“There is no set way ever": An interview with Darkstar's James Young by Liquid Music

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DARKSTAR & JAMES MCVINNIE


COLLAPSE

James Young, one half of the London-based electronics duo “Darkstar”, talks with Liquid Music blog contributor Nick Lanser about their new work Collapse, a collaborative effort with world renowned organist James McVinnie commissioned by Liquid Music and premiering at Northrop on May 4.


Nick Lanser: How did you and Aiden come to start making music together? Did you have earlier music projects before delving into the electronic music world?

James Young: Aiden and I started passing ideas back and forth around 2005, I’d been going to a nightclub called fwd in London and we started making sounds that would sit in on the periphery there. Darkstar was our first thing we tried to be honest. We lived in West London and started making tracks that were being played on Pirate Radio. Once we forged a sound that was our own I think people started to take note that we were trying something a little different for that context and it worked for us. 

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NL: What was your earliest memory of electronic music? What inspired you to start creating independently?

JY: Earliest memory probably Thriller, the Linn drum used in that, the way it was so rigid but worked so well. What got me making music was probably tape packs and just scraps of paraphernalia from clubs in the North West of England, flyers, posters, radio, the odd cross over tune, I started wondering what if at that point and began dj’ing, then bought a sampler and went from there. 

NL: Walk me through your creative process. When you are creating new music, what comes first? Do you start with a concept? Or improvisation?  

JY: Both really, there is no set way ever. Not one piece of music ever starts the same – in my eyes anyway. I always think it just happens or we dig and dig until there’s something there to move forward with but each time there are differences. We’re not precious about what we use or where we make music we just try and get time together and look for something we both like without over thinking what we’re doing, the overthinking comes much later when we have seven or so tracks then we’ll try and look at it conceptually or explore how it all fits together. 

NL: How did you start working with James McVinnie? How did you know he’d be a good collaborative match for Darkstar?

JY: We began working with James on a piece called “Dance Unity” performed at the Southbank Centre. It was part of the PRS New Music Biennial. We had an idea in mind to delve into archives of old 90’s records we liked and somehow re-contextualize them with the organ. James was really open to our ideas and it worked perfectly. I think from a musical stand point, because we have a certain type of part that is common in a lot of our work, looped intricate melodies, James could grab onto this and evolve it through performance. So not only was our work identifiable through the piece, James was also progressing our ideas through nuances in how he manipulates the organ. 

NL: What have you set out to say or to achieve with Collapse? Is there a planned evolution for the work post-premiere?

JY: We wanted to try and delve more musically knowing what the organ and James are capable of. We wanted something quintessentially Darkstar yet expansive. To try layered loops that build and develop into often explorative compositions. Something that would swell and evolve, fall back and rest, like a cycle of  harmonic layers constantly shifting. 

I think there will be an evolution with this work but what yet I have no idea, it’s always hard to think ahead after just finishing it. But we will I’m sure look to progress it or use again. 

NL: Where do you find inspiration outside of the music world?

JY: We have been doing a lot of youth work recently and that has been inspiring. To see so much talent and enthusiasm for music was energizing and I think probably changed our approach to recording slightly. How? I’m not sure just yet but after working in different settings with people that don’t have the means to make music everyday like we do… it left a lasting impression on how we use our time and how we develop Darkstar from this point. It feels like a crossroads but one we’re happy to be at. 


Liquid Music presents the world premiere of Collapse by James McVinnie and Darkstar Saturday, May 4 at Northrop. BUY TICKETS HERE.

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James McVinnie on organs, electronics and “Collapse” by Liquid Music

James McVinnie

James McVinnie

On May 4, Liquid Music presents renowned organist James McVinnie with London-based electronics duo Darkstar in the world premiere of Collapse at Northrop (Minnesota debuts for all artists). McVinnie’s boundless approach to music has led him to collaborations with a fascinating variety of distinctive artists across musical genres. From 2008 to 2011 he held the post of Assistant Organist of Westminster Abbey. Read McVinnie’s generous program note for Collapse, which overviews more than his collaboration with Darkstar, but gives insight into his life as an organist and his relationship with electronic music.


I come from a thoroughly traditional background as a classically trained organist — I’ve held positions in church music and played the majority of the core organ repertoire. Music with less traditional roots has however always been a big part of my musical makeup and a fire to my imagination. It was through my record label, Bedroom Community, that my knowledge of electronic music really started to blossom. I came to know, as friends, a network of artists who were creating groundbreaking work — particularly Valgeir Sigurðsson and Ben Frost at Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavik — and a whole new world slowly revealed itself to my ears and mind. I’ve become fascinated with synthesis in music and how that relates to the pipe organ; the two seemingly opposite sides to a coin are in fact much closer to one another than one might imagine.

