Letras Para Cantar with Angélica Negrón by Liquid Music

by Liquid Music Blog contributor Patrick Marschke


“Accessibility” is a slippery word in 2019, particularly when referring to music. It seems to imply some sort of dichotomy, but it isn’t always clear with what exactly. Is the opposite of “accessible” music, “inaccessible” music? Is anyone really passionate about “inaccessible” music, or does that just imply that it isn’t accessible to the frustrated listener because of their lack of context, training, pedigree, or privilege? This process of othering, whether intentional or simply an inadvertent societal byproduct, continues to be a huge barrier for arts organizations and art makers, especially regarding audience development and maintaining relevance in an exponentially hastening cultural climate.

But there is a generation of creators that have been on every side of this othering and have built careers out of completely transcending it. Composer, multi-instrumentalist, educator, advocate, and technologist (to name a few) Angélica Negrón epitomizes this:

“For me, access is all about communicating. It could be with an ensemble but mostly with the audience and listeners: there are different ways that you can approach that relationship so that it's more accessible. And I'm not talking only about style or stylistic decisions or choices. I'm talking about where the music gets presented, how it's advertised, the people that are on stage, how they look, that the people in the audience can feel like they are seen, or that they are represented by the people that are onstage or behind the stage writing the music as well. That's really important to me.”

I spoke with Angélica in preparation for the upcoming premiere of her jointly commissioned work for ModernMedieval, and in our conversation we explored some key examples that exemplify the utility of accessibility.

Why Do They Sing Like That?
The technique that operatic vocalist utilize is sometimes referred to as “Bel Canto,” which translates to “Beautiful Singing” from the original Italian. One can imagine its colloquial use during the time of Opera’s origin being mostly used as a qualifier, only to be distilled over the decades into a rigorous formalized institution. Opera singer’s technique had a utility during its time — singers had to sing really loud to be heard over the orchestra while somehow maintaining a “beautiful sound.” So techniques were developed to utilize the full potential of the diaphragm and resonance of the mouth. It is easy to point out how “unnatural” the result of this technique can be, but that’s true of any extreme human feat — there isn’t anything particularly “natural” about running a 4-minute mile or walking on the moon either.

The disconnect comes when the technical optimization outlives its practical utility and starts to take on more of a symbolic role — particularly when that symbolism is preserving and pedestalizing a time and place such as 16th and 17th century Europe. In comes ModernMedevial who specialize in early music that mostly utilizes “Straight Tone” singing (vibrato-less) in addition to regularly working with contemporary composers like Angélica.

I asked Angélica about her experience writing a new work for ModernMedevial:

Angélica Negrón: I love chant and pure voices with no vibrato. I'm a little bit put off by vibrato in voices. That's something that has just never been my thing. And so immediately, ModernMedieval's voices, because of the nature of a lot of the work that they sing, it's closer to this more pure and straight tone, which works a lot better with the music I write. So this piece has moments of kind of echoing minimalist gestures and at the same time, it's very pop-driven too.

In my piece it's kind of a combination of the things I love to hear in the voice, like tiny gestures, a lot of glissandi, and kind of echoing melodies, and at the same time combining it with the things that I heard from them that they do best and that they sound really good at.

Patrick Marschke: Do you find that you prefer straight tone singing for aesthetic reasons, or is it more of an aversion to opera-ish singing due to its cultural baggage?

AN: That's a really good question. I think a little bit of both, actually. I think, for me, it's definitely at a sonic level, like more of a timbral and textural element that I think just blends much better with my aesthetic — when it's *not* with vibrato. But I also feel like whenever I hear vibrato there is this kind of cultural baggage and all the associations that we have with that type of voice. It's very distancing for me as an audience member or as a listener. So I'm immediately like, okay, I'm watching this "virtuosic display" of the voice and I just can't get into the narrative or into the story or into the mood as much.

What Do All Those Knobs And Wires Do?
Electronic Music, though only having been around since electricity came along, has also found itself prone to “distancing” the audience  in a similar fashion to classical voice. any of the earliest experiments in electronic sound came out of Bell Labs, where a leading team of research scientists was tasked with improving Alexander Graham Bell’s revolutionary telephone technology. These were highly trained electrical and mechanical engineers designing cutting edge tools for other highly trained engineers. This ethos of technicality was embraced by early composers of electronic music as if the technicality somehow legitimized and made “serious” their music. The not so subtle implication being that non-technical uses of electronic sound should be reserved for cellphone ringtones and muzak.

In her work, Angelica has actively tried to find ways to break down the mystique of electronic performance, and bring the audience more directly into what is happening on stage.

AN: A lot of my work is preoccupied with demystifying electronic music performance and hoping that it's more accessible and engaging to the audience. That the action behind the sound is very visible and clear and that it is not about like all these "fancy things that you would never understand." It is about bringing out the more playful and visceral aspect of it so that it connects to people and it's not about the technology behind it but about your connection to it and what it adds to the work itself.

For this piece, I will use a synthesizer called Ototo that makes it so that anything that conducts enough electricity can act as a trigger for a sound. So I have sounds that I have recorded, mostly phone sounds, mapped on my computer. With this interface, I use alligator clips to map out notes to objects that are conductive. So then when I touched those objects, that triggers the sound. So instead of playing a keyboard or synthesizer, I could be playing vegetables or plants or in this case, most likely water. It adds another visual layer to the piece. For me, it is another kind of interesting way to bring to life the electronics in a piece that would otherwise be pre-recorded or playing an instrument that's a more traditional like a standard keyboard.

PM: So it is more tactile?

AN: Yeah, it has a tactile component. It's also really important to find like the precise material and object that I'll use.  It all has to do with the text of the piece and the concept of the piece. Like for example, with the water in this piece, I'll most likely color the water with certain colors that I feel match the textures and sounds of the piece. It's very much like another essential component of the work itself.

PM: Do you find that audiences and listeners end up being more curious about what you are doing when you use your Vegetable Synth or using water as a trigger?

AN: Yeah, well, that's my hope. And definitely after concerts, I get a lot more people curious about what I'm doing then when I used to use other more conventional tools like a sampling pad or things like that. It came out of my wanting to see that in other performances of live electronic music. A lot of my music is about trying to find ways to make the sounds more visible to the audience so that they can connect with them on a deeper level. So my approach is trying to try to think of this in the same way as a string quartet: there's something very satisfying and visceral about like just the bow on the string that you hear that but you also feel it. I want electronic music to at least try to get closer to an experience like that.

I'm oftentimes disappointed [with electronic music performances] I think it's because I come from a Puerto Rican tradition, not only thinking of classical music but just like the two main kinds of music that I heard when I was growing up. I was studying classical music because I grew up as a violinist, but I was also hearing a lot of folk music being played around me in Puerto Rico. There's this physicality behind the sound that for me kind of almost... It's impossible for me to separate but I also really love electronic music. So a lot of my music is kind of trying to reconcile those two things. Seeing what else can I add to the meaning of the piece by making my own custom made instruments and also having this as a bridge for the audience to be more connected to it and to spark their curiosity to look at a vegetable or water in a different way and start looking and listening to the world around them differently. Hopefully.

PM: What was your first experience with electronic music?

AN: I had this old tape recorder from Radio Shack, like a compact portable one that I recorded things with. Even though I grew up playing violin, I had no idea that composing was a possibility, they never played music by living composers so I never saw myself or even, I'm not even talking about as Latina woman, just like someone living and breathing writing music. So before I realized that I was very interested in other instruments.I was studying violin, but I was also teaching myself the accordion and taking cello and harp lessons.

At the conservatory in Puerto Rico there was this harp room I could spend a lot of time in because no one else that needed it to practice harp. I was *not* practicing harp that much. I was just there with my tape recorder recording a bunch of sounds in the harp and spending a lot of time on the soundboard and trying different objects to play the strings with and just experimenting with sounds and recording those sounds and then going home and then kind of editing those sounds with, I think at that moment it was like, Cool Edit Pro. It was like very simple software to edit. And then I was using at the time, Fruity Loops. Do you know about that?

PM: Oh yeah! That was the first music software I ever used. It still exists! I think a lot of current Top 40 producers use it…

AN: Well in Puerto Rico, a Fruity Loops was very popular and still is because a lot of Reggaeton is made using it. So I remember if you would go to a music store they would sell you the computer with Fruity Loops, like "Reggaton kit" ready. So that's how I heard about Fruity Loops and I didn't really like the sounds that came with it, but I did realize that you could load your own samples. So after editing those sounds from the harp or of me playing violin I started isolating those sounds and loading them in Fruity Loops and using it mostly as a sequencer. And that's how I started making a lot of the first music I wrote, mostly using Fruity Loops. That started kind of I started developing an aesthetic that was very much ambient driven and kind of low-fi ambient because of the nature of the technology I was using. I loved having the sounds that were very beautiful, sounds like harp, but then they were recorded at not the best quality. There was some kind of grit and character to them. Even now, if I'm recording with higher quality technology I am really drawn to kind of sound.

PM: Having worked with some of the most talented young music makers in the country, what do you think the future of new music will look like?

AN: Big question! I would say, and this is more of my hope, more like the world around us, and that it sounds like the world around us, and that it doesn't feel exclusive to spaces or looking certain way or writing in this specific style in order to be taken seriously. I think my hope is that there comes a point that those things don't even matter and it's just about music and at the same time all voices are represented in a way that feels like something that is accessible to everyone and that it's more inviting and not exclusive to only a few.

PM: What is the biggest non-musical influence on your work?

Mariela Pabón ’s Turistas

Mariela Pabón’s Turistas

AN: I would say comedy. I love stand up comedy, comedy podcasts and just comedy in general. But also in term of things that have infiltrated my work I would say there are young artists in Puerto Rico that are doing like comic books or zines through a comedy lens, digging into very important and social themes that we need to take a look at — all from a very DIY mentality.

One is from Puerto Rico, it is this woman, her name is Mariela Pabón, she does this horoscope she puts up monthly that are hilarious and it's very specific to like Puerto Rican culture and slang. And then she also has this zine that she published a couple of years ago called "Turistas," (which translates to tourists) that I actually wrote a piece for the Bang On A Can All Stars inspired by it. It's illustrations based on her working in the lobby of a hotel in San Juan and it's all kind of accounts that she had with customers at the hotel. A lot of it has to do with like the ignorance of tourist, of knowing more about our relationship with the U.S. and that we're American citizens.

PM: Comedy! That’s surprising for some reason, perhaps because it is so antithetical to the vibe of a lot of the New Music world.

AN: That's kind of what got me really interested in Meredith Monk. Her work is incredibly rigorous and gorgeously crafted, but at the same time, it's not taking itself too seriously. And the work is so good that it's more than plenty — it's more than enough. It doesn't have to refer to itself or look at itself like "look at me, look how intricate I am" or "look how elevated or academic or rigorous I am." It has a lightness and a playfulness to it without it feeling childish. I'm not saying it's not serious, it's just there is that kind of a joy. There is almost a sense of irreverence that I really appreciate in art as well. She's a very big influence.

PM: When did you first start working on this specific project with ModernMedieval?

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz   Via Wikipedia

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Via Wikipedia

AN: About seven to eight months ago I met with Jacqueline from ModernMedieval. We talked about some ideas for text and a little bit about how they blend chant and the ancient and the new — that's a big part of what they do. And previous to that I'd been really curious about this Mexican poet and nun, her name is Juana Inés de la Cruz. She's from like the 17th century. And so I was like, okay, this sounds like the perfect project to set her words to music. So I remember at that meeting I remember we talked about this idea and then for the following month after that I started very much into digging into Juana Inés's poetry and trying to find the poem that would be the right fit for this project. Since then I've been writing the piece on and off for the past four months.

The piece is very atmospheric, very textural and kind of mysterious. And I would also say, at least to my ears, has kind of sensual vibe to it as well. For me that was like *the thing* that I wanted to capture from Juana Inés de la Cruz's words because it's very spiritual. A lot of her poems are about really intense friendships or relationships to other women. So a lot of the times she's kind of she's known as one of the first openly lesbian poets... Well, maybe not openly lesbian... But a lot of people feel like her poetry is very queer. Though some people disagree and think that she's just talking about friendships or that it is just a metaphor for something else. But a lot of her poems are directed to other women and they're very intense and sensual and have a lot with a kind of desire and disappointment and kind of being love sick. There's a lot of vivid imagery and it's kind intense too. So I kind of wanted to capture that with my music and find a way of writing a piece that would also kind of maintain that essence and that mystery while at the same time being a little provocative too.

PM: How did you come about her work in the first place?

AN: I don't remember exactly where I heard about her work. I remember that I'd been hearing about her work for a long time and because she's kind of this controversial figure of the 17th century and also that she was not only a nun, but also a poet and a self-taught scholar and philosopher and very well known in alot of Latinx feminist circles too. So she's a very important figure.

She has a very famous poem called, "Hombres Necios." I don't know exactly how that translates. Maybe like: "you dumb men" kind of... There might be might be a better translation, but it's all, it's a very aggressive and interesting poem kind of calling out men. Like "you complain about woman, but you did this, this, this and this." It is something that you could read it right now and it's still incredibly relevant. *And* she wrote it in the 17th century. Actually, that was the poem that I initially wanted to set, but it's one of her most well known poems. And then I happened to stumble upon this one when was looking deeper into her work and the title itself captivated me: "Letras Para Cantar", which translates to something like "Verses for Singing" And I was like, okay, this sounds like it's asking for it. As soon as I started reading it I knew I was going to use it. It's a pretty long poem so I use about half of the poem and took some liberties. There are some excerpts of other moments that I wanted to highlight but it was definitely one that I felt resonated with me particularly for the voices of the women in ModernMedieval.

Verses for singing
Narcisa’s lovely voice
gently pierced through the air.
And through the mouth of
its wounds, the air echoed in reply.

She stops celestial Axes
from spinning in their tracks.
And Elements call a truce
in their unrelenting discord.

Slaying echoes

Her lethal features
exert a mortal change.
The eyes dart harmony.
The lips spew lightning.

Do not dual-wield your weapons,
beautiful slayer!
For death has no place
where there is no life.

Letras para cantar (excerpt)
Hirió blandamente el aire
Con su dulce voz Narcisa,
Y él le repitió los ecos
Por boca de las heridas.

De los celestiales Ejes
El rápido curso fija,
Y en los Elementos cesa
la discordia nunca unida.

Homicidas, ecos

Homicidas sus facciones
El mortal cambio ejercitan;
Voces, que alteran los ojos
Rayos que el labio fulmina.

No dupliques las armas,
Bella homicida,
que está ociosa la muerte
Donde no hay vida.

Hear the world premiere of Angélica Negrón’s new work for ModernMedieval along with new works from Ben Frost and Julianna Barwick and some very old works from Hildegard of Bingen live

Presented and commissioned by liquid music and walker art center

Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek and "The Living Word" by Charlie Mogen

by LM blog contributor Charlie Mogen


A Grammy Award-winner for her work with vocal ensemble Anonymous 4, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek has since founded the trio ModernMedieval alongside Roomful of Teeth vocalists Eliza Bagg and Martha Cluver. ModernMedieval presides at the intersection of early and new music, with repertoire that spans a millennium. Liquid Music and Walker Art Center are proud to present ModernMedieval: The Living Word — ecstatic chants of Hildegard von Bingen alongside new music by Julianna Barwick (commissioned by Ecstatic Music Festival) and world premieres by Angélica Negrón and Ben Frost (commissioned by LM and WAC) March 22 & 23 at Summit Center for Art & Innovation in Saint Paul. I was recently able to chat with Jacqueline about the group’s formation, inspirations, and the strong ties between ancient and contemporary art.

CM: What ideas/inspirations led to you forming ModernMedieval? I love (and subscribe to) the idea that ancient music and new music complement and advise each other much more so than “newer” (romantic/classical) work—does that notion push the programming and commissioning of the group?

JHQ: I am from the U.K., and before I moved to the U.S. I was primarily a singer of new music, premiering works by Judith Weir, Iannis Xenakis and Sir Harrison Birwistle, amongst many others. When I came to the States and later joined Anonymous 4, that was my introduction to medieval music, and I fell in love with it partly because I felt it related to the new music I had been singing, both creatively and sonically. As A4’s new music person, I facilitated new commissions from David Lang, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Sir John Tavener, and after A4 stopped performing, it was a dream of mine to combine the two worlds in more tangible and deliberate ways, and the concept of ModernMedieval came about largely because of that.


I didn’t know that your background is in the new music world! So that means that the entire group (Horner-Kwiatek alongside Eliza Bagg and Martha Cluver, as well as Abigail Lennox who perform March 22 & 23) has experience in both the medieval and new music worlds. Is that makeup intentional? How do the two ideologies work together in music making?

The make-up was deliberate in that I wanted singers who were at home in both worlds and were open to adventurous and non-conventional programming in addition to more conventional projects. I wanted colleagues who could do it all and that is what I got—Martha, Eliza and Abigail are fantastic!

I find it interesting that you’ll be presenting works of Hildegard von Bingen in a space (Summit Center for Arts & Innovation) that was initially constructed as an Episcopal Church for the performance of similar works. Beyond acoustic implications, are there certain works that “fit” spaces better or worse?

It’s always nice to sing music in the kind of space for which it was intended to be performed, and certainly if you are singing a program of sacred music, a sacred space is the right “fit.” It is preferable to have a good natural acoustic if you are singing chant, or a cappella vocal music. I think in the end it’s our job to make the music work, no matter what space we are in—though judiciously placed mics to add reverb and cushion the sound don’t go amiss in some places!

Talk to me about Julianna’s work “Adder,” its construction, premiere, and evolution since.

It was commissioned for The Ecstatic Music Festival at Merlin Hall in NYC and received its premiere in May 2018. It was a great chance for us to get to sing with Julianna as well as perform her beautiful, haunting music. It has actually not been performed since, so we are all very excited that it will receive its second ever performance with Liquid Music!

The two commissioned composers for this performance are Angélica Negrón and Ben Frost. What draws ModernMedieval to their work?

I am always looking for composers that will challenge us, and ideally who will take the concept of an early/new music collaboration and apply that to their own artistic vision. Angélica and Ben are risk takers and fascinating artists and I can’t wait to see what they come up with!

ben angelica.jpg

The main vocal groups that ModernMedieval draws lineage from, Anonymous 4 and Roomful of Teeth, produce some peculiar, unique sounds through extended technique. Do you have any specific techniques that you’re particularly proud of/enjoy performing the most? What is the weirdest sound you’ve had to produce in a written work?

