazing place to be in as an artist, to just feel it flow through you and your brain isn’t getting in the way trying to process it.

A: Not during the creative process, Meg. Definitely it kicks in during the engineering production process. Let’s just make that clear! That’s where all the self-doubt, misery, frustration, anxiety, and anger—”why can I make it sound like what I want to in my head?!” There’s definitely a huge separation between the beautiful, instinctual process of creation and then the sorting it all out in the mix afterwards.

MW: Definitely good to make that clear! There’s the pure inspiration and then there’s the frustration. And then you listen to it the next day and it sounds completely different to you than how it sounded the previous day.

A: I think it’s comes back to that discipline that I learned when I was really young, just staying with it, even when you feel horrible about it. Just stay with it, keep trying and keep nutting through it, because there’s so much reward in that process of moving through that stress and that anxiety and finding a peace and solace at the end of it, hopefully. Even sometimes, that peace solace doesn’t come until three years after it’s been released. But, it comes. It does come. It’s this subjective versus the objective. Being able to oscillate between those two states is really important as a producer, and finding methods to be able to jump between the two as much as you can. I like to take breaks now when I’m conscious of what I’m doing. I like to take breaks and do something else, like watch something on the tubes or talk to a friend, make something in the kitchen. I love baking and I love gardening. I’ve got a little balcony. I love making crafts and ferments and things like that. Anything to distract me for a short period of time and then back into it to get that objective perspective again. It’s really important for the modern producer to be able to speed up that objective/subjective switch space. But it’s not always that easy. That’s the kind of ideal way to do it, but sometimes there’s baggage involved in the way you feel about your song or your track. Also, there’s that point that you get to, in the midst of a session, you end up listening to someone else’s music for a second and doing a comparison to your own and going, “Ah!! I’m doing it all wrong!”

MW: That’s the worst!

A: Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we not let ourselves be who we are and be proud of that? I don’t know. I have these horrible periods of self-doubt when I start comparing myself—I think it’s best to try and avoid that. Also, being aware that what you’re offering is different and unique to what other people are offering and that is a good thing. We don’t need to be all sound-alikes. Unless, of course, that’s what you’re looking for in your career, in which case, go for it. But if you are looking to do something different or find a sound that’s unique to you, let’s try and be kind to ourselves and not overly compare ourselves to others’ trajectories, careers, or sounds. Let’s make our own ways and carve our own paths and perhaps provide inspiration to others in doing so. Not to mention the huge amount of therapy that I get, and perhaps you as well, Meg, get from the actual creation process. It’s brought so much nourishment to my heart and my spirit in times of deep desperation and sadness. I’ve always had that to go to in times of loneliness and solitude. I’ve had my music as something to keep me company, there’s just so much that it gives me in my life. Even if I wasn’t to release anything ever again, I would still make it. There’s always going to be a place in my life for this creative process, whether people hear it or not. Although, I’d like people to hear it!

MW: I was just curious about, it was a couple of years ago, I think it was Indonesia that you went to? Can you talk a little bit about that experience?

A: In 2018, a very good friend of mine, Dan McKinley, encouraged me to apply for a grant to go to Indonesia with himself and another friend of his, Kieran Ruffells, two fantastic producers in their own right. They’ve been going to Indonesia quite a lot to collaborate with artists in Bandung. They wanted me to come along, and I was like, “Well, yeah, of course I’d love to!” I felt like I’d been offered this beautiful gift to meet these artists they’re working with. They’re really interesting artists, too. One group is a death metal choir called Ensemble Tikoro, which is about twelve young male and one female singer. They vocalize death metal sounds with a bent towards the organic, earthy sounds that are inspired by the Sundanese culture and the Sundanese religion that exists there. It’s not the most dominant religion anymore because Muslim culture and Muslim religion is much more dominant, but it still exists. It’s an incredibly rich and historical culture. It’s very feminine. They have lots of female deities. The rice goddess culture is alive and well. So, Ensemble Tikoro was one, Mita Kulsum is another artist, a Sinden master singer, and has studied for over ten years. Just the wealth of incredible artists that we got to meet and work with who are masters in their own rights and wanted to do this cross-cultural experience with us. We call it Lotekno; Lotekno is a loose group of collaborators who share a musical spirit. Hopefully, we’re going to release something soon, too. That would be really nice. We’ve got a lot of material coming out; Ensemble Tikoro and Mita Kulsum are releasing in their own right as well. You can find them on the YouTubes. That’s a kind of work in progress at the moment, and something I’m looking forward to spending a bit more time on in the latter half of this year. I’ve also got a film coming out through the Goëthe Institute next week. I think that’s June the 19th or June the 11th, something like that. I created a sound film; a sound film is a film inspired by the sound of a place. Goëthe Institute asked me to create a short film about the sound of Sydney. So I went off with a sound divining rod, which I created out of a stick and a couple of microphones. And I went around Sydney recording sounds and filming those places and creating a little film about it. That would be coming out very soon, it’s called The Sound of X.

MW: Is there anything else upcoming? Or just in general that you want to talk about?

A: Yes, I’ve got a vinyl release coming out on Inna Riddim, that’s going to be more drum and bass-y dub-reggae kind of vibe. It’s a four track offering. On vinyl, 12 inch I think we’re doing. Super excited about that. Vinyl is my favorite medium for delivering music. It’s so visceral. You can hold it in your hands and you can read about the artists. There’s just something so pleasurable about that physical experience with music. Such an intangible thing, isn’t it?

MW: We’ve got you through July. Is there anything else?

A: Yes. Lotekno stuff in the latter half. I think it’s hard to know, Meg. What is going to happen to us all? Fascism is creeping; climate change is threatening. My last gig was in 45 degree heat in the middle of summer and none of my gear worked. We all just sat around drinking cold drinks and wondering how we’re going to be able to put on gigs in the future in the summer. Because of the heat, we thought maybe we would start doing work time at night and sleeping during the day so that we can then actually have some leisure time again. It’s that hot in summer here, really it’s just a nightmare. I don’t know, Meg. What’s any of us going to do when climate change becomes an issue that we can’t ignore anymore? It’s hard to make plans beyond July.

MW: Especially for musicians making plans at all right now.

A: With the pandemic. We didn’t even talk about the pandemic!

MW: There’s just too much disaster happening at once to talk about it at all. Let’s go back to that uplifting moment where we take our ecstasy for the first time and we accept our mixes for what they are.

A: Totally. I think ecstasy’s having a resurgence as well by the looks of things. I feel like we’re having a full-fledged 90s resurgence right now. The drugs, the culture, everything in music, especially electronic music, seems to be pushing towards that. I just love breakbeat. Breakbeat is coming back!

MW: Well, I think things have gotten so dire. There is that desire for the vibe in the 90s, especially rave culture, of hope for the future and relief from oppressive forces. It makes sense that it’s having a resurgence.

A: With that in mind. I would like you to get out your whistle, put on a flannel hat, and you’re Fila sneakers. Put on your baggy trousers and a nice oversized t-shirt with your favorite band or whatever written on it. Get out the muesli and the Nirvana.

MW: See, that’s what I love about that. The clothing was so baggy. You didn’t have to—it was so comfortable.

A: It was so comfortable. Let’s do that again, Meg.

MW: Let’s just be comfortable. I am down for it.

A: I’ll send you a pic to put up on your podcast of me in my baggies.

MW: I would treasure that. And the rest of the listeners. We are down for that. On that note, Sofie, thank you so much for joining me. This has been a really cathartic discussion and I feel better about myself now. So, thank you!

A: Good! Thank you so much for having me, Meg. It’s been a really nourishing discussion.

MW: Oh, I’m so glad.

Transcript by Woedan Paljor.

MW: This is the Sound Meets Sound podcast. My guest today is Nicole Camacho. Welcome Nicole—why don’t you just tell us a little bit about yourself and what it is you do?

NC: So I’m a flutist, a performer, I love to perform, improvise, perform contemporary music. I’m a community concert producer, through my organization Music Unboxed. Primarily, I’m a music educator. I’m about to go into my second year of teaching full time in an elementary school in Crown Heights Brooklyn. But I’ve been teaching other ways a long time, like private lessons and band camps and all that. I’ve participated on the board of the New York Flute Club now for a few years. I compose a bit. And I think that wraps it up!

MW: [laughs] That’s plenty! I’m just trying to remember when we met—it was probably 2009?

NC: Yeah, 2009 is the year I graduated from Manhattan School. 

MW: I saw that you posted you’re doing an electronics duo with Drake Anderson, and I was just curious to hear more about that.

NC: So we started rehearsing in January, I had reached out to him during my first year of teaching, this is basically the duo that survived the craziness. So it’s a real life saving musical duo for me. Basically I wrote him in November like “I want to commission a piece” and then he had an idea to do a flute and electronics duo, all improvised. So we started rehearsing in January, and I had gone to school with Drake at Manhattan School. So he’s a composer primarily, he works in Max MSP, really like a genius, I’m just sitting there and he’s making these webs of electronic machines, to process sound. We had our first concert in February, at CUNY Grad Center, where he’s getting his doctorate. It was so great to finally make music again, when I had to get my certification again as a teacher in New York City, that took a lot of energy out of me—and then the interview process—I had to drop a lot of private students, and really focus in on making this happen and I had to get to know over 300 kids’ names and how many staff members, and commute—I commute from Long Island to my job, an hour and a half per day, so for this project to be happening really saved my life. It really helped me a lot! [laughs] Like mentally, you know? 

MW: [laughs] Yeah.

NC: Music is life you know? But when I was a performer I just kind of took it for granted, you know like “yeah I play music everyday” and you know I love it, I’m living it, I’m breathing it. When I didn’t have the performance aspect around as much and then it finally manifested that I have one project—OK I was like music really is keeping me grounded, it’s my outlet right now, I don’t know what I would do without it. The perspective totally changed, like there was so much gratitude for it.

MW: I know what you mean, ‘cause when you’re young and especially when you’re in school or just after school, and you’re—you still know all your school friends—and I’m of course talking about grad school, you’re used to performing a lot and you kind of have to perform a lot because that’s part of your degree and then, yeah you completely take it for granted, and then you start to miss it a lot.

NC: Right, yeah.

MW: And you said that you wrote an improv for that?

NC: Alright! So, we improvised all of the music, and to start out, we each created pieces, I have a few pieces and they’re all based on small vamps. This one, “Hip Hop Improvisation” I created a long time ago and I perform it solo, so I would sing—I would hear so many layers and I would sing over it while I was playing, and I would do a little percussion, and it was kind of like my first dive into percussion with flute—like a beatboxing sound, which I’m still working on [laughs]. I’m not like a hundred percent, but I’m still working on it. I was hearing all these layers, but I was by myself and I always wanted to use a pedal and do all that good stuff.

MW: Right.

NC: But that costs money, and then I don’t know what to buy… Yeah when Drake asked me, and he mentioned the word “ambient” kind of vibe, I was like OK I want to bring this piece in for us to play together. Yeah! And it just opened it up, it was just so cool. I love that recording so much. It was recorded at CUNY Grad Center, I love that recording so much. I hope we put it out soon, but I have it on YouTube, me solo, two version of it!

MW: Oh okay!

NC: Yeah, hip hop improvisation on YouTube, yeah I really love it. It’s like a meditation for me.

MW: I heard you play when Matt did his concert at First Presbyterian church in Brooklyn Heights, at Music at First, I think. You did a composition on that show?

NC: Yeah, I did my composition “Tike Tike” for solo alto flute, and it mostly uses percussive technique, and the inspiration for that one is—I just love percussion. If I didn’t play flute, I would have played percussion, hands down. I just have percussionist envy. They just get so many different instruments, and mallets and all this cool stuff. Then also another inspiration was at the time—this is when we first got to Manhattan School of Music—and they had put us in a new program for contemporary performance, the first year of it. They put us in a composition class, and I’m thinking “Okay, I came here to play contemporary music, I didn’t know I was gonna compose”! The teacher Mark Stambaugh, he’s a really loving teacher, he wasn’t intimidating at all, but the whole process, it felt intimidating because you know, I’d never composed before, and I was among other people who had kind of found a composer voice already as performers, and I was thinking, you know, “what can I write that’s gonna be worthwhile? That’s gonna be different? That’s gonna express me—who I am?” and then “Tike Tike” was the result of that, and also we had been taking an Indian music course. That was part of our courseload too, which I didn’t expect that either! There were a lot of things that I didn’t expect to be doing that pushed me into composing. We were listening to a lot of tabla at the time. So, that kind of also—how they used the syllables to count the rhythm in Indian classical music, and you know, the fact that you can beatbox on the flute, you can make those sounds. So I started fooling around with that. So this composition, “Tike Tike” ended up being my drone piece. It always goes back to a C tongue ram. And everyone loved it!

MW: [laughs] That’s great!

NC: “Oh my gosh! Everyone likes my piece!” And these are like really awesome musicians, and I’ve never composed really, and they love it! And I thought “oh my gosh! I think I’m finding my voice, like my own voice” and that was really exciting and it made me think a lot about how jazz programs—because this is a contemporary program, you know, and I had come from a classical program, a music ed program at that—you know jazz programs will push their students to compose, improvise it all! And I thought about that concept, about how that’s so good to do for people to explore sounds, and you know, and try to find some sounds here and there and write music, you know?

MW: Yeah, you’re learning music from the inside when you’re asking your brain to come up with something new, especially when you incorporate that with your instrument that you’ve been studying, you know, your entire life practically. It makes you think of your instrument differently as well. Composition should be part of every music program, even a music ed program. I guess that’s a good segue to you’re teaching full time—is it in Crown Heights? 

NC: Yeah.

MW: I can’t believe you commute from Long Island to Crown Heights, major respect! [laughs]

NC: I’m gonna tell you: the good thing about a commute on a train, is you can do anything else, you don’t have service on your phone, you can’t hardly do email, you can’t talk to anyone, you’re gonna disturb the people around you. It’s too early, or it’s the end of the day, and you know I just space out. I literally space out, and I just have that moment, where I’m not doing anything. So in a way it’s good for me.

MW: Yeah, especially when you’re about to encounter a lot of little kids [laughs]- 

NC: [laughs] yeah!

MW: – having that moment of like, just with yourself [laughs]

NC: Definitely, definitely.

MW: So what is—I’ve taught little kids, a little bit, like in private lessons—but you’re teaching in the classroom setting. So what exactly is your job there, and what’s the age range of the kids?