Northrop’s Aeolian-Skinner Pipe Organ

Northrop’s Aeolian-Skinner Pipe Organ

Each organ is different; each has its own unique disposition of ‘stops’, ‘registers’ (or ‘instruments’ in all but name) which are voiced to sound their best for the acoustic space they inhabit. The room that houses the organ therefore becomes part of the instrument itself and organists therefore become orchestrators — each piece has to be fitted to each new instrument, often taking into consideration the wishes of the composer and/or conventions about which ‘registers’ or ‘stops’ to use according to national styles or fashions of the day. Organists thus develop a highly attuned ear for adapting music to a particular instrument and acoustic space, a process which is identical to that of a producer, creating and mixing music originating from the studio using synthesised instruments.

The sound of the organ is created by air resonating through pipes. This sound is without modulation or change; the note stays sounding the same until your finger or foot releases the key (often unfairly earning the instrument an unmusical, inflexible reputation!). This super-flatness encourages the player to use various different registers (or ‘stops’ as described above) of the organ in imaginative ways to create variety of sound, just as a composer would chose their instruments in an orchestral work, or like how you would program a synthesiser. These registral colourations, coupled with careful and intricate deployment of compositional textures and figurations, provide limitless possibilities for musical exploration.

McVinnie at Eaux Claires’ Baroque Installment

McVinnie at Eaux Claires’ Baroque Installment

One of the most appealing aspects of the organ is that its vast symphonic capabilities are accessible to a single person. The organist can change registration (through simple sequencing technology) in an instant. Tom Jenkinson (better known as the electronic musician Squarepusher who has written me a large body of music for organ) writes:

Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher)

Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher)

There are aspects of writing for organ which I find comparable to writing music for electronics. There is a very tangible weight to the amount of technology around you in an organ performance, unlike any other acoustic instrument I have any experience of. Sounds may be accessed by the touch of button, such that sonic variety is achieved by mechanical means as much as it is by the performer's skill. In that way I see the organist as immersed in technology much more than performers of other acoustic instruments and, despite its long history, it thus seems an eternally modern instrument. Maybe there is something reminiscent of the dark glamour of a computer genius about the organist, wrapped up in machinery, remote from and indifferent to praise.

Darkstar

Darkstar

The pipe organ is famed in popular culture for its gothic ‘dracula’ appeal, a notoriety which belies its subtlety, great nuance and strangeness. In working with James and Aiden on this project, I have tried very hard to make the organ not sound like an organ — I’ve tried to pair the notes written with unusual, characterful registral combinations to try to blur the edges between electronics and pipes. This performance represents our largest scale collaboration to date.


Liquid Music presents the world premiere of Collapse by James McVinnie and Darkstar Saturday, May 4 at Northrop. BUY TICKETS HERE.

FOLLOW JAMES MCVINNIE:
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Six days out: Six questions for Dustin O'Halloran by Liquid Music

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In anticipation of Liquid Music’s Double Header: New Music & Dance Duos on April 17 & 18, Liquid Music blog contributor Nick Lanser interviewed composer Dustin O’Halloran to learn more about his collaborative project with dancer/choreographer Fukiko Takase, 1 0 0 1. Here they discuss inspiration, creative process, and the animating concepts of 1 0 0 1, a half-evening of new music and dance exploring territories of technology, humanity, and mind-body dualism in our electronics-forward existence.


Nick Lanser: How did you and Fukiko come to work with each other? What about each other’s art or practice made you want to collaborate?

Fukiko Takase

Fukiko Takase

Dustin O’Halloran: Fukiko and I first met when we worked together for Wayne McGregor's contemporary dance piece ATOMOS. I was so impressed with her instincts and intellect toward dance and felt that we had a connection in this way, and we planted the seed to one day do something together. 

NL: When composing for dance, do you have movement in mind? As you create arrangements to support movement, do you have a different approach than you would, for say, a film score?

DO: Film is very much a box in some ways; it has defined borders, and timelines which can be restrictive. Dance is a much more open concept of working for me, and I approach it how I would write for myself, like a blank canvas that needs filling. I think its one of the purest ways music and visuals can connect as its completely organic. I learned from working with Wayne McGregor that music for contemporary dance doesn’t necessarily have to support movement in a traditional sense as much as it needs to create an atmosphere and environment that can evolve and shift and give space. This freedom is fundamental to me and its an area to be very creative and explore new ideas.

NL: Your Liquid Music project is about technology, humanity and mind-body dualism as we “approach the age of AI.” How did you and Fukiko arrive at this concept? Did another piece of artwork or literature inspire it? 

DO: We're inspired by the concepts from the Japanese anime classic The Ghost In The Shell and also this new frontier that seems to be coming soon with AI and what it will mean for humanity. There are so many questions about the soul and technology and where it will lead us. We found these concepts inspiring for us as we both wanted to explore taking organic materials and transforming them with technology and how this could be interpreted through dance and to search for new languages in our art forms.