I can’t think of any specific techniques, other than the ensemble techniques of listening and awareness needed to bring voices together to produce a unique sound. Small, one-on-a-part ensemble singing is deceptively difficult, but when the blend and the unity of purpose come together, it is a magical feeling!

Regarding the weirdest sound…. Singing while inhaling is always a challenge, and when a large group of singers is doing it, can be pretty funny!

Visit this link to purchase tickets for ModernMedieval’s March 22 & 23 performances.

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Interview: Brent Arnold on "Let the Crows Come" by Liquid Music

On February 11, cellist and composer Brent Arnold will join Minneapolis-based Bharatanatyam dancer-choreographer Ashwini Ramaswamy in dialogue about her Liquid Music commission “Let the Crows Come” (the talk also features dancer-choreographers Alanna Morris-Van Tassel and Berit Ahlgren). Liquid Music’s Nick Lanser interviewed Brent in anticipation of the work-in-progress conversation (with live music by Arnold) hosted by TU Dance Artistic Director Toni Pierce-Sands.

Brent Arnold 2.jpg

Nick Lanser: Tell us about your musical background and upbringing. How did you come to the cello?

Brent Arnold: In a very unorthodox way! I don't come from a musical family, and my first instrument was the guitar... I grew up with rock music and was obsessed with Jimi Hendrix, that was my thing. But in my late teens, as my interests were expanding out into jazz and classical music and world musics and experimental stuff, guitar started to seem like the boring and safe choice, somehow! Around then I borrowed a friend's cello, and got obsessed. It's not an instrument that lends itself to casual learning, so I sort of created my own curriculum, which included seeking out teachers who could give me technique while being open to my other explorations. In one of my very first lessons I brought in a Miles Davis song and said "how would I play this?" Of course, he'd never really considered such a question.

NL: You compose for a variety of different musical genres and this project will likely find you collaborating with Carnatic ensemble. Is this familiar or new territory to you?

BA: I've never formally studied Indian music, which is such a deep and rich subject of inquiry. But I've been listening to it and learning from it for years, and I've drawn a lot of inspiration from the concepts, strategies and philosophies. I've also collaborated quite a bit in the last few years with an incredible tabla player, Aditya Kalyanpur. He comes from the Northern, Hindustani music tradition, so now I'm learning more about the Carnatic side. And I've found it so easy to work with Roopa and Arun, they are just incredible musicians and chill people, and that really helps. 

Brent Arnold 3.jpg

NL: In addition to your solo work, you are a co-founder of the Ghost Quartet and have collaborated with a diverse range of musicians. What projects have especially stood out, and what makes “Let the Crows Come” unique?

BA: Well I've worked with so many artists, in all kinds of disciplines, and all of that informs what I do now. I'd say these last several years working with Ghost Quartet have been a revelation for me... it's quite a special thing, four musicians playing songs which become a theater piece with all sorts of recurring characters and interlocking stories and themes. Dave Malloy, the composer, has such a free and yet productive way of working, and the other collaborators, Gelsey Bell and Brittain Ashford... we each get to bring our unique selves, and we get to cover so much ground, musically. 

For Let the Crows Come, I'm integrating my solo cello & electronics with new compositions for a very eclectic mixed ensemble—with these great musicians from an Indian music background, and with Jace [Clayton], who comes from DJing and synthesis and so forth. For quite a few years I've been creating this body of solo work, with unusual cello techniques and live electronic manipulation of the cello, so I have a sort of repertoire with that. And I'm creating compositions based on those explorations, which integrate these fantastic players coming from totally different directions. I love composing with specific, unique, and idiosyncratic musicians in mind. It's challenging and also inspiring. 

NL: The February 11 work-in-progress conversation at the Parkway Theater is part of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Tapestry festival, which is centered around the question “How do I recognize my home?”. What role has music played in recognizing your home? How has this idea come through in your collaboration—thus far—with Ashwini Ramaswamy and Jace Clayton?

Ashwini Ramaswamy

Ashwini Ramaswamy

BA: Interesting question! I grew up moving around a lot, and I think of myself as pretty comfortable not being rooted in any certain place. And in this case, it might be more about creating a home wherever you are. The collaboration with Ashwini is brand new, and Jace and I have worked together off and on for many years. It's a bit like finding yourself in a new place with some familiar elements and making it into a home, for the moment. Like asking "what if I lived here? Where would I go in the morning for my coffee? What would these people or this particular architecture make me think about?"

NL: Is composing for dance a new experience for you? How does the process of creation shift when in service to movement / in collaboration with a choreographer? 

BA: I had great experiences composing for dance back when I lived in Seattle. Jarrad Powell, a brilliant professor of mine at Cornish College of the Arts, started a composer/choreographer lab in conjunction with the dance department, and that led to many interesting projects and relationships. But since I've been in New York, I haven't done nearly as much with dance, which is something I should remedy. Dance is so mysterious to me, and so abstract, but when it grabs you it is so powerful. Jarrad told me something I've never forgotten, which is that it's great to work with dancers because they care more deeply about music than anyone else. It's so true! They will come to know your music in ways even you don't. For a composer, that's exciting and humbling.

NL: Liquid Music encourages its audience to be ever-seeking of new music experiences. What music or performance gripped you in 2018?

BA: Off the top of my head... the jazz pianist Myra Melford's album The Other Side of Air was a beautiful one, it got me excited about that format of music again. And, in a totally different direction, Tierra Whack's, umm, creation... I'm not sure whether to call it an album or... we need a new term! She created this 15-minute video, a musical and cinematic artwork, made of one-minute pop/rap songs and videos. It's so audacious and I love that. 

RESERVE TICKETS FOR “LET THE CROWS COME” work-in-progress conversation and showing FEB 11, 2019 at the parkway theater





Intentions of the Day: Speaking with Pekka Kuusisto by Charlie Mogen

by LM blog contributor Trever Hagen

photo courtesy of Sonja Werner

photo courtesy of Sonja Werner

As a Finnish violinist who spent time in his youth in the United States, Pekka Kuusisto is a mobile musical personality that is difficult to pin down. To be sure, his proficiency as a conductor, performer and composer is a family affair: his grandfather was composer and organist Taneli Kuusisto, his father is the Finnish composer and conductor Ilkka Kuusisto, and his brother is the acclaimed conductor Jaakko Kuusisto. As a child, Pekka began playing violin at the age of 3, crafting his fluency in the intricate depth of Bach as well as exploring the world of improvisation. Combining these twin pillars of musical approaches, Pekka has carved out a distinct voice (or force, I should say) in contemporary music.

Kuusisto brings these talents to the Twin Cities as an Artistic Partner of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, warmly introducing listeners to new compositions by 21st century composers in addition to the ageless beauty of the classical cannon. This progressive programming is on full display January 1720 when Pekka returns to direct the SPCO. Unfortunately for the ears of Twin Cities, an arm injury will prevent Pekka from picking up the violin but not the baton. The program begins and ends with Beethoven—in between we hear Grammy-nominated Missy Mazzoli’s string quartet piece You Know Me From Here and Peruvian-born, Finnish-trained, American-based composer Jimmy López’s Guardian of the Horizon. Such programming evidences the complexity of Kuusisto’s and the SPCO’s intention to bring new sounds, new approaches and new canons to audiences in St. Paul and Minneapolis. 

In December, we sat down together to discuss his involvement with the SPCO. Right away we get deep into talking about the most innovative musicians and festivals in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Kuusisto’s comments and enthusiasm reveal a curious mind of depth and breadth; someone who puts his attention to the task at hand regardless of his relentless schedule of performance. Quickly our conversation turns from musical voices toward social questions of belonging, nation, music and history. As two white men sitting across a table from each other, the energy is familiar. It makes me think about the social situations we are drawn to, comfort zones of information we reside in, both offline and online. It makes me wonder about the duty we have as we age, to continue refreshing the perspectives that we grew up with. How might music aid in these efforts? What is music’s role in these relationships?

In this open context of communication, we explore topics of Finnish-ness, privilege, class, race and language. In particular we discuss how people belong—to canons, to nations, to groups, manners of exclusion/inclusion, and how history is written.

Trever Hagen: As much as English is our national tongue, it is certainly not a mother tongue for many people in the U.S. How does language and nationality feel for you and your self-perception?

Pekka Kuusisto: Finland is so small, about 5.5 million people—it is more of a club than a country. Finland has been incredibly white for such a long time—longer than Sweden I think or Norway. Now we have a generation with different kinds of skin colors who are born in Finland. I read a lot about the experience of people with different skin tone. Like people not believing you are born in Finland. People believing you are not Finnish even of you are born there and speak Finnish perfectly. We can do better. 

Have you encountered these mechanisms of exclusion—like language or appearance—in music?

The further back you go in classical music, the more difficult it is to find scores written by women for many reasons. That is why in contemporary music, the situation is much better. It is fantastic in comparison. One thing that I find somehow important when we are speaking about composers: to try to avoid talking about “female composers” and then just “composers”. That happens all the time back home—“female conductors,” since there is so much male dominance. Although, Finland was the first country to give voting rights to women and the first country to have female parliamentarians. And this was a hundred years ago.

It is interesting that in the West we might all perceive ourselves as being on the same page or developing at a similar rate. But this is such a striking example of how countries differ across time.

Yeah, we (Finns) were kind of like world leaders.

To this day these countries in Scandinavia are leaders or at least provide models of society for other countries. Are you trying to communicate any perspective, like a progressive Finnish perspective, at all with your music?

I don’t want to make a Finnish concert or a Finnish piece. I would try to erase as much of that as possible. It shouldn’t feel like something nice that I am bringing from home. I’m a white guy from a country that is very wealthy and we have things that we take for granted that seem like absolute miracles—impossibilities for most of the world I imagine, or most of the people in world. Like, I went to music school for free in Finland. I studied at the University for nothing. I had a baby and it cost us only $150. If I’m at home and I get cancer, it won’t cost me to go to the hospital.

photo courtesy of Felix Broede

photo courtesy of Felix Broede

We talked about the Sami musical traditions and about not wanting to bring in any of Finnish traditions to a performance—music on one hand can help us erase boundaries and on the other it can be used to enforce or understand who a people are. So where might music fit into this equation?

I was in a professional string quartet some years ago. I have spent enough time improvising—from when I was 3, I started—and improvised music has always been present for me and this is not always typical in classical violin playing. Actually it is quite rare. It gave me a language—I encountered all these sounds that no one could ever compose.  The sounds that you know are only yours then start to bleed into other people’s music when you play. So you develop a language. I have quite a clear sound. I know that people who have heard my playing recognize it when they hear it again. There is something that tells them: “This is the Finnish guy.” When I went into this professional quartet, my aim was to erase all of that as much as possible—my voice. To become like a blank player in order to then be able to rebuild together with the 3 other people. It didn’t work out at all because we all had very different ideas of how building a quartet language happens. So it didn’t happen but I still thought that my idea was good: if not for a quartet then as an exercise to make yourself invisible. This is something I talk a lot about with my musician friends: the amount of yourself you put into your performances and is it even possible for you to see or gauge how much you are doing it? What kind of perspective-enhancing drugs do you need to be able to distance yourself from something you have done since you were a kid? It is complicated, but maybe that is what I would like to accomplish here. To kind of not bring the part of me that always plays Finnish folk songs. Or uses the bow in way that trad-Finnish fiddlers would use. Or to even talk about Finland because I talk about Finland constantly.

As our conversation drew to close, Kuusisto’s musical attempt at erasing identity within a string quartet reminds me of the challenges we face as groups of people living together in 2019. It reveals how, even in a musical situation, it is difficult to let go of identities even when there is a language, such as music, to try out these ideas. But this difficultly shouldn’t put off anyone – these musical intentions and gestures are experiments to move our societies forward. If the stage acts like a laboratory, then the arts are the ingredients for change and growth. For these reasons, having a program that brings together the history of humanity (e.g., Beethoven’s canonical compositions) along with the future of humanity (e.g., new compositions) is not only a unique musical experience, it is a bold roadmap stated in a radically open manner.

Buy tickets to see Pekka conduct the SPCO January 17–20

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The Sonic Universes of Tyshawn Sorey by Liquid Music

by Liquid Music Blog contributor Patrick Marschke


There is a clarity to the way Tyshawn Sorey talks about music and his relationship to it. A way of speaking that becomes a bit disorienting when considering how prolific and diverse his career has been from such a young age. He could claim many titles  — composer, performer, teacher, musician, scholar, trombonist, percussionist — but all seem to barely scratch the surface of his artistic identity. In a recent conversation with Sorey, I realized that there is one thing that ties these facets together, and simplifies his prolific and perplexing body of work. He summed it up when speaking about his expectations of the musicians he works with:

“We’re all creating something, and we are all equally responsible for how the composition, in the end, comes out.”

Sorey sees music-making as a very serious responsibility — one that he is willing to go very far to serve. And within each segment of his practice, you can see that he is willing to go just a bit further to truly serve the music than most. In taking on full responsibility for each of the sonic universes he participates in, he has found novel and unique ways to challenge himself to serve the music completely, going so far as placing extreme limitations on his own instrumentation or removing himself as an instrumentalist altogether as we will see in his upcoming performance with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra via a unique approach to large ensemble improvisation generally referred to as conduction.

Sorey has developed his own vocabulary of conduction, called Autoschediasms, which he described as “essentially a lexicon of visual and gestural cues that I use — it is essentially a duet for conductor and orchestra.“ He is quick to note two of his main influences in his approach to conduction — Butch Morris and Walter Thompson.

Butch Morris, the originator of the practice, defines conduction as:

“The practice of conveying and interpreting a lexicon of directives to construct or modify sonic arrangement or composition.”

Walter Thompson’s “Soundpainting” is a similar gesturally controlled improvisation that Sorey cites as influential on his practice. Thompson describes the practice as “a universal multidisciplinary live composing sign language for musicians, actors, dancers, and visual artists.”

I asked Sorey if there are common misconceptions about the practice:

“I think what happens is that one falls into the trap of thinking that conduction is one language and the music is always going to sound pretty much sound the same because you have the same gestures and the same cues and everything. But the user is what makes each interpretation of it very different. So one common misconception is that people think that it is always going to be the same thing where in fact it isn’t.

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Also, conduction is not really a free for all. There is no such thing, to me, as some kind of existential freedom when it comes to performing conduction in any kind of music setting. A misconception from audience members is that they think that all these musicians up there are just creating some random songs, like picking notes out of thin air without any kind of thought paid or any kind of attention paid to what they are doing and that couldn’t be further from the case. No matter what gesture I give a musician they have to own up to whatever the sound you contributed to the situation. We’re all creating something and we are all equally responsible for how the composition, in the end, comes out. This is not an opportunity for somebody to get up there and take a solo and display some kind of crazy virtuosity or something without regard to anything that the other orchestra members are doing.

I think people tend to think that whenever there is a conduction situation or everybody is not reading a bunch of music on the stage that everybody is just playing some random noise or some random sounds. The way that I use conduction is far from that — I’m thinking compositionally all the time. All the players should also think compositionally in their decision making and understand that any actions that they make are going to affect the overall outcome of the total composition. They can’t take any part of the music making process for granted at any point, no matter if you have 25 musicians or 100 musicians up there. Every contribution you make has to be something of value and something that can be useful for the creation of a real-time work with all of the rest of the orchestra.”

I asked Sorey if he thought it was important to see conduction in person rather than just hear the results:

“I think it is very good that people see it, that people see the process of what is going on. But I also don’t want to give people too much information about the process itself because I’d rather they experience the music itself.

I think to see it would be a rewarding experience to anyone coming to witness because I don’t think it is something that is seen all that much: A conductor up there potentially with just a baton and a bunch of musicians there with no sheet music in front of them and yet they are able to develop something that is as coherent as any written composition by any composer of any century. I think it is pretty much seeing what one could view as impossible, where in fact it is very possible to craft something in real time with a large or small group — it’s just as just valid as anything else.

I think it is as important for an audience to come witness conduction and to actually see the process of how it’s done so that way they can take with them the fact that everybody is communicating using a particular language because that’s all I am interested in in the end: communication. I think that will give the audience something to realize about themselves and their way of picturing what music should or about how music should be made. It will change for their whole conception of that, which I always would hope and strive for even in my own music.”

Tyshawn seems to rarely show up to a performance with the same instrumental set up more than once, and I wondered if he thought of the instrument selection process for his set up as part of the compositional process, and if so, had he always utilized orchestration in improvisation in such a way:

“I’ve always thought of it that way since I’ve first started making music — the drumset is just one part of it. What I call a percussion setup could also involve a piano or a trombone. Even though the trombone is not a “percussion” instrument per se, I see it as being part of one big sound world. I’m not quite sure what to call my setup — I don’t want to call it a “multi-instrumental setup” because then one instrument out of the setup might get favored.

Part of the reason why I do that, especially in my own music is not that I get “bored” of the drumset at all, it’s really for reasons of wanting to be as explorative as I can be in my music. Where I can contribute to the music by creating a sound world that maybe I wouldn't get to create just using a regular drum set. I want to get to the other thing in my music. I am always interested in how the set up can affect the music or how it can affect the outcome of the music.

I see it as these multiple universes that are existing within a small unit. That’s how I like to look at the way that I produce sound: this universe for me to go to one place to explore one sound world and then come to another place where I explore a different sound world. Just to go between these multiple sound worlds at any given time.”

I asked if Sorey if he had recently been inspired by anything not related to music:

“One thing that inspires me so much is my daughter, raising my daughter and taking care of my family — that is a very big influence for me. Watching my daughter discover things and watching her grow and just seeing how her mind develops from different things, related to art or not. That stuff is super influential, just in terms of understanding the process of openness and understanding the process of discovery. And the realization of one’s potential for making something or becoming something. I think that stuff is so important to see.

Sometimes what is missing in a lot of us as musicians is that we tend to get stuck in a particular way of thought or doing things as related to music or as related to whatever it is we are doing — sometimes we forget what it means to experience something for the first time or what it means to discover something that we really like and we want to have more of that experience. We forget that and take that stuff for granted. Just to watch my daughter grow and really become curious about things that even as far the music that I play or anything else, it’s never a judgemental kind of thing that exists. She's receptive to whatever information is out there. She picks stuff up very very quickly. To see that going on for the last two years that I have been raising my daughter is just fascinating just to watch that happening.