NC: So I got hired to teach pre-K, Kindergarten, first grade, fourth and fifth grade.

MW: Ah ok, wide range.

NC: Huge skip, and I teach general music, this school has a huge culture of art. The older school—this one’s only four years old—the older school was going under, and this principal, he put in a bid with the vision of having a public school with arts, and now this school is four years old, and they do a winter arts festival and a spring arts festival each year. Every kid in the school sings, every student sings, every student is considered an artist, you know. They have two music teachers, an art teacher, a dance teacher, and gym as well, everything’s a fifty minute time frame. This principal, that was his dream to have a school like that, and every time people ask me, they say “is that a charter school?” And I say, “No, it’s a public school.”

MW: I was assuming it was a charter school, so I’m amazed it’s a public school.

NC: Right? Totally, so this is a public school. And I teach general music. I prepare my students for the winter arts festival and spring arts festival, in addition to teaching instruments. So I’ll teach ukulele, guitar, and Orff instruments. My ensemble that I was hired to teach—so this job was all new. This was me jumping off the edge for sure. So the ensemble that I teach is a little kids’ rock band.

MW: [laughs] Oh, nice!

NC: The fourth and fifth graders, it’s so interesting for me! Because before I came to this school I wasn’t—I’m not an avid pop music listener, I’m not a radio listener. I go on and I go through my stages, I know the songs. But, you know, these students live on this music. They connect with it. I can understand why it would be important and relevant to them. You know? So, anyway I didn’t know any of these instruments before I showed up [laughs]. So I learned electric bass, drums, you know at a minimal level. Ukulele, guitar, electric guitar, keyboard, and then I had to figure out how to communicate this to the students, so that they can play and not be stuck in the theory of it. The organization that trains teachers to do this, this is called Modern Band—t would be like, a newer ensemble in schools, you know?—it’s called Amp Up NYC and Little Kids Rock, and they work with Berklee School of Music I believe, to develop curriculum. They have online materials. They have a whole online website called Jam Zone. The kids can go on the website and take lessons, they can learn songs, by themselves, without their teacher, which is great because we don’t have time for private lessons and all that. They certify you, they do a day workshop, it’s free, and you have thirty points to get instruments. So in addition to certifying you, every teacher has a set of instruments. So I got a drum set, a speaker system, ukuleles, you know, everything that I would need to start. A keyboard—there is so much to talk about in regards to this job. This job punched me in the face. Like, I—seriously, I either quit or I run the marathon right in the beginning, without any training for this marathon. I’m talking about, like, Resilience 101.

MW: [laughs] Right!

NC: You know, and I love it! I stepped into the shoes and I ended up filling them well. I’m working in a school—actually I didn’t know when I showed up to the interview—my cousin was a Pre-K teacher there, but I didn’t know—my third cousin! I ended up teaching my little Pre-K fourth or third cousins.

MW: Oh wow!

NC: So I actually have roots, I have family here and I didn’t know, I just showed up and there they were, so it feels like even though I didn’t intend that I would be teaching full-time, it felt for me like I’m stepping into my purpose, a part of my purpose here. So, that feels good because it was a lot of work. So that was my drive, I felt like I got signs where like “Ok I was supposed to be here”, you know?

MW: Right, they always say your first year of full-time classroom teaching is like the hardest. Because yeah, especially working with kids, I feel like that’s—just from teaching one-on-one lessons—I would get home and just like go to sleep immediately, it’s so exhausting.

NC: Yes.

MW: It’s really hard to have energy for other things, so that’s really cool that you’re keeping up the duo with Drake. Because I think I would probably just be sleeping all the time.

NC: [laughs] Yes! I just felt like I need to break out of this and talk with adults every now and then. I signed up for a Spanish course in April. My sister ended up signing up with me so we ended up going twice a week to a Spanish course. That saved my life! But let me tell you I would show up to this class looking like a trainwreck. I don’t know what these people thought of me!

MW: [laughs]

NC: You know, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t my lively self. I’m lively now. But I would just sit there like, “here I am, everything’s gonna be OK” and I would like talk myself out of the stress and you know, it was good for me to take that class, and talk with other adults who did different things.

MW: [laughs] major respect. What is the name of the school in Crown Heights that you’re teaching at?

NC: The school is PS 532 New Bridges Elementary School.

MW: What is happening with Music Unboxed?

NC: You know, I had to really think hard about what I want to keep around with this job being really taxing, and Music Unboxed I started in 2012, and it’s taken so much work to start. I can’t just give that up. That came from a place inside of me at the time, that like, you know it answered a lot of—through my community production—a lot of questions were answered for me about the possibilities of what music could do in building community. So I decided to keep it going and this year I’ve produced one show for trombonist Will Lang in his hometown of Setauket, Long Island. Which was really a great homecoming—this was October 2016, at the Setauket Public Library. Apparently he worked there as a teenager, that was one of his jobs. Yeah, so funny, at the show he told a story of how he worked there; he got fired from this library for reading too much. [laughs]

MW: [laughs] wow!

NC: Like he was reading too much! I don’t know, it’s so funny! Anyway, it’s funny that he got the chance to tell that story as a professional musician performing in the library, you know, as a past employee of there. He got to see family he hadn’t seen in a long time. People who didn’t know who he was got to know him. The library was very supportive, it really served its mission. We should be able to go back to our hometowns you know, and when artists go back to their hometowns there’s an element of like, building pride in your town, because the person went through your school systems, your public school systems, your music programs that you should keep! And you shouldn’t fire your music teachers, you should keep them! Look at what’s happening here, you know? When music schools—when art teachers are getting fired you know, they were getting cut a lot. You know when I graduated in 2009 there was a hiring freeze for music teachers, and I got out of my Master’s at Manhattan School and I was basically—before I went to my Master’s I had four job offers that I didn’t take because I wasn’t ready, and now I was done with my Master’s and there were no jobs. It’s an internal thing too, about being ready and all that, you know I did need a job and it was tough. Then I went from the city life to Long Island, and I ended up getting a job at a bookstore for minimum wage. I had a Master’s! Horrible.

MW: That stings.

NC: It does! My undergraduate university, which is down the street from me, so some of the teachers would see me working for minimum wage at the bookstore! And there was this moment of like—this awkward moment where I was like “Oh hi, how are you?” or “should I ask her how things are going?”

MW: “What went wrong?”

NC: [laughs] yeah! Like “you got a Master’s in contemporary performance, that’s what went wrong!” OK outside of that—outside of all of that, so I’m at this bookstore for hours like, in the summer you know, there’s not a lot of people coming through all the time, so I started rolling out my receipt paper at the cash register and I started writing down a sketch, you know, of like: “why are these problems here?” “why doesn’t my community want me right away?” “why am I not hired right away?” “why am I not obviously needed to nurture the people around me and participate in my community?” For the music teachers, a lot of the professionals, they’re just surviving their yearly work, but still I thought you know, I know these people, why aren’t there jobs for me? Students for me? You know, just—I was thinking like, “what did I do wrong? What’s going on?” You know? Then I just came to the conclusion that it would really benefit artists and all the venues on Long Island—you know how many venues there are on Long Island? There’s libraries, museums, gardens, rolling hills of venues that aren’t being played in regularly. You know? So I’m thinking what is the disconnect here? There are rolling hills of venues, I’m an artist, and I would go—you know I had experience, I would go to these venues and I would talk with people and they just wouldn’t take me seriously. It wasn’t like in New York City. In New York City I mean, obviously you have to be professional and propose something, you know, propose a good solid proposal, but I mean these people would not—they were concerned—they didn’t want the mission of their organization to be messed up by someone they just met, or maybe they don’t see the need or, they want to make sure your values match their values and they want to protect what they’ve worked so hard for, which I understand. You know? But it was really difficult so I just was thinking “what could I do for myself to make some way?” So, that’s why I started Music Unboxed. This year I decided to declare not-for-profit to the government and Fractured Atlas was my fiscal sponsor and I’m still working with them. I just decided that Music Unboxed has a lifespan that’s longer than my lifespan. I think that I’ve gotten a really good response and I feel like, you know, what it did for me in answering questions for me, it would do for the next person, and my students, or, you know, the next generation of people who want to interact with communities in creative ways and have honest goals to do good through art. So then I got a pro bono lawyer through Hofstra University. I waited a whole year! So I was not gonna let this go; yeah, just I’ve been holding on to it. Even if it goes slow, I’m like a turtle right now. It’s painful but when you work for that long on something, and you see that good reaction from audiences and parents—so I want to keep it going. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about other communities. I’m in suburbia, you know? Long Island. I hope to expand but I just want to do my work where I live because that’s what I know, that’s what I know for right now. So what I noticed where I live is the sports community is strong. So strong. Every age of person, they will show up to the local softball match—girls’ softball, volleyball, football, on TV—on the local news! I’ve never seen a concert posted on the local news. OK maybe I don’t watch it all the time, but when I would see it, I wouldn’t see that much for music, you know? Then the concerts being curated near me are more geared towards certain audiences but they didn’t always include all audiences, so summer would be like, something like Motown hits or something. I’ve been looking at the community and thinking “how can I build one around what I do? The arts… music…”. Watching other people has been useful, they gather a lot. Yeah they get together and also it’s lifelong. So when you’re teaching science you don’t stop playing whatever it is; golf. No! You still go on the weekend! You still play golf! You know, so there’s this lifelong aspect to sports, which you know, I would love to help cultivate through what I’m doing too. Like in each concert each performer is performing, but I added an element every now and then, if I can, of a workshop. So the students are interacting with professionals, but also it would be cool if we had musicians that are still playing for taking lessons in their adult life; getting some opportunities for them to play also. It’s like a circle, you know? You think of an ecosystem, what does a full circle look like? The City has more shows, more public art, from my experience, more public art that I’m interested in. I’ll say it like that. Long Island has more education for the youth, so I was just trying to mix the two.

MW: Was flute your first instrument?

NC: Yeah, I’m from Uniondale, New York and I started in elementary school and I don’t have a family of musicians but I have a family of music lovers. They love salsa and Motown. They love music. When I applied for my instrument—the girl that babysat me and walked me home—she played clarinet and I really wanted to play the clarinet, but I forgot the name of the clarinet so I wrote flute on the paper. I was a kind of laidback child so I didn’t want to be combative with my teacher, or I felt embarrassed, you know? So I just left it, I didn’t even get a sound for a whole year, I was horrible. I didn’t even take lessons ‘til high school, my senior year of high school. So I’m a serious late bloomer. I love music! When I went to Hofstra University I was like, “Oh I don’t know what I wanna do”, you know? “I guess I’ll major in flute performance.” That’s horrible, right? [laughs] And I haven’t had lessons before my senior year, and I’m gonna be flute performer, you know?

MW: You did it! [laughs]

NC: Then after one semester when I hear everybody else, and this is like mainly music ed, you know, a program with really good musicians. I’m like “oh no I can’t be a flute performer, I’m gonna be a music educator,” so I switched my major to music education the second semester. Just kept with it, and just joined the contemporary ensemble with Pat Spencer, who’s really an awesome contemporary player. I got really into it. I joined every ensemble possible. It was like water, like I was thirsty, you know? And you know what was so cool about my school, Hofstra University—I mean, I didn’t know, I didn’t realize it was a special thing that I could do there, but you could join any ensemble no matter what your major was. There was no limit. However with orchestra and band you did have to audition and work hard, but just in terms of chamber music groups, there was no limit, no one was gonna limit me. I even got to improvise for the dance school. They had a huge modern dance program that’s really awesome, and I would play with the percussionist in the dance classes and I could take jazz, and I could take everything and that really molded me. Whereas when I went to Manhattan School of Music, which I didn’t realize was the reality for a lot of people was you are limited in the ensembles that you can be in. Unless you go and form them with people—you could do that—but just in terms of your credits and things. You like, have to audition, even for a masterclass. You know, when we did masterclasses [at Hofstra] everyone would play, yeah so it’s a different world. Me, being a late bloomer, that university environment is what cultivated my love for performing and helped me bloom into a performer and that’s like, how I was able to get good. [Then] two years at conservatory. I have a huge gap in my training, kind of wild! I went straight for contemporary somehow, I have classical training, but I don’t have the extensive classical training that some others have. I didn’t spend like fifteen years prior to college playing Bach, you know? I started playing Bach my senior year of high school when I started taking lessons. You know what I’m saying? It’s an interesting thing for me, that I would have come all this way. But also, it feels cool because I think I was in a way uninhibited by the tradition, you know?

MW: Yes.

NC: So I couldn’t model a tradition I never had extensive training in, so I was really experimenting with embouchure and how to get sounds and I think in a way—even though I still strived to play traditional repertoire and work hard on it and I love it, I do love it—I just feel that that helped me as a growing person. I was not groomed by a school, you know? I was not groomed. I couldn’t be like anyone else. I wasn’t trained as a young person like that, you know? So I was just like, myself, you know? So that’s kind of cool.

MW: I do feel like we’re seeing a shift in music education, a very tiny shift, but I think it’s starting where now you can be a “real performer” without having that huge Western canon focus.

NC: Yes I know my degree program at Manhattan School, contemporary performance, that was like a big deal for them. 

MW: Yeah, I remember. Yeah.

NC: They had one steel pan player, Andy Akiho, a steel pan player—at a conservatory. Right, you know? That’s insane! So many awesome things happening. So many shifts. There was a player I met, a singer, Kjersti Kveli. She’s a contemporary player, a contemporary singer, that’s how I knew her, but turns out that she was a singer/songwriter also and she had asked me to join her band and I thought “oh my gosh”, and so I could play folk music with her, and that was so cool. I learned a lot from her because, like, as you’re saying this quote unquote “real”—what does that mean? You know she felt it in her heart, and she just shifted, you know, into that. She made it a part of her life, she pulled me in, and other people. I didn’t know it would be a part of my life or my skillset. I love it so much, playing with her, also the singer/songwriter I think a lot about. A singer/songwriter mindset, something’s in your heart and it’s right there, and it’s gotta be born. It’s gotta be written. It’s gotta be sung, and you do it, you make this art, you make music, and there’s no training in between you and getting that song out to people. You know? And I got to kind of tour with Kjerstia while and see how she would bloom with her own songs, how they would take shape in her own performance, and that inspired me a lot as a performer. A lot more than I thought—I never was in that scene so I didn’t know what that was like and the courage it takes to do this, you know? That gave me a lot of courage as a contemporary player. Like how I was saying before how the jazz players would compose and how that inspired me, and then a scene that I had just then connected with was this singer/songwriter mentality, and that inspired me as a player, and I think that element of like breaking the boundary and getting inspiration from different places—not just your university, you know? And also this concept of being a part of a living and moving scene and getting inspiration from the people that move around you. That’s exciting! That’s the exciting part about being a part of art.

