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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I always applaud music organizations that program concerts full of fresh pieces by young composers. Thus, though they may have overshot the mark a bit by programming no less than eleven pieces on Friday, I give due credit to NYC-based Quiet City for an ambitious, eclectic performance of new music.

The evening began with “No Hipster Hats” for trumpet and tape by Adam Cuthbért, who also performed. Using Ableton Live and a controller, Cuthbért created a layered, ambient electronic piece by looping and manipulating the sounds he made with his trumpet. Highly coordinated in his frequent moves between the controller and the trumpet, the visual effect created an interesting cognitive dissonance with the Eno-esque music.

Stand out pieces on the program included “pppppppppppppppp” by Matthew Hough, an open instrumentation work performed here on keyboard, sax, cello and violin. As can be gleaned from the title, the piece hovered on the edge of silence, the performers’ extremely quiet gestures sounding akin to a hurried, whispered conversation, drawing you in to hear its secrets.

Drake Andersen‘s “Four Boughs” for voice, flute, guitar and percussion was a sparse piece whose individual instrumental parts were loosely organized around a text called “The Mirror” by Analicia Sotelo. As each performer interpreted their part the audience experienced differing perspectives of each one’s interaction with the others. Hence, as the composer put it, the piece is like looking up into the boughs of a tree: “the shapes scatter and the sunlight reaches the eye by different lines.”

“Variations on Control” for Pierrot ensemble and percussion by Luke Schwartz explored the tension between the influence of the past over the present, and of the composer over the performer. Determinate music represented the past and the composer, while freer moments in which only parameters were given represented the present, and the performer’s influence over the “here and now.”

While crazy lengthy, the concert did serve as a reminder to me of just how much experimental music is being made in New York City; and its performance in a small blackbox in Queens reminded me just how underground (often quite literally) this music lives its life.

I’m not going to lie, Remembered States is a challenging album. At the core of this collection of compositions is a full exploration of extended techniques at the pianissimo level (with a few exceptions) and the near absence of actual notes, not to mention a complete eschewal of meter. Nonetheless, once you get settled into its sound, the album is a surprisingly listenable one, drawing you in because its unusual, intricate world is so well constructed.

In a way, it’s not surprising that Matthew Hough would write an album like this; it certainly feels like the natural progression of his earlier work with groups like Zs and Seductive Sprigs. In 2005’s “Woodworking”, written for Zs, we already hear music that is moving away from the predictable regularity of meter (for fun, check out Howard Stern and co. trying and failing to understand this track). Likewise, in “The First Thing You Need to Do”, written for Seductive Sprigs, we hear a composer creating an intricate thread out of two interrelated musical lines.

The album begins with an ensemble piece called “pppppppppppppppp” (or “16p” for short). Written for four or more musicians, this particular incarnation includes voice, flute, tenor sax, trumpet, electric guitar and piano. Opening with a single note, the sound quickly scatters in many tiny, gentle dots, the rhythms creating small waves. Every gesture sounds incredibly close, the piece enveloping one in its soundscape, the plucks and clicks and murmurs dropping down in a pattern like warm rain drops.

“Remembered States” is next, written for nine performers and by far the most complex—and, at 21 minutes, the longest—work on the album. It opens with the tactile clacking of keys, gradually surrounded by ephemeral skitterings and murmurs. This texture intensifies as the bassoon ushers in full-bodied overtones, and the other instruments soon increase in volume. At minute five there is a brief break, followed by some of the only rhythmic-unison moments of the piece (something similar happens again at minute fourteen). By minute seven the musicians have embarked along their own, seemingly independent lines, the texture thus becoming completely abstract. The violin and electric guitar rapidly scatter notes as the hushed piano and vibraphone provide a clement, dissipating backdrop. Meanwhile the flute, saxophone, bassoon and trumpet clack their keys to create a persistent pattering, interspersed with overtones that range from gritty to celestial.

“Irreverent Overtones”, for solo bassoon, is the album’s third and loudest track; I think of it as the heavy metal track. You can hear the bassoonist gulping for air as she creates a series of athletic, multifaceted overtones. These are surrounded by the playing of “ghost notes”, a technique which involves a sort of miming of notes: Her fingers press the keys and she breathes into the instrument just as if she were playing the notated music normally, but without producing any tones. The unearthly sounds produced by the overtones have an almost trance-inducing effect.

Remembered States closes with a saxophone/flute duo called “You should all be shot!”, which consists of five autobiographical anecdotes written by Hough, the text of which serves as the score and the part from which the performers read. Full of angular hissing and popping (the anecdotes tend on the harrowing side), the gestures come in rushing waves, subsiding into silence in between stories, and reaching an apex as the sax squeaks and the flutist’s breath rushes rapidly through the instrument during the anecdote that contains the title of the piece.

It may be a challenge at first, but when you allow yourself to listen deeply to this album, you’ll find the music speaking to you in a language that is both sophisticated and satisfyingly passionate.

Remembered States will be released by Original Abstractions Tuesday, October 9. A CD release concert featuring some of the performers on the recording will take place as part of the Music at First series on Friday, October 19.

All musical examples copyright Hough House (ASCAP)

As a music reviewer, I tend to shy away from using genre names; I’d prefer people heard the music for its own qualities rather than because it fit into a certain box.  And the truth is, much music doesn’t fit into a genre-box very comfortably.

But I have to say, when reviewing new music shows and CDs, it would make my job a lot easier if some such commonly known “genres of new music” existed.  Of course we can talk of avant-garde, or experimental, or minimalist, but all of these genre names are pretty broad, and certainly don’t communicate much to someone encountering new music for the first time.

So how would it look if musicians and music lovers alike had a way of quickly describing the overall sound of new music pieces?

Here are two possibilities, for your consideration:

Cinematic music gives the feeling of narrative; the music is telling a story that becomes a part of the listener as s/he interprets its codes.  I’m using cinematic here in the Greek sense of the word: motion, with a dash of the English sense of the word (cinema and movie being generally synonymous): narrative.  Acknowledging of course that the word in English is more literally linked with cinematograph, or, movie-projector.

For example, LAD, pt. 2 by Julia Wolfe

Mediatory music gives the sense that the music is between the composer and the listener.  It is not narrative based, which is probably why many people have a hard time understanding it.  The impression is often of sounds occurring in succession in an arcane manner, and listeners are free to interpret the music in their own way.

For example, Hinterstück by Matthew Hough

Well, what say you?  Let’s ask our resident composer, Michael Andrew Doherty!  What do you think, Michael?  Do new music pieces need these monikers?  Or am I over-simplifying a necessarily complex matter?

Best to all,

Meg