Children, in general, are inspirational in that regard.“

See Tyshawn Sorey with Jennifer Koh and Vijay Iyer

See Tyshawn Sorey perform his Autoschediasms with The SPCO

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Collective Gaze: Eva Mohn on "When Isn't Yet" by Charlie Mogen

by LM blog contributor Charlie Mogen

photo courtesy of Randy Karels

photo courtesy of Randy Karels

Throughout her career, dancer Eva Mohn has prioritized the betterment of the collective above advancement of her own name. Originally from Jasper, MN, Mohn studied dance at the University of Minnesota before finding success in St. Paul, New York, and Stockholm. However, the limelight will be hers with the premiere of When Isn’t Yet, a Liquid Music commission to be presented April 17 and 18 at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis. In her words, Mohn has chosen to work with those who “have devoted the labor of their artistic work to being collaborators, company and ensemble members, supporting roles, and who have done so intentionally at the expense of their own solo career for the joy and reward of collaborative energy.” The result: a collective of artists striving to put the goals of the whole before individual accolade. I was able to chat with Mohn about career growth, difficulties in collaboration, and the pursuit of artistic oneness.

CM: You were a member of St. Paul dance company (and LM alumnus) TU Dance. What does it mean to present new works in a return to your former stomping grounds?

Former Alvin Ailey company member/Mohn mentor Toni Pierce. Photo by Jack Mitchell.

Former Alvin Ailey company member/Mohn mentor Toni Pierce. Photo by Jack Mitchell.

EM: My work today feels like a collection of so many parts and innumerable influences. Studying at the University of Minnesota and working with TU Dance connected me to an array of artists, those working in dance as dancers, those working in dance as choreographers, visual artists, musical artists, all types of media and medium. I feel so grateful for the people that I met and community I found through choosing to stay in Minneapolis, where I come from, starting with Sue Gunness in Waconia, MN. At the University I also met Toni Pierce-Sands who was that kind of teacher, mentor, guide, who says just what you need at just the right moment to propel your life forward in monumental ways. I am deeply grateful for her work and her interventions in my life. She convinced me to keep dancing when I, repeatedly, had the proverbial towel in hand ready to throw it in. This will be the first time I’ve performed in Minneapolis in more than 7 years, the last time being with TU Dance. This will be the first time I present my own work in the United States on this scale. I have no idea how it will be. I feel like a lot has changed for me. My body is changing rapidly and I view dance very differently now than I did 7 years ago. It’s exciting for me to have this opportunity to see what comes out, what falls together. I feel so honored to come back and offer something to the community that supported me so much.

What is your experience with compositional collaboration? How does your experience as a musician shade this collaboration and the creative process?

During my work at The Cullberg Ballet we have tended to work side-by-side with composers during the process. The musician is sometimes even watching how we warm up to understand what sort of environment we are marinating in. Our work there is rarely choreographed “on music” or “to music,” but they weave together. Likewise the light design. This has shifted my perspective on how composition can work. How image and sound can illuminate each other. In When Isn’t Yet we are trying to have the music and movement be married so that the sound infiltrates the dance and the dance infiltrates the sound. Given that I also have been a song writer and dabbled in music composition, I am constantly composing movement together with the sound of my own body, my own singing, the rhythms that my feet make. They always come out together in the laboratory time. In this collaboration with Mike we have ping-ponged back and forth the music I imagine, the songs that are coming up for me as I am dancing, and the sound that he sees in the movement we make. It’s like we are playing magicians or clairvoyant mediums and together figuring out what sort of composition wants to get made by us and doing what we can to let that happen, trying to make way for the very subtle voices of the “whens” and “not yets” of composing.

You and musician-composer Mike Lewis recently completed your first creative residency—walk us through the initial creation process, ideas, snags, etc. that you experienced.

We had a working month in Minneapolis in September 2018 to map out our methods and blueprints of the piece. During that month we had a great three day residency at Carleton College in Northfield where we could stand the piece up in a theater with incredible acoustics and let the scale expand beyond the studio version. We (Michael Lewis, Sarah Baumert and myself) were amazed by what we could accomplish together in three fully concentrated days of work. The biggest snag is the resource of time. I have been shocked, actually, at the amount we all have to work on our other work. It’s almost financially impossible for people, artists, us, to be able to set time aside to dive into a project. I thought that the biggest snag would be distance, since I live full time in Sweden, however it has added something special that we continue our personal practice of this piece from our satellite locations. It is time as a material that is scarce. Work, as in the stuff we have to do to make a living, takes a disproportionate amount of time. If I could do something to provide Michael, Sarah, and Maggie a solid month of time to focus solely on practicing their way of doing this composition, I would. But that would take a much larger restructuring of economics and how we value. Yes, value as a verb.

Many young Midwesterners have a romantic notion of leaving the area in pursuit of artistic greatness. How has your move changed how you think, create, or act?

Leaving the Midwest surely can feel like a romantic notion of finding “new” or “more”. And then coming back to the Midwest can have this romantic notion of returning to where there is fertile and sustainable life. I think that I realized that what I want to pursue the most is continuity of my person, whether I am in Minnesota, or working in New York, or in Stockholm, whether I am working as a dancer, or choreographer or teacher. I am pursuing that my person and my values stay consistent. It’s very easy to jump into some other value system working in a larger, more economically driven city, or jumping roles from a dancer to a director or teacher. I think I want to consider that my pursuit of “artistic greatness” is about consistency of practice. One thing for sure that has changed for me though, is that I am much slower than I was when I was living and working in the States. When I come back to work in the US I always feel like I have to gear up to keep up with how much people do in a day. I can effectively do about two things, and one of those is make food.

Do you have a favorite piece of music you’ve danced to? Favorite choreography?

My favorite music so far is a piece designed by David Kiers for a work called Plateau Effect choreographed by Jefta Van Dinther and performed by Cullberg Ballet. David makes heavy, subterranean music and it’s impossible not to be moved by it. I have to mention also a light designer Minna Tiikkainen. She interprets dance and sound in ways that have shifted my performance experience in big ways. My favorite dance experience to date is doing a piece by Deborah Hay called Figure a Sea. I have performed or practiced this dance alongside my colleagues at Cullberg at least 50 times, and it only gets finer and more rich and more surprising. Her method of asking questions and offering dance-defying scores is an endless exercise in curiosity. She has influenced greatly how I think dance. Not think about dance, but think dance.

Visit this link to purchase tickets for When Isn’t Yet April 17 & 18, part of Liquid Music’s New Music & Dance Duos, also featuring Dustin O’Halloran and Fukiko Takase: 1 0 0 1.

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Everyday Expression: Dimitri Chamblas & Kim Gordon on Movement, Sound and Performance by Liquid Music

by Liquid Music blog contributor Trever Hagen

October 11, 2018
Los Angeles

I pulled up to Dimitri's home-away-from-home a few minutes earlier than our scheduled meeting. I intended to be right on time for this interview and not let the Los Angeles traffic sabotage an ever-so intriguing opportunity: to have an hour of time with Dimitri Chamblas and Kim Gordon to discuss their upcoming performance for Liquid Music. Moreover to speak with people who have so boldly presented their voices was a chance to learn something. Dimitri and Kimthe former a decorated French dancer and choreographer who has just taken up the role as Dean of CalArts and the latter a house-hold name for anyone interested in rock music in the past thirty yearswill perform an improvised movement and sound duet on March 4-5, 2019 at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.

With ten minutes to spend before the interview, I took a short walk around his neighborhood in Silver Lake. The bio-diversity, seemingly-secret homes, hilled driveways are such a striking difference to Minneapolis's wide roads and prairie gentle slopes. Discoveries invigorate the imagination: what is the sunrise like in this cul-de-sac? What is daily life like on this street? The birdcalls betrayed their city living. The dark green palm canopies gave life to an adobe-colored city that has as much mystery as it has smog, both entities hiding in plain view. It is the kind of mystery that emerges in heated tropical pauses.


As my walk looped back to Dimitri’s spot, Kim had just pulled up. We walked in together to Dimitri's modest home. They greeted each other as if they hadn’t seen one another in some time. As Dimitri poured some tea, he spoke with enthusiasm about the dances from India he was studying and their engagement of the facial expressions – intriguing content of that form from that place. We stumbled into a chat about nutrition. Kim had just come from a weightlifting session while Dimitri spoke about the psychology of nutrition. It was a curious conversation – one where everyone was curious to know more about what each had to say about some tidbit of information about health – ancient medicines, super foods, new stretches. It seems the owner manual for the human body is a text that is passed down like this – through reflection on your body, mis-steps, risk management, prevention, cures. Through a reflection on your everyday routines.

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Dimitri Chamblas: For nutrition you have to figure out what your day is going to be like, because it is not the same recurrence. Nutrition must be adapted to what your day is going to be. If you have a whole day of rehearsal you won't have the same meal as if you were just resting. You know? What is not often considered is the variety of your everyday life. So for like diets and nutrition "If you do this it is going to be great for this and that" – yes, but my Monday is not the same as your Monday. If you do a whole night or a whole week of some crazy physical activity or whatever it is how you adapt to your life. Not the opposite. Not adapting your life to something that is dictated that you should do.

From the start of our conversation it was clear that the boldness of any artistic voice must come from a boldness of the mind – that is, not adapting to external orders of the world but rather adapting that information to that which is internal. Although we share the singular great cosmic energy that makes up every organic material, it is all differentiated – nothing or no one is the same. We spoke together and for them it seemed to be one of the first times they too had reflected together on their rapport, their interaction, what is going on.

Trever Hagen: So how did you two meet? How did you start working together?

Kim Gordon: We met through our mutual friend Francesca Gabbiani, who has a studio here in Los Angeles.

TH: Did you start rehearsing together when you met? Was there something that brought you together?

DC: Because.... let's change direction. Because really what I enjoyed and what I think is making me think strong things [about this performance] — is that we don't really rehearse, which is totally unusual for a dancer. It was very organic and spontaneous. We have this friend, she had an exhibition and she kind of invited, or proposed [this duo with Kim]. So I thought: ‘What could be strong?’ And I wouldn't even say it was to collaborate but just to make something together.

Anyway we said yes. So Kim invited me to her place to make a kind of try of something, like informally in a living room. And then she was starting to plug in the things [guitars and cables] and I was warming up. I was like ‘Maybe she already started?’ But then very quickly we went into something much more physical, to kind of avoid the imagery of the “player playing and the dancer dancing” because what I also love from Kim is the body and the voice. The voice is a body. It is very enchanting – talking and singing. It is it’s own territory – choreographical territory. So I was very interested by that. Then we did some very physical stuff – but then after 20 minutes I was tired so I went to the kitchen to have a drink. When I came back she was unplugging the stuff. [Kim laughs]. Because as a dancer you start at 10am and end at 6pm. Long rehearsals. Then I said, ‘So for me it is great.’ I really loved that. Because it really re-questions what the work is, especially when the work is improvisation. In dance we have a tendency to prepare improvisation a lot so it is a start of a writing, in a way. What I liked with Kim and what she did, in way was meaning like: ‘If we are going to improvise we have to be scared, we have to be fragile.’ The biggest gift we can give to an audience is to be in front of them like that. It is going to be unique; it is going to be fragile, adventurous. This is improvisation. So I really loved that and since then I have been trying to keep that. We don't see each other a lot so we meet and do that. So it is still super fragile. I know some ways of Kim's body but I don't have a memory of the show. So we don't re-do the show. We meet and "do that thing" assuming that it can be fragile. That's my experience.

TH: Did you have any different take away for the first rehearsal than perhaps what you were expecting?

KG: Not really. We had talked about contact improvisation before because I had done a workshop with Steve Paxton when I first went to New York. One of the reasons I moved to New York wasn't just to do visual arts but also I used to get Dance Magazine, I read about Yvonne Rainer and the Judson Church group [Judson Dance Theater] and I was like how can dance be a phenomenon? That was all very interesting to me – interdisciplinary, the way they were working, and so I was always interested in that.

TH: Was Paxton a mutual reference for you both?

KG: We had talked about him, yes. I did one other collaboration with this visual artist Nick Mauss – he's a visual artist who is very into dance. He had done something with the Northern Ballet Company and asked me and Juliana Huxtable, a trans performance artist, to interact with the music. And I ended up moving into their space a bit so I got a sense of that and it was really fun.

TH: Have you been able to incorporate any of these aspects of balance, touch or momentum into musical worlds?

KG: I guess I have always done that. In Sonic Youth there was always a couple of songs, like “Expressway [to your skull]” where I would stand on the bass, I had a big one. The thing about electrical instruments is that they respond to movement, they are very visceral. You can affect the sound by the way you move. Playing guitar and those gestures. So I was very aware of that. And now, I have this duo – Body/Head,  it is two guitars and all improvised. I have always liked to somehow take my guitar and interact with the structure of the space. You know like I'd love to make a film or do a performance under a freeway, you know with like using the cement like a guitar slide and playing with the architecture.

TH: It was interesting to see your performance in such a small room, this gallery space - you have both performed on iconic stages all over the world.  Each of these spaces seems to afford a different property. Is there anything you enjoy about these smaller spaces in contrast to larger stages? Or underneath a bridge?

KG: Well it is just different being surrounded by the audience, right? Being with them and not on a stage.

DC: These last two years in New York I did a lot of stage-based frontality. The first piece I did was a duet with Boris Charmatz we did this piece just after the conservatory. We did it to experiment because at conservatory you learn that a gesture has to be done for a direction, you learn that when you land from a jump the audience shouldn't hear any noise, if you are out of breath the audience shouldn't hear that, etc. etc. So this is one relation to an audience in traditional dance. But then we started to say – ‘No we have to assume that an arm has a weight and that weight makes noise. And we have to assume that a movement can be seen from there and also from there. And we have to assume the context changes the meaning of the movement.’ If you put your hand like this [out-stretched before your chest] and you are near an apple tree, it is to grab an apple. But if a door is there, it is to welcome someone. If it is after a competition then perhaps it is there to make a high-5. So the context is painting the dance. This is why I like these dances: it leaves a lot of room for people to tell themselves their story free of the body and gestures. Being so permeable to the context.

Regarding the gallery performance with Kim, I must say that I kind of liked being close to the audience. I really focused on Kim and the space she designs – herself with her moves and herself with the cables, that's the space for me. I don't really mind about 'Do I attribute a gesture to a direction?' – I am not this way at all. We are more like: ‘What kind of dance can also be the right reaction to what Kim is proposing?’ And for example when the dance is super clean and super designed and super clear, even like super technical – it creates something together which is much stronger than when I go into my own crazy gestures or whatever. Those are just from the experiences we had so far.

KG: Yeah you can't really think about the ends. It is hard to look at yourself because it can take you out of what you are doing. But in the past – playing music on a stage – it is fun to break that wall and go into the audience. They don't expect it. In a way, one thing I always thought was interesting was that the sound on stage is always different than the sound in front of the PA. So the audience never feels that same surround-thing that you do. But you are basically plugging into the technology of the club, and so that is kind of between you and the audience in some way. It is not exactly two different worlds, but it is two different experiences. [On stage] doesn't sound as perfect. Up front you have someone mixing the sound and on stage it is messier. Maybe you don't hear everything – it truly is more in your head or in your body.

DC: Of course it is music, but she is really a performer – with a very special way. She works with the body, with some experiences with different practices. So it is really a performance or a duet. I like that because we never had those questions. I co-teach a class with David Rosenboom and we have 12 composers, 12 dancers together in the room and we are questioning all of those relations between music and dance. How music can be the space for the dance. How music can be the color for the dance. How the dance can be so noisy you don't listen to the music anymore. All of those things. Which there are not those questions here [with Kim]. Because it is really like two performers together (there is the guitar and there is the voice), but really it is how you offer your partner balance. How she trusts you, how she reacts to that, how she takes the lead and brings you somewhere.

TH: It is very delicate negotiations it seems. Is there anything in the space or in realtime that is emerging – like a rule or a challenge – that you don't pursue?

Marie-Agnès Gillot

Marie-Agnès Gillot

DC: What really excites me about this project, about this duet, is when you dance with someone and you are surprised by their reaction you have proposed. For example I am doing this duet with Marie-Agnès Gillot – she is like the l'étoile dancer of the Paris Opera but kind of a crazy-amazing artist. And when I bring her into a direction she twists it into something else. [Kim and I] have the same – when I twist Kim sometimes – I don't know, a lift or going to the floor – she might follow but she might add something to it that transforms it. For having been dancing with many different partners – what I like here is the craziness of the reactions. The freeness. Like, I initiate something and then suddenly I have a mic there – it is complex, unpredictable and that's the best. That makes it a dance piece, a performance piece, for me.

TH: It is in that improvisational spirit of always supporting

DC: and also trusting someone you don't know. Because that's how you accept to give your weight to someone that puts you in danger. "Going out of balance", we say, is the beginning of the dance. Because going out of your balance will make you travel in that space with a temporality. Changing the space, so it is choreography. That's some stuff you can think of in the creation process – but it can take a very long time to be able to do so with your partner. To bring her into some directions that she really has to trust you with. But with us, it was really immediate.

TH: Indeed this rapport can be very difficult actually to establish with someone in a real way, not just performative.

KG: [Laughing] I have never danced with anyone – (except a noise piece I did with my niece). But what I wanted to ask you [Dimitri]: How do you teach performance? You can teach dance? How do you teach dancers to have a presence? Or projection?

Trisha Brown in 'Watermotor', by Babette Mangolte 1978

DC: For example, talking about the 'présence', when I arrived at CalArts, because of the teaching they had, the présence was like super focused on the outside. Kind of showing présence. It puts your body super up and in front. You know? And then I recruited this guy, who is a Trisha Brown dancer – and through body-work he changed the présence of the dancers. To make your body conscious of the weight of the body, of the fact that with arm – to go from here to there – you don't have use energy, just relax the weight will do the work. So then suddenly, these dancers started to be simpler, not playing anything. And then you have this space, you can make decisions. So this question of présence is really related to the body. The posture and the energy.

TH: Kim is there anything you've learned about présence?