MW: What’s on the horizon for you? I know you’re going to start teaching again soon, but what other things are going on in the future for you? 

NC: I just want to keep being an artist and so I’m gonna fight for that. This is a battle. This is war!

MW: [laughs]

NC: [laughs] This is war! 

MW: [laughs] It is! It absolutely is.

NC: And when you get a taste of how it is to create and do this you can’t let it go that easy. I don’t want to let it go. This is who I am. I love to create things. And I do believe that me being an artist is relevant to me being a teacher, you know I think they go hand in hand—and I think that I’m able to reach my students and know who they are because I’m sensitive artistically and I can really reach them and know them. So I wanna stay in touch with that for myself because I feel like that helps me help them. Me being me helps the world. You know, all of us being our true selves helps us be better citizens, you know? So I just wanna keep making art in its purest form. If no one likes it then ok. I have a job I wanna just now get into that art. I want a band!

MW: [laughs]

NC: I had a band for one show in 2012. It’s just crazy. I loved it! I had my pieces, I was curating, I was like, getting together how to work in their personalities into the group. I thought that was so great, I wanna do that. So that’s my thing. I have my duo with Drake which is cool and I want a band and just keep being myself, keep doing Music uUnboxed, keep being good to the artist community. Like, making change, I want to participate as an active member, I want to do my part to bring us up. Bring art up, you know? Make it known, and make it seen, and let people interact with it and enjoy it for themselves, and discover new things about themselves. That’s the beautiful thing about art, when we create art, then someone else perceives it in a whole new way and they perceive something about themselves through it. And so this is something that’s just like, it’s the science under the science. This is us living, this is life, you know? So I wanna just keep doing this. I’ve really had to convince myself that it’s relevant in the past, that I deserve to do art and put it out there. I’m getting to that point where my mission is really sharp, I’m really feeling that, you know, this is important, this is relevant, this is going to inspire others to come out of their shells, and that’s important.

MW: And re-asserting that over and over, “like this deserves to be here, I deserve to be making it”. It’s hard to hold on to that mission sometimes because there’s so many things in the world that are telling you “oh this isn’t important”.

NC: Or in your day! Your email, paperwork—I don’t have a secretary to do my paperwork. [laughs]

MW: [laughs]

NC: You know and I get anxiety, I think “Oh I shouldn’t practice I should do this paperwork” and—no that’s the little picture.

MW: So if anyone wants to be Nicole’s secretary who is listening to this right now [laughs] it’s an unpaid internship but you get flute lessons. [laughs]

NC: I order you to go make art. Don’t sign up for that. [laughs]

MW: Or if you want to be in a band with Nicole.

NC: Yeah that! That’s cool. [laughs]

MW: Anyway, thank you so much for—this was really inspirational for me, I just like talking to you. Thank you so much for being on the podcast. Is there anything else you want to share? I don’t want to cut you short.

NC: Oh gosh, it just flows over, I’m so excited to have this conversation because I’ve had so many thoughts and I’m hitting a point where I want to—I want to put it out now, have the conversation in front of other people. So I just feel good, this conversation came at a good time for me, because I’ve had so many one-on-one’s with this person, this person, this person over these years. It’s been about 8 years since I graduated from my Master’s and so much has happened since then, and also I just finished a year of teaching—it’s just been an epic experience for me out of my Master’s. So I just feel good. I feel good to talk about what’s up with me and also hoping that, you know, it uplifts other people and they go make their art and they feel impelled to go have some of the conversations we’ve had with people close to them. And also feel impelled to explore and get their answers. We read a lot of blogs—I went through a period of time when I was reading so many blogs! And then there comes a moment where you need to go and DO something. I read blogs for like, the whole time I was writing on that receipt paper minimum wage job. I was reading blogs everyday on business—you know, I was just looking for answers, I want answers, and I realized the only way I’m gonna get my answers is if I go out and start building the best way I can a way of getting these answers. I hope that we can do more of that as a community and help each other. I need help still, I’m getting answers still, you know? So we can just all do this, do the work, and help each other. We’d have a healthy ecosystem, a happy family, you know? You just gotta get out there Nicole, everything’s gonna be OK. You know, I went to Mexico City, my sister was working there, and we went to the pyramids. Teotihuacan pyramids. Just outside of Mexico City. And like, I’m thinking “we’re just going to walk the grounds”! I thought what I saw when I came in was it, and I didn’t bring sunblock, hardly any water—no, no, they let us climb these pyramids. We climbed the Pyramid of the Sun without sunblock. Pyramid of the Moon. 

MW: [laughs] oh wow!

NC: And there were people of all ages climbing this. People with their children, it’s considered good luck there for the locals. There were a lot of people out; I was like “ wow you let us climb this pyramid?” I was like “what are you saying right now!? Are you crazy?” and so I just like, that kind of life of like climbing a pyramid with a loose bar for support, the steps all different sizes that don’t fit your foot size, or whatever. Get over it and get out there.

MW: That’s a good analogy. I like it, climb a pyramid. No matter how hot the sun is.

NC: [laughs] No but it’s true, take your steps forward, you know?

MW: Thanks again to Nicole for being my guest on Sound Meets Sound and encouraging us all to go after our dreams, even if it means climbing a scary pyramid, so I just wanted to close out with the piece we mentioned earlier in the podcast, the hip hop improvisation which Nicole wrote. The following is an acoustic performance, this is her playing the flute and singing along as she’s playing the flute. So thanks again Nicole, and here is “Hip Hop Improvisation” by Nicole Camacho.

Transcript by Ruby Smith: https://rubysmith.xyz/Home

Read on for a transcript of my interview with Holly Roadfeldt, which appeared as episode 5 of my podcast Sound Meets Sound:

MW: This is the Sound Meets Sound Podcast. [music] Welcome, Holly Roadfeldt, to “Sound Meets Sound.” Why don’t you just say, like, a quick who you are and what you do.

HR: I’m a pianist. I started off thinking that I wanted to be a professor full-time. My father was a professor and so, since the age of six I thought that was the job. I mean, I really wanted to have that job so badly. And I went to school and did all the right things supposedly, although I was a little bit of a rebel. And went to bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate with the idea of having that academic position. I finally got my tenure-track position and I was there for five years and I was miserable. And so now I am actually putting together lots of different things to be a musician but what’s been really interesting is that I have worked as an opera rehearsal pianist, I’ve done a lot of chamber music, 20 years of chamber music. I’ve taught kids, I’ve taught adults. I’ve taught college kids, I’ve taught lectures, and then I’ve performed. So I really feel like I’ve done almost—almost!—everything that I wanted to do. It’s just to do it more intensely and to do it more creatively and to have more experiences. But it definitely wasn’t a specific path.

MW: Yeah, I was reading your interview with the Cross Eyed Pianist for Meet the Artist. You said there that you didn’t take the path that a lot of concertizing pianists take, which I thought was interesting. I didn’t realize that you actually had a tenure-track position. So you left that to become a full-time pianist, essentially?

HR: Well, actually I went someplace else for a little bit. And part of it was because that Kirk and I—my husband Kirk O’Riordan—are part of this academic couple and we could never find someplace where both of us could have full-time positions. And so we’d be following each other around. And this actually went, started from when we were in graduate school. So we really couldn’t even find a place where both of us could go to graduate school together. So I would follow him, he would follow me, we’d just go back and forth, back and forth and so the other person got used to trying to find something really, really fast. So I think that what ended up happening was, Kirk found a position at Lafayette College and that’s where we are right now, at, in Easton, Pennsylvania. And it’s a perfect fit for him. And it’s a perfect fit for him because he can do all sorts of things that he loves to do. And so now I’m kind of piecing things together. It’s nice, it’s actually a blessing and a curse of where we are located because we are about an hour, like an hour and a quarter outside New York City and an hour and quarter outside Philadelphia. And it’s so close yet so far. Because people don’t think of you as a Philadelphia musician or a New York musician. And so it’s hard for you, if you are in that position, to get noticed so that it’s “Hey, I’ve worked with New York musicians, or I’ve worked with Philadelphia musicians.” And people in my area they are really excited about people living in Philadelphia and really excited about people living in New York. So there’s a lot of commuting. I spend a lot of time in my car. But it’s interesting.

MW: Yeah, that’s a real struggle. But that is cool that you are split between New York and Philadelphia. The down side is that no one fully adopts you. But you also get to see both of those scenes. And it’s funny, Philadelphia and New York aren’t that far away from each other, but I don’t think they really mix that much. I mean what is your, like, feeling on the Philadelphia scene, especially the new music scene?

HR: Well, you know I know a tiny bit more about New York than I do about Philly. I’m trying to think of, like, experiences that might be interesting, but the one that I actually really enjoyed playing that I found it to be thrilling, is I play in Andrea Clearfield salon concerts. And I’ve done this twice. And the first time I played a work by Charlie Peck called Metropolitan. It’s a suite of pieces and it was really, really terrific. And I was telling my husband about it when I went down and I came back, and I was just blown away by how into it the audience was. The audience was just mesmerized by every performer. And so enthusiastic. It was really just this dream audience. And she’s been doing this for 30 years. This is actually her 30th anniversary.

MW: Wow.

HR: And so I didn’t do it for a couple of years and then I wrote her again because I wanted to see if I could play some Chopin preludes and some preludes by Kirk. Now she really packs in all sorts of interesting performers. So you can only play for a short amount of time. You play for 10 minutes. So here I’m agonizing, which preludes do I choose from Chopin and which do I choose from Kirk? And I brought him and I really wanted it to be a good experience for him. And he doesn’t get overwhelmingly impressed by things, and that’s what he was, because he just could not believe it. Because when I played those preludes, you could hear people crying.

MW: Wow.

HR: And so when you have that experience when you can actually feel the emotions of everybody there because they’re sitting on the floor, they’re sitting in the balcony, you’re being surrounded. And right after we played these preludes, this wonderful violist and her sister, this pianist, played the Rochberg Sonata for viola and piano
And so you have these experiences where you have all kinds of different music. Sometimes you’ll have Brazilian music and sometimes you have somebody play something that’s new music, and then something that’s classical and she’ll just mix it all in. And actually the person ahead of me had made his own instruments and so he was doing this demonstration of all these really cool instruments. And then I play Chopin.

MW: And O’Riordan…

HR: And then we have Rochberg and that experience I mean, you could use that as a model for so many concerts. I think you’d have really an overwhelmingly positive reaction from people, because it’s just music. And they wanted to feel and they felt.

MW: Yeah, salons are really great for that. And since you bring up the Chopin and Kirk’s preludes, I just wanted to talk a little bit about your Preludes Project and the CD which you just released, which I really enjoyed. I was wondering if you could clarify for me: So the Preludes Project, there are a lot of different prongs, right? So you played a lot of different composers, and the CD is Chopin’s and Kirk’s preludes, so is that correct?

HR: That is correct. It’s kind of a longer story and I’m sorry, I guess I could talk about this for a little bit, but it had a lot of different developments as it went along and really I think it’s important to say how this whole thing started, which is, back in 2013, I was hired by the Marie Chouinard Dance Company in Montreal, which is a modern dance company, to perform all the Chopin preludes. And when I say I was hired, it was because they were doing this at Lafayette College and what they do is they hire a local pianist wherever they are performing it, if that’s what they want to have performed. So they just do it with a live pianist and the pianist is over to the side. And actually they did choreography for 23 out of 24 preludes. They cut one. They don’t tell people that, they just say it’s the 24 preludes, but they cut one. It’s interesting.

MW: Oh, interesting.

HR: But for me to play these preludes that had these characters, the association, I should say, just really, this is what a classical pianist does. And to see it with modern dance, it totally changed my perception of the preludes. On top of that as a pianist we learn, I mean, the first actual piece that I ever played, even though it was arranged, I consider it my first classical piece, was Chopin’s C minor Prelude. I was 6 years old. I fell in love with it. And my hands were really small and I wanted to play it so badly. And my piano teacher scoffed at me and said, “Your hands are too small you can’t do it,” and her mother, who was also a piano teacher said, “This little girl wants to play this piece, you figure out a way how to make it work.” And so her mother actually rewrote it and wrote it so that it would just be fifths and sixths, she took out the octaves, and I got to play it. And that was the very first thing, so that was my love of Chopin. I played, of course, a couple preludes that everyone plays when they’re younger, when they’re starting to really get into classical music. But then piano teachers move you to the scherzos, to the ballades, and maybe they’ll teach some waltzes and you start to learn all these other things and you forget about all the other preludes.

MW: Right.

HR: So I really didn’t know the 24 until I was hired to do this. And
when I started thinking about them and thinking about them as a collection and I started preparing them and I saw how Marie Chouinard interpreted them, then I really thought it was a good idea to mix and match them with contemporary music. Well, Kirk already had this idea and he’d started composing. And this is probably yet another thread of the conversation, but when Kirk composes piano music, I don’t really know what he’s doing until he’s at the end. I mean, when he first started composing and we were in the house together, then I would know a little bit more. He’d kind of run things past me, but we got to the point where he really wants to have it done. So he can compose for months and I will not know what is happening.

MW: Right.

HR: And that’s okay. I think that’s actually good. You’ve been married to a composer. You probably have a similar situation.

MW: I know that exact situation: “Wait, you just composed this whole piece? When did that happen?”