KG: Well one thing that has surprised me… sometimes my lower back hurts – that was my trepidation – but the next day after our performance I felt great. And I find that when I just get to move around that is the best thing for my body.

TH: Was there something with movement creatively that you have found different than with other art forms or media. Was there an idea you were exploring in movement you couldn't find elsewhere?

KG: It was pretty much how I thought it would be. I mean it is hard to improv for like 30 minutes. Even for a musician. Bill [Nace] and I do all the time but sometimes it is harder to get past the 30-minute mark. There is just a lot that I have learned from playing with Bill that has been helpful in any improv situation.  Also this [performance]. There are times when both of you don't have to be playing or not move... it is different from like ‘oh here is a solo’ – it is not that. It is part of the range of dynamics that can be used.

DC: What I love, when I think about it, is the way Kim is doing the things. Sometimes I am too over-invested. What I really like is very strong and related to the présence thing and to the energy – sometimes she is going to be with the guitar and then she will be over there... like, ‘Is she performing?’ She is totally into it, but with distance. So this kind of présence and energy is incredible. She is so strong. We have rehearsed once and performed once so it is still fresh and we don't know what it is. But it is great. I love that because it is totally unusual. Like in a living room or in front of people – same thing. Being super busy but not to show. Being busy, but only to do the stuff [the tasks of working with objects]. And that is super strong. And that is something I think about – how do you translate that into dance? That is something very particular that you [Kim] have.

TH: Are you thinking of anything in particular or just going in with your guitar?

KG: Well I am kind of thinking of two things – what is going on with the sound, what is going on physically. Sometimes I think maybe I should bring in some more sound but that is just very intuitive.

TH: How does it feel in the performance space when you put your guitar down?

KG: Yeah it is probably more awkward. Having the guitar and microphone, the sound part that I am responsible for, gives me a way to not feel self-concisous about ‘I am doing a dance.’ I always have to trick myself so as to not feel self-consicous.

DC: I do not feel it honestly that you are two different bodies. But listening to you, then, it is conscious to me that you have double the amount of work. Running the music and dancing. Sometimes I feel like we are together but you are busy doing something else – it is great, I love it. We are together but we are not really together. But we really are together.

KG: I don't think of the music as music but more like a texture or some other aspect, like an environment we are moving around in. And then trying to think spatially a little bit.

TH: Do you ever touch the guitar, Dimitri? How do you like working with an object like this?

DC: Same thing – I have no questions [like] ‘Does it change my stance?’ It is there. I was surprised because I didn't know how Kim was considering the guitar as 'her object'.

KG: I probably shouldn't be using my favorite guitar actually – because usually I know how far I can go with it without destroying it. I think I could be freer if it wasn't my favorite guitar. [laughs]

DC: You know sometimes it is great to go easily from one thing to the other on some points, which are really big questions in the art. In classes you could spend a semester studying how you appropriate an object which is not yours by being invited in this context. In this context, it is not. The nature of the guitar in our performance is really changing.. .sometimes it is your [Kim’s] instrument, sometimes it is an object that makes things more complicated, sometimes when you put it somewhere it opens a territory, it is kind of a set up for a new space.

KG: And the guitar is so loaded with gestures, like the heroic gestures that male rock guitarists do. I wrote a piece on that, I have a performance based on that. [laughs]

TH: For sure and when you see this object thrown on the ground, it is still loaded with these gestures, those discourses but in a vulnerable and almost useless way. Or disregarded.

KG: People obsess and fetish over guitars...

TH: So it sounds like everything that you are up to in spatialities, discourse, repertoire or things you've learned is kind of “out the window”?

KG: It is and it isn't. Just as I bring whatever I have learned through everything I've done, so does Dimitri. You have your vocabulary – things that you know.

DC: I think it is the one [performance] where I bring the most of my experience. If you don't then you can't just meet 20 minutes. You bring your whole culture, life and experience. That is something I couldn't do with anyone else. We bring a lot in a very short time. This project to me is very special. We have done it very few times. We could do it all the time – in Paris [for example] – but we don't. So it keeps it very very special. I have it in mind not every day but I think about Kim a lot and what is this thing – but we concretely do it very few times. She is the opposite of the shows that are touring that I dance with. I do 4 shows in New York and then fly here and forget about it. This is the opposite. The presénce of the show is in the everyday life but the reality of the show is kind of never.

And so we return to the quotidian: an investment in the richness of resources to be found in the “variety of your everyday life,” as Dimitri says.  What might that return look like? It seems it would be to re-associate présence not necessarily with performativity nor even with habit or routine, but with how you adapt the outer world to your inner world in a way that effortlessly amplifies the power of gesture. The power of one’s voice, in other words. Présence in this everyday manner focuses and communicates your entire history into an expression, sound or movement – something that is undeniably yours, for which the only school to learn from is located within.

Dimitri Chamblas and Kim Gordon will perform for the second time their improvised dance duo at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. March 4-5 2019.

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Kim Gordon
Instagram: @kimletgordon
Twitter: @KimletGordon

Dimitri Chamblas
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Website: https://www.dimitrichamblas.com/

Inclusion, Collaboration, Evolution: Vanessa Rose Interviews Jennifer Koh by Charlie Mogen

by ACF President/CEO and LM blog contributor Vanessa Rose

photo by Juergen Frank

photo by Juergen Frank

A violin prodigy making her symphony debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11, Jennifer Koh has somehow exceeded expectations that follow the title. As a champion of classical and new music, Koh bridges the divide between traditional performance practice and radical innovation with projects like Bridge to Beethoven and her nonprofit arco collaborative. Koh makes her Liquid Music debut alongside pianist Vijay Iyer and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey January 9 at Amsterdam Bar & Hall in St. Paul.

Vanessa Rose: What I appreciate about your advocacy for new music and composers is that you do not see it as an either/or choice with traditional, revered classical works, but rather embracing the and as well as the vibrancy and relevancy it brings to our current repertoire. Your projects include pairing all ten of Beethoven’s violin sonatas with new works and inviting composers to re-imagine the violin concerto. How do you approach this expansion of your repertoire and selecting the composers you work with?

Jennifer Koh: I’ve always seen contemporary music as a thread to the past. My experience with performing new music is that often audiences who have not experienced classical music can relate to contemporary music, which engages with contemporary sounds and creates a pathway to experiencing older music.

In selecting the composers, I do extensive research, which includes listening to composers online, asking for scores, and going to live performances of their work. This research requires a lot of traveling! I’ve found that I have to do more research to find women and composers of color because they aren’t given the same kinds of opportunities as others. Often I have to visit more alternative spaces to listen to their work because they aren’t presented by as many traditional spaces or orchestras.

VR: Last summer, you gave a moving speech to the delegates of the League of American Orchestras’ annual conference in your hometown of Chicago. You make a call to action to the orchestra field to reflect on their programming choices and selection of artists. How would you expand that awareness and intention to concertgoers and other active participants in our field?

JK: I believe in advocating for voices of the population, which include women and people of color, that have not been heard in classical music. Their stories are just as relevant as the history of classical music, and it would be our loss to not hear their voices. When we bring new voices into older forms of classical music, you are only enhancing those traditional forms. 

Music has always been an essential form of expression for me, and at the same time I realize that I am often learning and performing music that has been written by white men in a different century. The gift of empathy that music can give us has led me to truly love this artform, and I believe that classical music can give all of us the space to understand experiences that are unlike our own.

VR: You emphasize the importance of collaboration with composers, like commissioning composer-performers to write duets for you through your Limitless project – of which the pieces by and with Tyshawn Sorey and Vijay Iyer are the centerpiece of your Liquid Music program. How do you make the case for the value of this process to performers, to composers?


JK: I always see classical music and music in general as a living and breathing art-form. For older music, it’s a process that was begun by the composer centuries long ago, interpreted by the performer, and ultimately finished by the listener.

When we engage with collaborations onstage, we bring forward all of that process to our audiences for a much more rewarding experience.

VR: Six years ago, you founded the non-profit, arco collaborative, “arco” being the combination of artist and composer, further illustrating this collaborative dialogue you believe in. They’ve commissioned many of the works we’ve discussed here, including Limitless. What was your motivation for creating this organization?

JK: I believe in artist-led projects, which empower artists and composers to engage with the topics relevant to our contemporary culture. Topics often unheard in the form of classical music that bring together contemporary ideas and voices with older musical structures. Arco creates a platform for this dialogue and incubates projects for a larger audience.

Vanessa Rose will be assuming the President & CEO position at the American Composers Forum in January, succeeding John Nuechterlein, who is retiring. She has led artist collectives including The Knights and International Contemporary Ensemble and as a fundraiser worked at the Lark Play Development Center, The Metropolitan Opera, and the League of American Orchestras. A violinist, Vanessa’s recent work as a composer advocate has been as Emerging Composers Consultant with the American Composers Orchestra and EarShot Orchestra Network, and with Jennifer Koh’s non-profit commissioning and program development foundation, arco collaborative.

Visit this link to purchase tickets for Jennifer Koh: Limitless with Vijay Iyer, and Tyshawn Sorey at Amsterdam Bar & Hall January 9.

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Interview: Third Coast Percussion on Collaboration by Charlie Mogen

by Liquid Music blog contributor Charlie Mogen

Third Coast Percussion returns to the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series December 9 with new work for the ensemble by musical icons Philip Glass and Devonté Hynes. After a career spanning almost five decades, Glass, a lifelong pianist, makes the move from ten fingers to four mallets with the composition of his first piece for percussion ensemble. Hynes, better known by his pop alias “Blood Orange,” is a Glass disciple and collaborator; and unsurprisingly makes an impressive classical debut.

photo by Saverio Truglia

photo by Saverio Truglia

Since Third Coast Percussion’s first Liquid Music engagement (with Glenn Kotche in 2014), the group has recorded and toured a bundle of collaborative and original works (highlights include Skidmore’s 2016 feat Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities and the group’s 2017 album Paddle to the Sea) and commissioned ten composers through their Emerging Composers Partnership. Simply put, the group has a strong draw towards group creation. Last week I was able to chat with the quartet about composition, growth, and the magnetism of collaboration.

Devonte Hynes Photo by Matthew Leifheit.jpg
Philip Glass by Raymond Meier.jpg

CM: Do you feel that working with visionaries from multiple generations of music-making has opened TCP’s ability to adapt / learn new music differently?

TCP: Any time we collaborate with anyone, we learn a new way of thinking about music and problem solving. It seems to us that it has less to do with the generation of a composer as much as the individual. Each new project comes with its particular challenges and opportunities, and its own mode of collaboration between the performers and composer. Philip Glass has a whole team of people who help run his empire, and we’ve never worked with an artist who has that large of a machine operating around them. They were all great to work with, but there are a variety of communications that have to all go through different people to coordinate all the elements. Glass also put a moment in his piece for a cadenza that the performers create themselves, which is also a first for us. In the case of Devonté Hynes’ piece, we’ve never commissioned a work where we had such a large role in orchestrating a new piece being written by someone else. Dev gave us the opportunity to take the musical content that he created and decide for ourselves what instruments to put them on. It was a very collaborative process, and one which was informed not just by our previous commissions but also by our work as composers of our own works.

Anyone who has listened to their music knows that each composer has a very recognizable style; Glass has his slow-moving, minimalist pondering, Hynes his drum and bass-driven, Prince-like, Steely Dan-orchestrated pop works. How do these pieces fall into or divert from the expected compositional tropes?

Dev’s piece has that recognizable Blood Orange atmosphere, with synthesizer sounds and harmonies that put a warm velvety glow on everything. However, it’s also recognizably Third Coast Percussion because we were so involved in orchestration. Perhaps it’s a surprise, though, that there are almost no drums in any of the music Dev wrote for us! It’s primarily pitch-, texture-, and harmony-driven music which doesn’t have the same dance style as his work as Blood Orange. The Glass is perhaps the opposite. One might expect a very keyboard driven piece, but there is a lot of non-pitched percussion in this Perpetulum, especially more traditional orchestral instruments like wood blocks, tambourines, snare drum and bass drum. This percussion writing is similar to some of the way percussion is employed in his symphonies and operas, but doesn’t necessarily resemble the stereotypical Philip Glass sound from many of his earlier works.

TCP has dabbled in minimalist work in the past, winning a Grammy for your Reich album and performing sections from Glass’ “Águas da Amazônia” on your most recent album Paddle to the Sea. How do you feel this past experience in the genre has shaped your preparation of Perpetulum?

I’d say it’s more than dabbling. Minimalist works have always been a big part of TCP’s repertoire, and this music was a substantial part of our music education. We all played music by Steve Reich, John Adams, Terry Riley, and others throughout college and since TCP was founded. We developed specific musical skills from this repertoire, and have been deeply influenced in our own compositions by this style of music. In the case of Perpetulum, our long history with minimalism helped us know how to first approach the piece and discover the challenges and opportunities inherent in the repetitive structures of the music. It was particularly helpful in the cadenza which Glass allows the performers to create for themselves. I think our version really synthesizes Glass’s music with our own Glass-inspired musical aesthetics.

This is your second time performing on a Liquid Music Series concert (TCP with Glenn Kotche, Wild Sound, October 2014). How do you feel the group has grown/changed in the four years since?

How much time do you have? First, it’s worth noting that Wild Sound was the largest project that TCP had built up to that point, in terms of the number of moving parts and the level of production involved. That experience helped us learn how to take on other multi-media projects like our recent Paddle to the Sea project, or approach the presentation of our existing repertoire in different ways, integrating more amplification, electronic playback or processing, and cameras that give the audience a close look at what we’re doing. Wild Sound has also lived on since then; we’ve done at least a dozen more performances of the full piece since we played in Saint Paul (which was right after the premiere), and we arranged an excerpt of the piece for more standard percussion instruments, which we have played dozens of times, and which is now starting to be performed by collegiate percussion ensembles.

Third Coast Percussion is also a different organization since our last time here. It was just the four performing members of the ensemble running the whole organization back then. Now we have three amazing additional staff members who have greatly improved our ability to carry out the work we do, and have made our operation much more sustainable for the long-term. We’ve also crossed some items off our bucket list since then, including our first GRAMMY award in 2017 and our NPR Tiny Desk Concert earlier this year.

You have all composed works for the group in the past but in the last few years have explored the process of group-composition, most recently for your album Paddle to the Sea. What challenges/advantages did you face with this style of creating a new work? Do you think this experience changes anything fundamental about how you will commission or compose future pieces?

Having input from multiple voices, working together to create something, while not necessarily efficient, will almost always create a better result than any one of those folks working alone. It takes time, and it takes trust; everyone has to be ready to work hard on something and then let it go, and everyone has to be able to work out disagreements. In many ways, it’s an extension of the way we work together as an organization on non-artistic challenges, and it has without a doubt influenced the way we collaborate with other composers. The process of creating Paddle to the Sea helped to prepare us for our collaboration with Dev Hynes, for instance. It was a very similar process of creating outlines, experimenting with sound options, dividing tasks, and revising each other’s drafts. Of course, in the case of Dev’s music, he had already created the raw musical content and overall structure of the pieces, so we already had the central core of the music to build on and remain true to.

The quartet places an emphasis on in-person collaborative efforts, first with Augusta Read Thomas for Resounding Earth and more recently for your Emerging Composers Program. However, this marks one of the fun, rare times someone from “outside” the new music realm gets a glimpse into your world. What was your experience like working with Dev and his time at your studio?

We’ve definitely learned that direct collaboration is vital to the creation of new works, especially for percussion, and now we push every composer we commission to spend time with us in person while they’re writing a piece for us. In the case of our project with Dev Hynes, before he began writing the piece, he came to our studio in Chicago, where he heard us play a little bit, explored our vast array of instruments (some of which he was hearing for the first time), and saw us demonstrate some extended techniques or atypical sound that can be made on certain instruments. Aside from the information and experience shared in this session, we also built a personal relationship and trust that allowed continued back-and-forth with musical ideas and sounds over the coming months.

TCP has joined the pantheon of DIY percussionists with instrument building, modding, and the like. What’s your favorite sound/instrument the group has implemented recently? What’s the strangest or least likely modification that has produced interesting results (good or bad!)?

There’s always something new! One recent highlight: we took a trick from Glenn Kotche—blowing into a piece of surgical tubing stuck in the side of a drum to bend the pitch—and showed it to composer Donnacha Dennehy who was writing a piece for us. Donnacha ended up asking us to outfit over a dozen specifically tuned tom-toms with these tubes so that we could create chords on drums, and glissando in and out of the chords while we’re playing. A few other cool ones: a squeaky toy run through electronic delay, electric toothbrushes vibrating against all sort of different instruments, and a hydrophone (underwater microphone) which allows us to capture all sorts of interesting sounds created by or modified by water.

Visit this link to purchase tickets for the December 9 Third Coast Percussion performance.

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2018.19 Liquid Music Artist Choice Playlist by Liquid Music

In the spirit of encouraging musical exploration among our audience, we asked artists of the 2018.19 season to recommend music that they find meaningful. From Messiaen to Monáe, Tirzah to Ikeda – check out works that have inspired a very inspiring collection of creators on the Liquid Music 2018.19 Artist Picks Spotify playlist.

Hanna Benn
The Master Musicians of Jajouka: El Medahey
Olivier Messiaen: Oraison

Deantoni Parks
Photek: The Hidden Camera

Eliza Bagg (ModernMedieval)
Kate Bush: Mother Stands for Comfort
SOPHIE: Is It Cold in the Water?

Angélica Negrón
Juana Molina: Un Día
Björk: Blissing Me

Ashwini Ramaswamy
Tinariwen: Nànnuflày and Sastanàqqàm
Janelle Monáe: Django Jane

James McVinnie
Tristan Perich: Surface Image
Claire M Singer: The Molendinar

Jennifer Koh
Vijay Iyer: Break Stuff
Missy Mazzoli: Come On All You

Julianna Barwick
Kllo: Downfall
Tirzah: Holding On

Eva Mohn
Frida Hyvönen: Sjön

Tyshawn Sorey
Julius Eastman: Evil Nigger
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Mixtur

Dimitri Chamblas
Ryoji Ikeda: Supercodex Project
Otomo Yoshihide: Guitar Solo Pieces
Edgar Varèse: Amériques

Jace Clayton
Stella Chiweshe: Hongore-Hoye
DaniLeigh: Lil Bebe

Ben Frost
Bernard Hermann: The Bay
Suzanne Ciani: The First Wave - Birth Of Venus

David Skidmore (Third Coast Percussion)
Jlin: Nyakinyua Rise
Nik Bärtsch: Modul 29_14
Son Lux: The Fool You Need

Dustin O'Halloran
Johann Johannsson: Mandy Love Theme
Philip Glass: Opening (played by Vikingur Olafsson)

Vijay Iyer
Prince: When Doves Cry
Wadada Leo Smith: Divine Love
Nina Simone: I Loves You Porgy

Mike Lewis 
Emmylou Harris: Where Will I Be
Donny Hathaway: You've Got A Friend

James Young & Aiden Whalley (Darkstar)
These New Puritans: Organ Eternal
Slow Thai: T N Biscuits
Yves Tumor: Honesty
Travis Scott: Sicko Mode

Fukiko Takase
Atoms for Peace: Ingenue
Rokia Traoré: Sabali
Luzmira Carpio: Wiphey Pachamama

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Deantoni Parks’ Technoself by Liquid Music

By LM blog contributor Patrick Marschke

Drummer, composer and producer Deantoni Parks probably didn't initially intend to create a new instrument and a revolutionary way of creating music from the outset. His musical and technical facility as a drummer is revolutionary and innovative enough for artists like John Cale, Meshell Ndegeocello, Omar Rodríguez-López (The Mars Volta) and Flying Lotus to seek him out. He could have easily ridden out the capital-D-Drummer-life, but behind the scenes, Parks has been looking for more: “For those of us that are trying to become better every day, reinvent every day and not get pigeonholed, it's important to be able to have new outlets and new ways to come up with unique results.” Concurrently, music technology and access to it has exponentially increased, as have the ways in which we can create ways to create music — instrumentalists now have an unprecedented opportunity to become instrument builders.

Thus Technoself was born. Technoself is both an instrument and musical philosophy developed by Parks that has become a core part of his artistic practice, including the upcoming project Liquid Music performance with Hanna Benn, Procession (read a recent interview with Benn about the project).

But what IS Technoself exactly?

Upon first glance, the project looks starkly minimal: Parks sits behind a bass drum, hi-hat, and snare with a seemingly insignificant addition of a two-octave mini midi keyboard. Parks dedicates his right hand to the keyboard, leaving rest of his limbs to oversee the drums. But with the sacrifice of this hand comes an infinite palette of sonic possibilities. Through sophisticated sampling techniques, Parks has access to nearly any sound possible, activated via the nuanced control and accuracy provided by piano-like keys.

In practice, Technoself isn’t so different than what has been expected of percussionists for decades, as Parks points out:

“I’ve been watching percussionists all my life: what they do is play multiple instruments all the time, especially in orchestra. That's the classical percussion setup, you have to literally play literally 20 different instruments. Treble clef, bass clef: you had to learn all the clefs. That's a tremendous glimpse into what is really happening — multitasking is already built into my instrument as the drums are individual instruments that we put together and now we are just adding other elements like samples. It’s always been multitasking, so it's really not that surprising or different.”

Sampling, depending on how you look at it, is probably as old as music itself, though we tend to think of it as being correlated with the advent of recorded sound. Some go so far as to say that everything is a remix, though here Parks is primarily referring to “the technique of digitally encoding music or sound and reusing it as part of a composition or recording” (Google).  Sampling as a primary mode of musical creation can be traced back to the early tape experiments of Pierre Schaeffer’s Musique Concrète, John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pauline Oliveros and Steve Reich, where each composer was physically manipulating magnetic tape by slicing, looping, or some other form of mangling.

Perhaps more significantly, DJs discovered that with two turntables and identical records they could extend any section of a song by beat matching and crossfading between two record decks, manually “sampling” an 8 or 16 bar phrase indefinitely. Some of these “breaks” became so iconic that artists began to break them down even further, slicing out each individual drum sound so that they could rearrange to make a completely new groove, at times nearly indistinguishable from its source (see the “Amen Break” and “Funky Drummer”). This all culminated in one of the most significant inventions in modern music history: the Akai MPC, a digital sampler that allowed any sound to be triggered, manipulated and performed in incredibly nuanced and sophisticated ways. From Public Enemy to J Dilla to Arca, revolutionary samplists have paved the way for our current music culture, where there is hardly music that exists today without some component of sampling involved.

Parks taps into these legacies with his Technoself method. There are a few things that are quite revolutionary about the way that Parks has engineered his sampling process. Rather than the stiff “one-shot” pads of the MPC, Parks’ use of the midi piano gives him access to the expressive techniques that are standard on keyboard instruments and very limited in the realm of percussion: altering the duration of a note by holding down the key and conversely using pointillistic jabs so short as to obscure the samples past the point of recognition.

“[How you sample] is kind of the barometer of where you are in music today… I look at myself like a diamond cutter when it comes to sampling. It’s completely my identity. I’m cutting at a rate where I’m bringing in percussive techniques, but also engineering techniques that I have embedded in my body. I can stutter things, I can modulate rhythmically in any direction — to 32nd notes to 64th note subdivisions. Then it’s just up to what is in my head.”

Deantoni Maps Transients, "a high amplitude, short-duration sound at the beginning of a waveform that occurs in phenomena such as musical sounds, noises or speech." to his midi keyboard to molds and shape them on the fly.

Deantoni Maps Transients, "a high amplitude, short-duration sound at the beginning of a waveform that occurs in phenomena such as musical sounds, noises or speech." to his midi keyboard to molds and shape them on the fly.

The refined combination of these techniques and the inventiveness of Parks’ selection of source material makes for an unparalleled and distinctly original approach to music making. Parks takes any sound that inspires him and “maps” certain transients/microsamples to specific keys, essentially allowing his right hand to sculpt, remix, and weave a digital mosaic of sounds.

Parks has even come up with his own vernacular for his practice:

“I don’t call them pieces or songs, just to help mentally get in the right mindset. It’s more of the idea that I’m streaming information that comes out in this way at this time. “Streaming” opens my mind up so that there is no pressure to find the perfect rhythm or melodic idea or perfect arrangement. It’s about streaming all the knowledge you have acquired and letting the non-cognitive side of your brain and body work for you. When you hear something you react and it changes the composition and the arrangement at that moment. So it’s not about doing it in the fastest way, but it is about running as smoothly as possible. Our brains are so non-linear in the way that we process as compared to computers, so It’s better for us to act in the moment. I think that is why improvisation is so important: because it's the way we are built.”

We asked Parks to talk more about his creative process:

“The first thing is a sound. It’s all about mood, so it has to be a sound that pushes me in some direction. Lately, it's been my own old compositions that I’ve dug up from the grave that I just am not interested in anymore. I’m finding once I find the highest transients and break it apart beat by beat I’m finding ways to rearrange the notes into new compositions and find inspiration in what it sounds like. From there, once I have this particular sound broken apart on the keyboard with four different octaves of range, then it's just going through the sounds, almost combing the area and seeing if there is something there that hits me. Again, this is all about mood and inspiration and it happens quickly. And if it doesn’t you move on to another sound.

The set up is almost a more important part of the process because if it puts you in a certain mood you can get hundreds of thousands of results because you’ll always relate to those sounds and find melodies. That’s what gives you the fuel to find additional parts and structures. If you’re lucky all this happens very quickly and then as soon as you are ready you start recording. You don’t want to get too familiar because you want to leave time for the “moment.” The brain works best when you are making decisions on the fly, I like using that as a new way of composing.

Once you stream it and find it, you can always go back to it. That means that you’ve 'mapped it.' The Technoself method is kind of the fastest way to 'map' new areas: once you find it you’re there. A lot of what I’ve released or keep going back to are things that I’ve found while streaming and then I knew the references and where I was at the time, so it was easily mappable and I can go back and quote it if I want or change.

The Technoself method for me is a certain way of writing in real time that almost sounds like it was done in post. With the hybrid setup, you can kind of 'fool' the listener into thinking that it has been overdubbed, manipulated, or engineered to sound this way. But that's actually just the way it came out.”

On drums:

“The drum is one of the most communicative instruments, I feel like it is just a powerful weapon to use. You can literally make people vibrate while they are all together from the same source — I think deep things happen there. It’s like experiencing some kind of eclipse: you don’t know the direct effects but something happened, some information got passed that’s gonna show up later. I feel like it’s very high level, well beyond fiber optics. I think the drum is important, which is why I cannot exclude it from my process.

But I also want to hear sounds that I don’t have access to. I want to be able to hear whatever I’m thinking. That just opens up the pallette to having vocals at your fingertips; sounds of the world; sounds of the city — any sound: your old compositions that you are not even using. It’s definitely about reusable/renewable resources and finding new things in old things. This is something we need to practice as a society to save the planet, but it also works in art.”

On originality:

Andy Warhol. Marilyn Monroe. 1967

Andy Warhol. Marilyn Monroe. 1967

“I think that you can take any sound and the way that you filter it, meaning process it, I think that changes the DNA of the actual sound. That’s what I like doing: it's literally how you play it, how you repeat it that makes it. Warhol would take an image that we all knew and then completely, because of the way he 'played it' in rhythm and time, the way it was duplicated and slight differences in detail, that completely revalued the whole piece. That’s very inspiring to me. It still seems very modern and I think there is a lot more to get out of it. I’m mining for those kinds of experiences and effect.”

On Procession:

“[Procession] is really centered around mantra and trying to settle people down in this fast pace and over the top kind of society. The work is composed of pieces that give me the feeling of 'ahh, I’m Grounded, I don’t have to be connected to these devices that surround me.' I’m very excited about it.

Of course, Hanna is the leading inspiration behind this. Her works are very unique and necessary in this time period. I’m really excited to work with her on this.”


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Interview: Hanna Benn on "Procession" by Liquid Music

 by Liquid Music blog contributor Katie Hare

photo by Mallory Talty

photo by Mallory Talty

Atlanta-based composer/vocalist/collaborator Hanna Benn kicks off the 2018.19 Liquid Music season in collaboration with percussionist/composer/producer Deantoni Parks Sunday, September 23 at the Machine Shop in Minneapolis. Eagerly awaiting the premiere of their collaborative project Procession, we asked Benn to reflect on her background, influences and creative process.

Hanna Benn has collaborated with an array of artists, from modern electronic pop groups Son Lux and Boots to choral ensembles Chrysalis and The Esoterics. She has submerged boundaries with her multidisciplinary approach by incorporating dance, opera and theater in her work. Her choral background, angelic voice, and complex use of layers present what Stereogum fittingly pinpoints as a “unified army of voices that seem to beam down from heaven in service of Benn’s compelling vision.” In this collaboration with Parks, Benn offers new arrangements anchored by Parks’ kinetic rhythms that explore the spiritual and emotional core of ceremonial music in the form of a song cycle.

Tell us a bit about your background and exploration of music growing up.

I grew up singing in the church. From about ages 7-18 I was part of a choral program that is consistent with most Episcopal churches of America. I played piano, flute, and my father is a musician as well.

You’ve explored a wide array of musical genres and artistic disciplines such as R&B, classical, soul, opera, dance and theatre—are there any artists or experiences that you’ve found to be highly influential to your work? 

Well, I think about the things that I liked as a kid. Which I still listen to for the most part. It still inspires me. The people who come to my mind today—and it could be more tomorrow—are Stevie Wonder and Igor Stravinsky. They are probably my top artist influences.

Your use of analogue, digital, acoustic, and synthetic sounds to create often an organic, cathedral-esque landscape is incredibly intriguing. Can you talk more about how technology plays a role in your work and where your interest in this sound process stemmed from?

I first started adding technology for my voice. Harmonizers and whatnot, just so I wouldn’t feel alone. Growing up in the choral tradition I feel most comfortable and I also enjoy singing with others. That is the biggest joy for me. When thinking about performing solo I was so used to this massive voice and I wanted that, so I was just trying to replicate that kind of choral sound instead of having a focused solo voice. It’s all about the feeling; the texture.

When did you and Deantoni Parks begin collaborating? What does he draw out of you musically and vice versa?  

We started collaborating immediately when we first met because we were first assigned to be in a group together. We were hired to be in a band (Boots) and we met that way, which is really interesting. In the band we were both the rhythm—I was bass and keyboards and he was percussion and we had to create a certain kind of balance between each other and as a rhythm section. Then a couple years after that we started, I guess, experimenting. Part of Deantoni’s practice is that he he uses a plethora of things to sample, so he started using my voice and that’s sort of what we’re incorporating in this piece as well.

I’m curious to know more about the thought and creative process behind Processioncan you expand a bit more about how the project came about? What has been the most memorable or exciting part about building this project so far?

We first started making these short, little poetic pieces together that were very soothing—I’ve started calling them mantras—and from that I was thinking about a song cycle we could create that mimics a spiritual practice. Not one that is at all sacred but that explores how music can be so cleansing and also a spiritual experience. I wanted to focus on that and create a ceremony of music without the weight of religion. Then we looked a lot into ceremonial music and different traditions and kind of put it together in our own way.

What were your top “songs of summer” 2018?

I don’t even remember because I’ve been working too hard on music. Often I just put on the Top 40 radio just to balance the work but honestly I don’t really know what’s happening!


Follow Hanna Benn:
Website: hannabenn.com
Facebook: @hannabennmusic
Instagram: @hannabenn

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Twitter: @LiquidMusicSPCO 

Exploring the "Irrepressibly Subjective" with Teju Cole by Liquid Music

by Liquid Music Blog Contributor Patrick Marschke

"Zürich , 2014" by Teju Cole from   Blind Spot

"Zürich, 2014" by Teju Cole from Blind Spot

The idea of “multimedia” existed before the technology that it is usually associated with came into existence. Google defines its adjective form as: “using more than one medium of expression or communication.” If you dig down deep enough, it can be hard to think of an art form that doesn’t fall within this definition: a painting doesn’t exist without architecture and light, music doesn’t exist without performance and time, film/video never pretended to be anything other than an assemblage of mediums. In a way, multimedia work is the most intuitive and fulfilling things one can make — the medium serves as a conduit to an idea, a tool rather than a bin.

At the same time, words like these exist: 
Art Critic

But these concepts also came after. On the most neutral level they make things easier. Easier to talk about, easier to be excited about, and, of course, easier to sell. 

And yet artists have perpetually pursued a genre-less, medium agnostic, non-commodifiable paths of seemingly insurmountable resistance. Why? 

Teju Cole and Vijay Iyer both have built incredible careers that undeniably answer this question, and their most recent collaboration, Blind Spot, serves as the main argument for this path of most resistance. Its vitality is rooted in its unrelenting and “irrepressibly subjective” lens of emotional and intellectual vibrancy. 

To prepare for the Midwest premiere of Blind Spot we spoke with Teju Cole about collaboration, improvisation, and his relationship with and dedication to the subjective.

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity]

photo via Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos.

photo via Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos.

How did you meet Vijay Iyer and how did this collaboration come about? 

Teju Cole: A few years ago we were both living in Manhattan near Columbia University and I used to run into him on the subway. This must have been in the early 2000s — I was in grad school at Columbia and he was already working as an artist living in that neighborhood. I think we really took note of each other when he noticed that “Oh, this guy that I keep running into on the subway is also the guy that is coming to my concerts.” I would run into him on the way to go see his show. I started out as more of a “fan.” I really appreciated his work — I got on the Vijay Iyer train very early. I liked the kind of thinking he was doing with his music. It was very visceral, incredibly intelligent but very emotionally resonant music. From there it eventually became a friendship. 

A few years later when my first book was published in Nigeria in 2007 I gave Vijay a copy of it. The book actually mentions finding his work in Lagos. I think it is always an interesting thing between artists when both parties now [are established enough to] have something to show, something to present. A few years after that when Open City was published, my first published book in the US, Vijay reached out to me about doing a collaboration around that work. And that's how we properly started collaborating. I think we recognized in each other an interest in the complexity and flow of what it meant to be in this space. For us, America is not some simple straightforward thing. It's a space in which many different energies are functioning and I think we recognized that in each other. 

So we did the Open City Suite, and we’ve done that a few times. In the past couple of years, the evolving Blind Spot project has become our most sustained collaboration. We’ve done it in a few places but what’s interesting is that it is not a written [or composed] suite. But it would also be inaccurate to call it improvised. It's a very advanced form of real-time composition — I think that’s a fair way to put it. What we are going to do in Minneapolis has never been heard before, but it couldn’t be further from what people call “free jazz,” in a sense. The text and images are kind of like the score that we are reading from.

For me, just to be working with somebody who is so advanced in his thinking, and yet also creates such beautiful work is such a thrill. I’m so happy about it. 

...and Vijay is so studied in various forms of American improvisation: being able to study and work with AACM folks like George Lewis and Wadada Leo Smith — and that they were doing similar forms of multimedia work 40+ years ago… 

Absolutely! So his profound knowledge of the American black music and improvised music traditions are definitely part of the extraordinary pleasures that one takes from his work. But I think it's also important to note that he’s never identified solely a jazz musician. He has always prioritized collaborations: he’s definitely the best band leader I’ve ever seen at work, just in the way in which he allows other player, parties, and energies to flow when they are working together. And he’s always had a very profound respect for the role of literature and the spoken word as part of the texture of acoustic experience. He’s done many projects of this kind — it's always been inherent in his work. 

Can you talk a little bit about the inception of the work? Did the text come first?

It's actually really interesting: after we’d done Open City in 2013 he reached out to me in 2015 having been asked to curate a series of events at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He said that he wanted me to be a part of it and asked if I had any new material. I mention that I had been thinking a lot about images and text and what they do to next each other, and [thought:] “what if we added music as a third element?” At that point even I didn’t know what the project was, you know? I thought maybe it would lead to an exhibition, or a perhaps book to be published in Italy. I had no plans to publish it in the US. So really the first outing this material had was in the context of making music with Vijay. 

So we worked out some of the images and text in a very raw form and presented it at the Met. We did maybe six sets over the course of the week. It was incredibly intense, very moving, very engaged in a very compact space, and I could see that people were having a very emotional experience with it. It changed my relationship to my own work as well. As a writer, we are often at some distance from what the effect the work is having on people. It’s quite different for musicians who can see the immediate emotional impact that the work is having their audience.  