HR: [Laughing] Right. “When did that happen?” So he finished 26 preludes, because he didn’t want to have 24 along with Chopin. [Laughs.] He was either going to do 22 or 26. So he finished the 26. And I thought this is actually a pretty good idea to have collections of smaller preludes. And I wanted to play some Rachmaninoff and I wanted to play some Debussy. And so I started contacting a few composer friends. And I said, “Would you be interested in writing some preludes?” Well, what’s funny is that everyone has a different idea of how they want to go about preludes. Like some composers, they don’t want to write just one prelude. I really just asked for one or two. And one composer gave me six and one gave me nine and one gave me five, so I ended up with quite a collection. I ended up with—and this is going to sound, the numbers are all kind of funny—there were 64 preludes that I received from people that I’d said, “Would you like to write preludes for this project?” So 64 total. But then I also had a couple people who said, “This hasn’t been premiered; would you mind premiering it?” So then I had a couple I’m going to premier in a couple weeks because they have just been written, and then some of them were written in 2014. So it’s been a long arc. But what it ended up being is that there are 15 composers that I premiered their works. And so I was actually hoping that it would start off with a CD with the preludes, and then I would go on and I would do another CD in a couple years, and mix and match with other composers and do it with Rachmaninoff, Debussy. And you know people write some preludes and suddenly they want to go off and do something else. And I think that I’m really happy with all the concerts that I did because I ended up doing, I don’t know, more than 40 full-length recitals of all sorts of mixed and matched preludes. The nice thing is, I never did the same program twice. So there was always something I could put together.

As far as the CD goes, PARMA Recordings had just released Kirk’s Strange Flowers disc. That also came out, I believe, that came out in November 2013. And so when I played with the dance company, that was in March. So for Kirk’s, they were interested in my playing from that CD and they asked what sort of projects I was interested in. I told them about this, and they really thought this was great to mix Chopin with Kirk. That was kind of steered in a certain direction because I had just done this, and I was thinking about this. And they had a really good way of saying, “Yes, I think this could happen.” But it was a lot of music, so it ended up being 2 CDs, which is a pretty huge project, so that’s how it came about.

MW: You touched on this, so do you think you ever will try to record the 60-some new preludes that you got or are you not thinking about that right now?

HR: Well, I think that I’m actually recording, and I’ve recorded some and I’m going to be recording more in a few weeks. Mara Gibson’s preludes. She wrote this at the end and I had talked to her about doing a future project, and this is my For Lisa project, which is just women composers. But she had these ideas for preludes, so they kind of were able to straddle both of my projects. And then she was also writing them in response to some really great art work by Jim Condron. And so by putting this all together we said, “Well, we covered this and we covered this.” So these six preludes will be going onto her disc, which will be released in November. And so Kala Pierson is another person who, she brought me this incredible prelude, I mean just dynamite and I probably have performed it 20, 25 times by now. And I just love it, and then she wrote another that I also love, but she wrote that two years later and I performed that maybe six, seven times and so she’s planning on writing one more prelude. But then she was hoping to put one of those preludes on her disc that she has coming out.

MW: Gotcha.

HR: I think some people had it in mind that they could use it for their projects. I think that’s where it’s going, more than just having it with me. I don’t know!

MW: It’s cool how many different directions that one performance with the dance company took you. And I just wanted to talk a little bit more about the CDs, just because listening to them, I had heard your playing on Soundcloud and whatever you have on your site, I’d heard little bits and pieces, but this was my first deep listen of your playing, and I saw that you in your interview with the Cross-Eyed Pianist, what’s her name, Fran Wilson?

HR: Yes.

MW: That you had listed Martha Argerich as one of your inspirations, which I found….’cause when I was listening to you, like every note has its own touch. The touch for you, the nuance, when I listen to your playing, I just feel like every single note has been given thought, has its own specific muscle reaction. It just seems so, the spectrum just seems so great and wide, and that’s what I’ve always loved about Martha Argerich’s playing. It’s very similar, when you listen to her play, you feel it’s almost like you can feel her playing it, because the touch it’s such at the fore. And so I was just wondering, you know, if a) You feel that’s a good assessment of your playing? and b) Is touch something that you really think about or am I just picking up on something random? What is your thinking about touch in piano, which I know is broad, but I find really fascinating, because it’s such a percussion instrument and you think, well there can’t be that much variation. But there is so much variation and tone color you can get out of the piano. I don’t know if you have any thoughts about that.

HR: Well, first of all I think I’m going to need a week to recover from that compliment. Because, wow, you just said what just about every pianist is dying to have someone say to them. O my goodness, thank you. Wow!

MW: It’s true!

HR: To even be in the same sentence as Martha Argerich, everybody is like, wow, really? I’m glad that this is recorded because I can prove that you said it. That’s nice, thank you. And you touched on a couple things that I think are really important. I’m going to share a couple anecdotes, brief. First of all, when I was doing my doctoral comps I had, there was this amazing instructor. His name was Allan McMurray. He was the band director at the University of Colorado and he, I learned so much from him playing in the University of Colorado wind ensemble and I did several concertos with them and I traveled to Japan with them and he really, I just learned so much. But he asked me a question about the piano as a percussion instrument, and I got a little aggravated and I said, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t see it that way.” And because I was so difficult to deal with, he had to drop the question. I was just like, “I’m sorry I just don’t see it that way. Forget it.” But after I’d matured a little bit, I could see what he was going for and boy I handled that badly and maybe I can just chalk it up to stress? I don’t know. But I think it’s really important that I see it as a singing instrument. And I think this is where my training as being the rehearsal pianist for operas, and I’ve played with hundreds of singers. I think this is a big part of my playing. And so one of the things that Kirk mentions a lot, he says I spend a lot of time listening to voicing. And so I’ve taught theory. I teach my students theory all the time, I’m constantly talking about how one note leads to the next. And making sure that you’re fluid and getting your breath behind it. So there’s that combination of the singing, combination of making sure you’re moving physically for that sound.

And I should also say that one of my great inspirations, one of my great mentors, was Rebecca Penneys. She did this series Motion and Emotion for the longest time and she had danced with the San Francisco Ballet for several years, and so she was really into the physical fluidity. And so sometimes you have a pianist where you have a physicality that’s very aggressive, athletic. And dancers are also very athletic, but not in the same way. And so how I, when people see me play they are constantly talking about how my arms are moving, and how I’m doing it in a way that it’s choreography, they say. But there’s a reason for the choreography. It happens before the sound. It doesn’t happen after the sound. I think you can tell the difference even when you’re listening, that you have to have something that is going to change the sound. And so I’m hoping I answered your question as far as the sound because again. I’m still like “O my god, thank you! Martha Argerich!” But no she really was like my favorite, for like so long. She’s fantastic. But yes, there is a lot of thought that goes into every single thing I do when I play and I think its becoming even more so as I get older. Because I think that since I was an accompanist for so long, we got used to taking shortcuts. Because you had to produce, you had to sight read, you had to go out and do something. They gave you the music in an hour, or tomorrow or next week or five minutes or whatever. So you started to figure it out, I can do this, cut this, whatever. And I think when I stopped doing it, and when I had the opportunity to really find out all the inner workings of a piece, then I became more selfish. And I just decided, it’s not enough. I don’t want to cram anymore, I don’t want to do this anymore. And not, I love playing chamber music, but I don’t want the cramming. And so I think that the sounds now are more important to me. Thank you! For saying that!

MW: And what you said definitely did answer my question because you’re talking about choreography and you’re talking about music theory and you’re talking about actually getting to know a piece really well. All those things point to this thing of every note is thought about, that nothing goes by the wayside. And I find that really interesting. I was talking to Megan Ihnen about singing and she was talking about her practice and I was learning things about where I had failed as a singer, not in a negative way, but just things I could learn. And now just hearing you talk about how you approach the piano, which is what I started on, and now I moved to the organ, it makes me want to get back to the instrument now and think about those things. Because my life as a keyboardist was what you were talking about, the cramming thing. It was all about cramming. I was always the last minute accompanist or the church organist cramming 5 new hymns in my brain the morning of, things like that, and yeah you lose the connection with your instrument. It just becomes you get what you can out of it in the shortest time possible. And I’m glad that happened for you that you were able to get to a place where you don’t have to cram all the time, because now we get all this beautiful playing I’m sure it was beautiful before.

HR: [Laughter] but it was different! It’s interesting to hear my recordings from twenty years ago or something like that. I was a little bit more aggressive then, I mean, when I think about my playing. I really went for it. And now I’m a more polished player, but when I listen, I think, wow, okay, maybe I can bring a little of that back. [Laughter} It was that athletic drive. That, “I am here. I am present.” And I’m sorry, I’m getting on another tangent because I think about that, I still thought about the music very intensely. When I would play, I was the pianist people would hire to play these big, loud, brazen pieces or these really intense, like, big song cycles. I remember that I would play something, whether it was the Hindemith trumpet sonata, where you end with “all men must die.” Or I’d be playing some big Schoenberg thing, and at the end, I wouldn’t smile when I bowed. People would always yell at me, they’d say, “Why won’t you smile?” And I’d say, “I just played this big piece! I just played this…this is serious music! Why would I smile?” Okay, well, now I’ve gotten over that. But at that moment, that was it. I wanted everyone to feel everything I was feeling. For the rest of the evening! Until the next time! [Laughter] It’s pretty funny right now. But that was a big deal for me, so I can’t say I didn’t think about it, but I couldn’t produce it necessarily, in every note, in the details. It would be the broader way.

MW: The broader strokes, passion of youth.

HR: [Laughter] Right. Exactly.

MW: And that urge, that need to communicate. I wanted to actually rewind a little bit to something you mentioned about playing with a wind band, maybe you can talk about that experience and how you got into that. Because I never really thought about, there’s pianos in orchestras all the way in back by the trombonists, but what were you doing with a wind band? I’ve never really heard of pianists playing with wind bands before.

HR: Oh, well see, this is fantastic. And I have to say that honestly this is a very important part of who I am as a musician, my experiences with this. Because it started at Eastman when I was an undergrad. And actually how it started was I playing contemporary music then and so I was premiering works by student composers and somehow, I’m trying to remember the very first time I played, but I can’t. Because I knew the conductors who were conducting the new music ensembles, they were also conducting the wind ensembles. And actually one of them was Mark Scatterday, who is now the conductor of the Eastman Wind Ensemble. As a doctoral student he really helped me out as an undergraduate. There were two of them, Jeff Renshaw was another one. And he’s at the University of Connecticut now, I believe. Both of them taught me how to be an orchestral musician. So I was that with the Eastman Wind Ensemble way before I played with orchestras. I think that’s a little bit of a fib. I think I probably did a little. At a high level, anyway. And so you’re playing with really, really great players. And I mean, they told me how to do it. When I would be way in the back, and I’d be afraid of how to do it. And I’d taken some conducting lessons, but they were showing me all these ins and outs. And so I felt comfortable. And I remember the big piece I learned was Schwantner’s “In the Mountains Rising Nowhere,” which has this really great solo piano part. And then when I went to Indiana for my master’s, one of the requirements for all the master’s students was that you had to do three hours a week worth of accompanying. And this guy who was doing the accompanying assignments said, “You know what, I can’t find anybody to play with the wind ensemble, would you be willing to do that?” And I said, “Yeah, of course!” And so then I met Ray Cramer, who was the conductor there, again fabulous musician, really incredible. I played with him for two years, I was so happy. And I played a lot of great music. And premiered a lot of great music. And so I considered him a very special mentor.

By the time I got to the University of Colorado, again, another mentor was Allan McMurray. And so I played “Rhapsody in Blue” with them in Japan. And I played the Husa Concerto and I had played the Pearl Concertina for piano. That was at Eastman. And I also played this Lembeck concertina. And I feel like I’m missing some things, but there were several concertos that were really incredible. Oh, the Hindemith. Music for Piano Brass and Two Harps. And then also because I was playing with them I got all these concerto opportunities because the graduate students needed to do conducting recitals. So one of them—and here’s the last one I’ve forgotten—he wanted to do the Stravinsky. So I got to play the Concerto for Piano and Winds by Stravinsky. Because it was his conducting recital. And it was Tom Berrier. And so all these people who were really serious musicians, I got this opportunity because pretty much other pianists didn’t know about it, didn’t want to do it. And I bet if they had known it was going to lead to all these concertos and these great mentorships, I think they would have changed their minds. Because I got a lot of really great experiences from that.

MW: I’m amazed. I never in my wildest dreams would have thought about that, as a pianist, playing in wind ensembles or with brass ensembles. I mean, you said you got mentorship around that and the conductors, you know, at Eastman helping you figure that out. How does that even work? The attack of the piano and with brass and wind, it’s so different, it’s so varied. And the balance, too. I guess your power as a pianist came into play there, competing with those louder instruments. What kind of advice? I’m just totally indulging myself here because I’m just so fascinated.

HR: [Laughter] That’s the one thing, as a pianist you get to play with all these different instruments. And I was playing with trumpet players and tuba players and trombonists and of course when I left for Indiana, I played with a ton of saxophonists. I learned all this incredible literature. And so I was playing with these instruments where, I’m kind of laughing, but I shouldn’t laugh at other pianists for this, but it’s so funny. When pianists were starting to play chamber music when I was at Eastman, it would be like, “Oh no, I only want to play with string players, I only want to play with singers,” And they got kind of uppity about it. And I thought, you should just play music, right, you should just play whatever happens. And it was my first week, ok, nowI can go back, I can’t believe I forgot this part, probably because I didn’t think it was important. So my first week at Eastman and there was a trumpet player who was trying to find a pianist to play the Arutunian Concerto. And he needed to play it for his studio class and it was next week, so again it was one of those quick things. So he says, “Will you play the Arutunian with me?” this freshman trumpet player. And I said, “Yeah, sure.” And then I remember looking at another pianist who needed to have a quota for that week, and I said, “Is it okay if I play this, did you want to do it?” and he said, “I can do much better than play for a freshman trumpet player.”

MW: Oh!

HR: But what happened was, I played with that freshman trumpet player, the next week I played for three graduate students and I played literature that was really worth learning, Hindemith. And the Halsey Stevens sonata and there is another one that is a little less well known, I remember that, but all of those players were doctoral students, and it was because they had heard me play the Arutunian. It was them who got me into the contemporary music ensembles, because it was their recommendation which led to the wind ensemble, which led to the concertos. And so it really came down to the Arutunian Concerto and it came down to me willing to do something that somebody said, “Yeah, I can do better than that.” “Uh, you really shouldn’t think that way, because there really is that opportunity.”

MW: Right.