‘Brienzersee, June 2014’, Teju Cole

‘Brienzersee, June 2014’, Teju Cole

It's different every time — I change which images are in it. I never know what form of acoustic attack that Vijay or the trio is gonna have so it keeps it really fresh. We’ve done a version of this at Jazz SF, at the Institute for Contemporary Art. It's been interesting: I’m a writer and photographer, he’s a musician, but it seems like the contemporary art museum context is where this thing really takes flight. The museums are the ones that are bold enough to program this and have faith in what it can be. 

I also have to say: every time that we’ve done it not only has it been different but I think we find a deeper scene, we’ve whittled away some of the more obvious stuff and we go into a deeper place with it. The quality of listening just keeps improving.  

It is very cool to hear that even the images and text are “improvised” as well.

Absolutely. Keeping the material fresh is so vital. Not having pre-prepared answers… for example, I’m having this interview with you, I don’t have a cheat sheet, you know? I’m thinking with you in real time. This idea of doing work in real time is what keeps a performer interested, and if they're interested then the audience also has a chance to be interested.

In a way improvisation is the most natural thing in the world — it is the first thing we do. At times society can make you feel like “play” is a bad thing, but improvisers like Vijay and this project are such a tremendous example of how complex,  sophisticated, nuanced, and rich this medium can be.  

This has been the great American contribution to music over the course of the 20th century. To really bring it to the mainstream that improvised music is in no sense inferior to notated/composed music. There are all kinds of inquiries we can make about “American Classical Music” and all kinds of arguments around the word “Jazz” itself, and yet there is something there: call it improvisation, real-time-composition, or flexible modes of music making — those things are not intellectually or musically inferior to Beethoven or Mahler.

You seem to be a fairly prolific creator of Spotify playlists, what inspired you to start making them and what role do they serve for you? 

I’ve always been interested in presenting the music in my head to other people. Many years ago in college, I even dabbled in doing college radio. It was just fun: this idea of “and here is what I’m going to play you next,” you know? It’s interesting to think that you are not recommending an individual song to someone, you’re creating a listening experience, which has to do with more than one song. In the days that I was super active on Twitter, I used to make youtube playlist or just give lists of songs. 

Creating playlists is one of my great joys — it is one important aspect of my work that’s not related to compensation, I’m not paid for it, it’s not part of my job description. It just gives me a lot of joy and I think it gives other people joy as well. It also enacts, hopefully in a straightforward and unobtrusive way, my belief that there is no hierarchy among genres — [the lists include] a lot of so-called jazz, hip-hop, classical, Nigerian dance music, a lot of so-called “world music” because ALL of it is interesting. This is how I’ve always lived my life, I think that is true of many many people as well. Though when you turn on the radio the experience you get is that people only tend to like one kind of music or that they think of music in these categories rather than in these emotional experiences, which is actually what music is. 

Your work doesn’t seem to pay much attention to genre, hierarchies, or classification, a tendency that is truly at the heart of Liquid Music and Walker Performing Arts — which is certainly not the path of least resistance. How have you sustained such broad interests and output when it is so easy to be pegged solely as a critic, writer, photographer, etc.?

That categorization can be really tedious. But when you find a space that is responding to something other than the needs of the exigencies of the marketplace its a real pleasure because then some other thing can happen. 

‘Rivaz, October 2014’  by Teju Cole from Blind Spot

‘Rivaz, October 2014’ by Teju Cole from Blind Spot

For me, there is no dissonance in being a writer and photographer and anything else I am interested in pursuing at a given point in my life. It’s gonna sound weird but I know that if you are in a situation in your life where you can’t pay rent or you can’t eat enough food: that’s a desperate situation and that needs to be solved. But beyond those basic material needs of shelter, food, and clothing we actually have a lot more freedom than we think we do. Nobody owes you a huge income. You might luck out and stumble your way into a pretty decent income. But since I was quite young I told myself I would always prioritize the work I wanted to do as long as I found ways of making a basic living. It’s not a choice that everyone makes. Some people are like, “well I want to prioritize the work that interests me but I also have to make a lot of money doing it.” Hyper-Capitalist Neoliberal arrangements don’t always allow for that. A lot of it has to do with just surrendering and saying that “it is more important for me to do work that affirms my notion of what art is up to.” And if rewards come that then it's a really pleasant surprise. 

But it was never a calculated agenda, that the money would follow. I’ve never believed that. There's been some money in this for me but I’ve never counted on it, and I still don’t because who knows whether the next thing I do will be considered too free to have a place in the market. Or the countless hours I’ve spent putting together playlists: that's time I could spend getting paid for something. One can over prioritize getting paid. There is an expression people use “You left money on the table,” meaning that in every situation you should try to maximize financial gain. I think that's a death kiss for art. In every situation, you should try to maximize your creative freedom. That should be the first variable that is put up when your negotiating. It’s a variable, it doesn’t mean you always have maximum artistic freedom. But if that is not being prioritized then its just product. 

I’m not going to speak for Vijay, but I sense the same thinking is true for him. If you wanted to have the amazingly successful career he’s had, those are not the calculations you would make. That kind of music, with that kind of intensity, with that kind of focus, with that kind of moral and ethical and political commitment. Those particular sets of choices are more likely to give somebody a small but respectable reputation. Meanwhile, he’s got a huge reputation because sometimes your luck plays out in such a way that things end up being bigger than you planned them to be. But this stuff can’t be calculated so you might as well just honor your own freedom at every step of the way. 

Your writing and photography seem to simultaneously have a deeply rich emotional quality while leaving so much room for the viewer/reader to find a bit of themselves in the work(s). Can you speak to where this comes from? Should audiences expect a similar effect from Blind Spot

I think so. I think that our intellect is one of our necessary conduits to the recollection of experience — we can’t check our brains at the door. The work has to be smart. And yet it can be smart and also emotionally real. My hope is that people will have an experience where they don’t feel like they checked their brains at the door, where they feel like their intellect is being challenged. But at the same time the psyche, the soul, the human part of ourselves is moved. And not in a general way, right? But in a very specific, highly individuated way. The material is fairly wide-ranging and the hope is that everybody finds an aspect that is like: “yes, that really speaks to ME, personally, in this place at this particular time, it feels like a message to me.” If we can achieve that, that's heaven for us as performers and presenters. 

It seems like both writing and photography can easily err on the side of objectivity or documentation, while music, especially instrumental music, tends perpetually lean toward abstraction. But your work seems to find a place between those sides of the spectrum. How do all of these things coalesce in your mind and how you think about this performance?

I would never say that I’m trying to go for an abstract quality in the work. I would say that I’m trying to go for an irrepressibly subjective quality in the work. It has to be subjective because for me it is important to not be speaking from a place of authority, or from the assumed center of the discourse. I am coming to all of this as one person in my own life, speaking to you, in your own life. I’m not at the center of the discourse, I’m not a heterosexual white man who comes from a long line of artistic privilege or anything like that. I have experiences that are outsider-ish, I experience the world in a highly subjective way. 

And then to realize that that subjectivity is actually worth transmitting, that it can be a gathering point. If I’m writing for photography criticism, if I’m writing fiction, or if I’m making an image: the burden of speaking in a neutral, objective, and permanent way, like a block of granite — I don’t have that burden. I can just testify to an intense, small, highly personal experience, and trust that because we all have intense, small, highly personal experiences it’s gonna meet someone out there. 

It’s about trusting subjectivity as a mode of ethical discourse. 

Buy tickets to the midwest premiere of VIJAY IYER & TEJU COLE: BLIND SPOT copresented by LIQUID MUSIC AND WALKER ART CENTER mAY 31 & JUNE 1, and keep an eye out for Teju's interview with Krista Tippett via On Being in the coming months.

Follow Teju Cole:
Website: http://www.tejucole.com/
Publisher: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/91688/teju-cole
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Teju-Cole-200401352198/
Instagram: @_tejucole

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Stiff String Theory by Liquid Music

by Liquid Music Blog Contributor Patrick Marschke


What images came to mind when you read that word? An asymmetrical row of black and white rectangles was probably not far from the first.

Still life on the piano ('CORT') , Picasso (1911) via  wikiart.org

Still life on the piano ('CORT'), Picasso (1911) via wikiart.org

The piano carries with it an unparalleled burden of symbology, association, and ubiquity, perhaps even to the point of completely obscuring its origin and the elemental enchantment with the sound that codified its place in history.

Bartolomeo Cristofori’s pianoforte, invented sometime around 1700, solved a unique problem. While the human voice could easily and quickly jump from a whisper to a shout, claviers (harpsichord, clavichord, and other proto-pianos) had an incredibly limited dynamic range, restricting their expressive potential. The mechanism of a harpsichord is basically a simple plucking lever — no matter how hard you press the key the “pluck” produces essentially the same sound. Instrument builders came up with some clever solutions around these limitations: additional strings, “manuals”, and fancy mechanisms. Composers also dealt with the harpsichord’s lack of sustain by exploring increasingly complex ornamentations (see figure 1.).

Figure 1. Baroque Trill Instructions via  Wikipedia Commons

Figure 1. Baroque Trill Instructions via Wikipedia Commons

Then comes the pianoforte, its name designating its solution: piano = quiet, forte = loud. The instrument was able to gracefully maneuver through quiet, loud, and all the places in between. Its mechanism literally throws a hammer at the strings, retaining and amplifying the velocity from the keystroke of the player. It is important to note that even though the mechanism of the piano looks very complicated, touch is integral to its workings — pianists obsess over every aspect of the relationship between their fingers, arms, and body to the keys. All that said, the velocity of the hammer and the “touch” of the pianist are only two of the variables that contribute to the sound of a piano: how hard or soft are the felt covered hammers? How do we deal with all the resonance of those newly unbridled strings? How do we tune all those strings?  Even physicist Richard Feynman was enchanted by the alchemy of the instrument enough to write a letter to his piano tuner.

Piano hammer mechanism

Piano hammer mechanism

For a more detailed evolution of keyboard instruments with listening examples check out SPCO’s neighbor Schubert Club’s Evolution of the Piano — Twin Cities readers can even stop by the museum to see the instruments in person.

One might think that by 2018 we would have “figured out” the sound of a piano — after all it's just a few strings right? While we have made a tremendous amount of progress in the realm of digital piano synthesis and sampling, anyone that has spent time with a piano, from a spinet to a 10-foot grand, will acknowledge that there is something about the feel, sound, and aura of the acoustic piano that digital versions haven’t quite pinned down. That is not to say nothing has come of computers trying to be piano’s in their own ways: Dan Trueman’s bitKlavier exemplifies the incredible direction that digital instrument building is headed.

Etude #4 from Dan Trueman's Nostalgic Synchronic Etudes for prepared digital piano, performed by Adam Sliwinski.

With all this history come some baggage. Pianist Michael Mizrahi summed this up eloquently in the album notes “The Bright Motion” (New Amsterdam):

“For centuries the piano has been a popular sounding board for new compositional ideas and styles—the ingenious explorations of compositional technique in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the pathbreaking musical ideas set forth in Beethoven’s piano sonatas, the previously unimaginable feats of virtuosity achieved by Liszt, and the sonic and formal experiments of Schoenberg’s piano pieces. Much of this cherished repertoire has been central to my solo career as a classical pianist.
By the end of the twentieth century, the piano had lost some of its status—compositions for solo piano declined in prominence at the artistic vanguard, some composers citing the intimidating tradition of canonical piano works as a factor in their reluctance to write for solo piano. However, in the twenty-first century, many composers of my generation, including those featured here, have come to view the piano as an instrument particularly receptive to new music. With this album of recently composed works for solo piano, I showcase the continued vitality of an instrument that evokes an exceptionally rich musical heritage yet still is capable of expressing the most contemporary of musical ideas.”

Mizrahi, along with many previously featured Liquid Music artists like Vicky Chow, Nils Frahm, Hauschka, David Friend, Bryan Nichols, Emily Manzo, deVon Gray (to name a few) are each paving uniquely exhilarating contemporary explorations of piano, proving that piano isn’t going anywhere.

← Listen to examples of the distance piano has gone in its three centuries with this curated survey of solo piano works.

Grand Band takes this exploration to its logical extreme, relishing in the unparalleled sonic experience of the soundboards, strings, hammers, and keys and multiplying it by six. There are few if not zero chances to hear what six pianos sound like on one stage together: don't miss this one.

Grand Band will perform at the Ordway Concert Hall on Wednesday, May 16, 2018 at 7:30pm. Purchase tickets here.

Read more:
Grand Band: A Curious Synthesis
Interview: Missy Mazzoli on "Three Fragile Systems"

Follow Liquid Music for updates and announcements:
Twitter: @LiquidMusicSPCO (twitter.com/LiquidMusicSPCO)
Instagram: @LiquidMusicSeries (instagram.com/liquidmusicseries
Facebook: facebook.com/SPCOLiquidMusic

Follow Grand Band updates and announcements:
Official Website: www.grandbandnyc.com
Twitter: @GrandBandNYC (twitter.com/grandbandnyc
Facebook: www.facebook.com/Grand-Band

Grand Band: A Curious Synthesis by Liquid Music

By Trever Hagen

Photo by Chris McGuire

Photo by Chris McGuire

Liquid Music brings the virtuoso piano sextet Grand Band to the Ordway Concert Hall in Saint Paul, Minnesota on May 16th. Its Twin Cities debut includes the world premiere of Three Fragile Systems by the composer Missy Mazzoli along with music by the late composer Julius Eastman, Bang on Can co-founder Michael Gordon, Paul Kerekes and Kate Moore. Grand Band’s performance will feature pianists Erika Dohi, David Friend, Paul Kerekes, Blair McMillen, Lisa Moore and Isabelle O’Connell.

The Unconventional Piano Sextet

Grand Band stage plot in the round_Lisa Moore.jpg

The mise en scène is delicate yet imposing — six grand pianos silently yin-yang together across center stage. Gentle sleeping giants. Their collective posture is perplexing – while one or two pianos on stage are a common sight, the snoozing huddle of ivories before a Grand Band performance indicates we have little a prior knowledge as to what we might hear. Then the flurry of 60 fingers across 528 keys commences. In a harmonic display of yet-before-unheard piano polyphony, Grand Band shows us they are a super-group not only because of their fluency of expression on the piano, but because of the extra-ordinary sound that only they can make.

This unconventional arrangement of music for six pianos sets Grand Band’s repertoire in its own universe – far outside any existing canon of work for piano. Grand Band’s instrumentation requires dedicated new compositions; commissioned pieces for this ensemble’s singular voice. Yet the audience does not know what to expect when seated for the performance. By eliminating expectation you do away with convention, one of the most reliable, known forms of how we communicate.

What makes 'new music' new?

One is reminded of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s critique of the use of language from past realities to depict contemporary ones. The take away from the Austrian philosopher’s work in the context of ‘new music’ is that while a musical canon is a discourse that connects us with universal imaginations of humanity, there is still a wide gap in that discourse for pieces composed today that tune in the modern soul with old soul, while providing a compass for the future soul. Embracing new musical vocabularies of non-convention offers us sense-making devices for new realities — those particularities of the human condition in place and time.

Certainly synthesis is a path toward 'new' – or at least a step toward innovation. But with any form of innovation understood via genre, ‘newness’ comes only in relation to a display of the rules of past traditions alongside ideas that challenge it. With the new music presented at Grand Band’s performance this month, we see elements of a curious synthesis particularly brought to light by the composer Missy Mazzoli.

Missy Mazzoli by Caroline Tompkins

Missy Mazzoli by Caroline Tompkins

“Post-Millennial Mozart”

Missy Mazzoli has made a name for herself in numerous musical pathways – prestigious grants, academic positions, as well as forging innovative collaborations. For example, her band Victoire joined with Glen Kotche of Wilco to create the piece Vespers —  a beautiful, haunting meditation on religion, magic and ritual, and spirituality. Mazzoli’s pieces rest on her curiosity to explore the depths of human experience and consciousness. This broad vision manifests itself in the complex timbres of her pieces, the intent of harmonic discovery, and the movement between symbolic rupture and settling.

To do this, Mazzoli places her work at the interface of humanity and technology — the constantly evolving process of how humans create and adapt to new technologies. This approach is most clearly seen in her blending of traditional chamber formats as violin-cello-piano along with electronics, distorted guitars and keyboards. But most importantly, Mazzoli is a story-teller. She uses these techniques less as a strategy and more as a natural way a composer invites instruments and motifs to guide the listener through an unfamiliar tale. Listening to Mazzoli’s work, you hear familiar narrative structures with fresh voices and new grammar. I find this appealing because we need new vocabularies to understand our historical moment – to influence it and to report on it.  Mazzoli is articulating a near-future world in her music, asking us not to follow but to face the unfolding beauty of non-binary perception.

Read more about Mazzoli’s Three Fragile Systems in an interview with Ines Guanchez for Liquid Music. 

Grand Band's Liquid Music Program

In addition to the world premiere of Three Fragile Systems, Grand Band will perform the work of four other composers.

Michael Gordon by Peter Serling 

Michael Gordon by Peter Serling 

Michael Gordon is a house-hold name amongst enthusiasts of exploratory composition. One of his recent pieces performed by Mantra Pecussion, Timber, was composed for six graduated, amplified, wooden Simantras. Played with mallets and fingertips, the composer showed his ingenuity with a bold use of texture and rhythm. No doubt Gordon’s pursuit of musical rhythmic innovation overlays with his interest in cities – those effervescent tide pools of rhythm and activity. Gordon has collaborated with film-maker Bill Morrison to create the city portraits such as Gotham (a mediation on the aura of New York City) and El Sol Caliente (a commission by the New World Symphony for Miami Beach’s centennial, Gordon’s hometown).

The New Yorker's Alex Ross described Gordon’s music as "the fury of punk rock, the nervous brilliance of free jazz and the intransigence of classical modernism." That is an earful, but balanced in Gordon’s compositions. Grand Band will perform his piece Ode to La Bruja, Hanon, Czerny, Van Cliburn and little gold stars... (or, To Everyone Who Made My Life Miserable, Thank You).

Paul Kerekes by Jennifer Joungblood

Paul Kerekes by Jennifer Joungblood

Additionally, Grand Band will perform wither by Paul Kerekes, one of co-founders of Grand Band. Kerekes’s work as a composer and performer is diverse. His work has been performed by a  growing list including American Composers Orchestra, Da Capo Chamber Players, New Morse Code, Thin Edge New Music Collective, Real Loud, and Exceptet. Beyond performing and composing for Grand Band, he is also a member of the Invisbile Anatomy ensemble. IA is a group that draws on the experience of the human body as the ultimate source of music creation; the primal physicality of this approach is not lost in the edginess and jaggedness of their music. To carry out this intent, the group ties together multiple musical traditions as well as performance art and Fay Wang’s captivating poetry.

kate moore 2.jpg

The prolific Australian-Dutch performer and composer Kate Moore was commissioned by Grand Band to create the piece Sensitive Spot. While Moore has received a collection of awards to pack her portfolio, she is quick to point out that as much as she works within and through institutions, she also dialogues with alternative music spaces and cultures. For this reason, Moore’s work stands side by side with other composers in seeking out new sounds wherever they may lie. In 2017, Moore broke through new establishment walls as the first woman to win the Matthijs Vermeulen Prize for her composition The Dam. Indeed, as the San Diego Union Tribune put it, “her intent seems to be to create a dream, an alternative reality.”

Finally Grand Band will perform an interpretation of Julius Eastman’s cascading 1979 piece Gay Guerrilla, originally composed for three pianos.  Eastman died in 1990, homeless, and it is only in recent years that his work has been more widely championed and disseminated after nearly 26 years of posthumous rest.  The inclusion of Gay Guerilla is another lens into a function of new music: to unearth forgotten melodies, reveal alternative musical spaces, and champion new sonic experiences. 

Trever Hagen is a writer, researcher and trumpeter living in Minneapolis. His interests lie in memory studies, music therapy and acoustic ecology. Hagen's newest book, "Living in the Merry Ghetto: the music and politics of the Czech underground" will be out on Oxford University Press in 2019. 

Grand Band will perform Three Fragile Systems at the Ordway Concert Hall on Wednesday, May 16, 2018 at 7:30pm. Purchase tickets here.

Follow Liquid Music for updates and announcements:
Twitter: @LiquidMusicSPCO (twitter.com/LiquidMusicSPCO)
Instagram: @LiquidMusicSeries (instagram.com/liquidmusicseries
Facebook: facebook.com/SPCOLiquidMusic

Follow Grand Band updates and announcements:
Official Website: www.grandbandnyc.com
Twitter: @GrandBandNYC (twitter.com/grandbandnyc
Facebook: www.facebook.com/Grand-Band

Interview: Missy Mazzoli on "Three Fragile Systems" by Liquid Music

Liquid Music’s Ines Guanchez interviewed composer Missy Mazzoli in anticipation of the May 16 premiere of "Three Fragile Systems." Mazzoli's piece was commissioned by piano supergroup Grand Band, whose MN debut is part of the 2017.18 Liquid Music season.

Missy Mazzoli  by Marylene Mey

Missy Mazzoli by Marylene Mey

The music of New York-based composer and pianist Missy Mazzoli has been performed in venues across the globe. Described by The New York Times as “one of the more consistently inventive, surprising composers now working in New York,” Mazzoli is also a faculty member at Mannes College of Music and the founder of Victoire featured in the closing concert of Liquid Music’s 2014.15 season.

Some of Mazzoli’s more recent projects include Proving Up, an opera based on the short story by author Karen Russell, orchestral arrangements for Icelandic band Sigur Rós, and Luna Lab, a mentorship program for young female composers ages 13 to 19 at the Kaufman Music Center, founded by Mazzoli and composer Ellen Reid.

Victoire  by Marylene Mey

Victoire by Marylene Mey

Ines Guanchez: How would you describe Three Fragile Systems as a musical piece?

Missy Mazzoli: Three Fragile Systems is a work in three movements for six pianos. Each movement is based on a single melody that undergoes a series of transformations. My goal was to make music that felt fluid and organic, but was built on rigid mathematical systems. I also wanted to create music that could only be performed by six pianos; there are moments when the six player play massive chords that span the entire range of the instrument, and moments when six players try to play a melody in unison. I love the chaos and beautiful unpredictability that seems to be an inherent part of this instrumentation.

IG: Could you describe your creative process while composing Three Fragile Systems? Was there anybody or anything in particular that you drew inspiration from?

MM: I was influenced by the work of Irish composer Andrew Hamilton, the artist Sol LeWitt, and certainly by early minimalist compositions by Philip Glass and Steve Reich that are built on very clear processes and use a lot of math.

Mazzoli performing with Olivia De Prato, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by Victor Naine / I Hate Flash

Mazzoli performing with Olivia De Prato, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by Victor Naine / I Hate Flash

IG: Where do you think you are right now in your journey as a composer?

MM: I’m having the time of my life, and a lot of that joy comes from my collaborations with exceptional performers, directors, writers and visual artists. I’m tackling a lot of massive collaborative projects — operas, ballets, film scores  as well as smaller chamber work, so life is very full and exciting!

Mazzoli performing with Olivia De Prato, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by Victor Naine / I Hate Flash

Mazzoli performing with Olivia De Prato, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by Victor Naine / I Hate Flash

IG: Given your familiarity with the piano — understanding the array of sounds and colors possible, knowing its power —  how did you approached this composition for such unique ensemble?

MM: There were definitely things I’d always dreamt of hearing on a piano; what does it sound like when all, or almost all of the keys are depressed at once?  What sounds can be made using the inside of the instrument? What does a unison melody sound like on six pianos? Also, I was very conscious that I was writing for these particular performers, all of whom are open, adventurous and virtuosic, so I felt free to try something very new and potentially difficult.

IG: You were presented by Liquid Music in 2014.15 with your ensemble Victoire, now you have composed a piece for Grand Band, and the SPCO will be playing one of your works during the Tapestry19 festival next season. You compose for a variety of musical genres and projects. As a successful 21st Century composer do you recommend the diversification of musical modes and styles to aspiring composers?

MM: To be clear, I actually feel that my style remains consistent, or consistent in its inconsistency, regardless of which instrumentation or ensemble I’m working with. But you’re right, I’m working with a lot of different groups and in a lot of different formats.  I definitely feel it’s important, in life and art, to have a lot of diverse sources of happiness, community, and income, especially in these unpredictable times. Teaching, mentoring, curating, performing, writing theatrical work, writing for soloists  these are all part of my life, and each outlet feeds and nourishes the other.

Mazzoli by Stephen S. Taylor

Mazzoli by Stephen S. Taylor

Grand Band will perform Three Fragile Systems at the Ordway Concert Hall on Wednesday, May 16, 2018 at 7:30pm. Purchase tickets here.

Follow Liquid Music for updates and announcements: 
Twitter: @LiquidMusicSPCO (twitter.com/LiquidMusicSPCO)
Instagram: @LiquidMusicSeries (instagram.com/liquidmusicseries
Facebook: facebook.com/SPCOLiquidMusic

Follow Missy Mazzoli for updates and announcements: 
Twitter: @MissyMazzoli (twitter.com/missymazzoli)
Official Website: www.missymazzoli.com 
Facebook: www.facebook.com/missy.mazzoli

'Come Through': A Visual Perspective by Liquid Music

This week Liquid Music welcomes Bon Iver and TU Dance to the stage for a much-anticipated performance of their collaborative project 'Come Through' at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul. In this blog feature, writer Steve Marsh talks to the artists behind the visual aspects of the project, Eric Timothy Carlson and Aaron Anderson.

*All gifs by Carlson/Anderson. *Photos by Graham Tolbert

*All gifs by Carlson/Anderson.
*Photos by Graham Tolbert

In the fall of 2016, I was working on a story on PEOPLE, a new creative network being formed at the Funkhaus Berlin, a hulking former East German radio complex on the banks of the River Spree. All the studios were assigned a number, and I kept getting drawn to Saal 6 for much of the week, where various members of the Minneapolis noise ensemble Marijuana Deathsquads were camped out. The hang was expectedly caliginous, so just imagine how high I was when the artist Eric Timothy Carlson handed me a copy of his new book, NYPLPCETC 01-04, a fat, red-covered, 400-page picture book of images he had culled from the New York Public Library Picture Collection.


Carlson and I had circulated in the same Minneapolis art scene for years, but I had only recently gotten to know him, this artist who always seemed to have a pencil in his hand, and a sketchbook in his lap, who grew up in Owatonna and attended MCAD before eventually moving to Brooklyn. I first met him at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studios in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, when Carlson was working with Vernon on creating a new Bon Iver aesthetic around the recording of 22, A Million. By the the fall of 2016, Carlson had become very involved in developing the semiotics for Vernon’s new social network, PEOPLE, overseeing the painting of a gigantic PEOPLE banner in the Funkhaus’ main hall. But when Carlson handed me his book in Saal 6, I remember sitting on a Bauhaus-appropriate German couch and leafing through image after curated image—photographs of people, people working as cops, people protesting, people lost in the ruins—and I remember the images numbing my brain, unfolding with a kind of punishing psychedelic effect, but I couldn’t stop looking, couldn’t stop turning the pages, and the images had this cumulative power, forcing me to re-see things I thought I’d seen before, cycling me through melancholy to disgust to astonishment. 

TU Dance and Bon Iver invited Carlson and his artistic partner and Brooklyn studio-mate Aaron Anderson to collaborate on the visual component of Come Through. Anderson, also an MCAD alumnus, has been working closely with Carlson for years, since founding Hardland/Heartland (with fellow Minneapolis artist Crystal Quinn), a Minneapolis-based art collective, in 2006. Back then, Carlson and Anderson shared a penchant for collaborative performance with musicians, and a shared interest in esoteric text, ancient symbols, and experimental film—those interests persist in their work on Come Through. The two artists created hundreds of images for this performance and worked very closely with TU Dance and Bon Iver, sometimes remotely, sometimes on site at April Base, and finally during a week of intensive rehearsal last month at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. Ahead of this weekend’s premiere, we discussed the roots of their partnership, how this project came to be, and their mode of working together leading up to their debut performance at the Palace Theater.

'Come Through' at MASS MoCA.

'Come Through' at MASS MoCA.

Steve Marsh: How did the two of you begin working together?

Eric Timothy Carlson: This pretty Minneapolis trippy guy, Derek Maxwell, used to host these drawing parties at his apartment, where all the tables would have paper taped onto them. People would show up and hang out and party and work on these collaborative communal drawings. Everyone was pretty good at drawing, but Aaron was really sick at drawing. We started talking about working on a comic book, and coming up with these bigger narrative ideas that quickly kind of like superseded any comic book idea. So it went straight into collaborating with Crystal. She was making costumes and fabric art, as well as being a really talented drawer and painter. The first Hardland/Heartland show was actually an installation at the Soap Factory with Derek Maxwell and Lazerbeak. We made these inflatable floating mountains, and made a mural like a giant title card, and Crystal made costumes for everybody. Derek Maxwell was in a band called the Gamut, and our setting for the show had Gamut as these wandering musicians searching for the tune from this ancient warrior, Lazerbeak. So it was this noise band with this art installation inside of an elevator shaft. And the Gamut partied and played music, and when they unlocked the key to this tomb, Lazerbeak emerged and DJed for the rest of the night.

Aaron Anderson: The blog was the only reason we were called Hardland/Heartland.

Eric Timothy Carlson: The blog was like a public journal, but the real work was these kind of events and parties and installations.

'Never Better' album cover, designed by Eric Timothy Carlson. 

'Never Better' album cover, designed by Eric Timothy Carlson. 

You went on to design the CD packaging for P.O.S.’ Never Better, and to design Gayngs’ iconic symbol.

ETC: Never Better was the biggest [album design project]. I had a number of projects with Building Better Bombs—those were the first ones. I was working with a friend of mine, Greg Hubacek, who was deeper into the hip hop realm. Did a mixtape with Plain Ol’ Bill. Fort Wilson Riot were friends of mine and I did some stuff with them. We’re all connected.

With this project, your imagery is so esoteric that it allows the person looking at it to come up with their own reference points and their own associations. So I don’t know if it’s fair to start with discussing process. You are obviously trying to protect whoever is seeing this imagery from having the images defined for them.

ETC: Well in a way I think talking about process avoids telling you what it is supposed to be in the end, as opposed to just telling you what it’s supposed to be in the end!

AA: Our desks are pretty close, as far as process is concerned. 

When Justin Vernon invited you to do this, did he play music for you? Did you bring your own ideas because you’ve worked with him in the past?

ETC: Uri (Director of TU Dance) and Justin had been in touch and Justin had been talking about the project. And in their conversation, the 22, A Million lyric videos came up, just as an, “oh, it would be great to have this component present in the collaboration.” So it was brought up to us and just hearing about it was exciting. Something that no one involved had ever done before. [Uri and Justin] were able to get together for a session before we were able to be around for it. So we kind of got some videos of the dance’s progress and we were given kind of audio sketches. That’s what we were initially given. So at that phase of it, there was very little hard direction for us. So I was familiar with some of the songs, and some of the songs were new material. There were loose notes about how this thing could be. But it wasn’t until we got together, all of us in the same place, that we were able to see some of the dance take form in the space with the music being played live, and then we received an actual set of notes from the choreography. Uri has this vision of this whole thing in a way. He’s the one that has the whole dance in mind and knows what all the dancers are doing for the whole show. He has listened to all of the music and knows it inside out, as far as the outline of it is concerned. As far as what the performance on stage is, and how it relates to the music, he kind of has the conductor hat on. So getting notes from him proved to be really important.

So a quick digression: I would say a lot of your work reminds me, I don’t mean to sound trite, but of Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi or Fricke’s Baraka or Jodorowky’s Holy Mountain, in that the images that you sample deliver more meaning cumulatively, rather than standing on their own. This one, in particular, while you’re watching it, you have shots of money, and then shots of ears, and then shots of an empty hall without an audience. It’s almost psychedelic in the fact that they’re images that we’ve all seen before, but when they’re recontextualized in the order they’re presented, and as the backdrop to a dance performance, then they have new meaning.

ETC: Totally.

So that kind of psychedelic, shamanistic vibe—the term Terence McKenna used is a “syncretic experience,” the merging of different cultural traditions in your brain. Is that the intent of your work?

ETC: I feel like all of that is totally on as far as the approach and what we’re open to and what we’re producing. I feel like once we start working on a project with a narrative where the subject is humanity, I think it works really well for that. I’m not super interested in making an explicit character-based narrative.

Why is that? Why intentionally be esoteric or obtuse? Why leave so much work to be done by the audience to actually provide meaning to the narrative?

AA: I don’t think it’s a lot of work. It’s just not the usual type of work that some people are asked to do. To me the visuals feel very specific at times. But esoteric to one person is a form of specificity to another person, and if you don’t share the same point of view with that person, that’s the opportunity to feel weird, or off-put, or mystified even. I think that personally, that’s the only thing I’m good at—doing it that way. Being confused about something is better than not caring about something. And in general, you’ll take more home with you later if you can get it that way. Whether or not you’re into it or not, whatever, that’s past my ultimate realm of concern, but really it’s more effective work that way.

ETC: It’s also speaking for a lot of different people, and to a lot of different people, a lot of different audiences. And a lot of it is about asking questions and there’s no solution.


The interesting thing that I thought about during this show, is that there are a lot more words than you usually find in your work, or maybe the words just stood out to me so much. Maybe it will feel different when I’m in the theater and am more focused on the dancers or the band. But the words stood out to me so much. And words have more of an authoritarian quality than imagery. Words actually connote more explicit meaning than say, a photograph of a blooming rose. You can be more specific with words. Was using more text intentional?

ETC: It definitely occurred. As part of the process, where again, the initial kind of conversation about our involvement was based on the [22, A Million] lyric videos. And there was no intent of making lyric videos for this performance, but we used a structure that was established in those lyric videos. Where every part of a movement in the song gets an introduction piece and that leads you through the performance as a whole. And then a way to continue organizing what will go into each section, was just kind of parsing the notes that we were receiving about the intent of the choreography for each section. And some of it is stated very explicitly: “This is what this means.” A lot of that stuff was really interesting. Where a viewer, especially a viewer unaccustomed to contemporary dance, sure some of these things would be picked up, but there are so many different things—are you looking at it formally, are you looking at it physically, are you looking at it conceptually, specifically about the dance in particular.

AA: But also coming at being really comfortable from the lyric videos. The way that that matched with the music up until that point, dance was the point of this. That’s the driver of the thing in a cool way. The dance.


You’re right, I think we grew up in similar scenes of music and visual art. I would say my ability to pick out references and to understand the language of visual art, or the references or language of popular music, is much more on point than my ability to do that with dance. I’m much more comfortable with the language of both of those mediums than I am with dance.

ETC: [One of the members of the band] BJ Burton was talking about seeing one of the guys in the front row [at MASS MoCA] looking at them during the whole performance and he was like, “why are you not watching the dancers? Watch something! We’re just standing here.”

But if you’re ignorant of the tradition and the nomenclature, like most people are when it comes to dance, you’re going to latch onto things in the room that they understand.

ETC: Totally. And see who they want to see.

AA: If you’re someone who goes to a TU Dance show, or something who would go see a Bon Iver show, you’re going to be puzzled when you leave. Either way. It will change your day, at least, in a good way.

I think being confused for an hour and 15 minutes could be a healthy thing. Maybe we shouldn’t be so sure of ourselves right now.

ETC: Yeah.

AA: Like I said, I don’t think that person will be confused the whole time, but there will be a period of acclimation. And it was interesting to see the rehearsal up close and then having to be positioned in the back of the theater. Because the system we made is more or less played along with the band. It’s not like we’re setting it up and walking away.

ETC: We’re currently pretty analog, playing through the video stuff. None of it is pre-set.

So you have control over the performance?

ETC: We have 200 videos and we have them organized and sequenced, but we can skip back in between things, and every intro of a new video piece is triggered by hand. So a lot of it isn’t necessarily falling on the beat, but it’s made to work in context of a beat.

So every performance will be slightly different?

ETC: Every performance will be very different! But it will be nuanced.

How many songs are in the performance?

AA: Like eight?

ETC: No it’s more than that now. It got to a certain point before we got to the final two weeks of building out the program. And so we had built out a program based on everything that we had known, and we got to April Base and by the time we left, it was pretty different. There were multiple working titles too—so we would call a song one thing, and the band might call it another, and the dancers might call it another. So there’s definitely a lot of fluid pieces in the way it works.