HR: So how the conductors helped me was, they helped me breathe. So I, as a pianist, at that point, I wasn’t really considering breathing being as important as it was. And so when you play, and again when you think of that percussion instrument, and I hadn’t played in big ensembles, not much. A little. I’d sung in a choir, I’d done high school things. But not to the level. It was not like all these kids who were in their honors bands, really top-flight things, they were miles ahead of me as far as working with a conductor that’s first-rate. And I just didn’t know. They were showing me that if I couldn’t interpret the conductor, because they sometimes go off and do some loopty-loops that are outside of the pattern and I was like, “where are you? I don’t know where you are.” And So they told me, “Watch this person.” They told me who to watch and to watch their breath. There was one gentleman, he was a graduate student and he was playing bass clarinet and they said he will always know right when to come in, just watch his breath and go with him. And he was right in front of me. It was one of those things, he said, figure out, eyeball the people who you know are always rock-solid and figure out where their breath is and breathe with them. And so I started doing that. And it was, yeah, great! You just brought me down to a very happy memory lane.

MW: I guess that makes sense with brass and wind instruments that breath would be a big deal.

HR: Of course. Yeah, no, I mean, it is! It’s also just how you interpret the score. And so, but I would do these things that, I remember I was playing all sorts of different jazz influences and pop influences and it was, you know, pretty square, and they would help me out stylistically too. I think when you’re a pianist, a classically trained pianist, you play pop music on the side for your own, but you don’t really know how to integrate. And so I think that was another thing they helped me with. And the Schwantner? To know that I played that Schwantner, which still I just love that piece. To know that I played that at Indiana, and then also I played it as a doctoral student, to have the opportunity to play something like that. And of course Schwantner was on the faculty at Eastman at that time, and I was able to talk to him. So I think this whole thing of new music, it really came from those experiences. Arutunian. I owe a lot to those doctoral conducting students, I really, really do.

MW: Yeah, I’ve never had a conductor, I’ve never been in a group long enough to have a conductor say to me, here’s what you can do. Here’s how to do this better. So yeah, you play a lot of new music and I kind of was curious. I don’t know if you can talk about it. You’re going to Avaloch? This summer, right?

HR: Yes.

MW: Can you talk about what you are doing there?

HR: I’m really excited about going to Avaloch, actually because I am one of those incredibly envious people of those composers who get those residencies, you know, like the McDowell Colony. What I would give to go to the McDowell Colony and hole up, oh my goodness. But Avaloch is a really, really terrific opportunity for performers. I went last summer, and I actually went last summer because Kala Pierson, who is the queen of residencies, she knows all about these things. She’s done so many of these and she’s so successful with that. She said, “You know, we could actually go as a composer and a performer. It’s just that because it’s performer-based, you have to write the application. And I said, “Oh, alright.” And I did the application thinking, gosh, they’re never gonna pick me because I just felt so silly. And so they have this opportunity mostly for ensembles who that aren’t able to rehearse together. They can have this intensive time when they can do this. And so I was able to go with a composer and Kala and I had a really good experience and she learned more about the piano and I got to perform some of the pieces that Id been performing more with her and then she’s starting to write this other piece. But I thought, when I watching other people, I had a little performer envy because there was this performer, she’s fantastic, Ashley Bathgate, she’s a cellist, from New York, a lot of people know who she is, and she was working with several composers. “That’s what I want to do.” And I was just watching and I was like, “now she’s able to do this, now she’s able to do this.” And I wanted to this so badly. So what I did was I contacted one of the people who was helping to organize this and I said, “You know, I have this kind of wild idea. And I’m wondering if you think it will fly.” And he says, “Yes I think this will work.” So I’m actually going to be there two weeks with Kirk. But the first week I’m going to be there with Megan Ihnen and Tony Lanman. So how this is working is that Kirk is writing some art songs and he’s writing a song cycle based on poetry by a wonderful poet at Lafayette College and she’s the one who did the libretto for his last opera. His only opera, but it just premiered, I should say. But anyway he had already given some songs to Megan before. And then Tony has written three pieces for me so far and is writing two more. And he’s also doing things with Looper pedal, which I’ve never used. So I was really excited to have an opportunity to work with him and so I’d work with Kirk and he’s also writing a piece for piano and electronics. I could work with Tony and I could also with Megan where we’re doing these pieces of Kirk’s and then Tony wrote some pieces that Megan and I are doing.

So that’s the first week. And then the second week, I’m going to be working with Ann Moss. Now Ann and I have been talking to each other via Twitter for a long time and I am really amazed with all the music she is doing too. She and I are going to work on a number of different pieces, different song cycles and also she’s going to work on Kirk’s songs because he had contacted several singers. And she was working on some pieces with Griffin Candey. Now Griffin had contacted me about six, nine months ago about writing some piano pieces so I said, “Hey, do you want to come in on this? You’re already working with Ann, and you and I can work together.” So each week I’m working with two composers plus a singer but then we’ll also have all this mix and match. But what I think is so funny is that there is all this opportunity at Avaloch to kind of craft your own schedule. And Megan who is also very organized and she knew that I wanted to have a very organized session and she was an absolute dear about this and she said, “What’s your perfect schedule?” And I said, “Okay, here’s what I want to do,” So I kind of figured it a out and I told her how excited I was to practice and kind of hole up and all these things and Kirk who is an amateur guitarist can’t wait to play with Tony, who is a phenomenal guitarist. So there’s an opportunity for play and for serious work. So I’m really thrilled that I was given this opportunity to do this for two weeks and I can’t wait. Just to be able to learn music for two solid weeks. I’m so excited.

MW: Yeah it sounds like musician, especially new-music performer, heaven. You know.

HR: Yes. It’s bliss. It’s absolute bliss. And last year when I went it was interesting to be around all these different musicians and how they took advantage of this opportunity is that it really it can be in different stages and you have to know where you want to be in that stage, like if want to this like you’re just figuring it out or if you want to have it closer to performance, or if you want to work with a composer as he’s writing or as she’s writing. Or when it’s done and you want to get feedback at the very end and that’s what I really like about being there with Tony and what we’re going to accomplish and then what Griffin and I can do and what Kirk and I can do. Just to have all those experiences. Yeah, it’s really good, especially since Kirk really wanted to do these art songs and I said, “You need to work in this sort of way and I can help you, but I need this type of singer and this type of singer.” So having Megan one week and Ann the next week, then I know that we really collaborate well and so I think then I can give Kirk that opportunity to hear what these are going to be like and I’m looking forward to working with singers again after like I said doing that many years ago and then coming back. Hopefully, it’s like riding a bike. [Laughter] I’ve worked with some singers since then, but, you know, that really intense work.

MW: Well and, so I just was wondering. You’re talking about working with Kirk and with singers. So as a pianist what is it that you, not necessarily bring, but for want of a better term, what is it you bring to a session with a composer, whether it’s Kirk or another composer where you’re working, there’s a new piece, how much, what is it composers is looking to gain from you as a pianist in these kind of sessions. Are they early on or like you’re saying, the piece is finished and there’s some feedback? Like how does that process work for you?

HR: It varies from composer to composer and honestly I couldn’t answer that fully because I think that some composers are so excited to have their piece played that I think that it’s going to be a little bit different. But I can tell you how I approach it, and I think that people have asked me…A lot of this comes from what we’ve already already been talking about. I’ve done so many pieces that I would say were more drive-by performances. So I would get the piece and they’d want a premiere and I would do the premiere and then we’d never talk again just because it was the sort of business transaction that they just wanted to have that particular piece done and then that was it. And I think that I after I had done this project, or I was starting this project, with The Preludes Project and even before when I was with my piano duo, duoARtia, I realized that I needed more. It wasn’t enough to do the premiere and part of it was because you can’t really get the essence of a piece in one performance. I couldn’t do it with Brahms, I couldn’t do it with Mozart, so why should I expect to do it with a piece that has just been written? I mean, you really need to sit with it for a little bit. The difficulty is that when you have new music, a lot of people want to hear it because “this is what I wrote yesterday.” And so those two things just didn’t, didn’t complement each other well in my mind and how I want t approach it and as I approached, I hate to say it, adulthood, in a way more musical maturity, I didn’t like the rush jobs anymore. So I feel that nowI am working with composers that are more interested in the long-term commitments. And Tony Lanman is one of them, my husband of course is one of them. And I think it has nothing to do with age, it has to do with approach. And I just premiered a work by Charlie Peck and I think Charlie Peck is a wonderful composer, young composer. And he wrote a piece and I kind of laughed, where he said, “well if you want to know this is what I used as the basis of the piece. It was these pitch collections? And I said, “Yeah, Charlie, this is what I hear.” And we both laughed about it, because I wasn’t coming from the idea of pitch collections or rhythmic motives. I was coming at it from a much more emotional standpoint. And I find that for those particular composers, when I can have those conversations, they will tell me, “You showed me something in the piece that I didn’t know was there.

MW: That’s great.

HR: And I actually think that part is more rewarding and I like that type of study. But I think other performers wouldn’t like to hear that that’s my goal.

MW: Right.

HR: I think because they have this idea that this is what they are going to do. And that we just interpret what is already in their head. But I don’t think that’s how I personally approach it. I think that I’ve been more successful…I’m noticing, I’m trying to be careful with this because there’s a reverence that you have for the score and there’s an understanding that you have to have from an audience perspective. And then you have to understand that the performer is that interpreter that is the go-between. And so I may change certain elements of any piece whether it was written by Beethoven or Chopin or Brahms, based on audience reaction. And I don’t mean something really drastic. I mean I may play something a little louder or a little more unruly, that sort of thing. But I think there’s a way that you can interpret space, you have to do that with the hall, with the piano, and it goes from, you have to think about every note and the audience perception and how the composer is going to do this. I feel that the composers who really want to have a particular mood, an idea, a perception conveyed and I think that’s very flexible. But I think that you have to choose your performers wisely because I’m not going to be the person who is going to get the piece in hand and rush it to premiere so it’s premiered. But I am going to be the person who wants to think about it and wants to really study it carefully and do my best interpretation that I can do.

MW: Right.

HR: And I think that I think most people have been really open to that. But again, you have to, sometimes the mix isn’t right. You know? And that’s okay.

MW: It’s that composer/performer relationship, it’s always important because the composer has to realize that you’re not only interpreting it, you’re interacting with an audience if you’re a good performer. You’re reading the audience. You’re interpreting for that audience, so it’s not just that you’re interpreting it, you’re interpreting it for the audience that you have any given night or day. And not only that, but as a pianist, you’re interpreting it on whatever instrument is provided. You’re not bringing your clarinet onto the stage. You’re working with whatever is given you. That was something. Thank you for that answer. I know that being diplomatic is tricky, but I appreciate what you were saying about the collaboration, but to go into a slight tangent, I know in that interview you were talking about instruments and your love for learning an instrument. So you’re learning pieces and learning composers and reading audiences but also learning, it sounded from that interview, really learning the instrument as well.

HR: Right. That’s exactly it. And in fact I just did, I mean, I realize that people could just write this off as this woman is nuts. But when I go to a new piano I have to have a little bit of time to make friends with it. And I know what the piano will want me to do and what the piano will not want me to do. And it was interesting because I just premiered some pieces by Tony and I picked tempos that I thought would work for that space and for that piano. And I kind of had some other pieces in mind and I was glad I didn’t program them, they weren’t on that program. Because I thought this piano wouldn’t have liked that. I actually used those words when I was talking with Tony later and he said, “No, I don’t think it would have.” And, you know, there were certain things that you found it would change. One of Kirk’s preludes I played, the piano was really suffering in a lot of ways, but I was able to find elements in Kirk’s piece that I hadn’t found before because the piano was so different from any other piano that I had played. That’s why I say you can just write me off as being nuts, but I don’t think I would have known that on a different piano in a different space. And you wouldn’t know that, I don’t think, as a composer having written it unless you heard somebody else playing it in a way that’s different than you intended. Or different than you’d perceived, I should say. So I think if you really want to have that collaboration, I think that’s possible. I’ve described this before, too, in this way. When you’re really, really good friends with somebody you can see things in him or her that nobody else can see and that the person can’t see in himself or herself. And it’s just so obvious. It’s so evident. It can be something really, really beautiful. It’s not necessarily something bad, that they just don’t see in themselves. And that’s what I see in a piece. At least, I try. I try to bring that out. And I think that if everybody knows that you’re all having that common goal of bringing a performance to the best level you can, to the top level you can, just knowing that it’s coming from a good place, and not a manipulative place, then I think, you know, we all win.

MW: Right. I just wanted to make sure that you got to talk about everything you wanted to talk about, like if there were any special projects that you wanted to mention before the end of the podcast. Do you have anything like that?

HR: Well, I do have a new project. It’s called my For Lisa project. This one I’m actually pretty excited about, but it really is in its beginning stages. I say beginning stages even though it’s started, it’s been going on for a year, but it’s still just really beginning for me. I have this really wonderful student who is now 14 but a couple years ago, she genuinely asked me why she was only playing music written by men.

MW: I saw that tweet!

HR: That’s right! And because she was at a level she was playing at that point, and still is continuing in this track—Bach preludes and fugues, she was playing Mozart concerto and she was playing music by Chopin—and from a pedagogical standpoint these are things that she should be learning to develop. Colors and sound and technique and whatever and so it wasn’t really irresponsible teaching certainly. But it was a little insensitive, I’d say, because I just wasn’t ready for that conversation. I think that when I teach younger students I teach music by woman composers all the time. And she had heard me play a concert a couple months before when she’d heard me play music by several woman composers. So it’s not that I was highlighting anything, it was just the natural course. But she just happened to be right in those cracks where she was asking me this. And she also was not born in the United States, she was born in China and so there are all sorts of things that she was just really curious about and asked me these questions and so I decided I needed to be a little more proactive with her education. And have her hear more music but then also have her play music. And one thing I don’t really talk about when I’m just announcing the project is that I talked to her frequently about my experiences working with women composers. And I say yes, I just came back from recording this person’s music, or I just came back from performing this woman’s music and so that she knows that this is normal. It’s not anything that’s just like a one-day thing or one-night or an event. It’s just, no, I’m talking to this person, I’m talking to this person, I’m talking to this person. I just came back from this festival and I played music by four women. So that she knows that this should be just the accepted norm. And so I started telling other people about it as far as the community music schools, because I really wanted them to see some of this also for my students and for other students and so I’ve been talking to my composer friends who are female and they have been writing some pieces. And we actually did get one concert last year where Kala wrote the piece specifically for it and it was all by woman composers.