When somebody walks out of the theater after the show, and has an opportunity to ask you guys or any of the musicians, “what does NO VISUALS” mean? Or what about “BREATHE NOW AND ASCEND?” Will anybody give them a straight answer? Can anybody?

ETC: [Laughs] Well, I think the underlying premise of the whole thing is a message of hope and belief in humanity. The I WANT TO BELIEVE poster at April Base has deep resonance here. It all kind of comes to that push.

AA: I think you would get a straight answer out of most of the people involved. Some of the people might not ever give straight answer, but you’ll get honesty. And I think that’s what is cool about it. That it sort of allows for that kind of excitement. As a person who’s involved in that, it’s so rare to truly feel that.

ETC: I don’t know. Is it really confusing? It is a really mysterious vibe?

Yeah, I would say so. The kind of uplifting melancholy of Justin’s falsetto imbues the whole thing with a feeling I’m familiar with—hopeful sadness I guess. But then your imagery recalls Koyaanisqatsi, which is about an imbalance of nature and technology. Whenever you see flowers and rotting images of decay mixed with money and marching and neoclassical facades, again it can kind of look scary. I think it’s more the emotional content is on that line between being sad and also feeling the uplift that contemplating humanity gives you. It’s really big is what I’m trying to say.

ETC: Yeah. There are a lot of voices, and it’s a cacophony. And the project is a cacophony, but I feel like your read into that is also totally right. It is big. The conversation is big. And it is acknowledging this moment, that it’s a weird time, and the conversation of feeling that kind of tension in the air, and acknowledging that. The intent is to break through some of that and inspire or to ask and believe that something can be done. By us. Everybody. Us.

So would it be fair to me to ask, for instance, one of the most striking images in the entire thing is the flash zoom through all the faces. And it’s a motif that recurs. It’s really explicit, in the center of the piece, and then you flash back to it towards the end. So what idea is that coming from?

ETC: That was a direct response to a note from the choreography. “This could be a sequence of human faces.”

So how many faces are in that thing, and where did you get the faces? I know with your last book, Eric, you spent time culling images from the New York Public Library.

ETC: I don’t know, there’s 50 or 60. There might be more. 75, something like that. That was in the choreography notes for a specific moment. And that was kind of before we had gotten a bigger picture of the whole thing. So we only had a handful of things that we could really work on. So all of those were pulled from royalty free stock photography portrait galleries. So we were just trying to find a functional array of images that I could pull from that. There are certainly images throughout the whole thing that are just pulled from the Internet, and that I feel comfortable in using those from a Google image search. But when it comes to people’s faces, straight up people’s faces, it seemed important to make sure that we had whatever, royalty free free use images. But that section is also interspersed, or the faces are interspersed with the faces of the performers. So we got head shots of everybody in the performance as well, just to make it a little more personal.

AA: It flies a little too fast for anybody to recognize them.

What about the amanita muscaria mushroom—it’s one of the oldest shamanic totems of psychedelia. What was the note that you were responding to there?

ETC: That was growth. All of the growth stuff is less a specific note, but that was the tone. From the very start, knowing what this thing was addressing, this contemporary moment, this struggle that we feel is very real, and the desire to supersede that, without showing that as… I don’t know, people standing triumphantly raising some flag. The mushroom just acknowledges the growth and re-growth and cycles of nature blooming.

AA: And fungus growing is just as interesting as a flower. Even speaking to the complexity to the images in the project, that seemed to be important that that would be there. It’s not just flowers.

ETC: Flowers are too cute.

AA: Too happy. The problem is not solved. It’s just about having a better attitude to go forward.

ETC: And I love a mushroom as an end note. The deep kind of actual systems of mushrooms are a great parallel to humanity, like an unseen system that actually connects. And fungus and the connection of a lot of that material to decay, and that decay and things breaking down play a huge role in things being built again.

Maybe the most dramatic sonic moment in the show is when Justin is unaccompanied and he’s doing these sort of painful field hollers. Part of me was in awe of this white dude that’s singing such an ancient form of suffering, it’s a sound that’s strongly associated with slavery, and it’s accompanied by an image of an actual field, or brush, this kind of grey kind of ochre, muted kind of field plants. Where did you get that imagery from and what does that image mean?

ETC: So it’s in Central Park and there’s a grove of trees with a path going through it. And if you revisit the image there’s a clump of the leaves in the middle of it, and it forms this inexplicable, nearly unbelievable face. There’s like a head floating in this image. And when I walked by it, I saw it in the corner of my eye and it stopped me. It felt super surreal. But it’s a menacing headed tree, and it kind of follows you as you walk past it.

Thank you for indulging me. It does feel like cheating where you’re asking the artist to tell you what [stuff] means.

ETC: Yeah.

Everybody is going to become disoriented or confused at some point, so is there anything you would suggest to prepare for it?

AA: Bring an open mind. Sorry to have a lame answer. But a willingness to challenge your point of view.

ETC: Coming into it expecting a thing is the wrong way to do it. It’s an 90 minute thing, and it’s not a typical music show.

Maybe a warning is good: “This is not going to be normal.”

ETC: You could watch Holy Mountain and Koyaanisqatsi.

AA: Or you could watch some Bruce Conner films.

Steve Marsh is a writer interested in culture, extreme experience and performance. He’s the senior writer for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine and has been published in The Wall Street Journal, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, and Grantland.

Eric and Aaron's work will be presented as part of TU Dance and Bon Iver's "Come Through" at the Palace Theater, commissioned by Liquid Music, on April 19, 20, and 21, 2018. Tickets to all four performances are SOLD OUT. 


Follow Steve Marsh:
Twitter: @stephenhero

Follow Eric Timothy Carlson: 
Twitter: @3TC3T3RA
Instagram: @erictimothycarlson
Website: www.erictimothycarlson.com

Follow Aaron Anderson:
Instagram: @aaron_anderson
YouTube: https://m.youtube.com/user/BeatDetectives

Follow Liquid Music for Updates and Announcements: 
Twitter: @LiquidMusicSPCO
Instagram: @LiquidMusicSeries  
Facebook: facebook.com/SPCOLiquidMusic

Artist in Virtual Residence: Ashwini Ramaswamy, Entry #2 by Liquid Music

Ashwini Eblast.jpg

Minneapolis-based Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer Ashwini Ramaswamy is one of Liquid Music Series' 2017.18 Artists in Virtual Residence. Known for her ability to "weave together both fearfully and joyfully, the human and the divine" (New York Times), Ramaswamy will be bringing her craft to the 2018.19 Liquid Music season in collaboration with DJ, composer, and author Jace Clayton (our other Artist in Virtual Residence) for a premiere of their new work. Here, in her second entry of the season, she discusses the inspiration behind her creative process, seeking a complimentary performance space for the project, and meeting up with Jace in North Carolina.

Blog Entry #2
By Ashwini Ramaswamy

In Marisha Pessl’s 2013 novel Night Film, the legendary director Stanislas Cordova’s cannon of classic films includes the title “At Night All Birds Are Black.” That title has stayed with me since I read the book several years ago. It is one of the inspirations behind my 2016 work Nocturne, which explores the night-worlds of humans and wildlife, and it has influenced my current Liquid Music commission.

Lab 2.JPG

To me, “At Night All Birds Are Black” is a striking image that combines unity with foreboding. I really gravitate towards that kind of opposition, which lends itself beautifully to art-making. This dichotomy is one of the reasons I became interested in crows and ravens as a potential theme for the Liquid Music piece that I am creating with Jace Clayton, aka dj/rupture. Myths have painted these birds as both harbingers of doom and divine messengers; their potent influence and cultural staying power is undeniable. Crows and humans are co-evolving species, and the historical, mythological, and philosophical connections between them brim with creative possibilities.

Ashwini and LM Curator Kate Nordstrum explore possible performance spaces.

Ashwini and LM Curator Kate Nordstrum explore possible performance spaces.

Making a new work from scratch can take years – I have been ruminating on this project since 2015, and it will premiere in 2019 – and several elements need to come together. I’ve spend the past few months looking for the right performance space for the work, trying to find residency sites to provide space and time to create the work with Jace, and finding dancers that will elevate the work.

Since my plan for the dance aspect of this piece includes finding artists outside of my genre, I’ve spent the past few months posting and responding to audition notices, meeting with dancers, attending other company’s rehearsals, watching videos, and narrowing down the genre of dancer I might want to work with. I have one spectacular artist on board, and am still on the hunt for another – I’m looking for someone unexpected – to fill out the cast.

Finding the right site for a new piece is critical, and it can be tricky to balance ideal physical location, cost, and schedule when looking for the perfect home for a project. Liquid Music events are spot-on when it comes to location, and LM curator Kate Nordstrum and I have been looking at and discussing space options for the better part of a year. We are coming close to narrowing it down – stay tuned for an announcement of the exact date and location very soon!

In a few days I am heading to North Carolina, where Jace is the UNC Chapel Hill/Duke University Nannerl Keohane Distinguished Visiting Professor. This will be my second visit there to work with him on his project Sufi Plug-ins V.2, and I was very happy to bring with me my good friend and collaborator Rajna Swaminathan, an accomplished composer and mridangam (south Indian percussion) artist. This time together in a creative setting is very important as we continue to find our rhythm as collaborators. Here are a few photos from the last visit; more to come after this weekend’s work-in-progress showing in Durham!

NCarolina 2.jpg
N Carolina 3.jpg

Ashwini will continue to document her Artist in Virtual Residence journey on the Liquid Music blog throughout the year and will be featured as part of the 2018.19 Liquid Music Series season for a premiere performance of her collaborative work with Jace Clayton. 

Keep up with Liquid Music Artists in Virtual Residence Ashwini Ramaswamy and Jace Clayton through journal entries and updates on the LM blog:
 Artist in Virtual Residence: Ashwini Ramaswamy
Artist in Virtual Residence: Jace Clayton/DJ Rupture
Liquid Music Connects: Students Visit "Virtually" With Artists in Residence
Jace Clayton on Collaboration

Follow Ashwini Ramaswamy:
Website: http://www.ashwini-ramaswamy.com/
Instagram: @ashwiniramaswamy (instagram.com/ashwiniramaswamy/)
Facebook: facebook.com/ashwini.ramaswamy

Follow Liquid Music for updates and announcements: 
Twitter: @LiquidMusicSPCO (twitter.com/LiquidMusicSPCO)
Instagram: @LiquidMusicSeries (instagram.com/liquidmusicseries
Facebook: facebook.com/SPCOLiquidMusic

"Come Through" by Bon Iver & TU Dance: Dancer Reflections at MASS MoCA by Liquid Music

All photos by Aden Seeley, MASS MoCA

All photos by Aden Seeley, MASS MoCA

"Electrifying” (City Pages) TU Dance and “hyper-modern balladeering” (The Guardian) Bon Iver wrapped up a week-long residency at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts March 25 with two enthralling sneak peek performances of their Liquid Music-commissioned project “Come Through”. After months of collaboration and rehearsal, the final product will premiere April 19-21 at the Palace Theatre in downtown St. Paul as a part of the 2017.18 Liquid Music season. “Come Through” features new music by Justin Vernon as well as new choreography from TU Dance’s "polyrhythmic genius" (Star Tribune) Uri Sands. Here is a look at the MASS MoCA experience, featuring reflections from TU Dance company members on the residency and performance.

She had tears in her eyes as she thanked me and everyone involved in the project, saying she now had renewed energy to keep fighting for justice.

Elayna Waxse: I’m a Twin Cities-based performer, choreographer, and educator currently in my sixth season with TU Dance. During our residency with Bon Iver at MASS MoCA, there were several times I had to pause and reflect on the special project that was unfolding before me. I heard some great responses from the audience, but I think my favorite was from a woman who stopped me outside the theater shortly after our Sunday matinee. She had tears in her eyes as she thanked me and everyone involved in the project, saying she now had renewed energy to keep fighting for justice. She professed (and I censored) “We’re not (expletive) alright, but one day we might be alright”. As an artist, this is all I can hope to convey.

It reassures me that we are moving in the right direction and all of our efforts to connect and impact with our message is successful.

Christian Warner: This is my second season as a company member with TU Dance. The collaboration has been surreal to say the least but I believe my favorite moments are seeing the audiences members become overwhelmed with emotion or express their cathartic experiences as they view the piece. It reassures me that we are moving in the right direction and all of our efforts to connect and impact with our message is successful.

Within a collaboration as unique as what Liquid Music has created, all of the collaborators involved have experienced opportunities to make honest personal connections through art.

Randall Riley: I’m a dancer with TU Dance, currently dancing my third season with the company. Within a collaboration as unique as what Liquid Music has curated, all of the collaborators involved have experienced opportunities to make honest personal connections through art. I cannot wait for everyone to hear the glorious score, but also get their lives from the projections that really help glue the piece for me!

TU Dance and Bon Iver will perform "Come Through" at the Palace Theater, commissioned by Liquid Music, on April 19, 20, and 21, 2018. Tickets to all four performances are SOLD OUT. Follow TU Dance and Bon Iver to keep an eye out for updates and announcements on the project as it continues to grow...

Follow TU Dance:
Website: http://www.tudance.org
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TU.Dance.MN/
Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/tudance

Follow Bon Iver:
Website: https://boniver.org/
Facebook: @boniverwi
Twitter: @boniver
Instagram: @boniver

Follow Liquid Music for updates and announcements: 
Twitter: @LiquidMusicSPCO (twitter.com/LiquidMusicSPCO)
Instagram: @LiquidMusicSeries (instagram.com/liquidmusicseries
Facebook: facebook.com/SPCOLiquidMusic

Interview: Nathalie Joachim on "Fanm d’Ayiti" with Tim Munro by Liquid Music

Nathalie Joachim’s Fanm d’Ayiti celebrates the women of Haitian song and aims to explore their individual stories as they relate to Afro-Caribbean culture, society, history and music. Fellow flutist Tim Munro sat down with Joachim to reflect on the scope of the project, and how the process has changed her. Below is an edited transcript of Joachim’s words.

In Haiti, the women are badasses. You don’t want to mess with anyone’s Haitian mother. You’re going to definitely be on your best behavior.

I started to focus on three artists: Emerante Morse, Carole Demesmin, Toto Bissainthe. I felt connected to them. Going to Haiti, talking to these women, meeting their families, seeing where they’re from, hearing their deep commitment to Haiti. It felt inspiring. The three paint an interesting portrait. They’re each from pretty distinct eras, musically, but each influenced the other. Many consider these women revolutionaries.

The piece of the puzzle that made Fanm d’Ayiti come together was being in Haiti, recording a children’s choir. They were singing the music for a Catholic church service, accompanied by a drummer who was playing these very distinct voodoo drum patterns. It was two worlds colliding: this Catholic religion passed on through colonialism, and a musical practice that came all the way from Africa.

Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

Fanm d’Ayiti is linked by the idea of strength and freedom and empowerment. It is made up of music woven together with some of the recorded testimony of the women I interviewed, and the field recording of the girls choir, and recordings off my grandmother. Half of the material is completely original, the other half are some arrangements of these three female artists.

Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

My entire piece has a religious lens. So many of the songs in the show are Haitian voodoo songs. All of the text throughout the whole show is very deeply rooted in religion, whether it is African religion or Roman Catholic. I’ve learned about Voodoo as a practice. There is a stigma attached, but it’s akin to Native American religious practice. Voodoo as a practice is more about storytelling than anything else. Many of the gods are tied to nature.

Nathalie alongside Emerante Morse (July 2017)

Nathalie alongside Emerante Morse (July 2017)

The Children's Choir (July 2017)

The Children's Choir (July 2017)

I’m at the end of this project, but it also feels like the beginning. The show has helped me focus a new direction, to connect deeply to something that has been waiting to be tapped into.

Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

For so long I have been attached to the, like, “I’m a classical flutist, and this is what I do.” This is what the world thinks is the most “validated” training. The thing I’m “supposed” to be doing. I have never stood solidly on my ability as a composer. I had been actively writing music, but was very selective about what I was sharing publicly. Censoring my own voice.

Also, in the past I have shied away from what I knew to be my vocal identity, to make myself fit somewhere. I’m definitely not an opera singer…at all. And I feel like people look at me and are like, “This is an African American female, so she’s going to sound like a soul singer,” and I don’t sound like that.

The practice of music in Haiti is very communal, very relaxed. It’s not about who’s been playing the longest, who’s the best, who’s the most trained, who’s recognized as X, Y or Z. It’s just people sharing a piece of themselves as honestly as they can. It’s a style of music that really lacks any pretension, which makes me a better performer. It takes away this need to be perfect.

I never recognized that the many hours singing with my grandmother were also music lessons. To me it was just “Oh, that’s just my time with my grandmother.” But the second I started this project, I realized she trained me so well in the practice of folk singing and folk music in Haiti.

Scenery in Haiti (July 2017)

Scenery in Haiti (July 2017)

In this project I’m writing and performing in a way that I would have been scared to do a decade ago. So much of my musical instinct and influence comes from being a kid growing up in Brooklyn, with electronic music and hip hop steeped in my ear. That, combined with my classical training, is of course a valid practice of studying music.

Vocally, this project is the most I’ve been myself. Making music in Haiti happens without abandon. The songs have such deep meaning, and you just give yourself to it. It has resulted in me finding a vocal quality that feels like the most natural.

All of these things are coming together with honesty. Putting myself out there in this way is super-vulnerable. But at the showing in St. Paul and the taping for “On Being,” it was maybe the least stage-fright I’ve ever had. It felt normal. And right.


Tim Munro is a Chicago-based, triple-Grammy-winning musician. His diverse work as a flutist, speaker, writer and teacher is united by a single goal: to draw audiences into an engrossing and whimsical musical world.

Website: nathaliejoachim.com
Facebook: facebook.com/nathalie.joachim.39
Twitter: @flutronix (twitter.com/flutronix)
Instagram: @njoachim (instagram.com/njoachim)
Youtube: youtube.com/c/nathaliejoachi

Website: timothymunro.com
Twitter: @lullysfoot (twitter.com/lullysfoot)
Instagram: @timothymunro (instagram.com/timothymunro)

Twitter: @LiquidMusicSPCO (twitter.com/LiquidMusicSPCO)
Instagram: @LiquidMusicSeries (instagram.com/liquidmusicseries
Facebook: facebook.com/SPCOLiquidMusic
Podcast: Liquid Music Playlist