But my hopes are that I’m going to have quite a collection of pieces that are in that same mix-and-match variety. Exactly like “The Preludes Project.” So I’m mixing Claire Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn and Ruth Crawford Seeger and Kala Pierson and Mara Gibson and Michelle McQuade Dewhirst. Things like that that are just naturally integrated. And Joan Tower. I play a lot of Joan Tower. And so I’m hoping that this is going to go into a number of concerts. And that’s why I say it’s in its initial stages because I have a couple concerts that are scheduled. But I’m hoping that this will go into the more recording thing. But a couple other things have to fall into place before that. But yeah, it’s exciting. But what I like about it though is that it came from the idea of this is my student asking me this question, so it’s important for me to convey that to my student. I think I had a young composer say to me this is great, this is the craze on social media and it’s so great that you’re part of it. And I said I want you to understand that I actually did this for my student. Because it’s not that I didn’t think that it was important to do it other ways or areas or venues or ways of expressing it, but I needed to do this for my student so it’s more personal than that. I think that’s now at this point in my career most of my projects have to come from that place.

MW: Yeah, that’s the beauty of teaching. I mean, teaching is so hard and it’s so exhausting and I certainly was not strong enough for that path. I ran away from it pretty quickly. But that is the side of it that is really wonderful, is really making a change in a young person’s life. Changing their perceptions, especially for little girls saying that this is something women do.

HR: Right.

MW: Definitely when I was ten, fourteen, even twenty, my awareness of women composers was practically nil. I mean, when I was 20, Google didn’t exist yet. We’re at a great time now where information is so easily shared I just feel like every day I’m just discovering either a woman composer from the past that had kind of been erased from history or I’m discovering a new young woman composer. I think that’s a really wonderful inspiration for a project like this is. From the position of a teacher saying this is what is possible to their student. I think that’s really inspirational and I’m looking forward to it. I hope it does turn into a recording because we need more recordings of music by woman composers.

HR: Again, some things have to fall into place, but PARMA was interested in that and that makes me happy. The recording engineer who recorded The Preludes Project, I’d love to work with him again. There’s another mentor I didn’t mention, Andreas Meyer, a really phenomenal human being. I’m really happy that I got to know him and he helped me out a lot. So. Yes it would be great to have that opportunity. I hope it works!

MW: yeah, I know putting together a recording sounds so simple, but it’s not.
And it’s expensive. [Laughter.] Yeah, I really liked what Andreas Meyer did with that “Preludes Project” CD. The quality is so good and I know that’s not a given. That takes skill. I meant to mention that, too. Sometimes you get a recording and it’s like “eh….” But this is like you’re in the room with the pianist and it’s so clear you can hear everything. It’s really nice.

HR: I guess I should have said, and here we are rambling again. The idea. I mean, But Kirk wrote incredible preludes, of course Chopin wrote incredible preludes. The piano I recorded on at Lafayette, the piano tech for that, Chris Holliday, was really just fantastic and it is one of the best pianos I’ve every played, a Steinway. And then to be able to work with PARMA and Andreas and everyone in the design team and I probably completely freaked out Brett from PARMA because as soon as I met him I hugged him because I was so excited with the cover. They took a picture I’d done. From the beginning, I couldn’t have done that. And the people who helped me with the Kickstarter to cover about 25 percent of what I needed and they were able to help. It was just one of those things that I was really, really happy that I had so many people working towards that CD and to make it be what it was. So yeah. It isn’t easy. You have to have a really good team. I’m happy.

MW: Yeah, It looks good it sounds good, it’s hard to get all that together for a recording. Everyone go out and buy it. You want the physical thing. So thank you very much, Holly, for being on the podcast!

HR: Thank you, I really appreciate you asking me to be part of this.

MW: Yay! See you on Twitter!

HR: Perfect. Thank you.

Thanks again to Holly for being on the podcast. Before we go, take a listen to a clip of her performance of Chopin’s Prelude No. 8 in F Sharp Minor from the Preludes Project CD.

Transcript by Andrew Santella: http://andrewsantella.com/

Read on for a transcript of my interview with Meerenai Shim, which appeared as episode 9 of my podcast Sound Meets Sound:

MW: My guest this episode is flutist Meerenai Shim. Welcome to Sound Meets Sound, Meerenai Shim! I love your name, and I didn’t even know what it meant before, and I loved it already cause it’s just really pretty sounding. But then I read on your site that it means “galaxy” or something, so that’s really cool.

MS: Thanks!

MW: Why don’t you just give us your elevator pitch about who you are.

MS: I am a flutist, mainly. Lately I’ve been playing a lot of contemporary classical flute music. I play in a few groups…A/B Duo, which is a flute and percussion duo; Areon Flutes, which is a contemporary flute trio; and then Keyed Contraptions, which is a contrabass flute and contraforte duo. Contraforte is a modern version of the contrabassoon.

MW: Thank you, I was wondering what that was.

MS: I also have a record label, a very small record label with one employee: myself. It’s called Aerocade Music, and it specializes in contemporary classical, electronic, experimental stuff.

MW: Cool! I always like hearing people’s especially musicians’ origin stories, like how did you start playing the flute? Was flute your first passion, and did you want to do something else before that?

MS: Well I picked up the flute because all my friends in 5th grade picked the flute and I was like, ‘OK, I guess I’m playing the flute!’ I really didn’t have any special desire to play the flute. My parents started me on cello the year before, in fourth grade, but our school district didn’t have a string program, so it was just sort of private lessons. And then whenever my cello teacher wanted to get like a small string orchestra together we would do something…but the flute sort of started out as a social kind of thing, and because of that I ended up practicing it a lot more, and as you get to middle and high school it gets more competitive with a bunch of mostly girls playing the flute, so it made me practice more…so that’s what I ended up pursuing. As for degrees, when I was in high school I thought that I was going to become an orchestral conductor, so I did train to do that throughout college even though back then there was no conducting major (and rightly so, I think). So I was a flute major and I thought that I was going to continue as a conductor.

MW: Oh interesting.

MS: But I abandoned those lofty goals after undergrad.

MW: Any particular reason you abandoned them?

MS: Well, I just didn’t have…I guess the real reason is I guess I didn’t want it as badly as I thought I did. And the other was I really was sort of lost on my own and I felt like I was sort of flailing and I sort of got discouraged. And then after I finished my undergrad it was sort of a shock to the system like, ‘OK I have a music degree, a music performance degree; what do I do with it?’ As a flutist it’s not like, I mean…I practiced well enough so that my studio teachers wouldn’t kick me out, you know…I was a satisfactory flute student but I wasn’t the star cause I thought I was going to be a conductor.

So yeah, after undergrad I was sort of worried about what I was going to do as a musician, so I enrolled at DePaul University, where I had just gotten my undergrad, in the information systems Master’s degree program. And then I got an internship with the Chicago Symphony doing IT stuff. And so yeah after a year it was like, ‘Well, I could just get a job in it back in California and then I don’t have to deal with any more Chicago winters’, so I moved back and I took a break from music for a few years. I mean this is starting to become like a really long story so…

MW: No, it’s fascinating to me. I think most people listening are going to be fascinated because everyone takes a different path. We all think, ‘This is the path you’re supposed to take’ and we all think we all took that path. But especially in contemporary music, lots of us did not take that path, you know? Lots of breaks along the way, you know, the idea of starting late, not being the star, necessarily….all of those things are recurring themes I hear from people, especially when they’re performing contemporary music. So I find that really interesting, especially that you got training to do something else and then came back to music, basically.

MS: Yeah, I was working a day job that paid very well at a very prestigious accounting firm doing management consulting and IT security consulting and stuff like that. I was just making rich people richer. That was the point of my day job was to make rich people even more rich. So I was like, ‘this is not what I want to do with my life.’ So I quit, and then I started practicing again, and then started teaching private flute lessons for the first time, which is sort of scary and exciting and I learned so much from teaching…which has really helped me get my flute playing game back into shape. And then I went back to school and enrolled at San Francisco State University. And I got a Master’s in Flute there.

MW: Cool that’s great. That’s a really cool origin story. So your roots are here in California.

MS: Yeah, I grew up in Novato.

MW: So you’re with all these duos, and you’re a flute player, but I have noticed throughout my knowing of you that you use a lot of electronics, and you seem to devise a lot of things yourself like setups for concerts and stuff…and you knew about what microphone this was! So I’m just curious what’s your background with electronics and music and how did you get into that?

MS: Well I mean, I had no background in electronics, like audio electronics, at all. Except I wasn’t afraid of computers in general because I had the IT background; I was willing to try it out. I sort of had a basic idea and it didn’t scare me. And my husband is an electrical engineer, so he designs computer chips, so he knows a lot more about everything.

MW: And has a soldering gun?

MS: Yeah he has several soldering guns [laughs]. Yeah he helped me pick out my first DAT recorder back in the day, and since then, you know he was one of the first people to help me research microphones and stuff. But now I do most of it on my own, and occasionally if I have some kind of really challenging issue I will…probably mostly complain to him about it [laughs].

MW: That kind of gets me into asking about this piece that you posted. There is a recording on YouTube. It’s called Seriously right? Yeah, So it’s this graphic score (I’m telling the readers not you). The readers…The listeners! Oh my gosh. It just intrigued me, because I worked with a composer once on live painting and trying to map that to Max MSP, so I’m just really curious about that. You created the painting, essentially, that is rigged up with these things that I don’t really understand, so I was wondering if you could walk us through that piece.

MS: Sure, yeah so this is my second graphic notation piece. The first one was just regular, just paper, for a quartet. Ideally, I think graphic notation pieces work…as an audience member, I would love to see the graphic notation. Sometimes it’s just impractical to do…sometimes it’s just…I don’t know, the piece just wasn’t conceived that way or I don’t know. But so this next piece, I decided that I wanted something that the audience could see, that would function more than just as something for eye candy. It was written for my Duo, A/B Duo. It’s something like five feet by two, two and a half feet. It’s made out of fabric mostly. Most of it is fabric, and then there is some painting, some fabric paint, there’s some metal studs that I put in, and then there’s some conductive fabric and conductive thread. I hand-embroidered some patterns here and there with regular ornamental thread and also the conductive thread. And then in the back it’s attached to an Arduino board. It has mp3s of different sounds that I sampled, all ready to go. So depending on what you touch on the tapestry you get different sounds.

MW: OK. So I’m pretty sure you weren’t reading…you didn’t have other scores in front of you, right, so how did you communicate to Chris what to do, and did you have to memorize it or was it partly improvisatory?

MS: Oh yeah it’s mostly improvisatory…You know, we worked out a few things, like ‘OK we’re gonna do this,’ or we might try a section that’s sort of like this. But every time it’s a little bit different. I just wanted something that sounded serious [laughs], so it’s kind of a cheeky kind of a thing.

MW: It does sound serious! It sounds like a post-tonal, completely notated piece when you listen to it. It sounds structured and everything…I just thought that was really cool, I was like, ‘They’re doing this off of this tapestry’ that you also are interacting with and making sounds with. I just thought it was a really cool piece.

MS: Thanks!

MW: And you were talking about how you prerecorded mp3s for that, and I noticed some of the other pieces with the A/B Duo…I can’t remember the name now (I’m terrible with names) but you’re playing and the video is like a teen carnival…

MS: Oh yeah.

MW: In the video you see the two of you but then there’s also a lot of, I think you called it “Postal Service”, like Postal Service-y synths and drums and especially—I mean really it’s Postal Service cause he sounds so much like the lead singer. But yeah, so did you pre-record all that or did you guys do that together?

MS: Oh no that’s actually a piece that we commissioned from Andrew Rodriguez.

MW: Oh OK.

MS: Yeah and he’s really great at, I mean, he’s very versatile. He can write like regular, serious concert music, but also he’s in several bands and he’s a really great producer. And so he put this piece together more like a pop track producer. He did notate our parts, and then we tracked all the parts that we could, including Chris’ little vocal part. And then I sent the stems back to him and then he produced the *bleep* out of it and it sounds like a totally awesome pop track. We were super excited about it.

MW: Yeah it was cool, and the video was cool too, how you two wore two different outfits…wasn’t it like, there’s one where you guys were in white and black and then all in black in the video…

MS: Yeah, I mean the thing is that it’s all DIY [laughs], so I had to just use whatever footage we had. So, I mean we have lots of videos on YouTube where it’s just us performing, and that’s fine—but also for this track I wanted something that sort of looked like a real music video. So I went into the internet archive and got one of those old videos that you can use with public domain videos. So I just sort of found one that could have been a story…I just sort of edited that together.

MW: OK, so you edited that video together.

MS: Yeah

MW: Oh that’s cool! What software did you use for that?

MS: Final Cut Pro.

MW: Oh that’s cool, I didn’t realize that you had actually done that. I thought that that was really clever, I mean those public domain, 1950s…they’re so cheesy, but it was actually kind of sweet with the track, the way you cut it in together.

MS: Thanks.

MW: I’d like to talk about the scene and the, you know, the people that are my interlocutors, and also community. You’ve been in this scene, the Bay Area scene or whatever you would call it (I don’t know what it would be called cause I’m so new and I know nothing about California), but…you know, I could talk about the New York scene for days. So what is the Bay, or would you call it the Bay Area scene? What is it like for you being in a community here, and organizing stuff?

MS: Well honestly I feel like I’m a newcomer to this scene as well.

MW: Really? OK.

MS: Well first cause I’m all the way down in Campbell near San Jose, which is, on a good day, a 1-hour drive to San Francisco. So I can’t make it up to where all the action is in like Oakland and San Francisco that often, although I would love to. And then also I haven’t really been playing contemporary classical music…maybe 2011 is when I started.

MW: Oh really?

MS: Yeah so before that I was pretty much a straight up classical-only kind of musician.

MW: Oh cool.

MS: Yeah, which is sort of cool, but I’m sort of sad about that, like I wish I had…‘back in my day’ if you weren’t a composition student you didn’t get… you know, there was no electronic music class…

MW: Right.

MS: I think in my undergrad days, performance majors didn’t even have to take counterpoint class. Which is like, what? Anyway, I felt like an outsider for a long time. I think it was after the Center for New Music got started five years ago that I felt like…so I became a member of that as soon as they opened, and going to shows there and hanging out with people and then meeting different people there and then learning stuff from Adam and Brent who run the place…that’s when I started to feel like, ‘Oh yeah, this is a community that I can belong to.’ Because when I did my Master’s, at San Francisco State back in my day there was really not much going on as far as alumni from the school, so I didn’t have like a cohort of grads that I could do stuff with really. Yeah, I’ve only really known people for like the last, I don’t know, five years.

MW: That’s funny because when I was stalking you online for this, which I call research, I was like, ‘It seems to go back to like 2013/2012’, and I was like, ‘Well but she was definitely doing stuff before then.’ So, OK, so that explains that. And I also didn’t realize the Center for New Music was so new. And you were a curator there?

MS: Yeah I was a curator.

MW: How did you go about organizing the concerts? Again on this topic of community and making connections and stuff, what was it that you did with that and was it really challenging to get these concerts together or was it just natural/organic for you?

MS: Well every curator has their own vision or, some people have a really…they actually curate? [laughs]. Whereas I was like, “Oh that sounds cool let’s do it!” So there were a few concerts where If I wanted to put on a concert, that’s my curated concert. Or if a good friend wanted to do a concert, I would put it on. But then occasionally we’ll have out of town musicians who would send an email to Brent saying ‘Hey you know, here’s my proposal’ and then Brent will send it out to all the curators and then if any of us are interested we’ll pick it up and host and stuff.

But the other thing I wanted to sort of do was open up the community even more, and so I started this New Music Open Mic. It wasn’t really an ‘open mic’ open mic like you don’t just show up and sign up…Because of the new music part where people needed some time to prepare and so they had to really know that they [were] going on before they cart in three suitcases worth of electronics. It was pretty loose though, like first come first serve as far as, if you sign up early then you get the date you want. I was really proud of that series because we got a lot of performers in there who normally wouldn’t think of the Center for New Music as a venue for them because they’re either on the fringes or they were new to the area or they just never even heard about the Center…so I got to meet a lot of different people and a lot people who are members of the Center for New Music now and that was their first time visiting—their show was the first time they came to visit. So yeah I think that was pretty cool; that’s how I tried to enlarge the community.

MW: Right yeah that’s cool! I had forgotten, when I was going through the Center for New Music page, I saw your thing for the open mic and how it was running til 2016 I think.

MS: Yeah I think it might, you know if the center can get more funding I think the desire is there to keep that going. So we’ll see. Fingers crossed.

MW: Yeah that would be great, I mean I think especially as someone new here, it is hard to figure out where to put yourself, you know? Yeah that’s cool, that’s so my jam. So, just one quick sidetrack cause I’m just really curious: prior to like 2011/2012, were you just teaching flute lessons and playing in orchestras? Or is that…

MS: Yeah, I was basically just teaching most of the time, and if I ever got called for a gig…I mean, I wasn’t getting called for really big gigs because it had only been a few years since I had reclaimed the flute as my thing. And then when I did get calls, a lot of times it didn’t make any economic sense to reschedule all my students and take a gig where I have to drive like two hours each way and make, you know $100 a service or whatever; I could make a lot more staying home and teaching. Yeah, I didn’t play a lot. I might have played some local pickup orchestra things here and there. I tried to do some chamber music then too, I mean I have a whole string of chamber groups, more like straight-up classical chamber music groups that didn’t really take off.

MW: OK, that’s really interesting. Yeah there often is this divide between the “classical” life and the “new music” life, and they often don’t co-exist, you know? Let’s talk about Aerocade Music. You created that label to release your Pheromone…?

MS: Yeah.

MW: Do you have plans for that label? Is that something that you wanna just, that’s where you release your music? Or are you thinking about releasing other people’s music on that?

MS: Well initially it was just for my own music. Basically, one can call it a “vanity label,” and I was like, ‘You know what? That’s fine with me.’ I had previously released two other solo albums on my own, and for this third one, for Pheromone, I was like, ‘You know what? I might as well do the best that I can with it.’ So I started this label, but soon after…as I was starting it, a friend of mine who’s produced the Post-Haste Reed Duo’s album, he emailed me and was like ‘Hey, I heard you’re starting a label; Post Haste Reed Duos’ looking for a label to release their debut album.’ So I was like, ‘Awesome! I guess I’m releasing other people’s projects, too!’ Post Haste, they had a lot of faith in me. I can’t believe they let me release their first album, their baby. And then since then, there have been seven releases total.

MW: Oh really?

MS: I mean, it’s just me. So, I can’t really, I don’t really have a full release schedule. Most of last year actually there was not a lot of action on Aerocade, but this year there’s going to be a lot more coming out.

MW: I am curious about…I was reading a part of your website about Body Mapping, and the journey to…it sounds like you were doing one technique and now you’re learning another, a different technique and you sort of put that other technique aside, so I don’t know can you, I think you said it stemmed from an injury, so can you tell us the story of that?

MS: When I went back to do my Master’s degree, suddenly I was like, ‘I’m going to practice until my face falls off,’ basically, cause I really had a lot to catch up on. So a lot of practicing like that, really without any training…like, prior to that I had never taken an Alexander technique lesson, I had no idea about any of this stuff; you just play through the pain, like if you’re in pain that means you had a good practice—that’s how it was. It got so bad. I had extreme dry mouth, I had blurry vision, and I remember during my final graduate recital there were parts of it—I don’t even know how I got through it—cause I literally could not see the music. So after I graduated I seriously… I was contemplating just quitting cause it wasn’t just my physical discomfort; I just felt like I couldn’t express myself through the instrument. I was like, ‘What’s the point of doing this if I feel like I can’t make any music from the flute?’ And of course I blamed the flute itself—not the flute itself but like flute in general. I seriously contemplated selling my flute and just quitting it all—again. And then a friend of mine introduced me to this week-long flute camp for adults, which was like a week-long flute residential masterclass, but it also had Alexander technique daily, Alexander technique, Feldenkrais, and Body Mapping classes built in, so I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll try it,’ and it totally changed my life.

So Body Mapping is a term that, that’s what the Andover Educators use to describe the size, structure, and function of different body parts, and the whole of your body as you’re doing tasks like playing the flute, so that you have a whole vision of your entire self, not just lips and fingers (like I used to think). So it really helps increase your awareness so that if you’re feeling fatigued, you’ll know it a lot earlier and you have a choice, like you can change something so that you’re not in discomfort. My first lessons in Feldenkrais were there too, and the Feldenkrais philosophy of like, ‘Don’t do as much as you can; do only as much as you’re able to do while you’re enjoying what you’re doing and then maybe even try less…’ which is like so weird. As a traditionally-trained musician, it’s like ‘No you try harder and then that’s not hard enough!’ But in Feldenkrais it’s like ‘Do it, and then try doing less!’ [laughs]. It was sort of like a Yoda teaching, like the young grasshopper…yeah it totally was very attractive to me.

I would have started studying Feldenkrais more seriously right then and tried to become a practitioner, but it seemed like a daunting task because it was a four-year program. But Body Mapping, which is also great, [it’s] based on the Alexander Technique but it’s more practical anatomy for musicians (at least it was package that way), and it seemed a lot more doable…So I did study that and I got licensed to become an Andover Educator teaching Body Mapping. And then about three years ago I guess, two years ago (?) I decided that ‘It’s time, I’m ready, I need more Feldenkrais in my life’ cause that’s really my first somatic education love. So yeah I’m right now, actually today I came here right after a Feldenkrais teacher training session. So this is the beginning of my third third of four years of Feldenkrais practitioner training.

MW: So you have people over and you do this—I don’t know what you would call it, therapy/technique training?

MS: Yeah, I mean I am no longer officially licensed to teach body mapping as prescribed by the Andover Educators because I resigned from that organization. But yes, I have had people come to my house and seek out lessons on how to play with less pain or play better using their whole body. And right now for Feldenkrais, after two years I can teach group awareness through movement lessons for Feldenkrais. I haven’t started doing that yet, not officially, but I hope to soon. And then after four years I could do one-on-one private lessons where I actually do hands-on movement teaching with the students. The Body Mapping, the official name of the entire course was, “What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body.” But the Feldenkrais method is for anybody— anyone who is alive and breathing, Feldenkrais is for you!

MW: That’s still me! [laughs]. So I just wanted to ask if you have any upcoming performances or releases that you want to talk about here.

MS: I think the next thing that’s happening is Keyed Contraptions is playing the Hot-Air music festival at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in February. January’s sort of a slow month because most of the month I’m in Feldenkrais teacher training, so I tried to keep it a lighter month for that.

MW: With the Keyed Contraptions, I was watching some of the videos and it’s really interesting because…I don’t think I’ve ever seen a contraforte in action before. I’ve seen a…is it called a contrabass flute?

MS: Yeah.

MW: Yeah I’ve seen the occasional one of those, but I’ve never seen the contraforte, so it’s a really interesting blend of sounds…And you guys use a lot of electronics with that too…

MS: Well I have to be amplified because the flute is so quiet and the contraforte—it’s a modern instrument, designed to be the ultimate contrabassoon. So it’s got amazing sound, all registers sound clean and beautiful, nothing sounds woody or reedy, it can be as loud as…it can be louder than loud. The contrabass flute, however, was not designed with that in mind; it’s just a flute blown up, so the low register’s really difficult to make loud and stuff like that. So yeah, I have to be amplified, and so because of that we have options: I can just put some guitar pedals on my mic if I [want] to…

MW: Is that hard as far as breath goes? Is that a really different animal, playing such a big instrument?

MS: Yeah I mean it’s two octaves lower than the concert flute, and concert flute already requires a lot of air. So the contrabass flute is pretty crazy, yeah.

MW: Yeah one of my best friends growing up switched from piano to flute, we were both learning piano and then she went to flute. And I was just like, ‘Woah I just don’t have the energy for this instrument.’ It’s so challenging, the position, the breath, and everything…just getting a nice sound out of it I was just like ‘Whoa that’s too hard.’

MS: Yeah it can be hard in the beginning. I think the first three months, if you’re having an OK first three months or you get over that hump…flute’s pretty darn easy, that’s why there’s so many of us [laughs].

MW: Well it’s also nice to have an instrument that doesn’t take up a lot of space, and it’s not like a trumpet where it’s going to be really loud in your apartment. You know, you can play it and you’re not going to disturb people.

MS: That is the truth. Although, dealing with my own electronics rigs and stuff, it is not funny to me when people are like ‘Oh aren’t you glad you play the flute?’ No, because I tour with five flutes, a contrabass flute, and 50-pound pedalboard, so I don’t want to talk about it [laughs].

MW: So at this point Meerenai made the fatal mistake of asking me about myself, and I basically talked her ear off for like another half-hour. So I’m not going to include that here, but I never recorded a ‘thank-you’ for being here section. So, thank you Meerenai, for appearing on the podcast. I encourage everyone to go out and check out her Bandcamp, Meerenai.Bandcamp.com, and her label Aerocade.Bandcamp.com. There’s some really great recordings there. I’m going to include here at the end…it’s a longer piece, but I really like it, and it really shows off Meerenai’s playing. It’s called “Fractus III: Aerophoneme for flute and live electronic sound.” It’s by Eli Fieldsteel, and it’s from Meerenai’s 2015 release Pheromone. So I highly recommend going to Bandcamp and checking out. Thank you again Meerenai, and here is “Fractus III.”

Transcript by Dan DiPiero: dandipiero.com

Read on for a transcript of my interview with Samantha Ege, which appeared as episode 10 of my podcast Sound Meets Sound:

MW: Welcome Samantha Ege to the Sound Meets Sound podcast. Really excited to have you here. I want to just get started, jump right in as I usually do with your musician origin story where maybe you can tell us a little bit about how you came to be a musician, did it start with the piano and once you got to the piano, how did you decide to turn it into a career.

SE: Piano has always been a part of my life ever since I was very young and it was always clear that music would be something that I would pursue. With this area of women composers that’s more of a recent development through coming across the music of people like Florence Price, Clara Schumann and beginning to question why this music isn’t part of my repertoire already and so those realizations came a few years ago and that’s when I decided to actively pursue and learn music by women composers exclusively and once I did that, it’s kind of funny actually doors began to open more than if I had just stuck to a canon and I guess there’s clearly a movement where there is a lot of interest in various women composers and I think everything sort of came together at the right time. I was invited to present at the house of the British high commissioner here in Singapore and there was an event hosted by the British Chamber of Commerce to do with women in business and my event was ‘Women in music’. Basically the idea was that I would present a different side to women’s achievement, historical and present. And it was very successful and after that I did a few recordings of the pieces that I played which included Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Zenobia Powell Perry and Cécile Chaminade and Vítězslava Kaprálová. My friend heard that recording and played those recordings to his client who was the owner of the label that I ended up recording my album with. It’s all very exciting how it happened and it’s definitely not something that I could have predicted but something that really started as a passion project has really taken over and it’s opened up a lot more doors and opportunities for me as a performer.

MW: We know there’s four women on the album. How many pieces total are you recording for it?

SE: I play Florence Price’s Sonata in E minor which has three movements and then I play a set of miniatures by Ethel Bilsland. She’s actually the grandmother of the high commissioner’s wife so through this event that I had in Singapore I learned that her grandmother was a composer and that just created such an amazing connection where we’ve been exploring her music and these pieces have never been recorded on an album before and because of that event having such an important role in this journey that i’m on. it just felt that Ethel Bilsland needed to be represented on this album. There’s also two pieces by Vítězslava Kaprálová, the Sonata Appassionata which she wrote when she was eighteen. It’s an incredible piece and then her April preludes which she wrote, I think, the year before she died at the age of twenty five which is obviously slightly more mature but also just very expressive, very beautiful set of pieces and then there’s Margaret Bonds’ Troubled Water.

MW: How did you get the scores for Bilsland?

SE: The score that I have is the only one that was published. I do have her manuscripts of string quartets and serenade for strings that I’m going through at the moment and just trying to get them on the computer so they can hopefully eventually be published. She did compose quite a lot and from what I’ve heard, from I’ve been able to access, she was incredibly knowledgeable about composition and very experienced I would say, she clearly knew what she was doing. But what I’ve learned is that, before WWII, she stopped composing completely and she became a professor of voice at the Royal Academy of Music in England. It was almost as if she saw composition as a luxury she couldn’t afford anymore and she needed to focus on providing for her family. I think that’s another reason to bring her music to the fore because she also represents the sacrifices that women make and the choices they have to make and the priorities around family that often determine those choices and sacrifices.

MW: Another aspect of your life that interests me is Singapore and how you ended up there and what it’s like to teach internationally.

SE: I’d visited Singapore on a holiday and I just got a really great feel for the place. It’s very safe, very clean, very modern, and I just had this strong feel that this is where I wanted to live. So I waited for the right job opportunity to come up and it came up and I applied and…

MW: That’s so cool! You’re just like I like Singapore and I’m going to get a job there and then you did and then it led to this amazing performance that’s now leading to this. But are you a music teacher at a school there? What is your job in Singapore?

SE: Yes, I teach at an international school, elementary and middle school music, so I teach a general music program

MW: Ok cool

SE: The program is really diverse. We cover styles outside of western music which I think is really important for students especially in an international community. One of the things that drew me to Singapore is the value of education here and the support for music and the arts. All of these things are very encouraging for a music teacher.

MW: I saw in your site you are pursuing a PHD at the University of York

SE: Yes. That’s the University of York in the UK because there’s also a York University in Canada. Some people have confused the two and obviously, because I’ve studied in Canada, it wouldn’t be so far- fetched to think that that’s where I’m doing my PHD. My supervisor, the wonderful thing, well many wonderful things about him, but one of them is that he’s based in York, he’s also based in Illinois in Chicago which is where my archival research ends up taking me. It was great because when I was in Chicago earlier this month, my supervisor was there and he was able to come to my lecture recital which was fantastic. I manage to balance my PHD with my work because I don’t have to be on campus all through the year and so, I quite like having the two components in my life.

MW: So your PHD is on Florence Price, right? And as you said that takes you to Chicago a lot. What exactly are you studying around that, like what around you doing in the archives? How’s this PHD going to manifest itself?

SE: My focus is on looking at her compositional voice and how American identity, how nationalism factors into that. The fact that she’s a black woman which is sort of the antithesis of what we think of an American school of music, there’s a sense of dissonance there, so what I’m exploring is how she dissolves that dissonance in her music. I believe that comes through her engaging with African American folk music and bringing it into this classical arena and dignifying slave music within her compositions. But my research has led me off on all sorts of tangents, around other women composers. My lecture recital at the Chicago symphony center last week talked about how contemporaries Margaret Bonds, Irene Britton Smith, Nora Holt, and this just such a fascinating community that she’s a part of, so that isn’t central to my PHD but is something that I’m very interested in and I feel like that’s something that I can explore more in performance. So I’m currently working on a program around her and her contemporaries.

MW: When you’re listening to the music, how do you isolate where that influence is? Did she have a collection of notated, folk music, slave music however you want to call it, these tunes, that’s incorporated into her piece, how do you know where that’s coming from?

SE: It’s a really good question. In some cases, she’s very explicit about where the influences come from. You take for example Fantaisie Nègre which is based on “Please Don’t Let this Harvest Pass”. Those connections are very direct. But there are also times where she’s evoking the sound world. Well, I’m remembering something I can’t remember the details of. But basically, in the late 1900s, there were a whole bunch of studies by early ethnomusicologists, white ethnomusicologists as well as black ethnomusicologists, transcribing each folk song and, you have people like The Fisk Jubilee Singers who were traveling and presenting these songs in concert halls. And she’s also influenced by people like Harry T Burleigh. So, there is a history before her and so even if Florence Price didn’t ever really have to engage with that level of plantation life, there are enough influences that she would’ve absorbed, the sound world and, I think as she matured as a composer, that’s something that she very deliberately embraced.

MW: I kind of wanted to get a little bit more into your early life as a musician, I just find it really interesting, as a child, your interaction with music.

SE: I’m not aware about making the decision to play the piano, it’s just something that’s always been with me. I do remember having quite strong opinions about my choices of repertoire. I liked a lot of Scott Joplin pieces, and I remember my piano teacher saying that we needed to play proper music.

MW: He’s in all the collections! That’s proper music!

SE: Right! And I always enjoyed classical music that was a fusion of different styles and as I got older, that led me to explore Nikolai Kapustin’s works, don’t know if you’re familiar with him. I would say it’s a blend almost of jazz and very Russian influences as well and it’s incredibly jazzy and I absolutely loved it. But then I was sort of brought back on track again. But I have always enjoyed playing obscure repertoire and I think part of that comes from being able to present something that people haven’t heard, being able to take more ownership over the music and as well, something that I talk about is just thinking growing up that I was an anomaly because of being a black girl playing classical music and so that’s something that has definitely affected me, affected my sense of ownership over white male composers, feeling that, there are a whole bunch of white male musicians that can probably play this much better than me so…you know just about a bit of a complex around that and, as I said, I’ve always had the piano in my life, I focused on performance at university, I had a wonderful teacher, Dr. Luba Zuk at McGill University who really taught me how to play and feel music and internalize and it was just very transformative.

MW: You’re talking about repertoire and in that YouTube video that I keep bringing up, which everyone should go watch, you do talk about this act of historiography where we go back to the history of music and to the history of repertoire and we start reinterpreting it, you know and changing perspectives, you know, on what the history was, because history obviously is a constructed thing, there’s a lens through which we have been shown the past and then you were saying that that’s part of your sort of project now and just in general is looking back on history and saying: what did we miss, a genuine perspective on that, I don’t know why I’m talking for you, you can say it… I think that’s part of your thing right, like going back?

SE: Definitely! I think it’s so helpful for me to do this in order to reclaim that confidence and that belief in being very much entitled to participate in this field and through women composers that’s just been such an empowering thing for me to engage with because I just feel very much connected and, yeah, in performing their work I get the opportunity to assert myself as well. I guess perhaps that’s what was missing in this other repertoire, I can’t assert myself, I was always in the shadow of whatever I was
playing.

MW: It’s like the classical world, we spend so much time recycling the same things over and over again, it kind of loses its humanity that way. You’re really engaging with these pieces because they’re teaching you a different way to look at yourself

SE: That’s exactly it.

MW: Luba Zuk, was she one of the first people to introduce women composers to you? I had a teacher like that, all of a sudden I was starting getting all this repertoire from women because she was a woman and knew a lot of women composers for the organ. Was that when that started or was she still sort of teaching you the standard rep?

SE: She stuck to the standard repertoire but as I said, she helped me learn how to internalize music and to really connect and the value of playing from memory as well, which is something I could do but no one had ever told me to do it so I just always had the music in front of me. I feel like that was the moment where I really became a pianist. But it was actually a musicology professor Lisa Barg who introduced me to Florence Price. It was a part of a course in twentieth century music and we had looked at Nadia and Lilly Boulanger on one week and Florence Price and Margaret Bonds the next week and I couldn’t believe that Florence Price and Margaret Bonds were black classical women composers. That was huge and I was just so fascinated with their work. I just always knew that it was something that I would come back to. McGill was such an important time for me. A lot of the things that I’m doing now have stemmed from McGill. And also that was my first experience living abroad and it was an amazing experience, so my tendency to travel, you can see where that comes from.

I’m going back to Florence Price again. Basically, she started out as a passion project for me because I remembered how life changing that experience at McGill had been just learning that she existed. Whilst in Singapore, I decided to come back to her music and I decided ok I’m going to learn it and just sort of see where that takes me. I found that actually I wanted that to be more than just a passion project so I started applying for masters in different universities in the UK. I initially was very excited but that excitement soon disappeared when I got responses from respected supervisors saying: “Sorry, I don’t understand blues music, I don’t understand jazz, sorry, I can’t support you with your work” I just felt very upset actually about the situation because I knew I wanted to do justice to this work and I had such a strong sense of how I wanted my dissertation and my research to unfold and it needed to be in the right hands. So I sent one more application to my current supervisor and I decided: “You know what? This probably isn’t going to work out.” And then I heard from him and I could just feel the enthusiasm and support radiating off his e-mail, it was incredible and so sincere and he really believed in what I was doing. He was just so supportive right from the beginning. I’m so glad obviously that it turned out this way. But Florence Price is just so important to me that I couldn’t sort of compromise on how I wanted to go about my research.

MW: That’s so smart and really a lesson for anyone thinking about graduate work. If you can’t find that person that’s going to help you usher in this work, that advisor, it’s really just almost not worth it. I don’t know how they do it in England. Is it going to be an ethnomusicology degree or musicology? Is it just sort above graduate music degree?

SE: Music via research and I will likely combine performance and dissertation.

MW: You said you were doing archival work in Chicago. Is there a Florence Price archive in Chicago or is it scattered throughout libraries there?

SE: The archives are at the University of Arkansas. I was there last April and that was a great experience because they have so much. Chicago is great for accessing the works of the early academics writing about Florence Price, so Dominique-René de Lerma and Eileen Southern, they just have a worth of resources that document this history and so, I feel that, if you’re working on Florence Price you need to go to both places because they complement each other so well.

MW: And now you’re joining that lineage of researchers in Chicago in a way.

SE: Thank you!

MW: Was this your first recording project, this album?

SE: This experience has been so new to me. An also it’s a new experience for Wave Theory Records as well because, Dan Jones, who owns the company, he’s a composer and he writes music for film, he’s won BAFTA awards and he’s a very celebrated composer. This has definitely been a new experience for us, and obviously I went from having my recordings on YouTube to recording this album. I didn’t plan this far ahead in terms of big tour or anything like that.

MW: I’ve been privy and been on a couple of pop recordings but what is it like recording a classical piano album? Was it really stressful? Did you have to do a lot of takes? What was that experience like for you?

SE: I was incredibly nervous about this because I’m putting myself out there and putting my work and my passion out there for everyone to listen to and everyone to have an opinion of. We recorded at Real World Studios which is owned by Peter Gabriel. It’s his studio in Bath. The studio is incredibly beautiful and it’s a very warm and homely environment, so all the factors were there to relax me but that didn’t have any effect as soon as I started playing my heart was racing and I was sweating and I was hot and cold. I started with Kaprálová and I played through and it was very stressful and I think it was Dan or my friend Simon said: “That was great!” and I relaxed so much after that because I thought “Ok! I can do this!”

MW: Sometimes just getting someone outside of you to affirm what you’re doing, it’s like: “Ok, I’m not insane, I enjoy doing this, this is why I’m doing it”

SE: In the lead up, I didn’t have any idea of how to practice for this because we had a twelve hours slot, so I wasn’t going to do a twelve hour practice session at home. Maybe I should have done that…

MW: Oh wow! Your entire recording session was twelve hours?

SE: Twelve hours. And around that time when we were recording, I’d been falling asleep at about 8PM because of the jet lag, so that’s one of the reasons why we started with the Kaprálová, just because we put Florence Price towards the end because I’ve been playing that for much longer and I just felt a lot more confident with Florence Price. After that, I just played and played and played and played and played…and, I think we started at about 10 in the morning and we were done by 10 at night. It was exhausting but I don’t think I realized how exhausted I was until right at the end. It was such a positive experience, I absolutely loved it, and what was great is that Dan and Simon just had such a strong understanding of what I was trying to say with the music and we were just all on the same page. Such a great experience! I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved regardless of how others may interpret it, whether or not they enjoy it. I’m so proud of this.

MW: That’s the important thing as the creator, you need to feel like “this was what I set out to do”. That’s really great and it helps when you have people on the outside of you who know what you want and can tell you “this is how it sounds from the outside.” You’re going back to Chicago next year, right?

SE: I know a hundred per cent that I’ll be performing in Chicago next year. My research on Florence Price has connected me to so many wonderful people and through my research, I’ve learned the value of community in her life but through doing this research, I feel as though I have become part of a community of people who are interested in her life, interested in championing women composers. That’s just been a really wonderful thing and to connect with others that are doing similar things or doing different things or others that have done it all and can give advice to me. I’m just really grateful for that. Growing up as a young black pianist, I never had those connections. That has just been such an encouraging thing and the things like Skype and Facebook, I can reach out any time, I obviously need to be mindful of the time differences but it’s nice that those communities don’t end just because I’m back here in Singapore, those conversations continue. It’s just been really heartwarming. I just remembered another concert I’m doing. The International Women’s Day recital will be next March. I did one this year.

MW: In that concert, do you have a concept of what you’ll play or be kind of what you’ve been doing with the “Four Women” project?

SE: I’ll also be learning new repertoire for Chicago, so I think it’s going to be a mix of “Four Women” and new pieces. I’ll definitely play the Kaprálová though because, every time I’ve played it, people have been so moved by it. Are you familiar with these works?

MW: I’ve listened to you. You have a video of Kaprálová. I’ve heard of her right before I saw you on twitter. I’d just heard of her, I’d never heard her music and I saw your project, you had a performance up there of one of her pieces. But she’s super new to me, I don’t know her music that well.

SE: When people hear the sonata, they’re just blown away, which is how I felt as soon as I heard. I didn’t know she’d written it when she was eighteen, that was just like the icing on top. It was already amazing and then I found that out. I’ll definitely play that because it allows me to just throw everything into it. It’s like a good icebreaker. We were talking about almost not being able to identify with white male composers, she’s someone I identified with so much. Also when I came across her, I think I was maybe the same age that she was when she died, so I just felt so connected to her. With my life experiences, I feel like I’ve been given a chance to really achieve the things I want to with my life. Her life was cut short and so playing her music reminds me of why I need to just pursue what I’m passionate about, because life is just too short and that can sound really cheesy but whenever I hear her music, it’s just a reminder that I need to keep doing this.

MW: You really have a connection with all these composers, that’s really cool, like a deep psychological, emotional connection.

SE: Exactly and that’s why I’ve managed to get to a point where I’m not too concerned about reviews, negativity and all that kind of stuff. I mean that was part of my panic attack in the lead up to like “Oh I’m not good enough and people are going to rip me apart because I did not study at a Russian conservatory” and all that stuff. But because of that connection I have to the composers, no one can fault that or doubt that and then the other side to it is “you know, if you think I’m not playing it well or you learn it and play
it better and get this music out there.”

MW: Right! It’s like it’s still a win for you.

SE: But like I said, I’m proud of what I’ve done. Actually, the first time I’ve listened to it, I just had tears streaming because I was just like “I did this! I did this despite everything that was going on” and I just felt really proud of it. That said, if anyone says anything mean, I’ll probably be really upset. For the moment, I feel very proud and just trying to always remember that I am proud of what I’ve achieved regardless.

MW: Thank you Samantha Ege for being on Sound Meets Sound. It’s been really awesome talking to you and I’ve really enjoyed learning about you and Florence Price who has been like the second guest on this podcast so thanks very much!

SE: Thank you Meg for inviting me to talk about my work and I really hope you enjoy Four Women.

Transcript by Stehpanie Merchak: https://linktr.ee/stephmerchak

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 Ciudad 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 sparkly 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/

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.

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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.

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