NL: What has been the most significant moment in the creation of this work, thus far, with Fukiko?

DO: It's always incredible how creative connections can inspire you, so for me each time seeing pieces of the choreography gave new light to the music and the directions it could go. It was helping me be more open and deeper into the process and take bolder steps where perhaps I would not alone. Also the conversations we had with our lighting designer, which were very inspiring as we discussed concepts of the soul, new languages and technology.

NL: Your body of work as a film composer is substantial. What has been your favorite film project thus far and what do you have coming up?

DO: Its been a busy few years, the highlight being the film Lion which I co-composed with German composer HAUSCHKA, it's rare when all elements come together like this. We just finished a new film entitled The Art Of Racing In The Rain which will come out this year, and I’m also completing a new record with Adam Wiltzie my partner in the ambient/drone project A WINGED VICTORY FOR THE SULLEN.

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

DO: Paintings and books are always a significant influence on me. A great book will stay with me like a dream, and these subconscious thoughts still find themselves in the music. Abstract painting for me is always how I experience music, inexpressible colors and feelings that are visceral. 


Purchase Tickets for 1 0 0 1, part of Liquid Music’s New Music & Dance Duos double header April 17 & 18, also featuring Mike Lewis and Eva Mohn’s When Isn’t Yet.

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“Your body has it's own mind": Fukiko Takase in conversation with Berit Ahlgren by Liquid Music

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Fukiko Takase was born in New York and raised in Japan. She has been dancing since the age of two under her mother Takako Takase and Katsuko Orita's dance training. When she was 14, Fukiko started creating and performing her work for competitions to develop her creativity and physical capabilities. She received the Cultural Affairs Fellowship from the Japanese government, studied at Codarts Rotterdam Dance Academy, London Contemporary Dance School. As a dancer, she worked for Henri Oguike Dance Company (2006–2010), Russell Maliphant (2010), and Company Wayne McGregor (2011–2018). Fukiko danced with Thom Yorke in a music video and featured in projects for AnOther Magazine, County of Milan, Channel 4, The Brits, BBC Late Night Proms and Uniqlo. Her choreography includes Autumn Hunch and Cultivate a Quiet Joy.


Berit Ahlgren: It’s an honor to speak to you, Fukiko! Your work is very inspirational for me as a dance artist, and when I was asked by Kate [Nordstrom] to take this opportunity, I said “wow, yes”. So first, thank you, it will be really interesting to hear from your voice about your art and creative process.

Lets start at the beginning! Your parents were both dancers, and knowing this, I am curious what you were exposed to as a young child that no doubt shaped your interest in dance from a young age.

Fukiko Takase: I think about my Mom who danced with both Kei Takei’s company Moving Earth in Japan and New York City-based Laura Dean. Also, Tetsuhiko Maeda, a really talented Japanese costume and set designer, shaped my creative interests. But really, so many choreographers and dancers I saw daily. I was surrounded by lots of adults when I was little, constantly with my mom in this circle with different creative people. In the studio, theater… a lot of time it was like a kindergarten for me, hanging around in auditoriums watching my mom perform. I got in to a bit of naughty acts! I used to blow the ash out of ashtrays and make a mess, jump around the greenroom sofas and do things that kids do, it was just always in a theater setting.

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BA: Like being on a playground.

FT: Yeah! I think I sort of naturally had an understanding of the theater space as a small kid. Being in the a black box and the sensing the people in it—or not!— with the effects of the lights within the space. The theater has a sense of, I don’t know, spirituality to it for me, as well as the studio. The studio has something. I was clearly interested in environment just hanging around in these spaces, and feeling how the thought comes up in a creative process. Sort of like a painter, looking at the paper, or similar to a raindrop—you drop it somewhere and it starts from there, whatever you feel with it.

BA: It’s really beautiful to consider the theater or the studio as, like, a sacred space, almost.

FT: Yeah, yeah.

BA: What comes to mind are temples and churches or place where some sort of precious, important ritual of sacredness happens. Regardless of whatever you believe in, a divine source of creation takes place. It’s a really beautiful way to think about that.

FT: Yeah, I mean sometimes I try to do some exercise at home but it’s not the same as in the studio.

BA: No, never, right?

FT: Weirdly. You think the same things working in spaces outside the studio or theater, but you don’t have the same feeling of tension. Maybe not the tension, but your body doesn’t quite get it.

BA: Agreed. The body doesn’t respond in quite the same way. Speaking of studios, your foundational training was in Japan, followed by Codarts Rotterdam Dance Academy and then London Contemporary Dance School—building a strong contemporary ballet base. Are there dance techniques that you wish you had studied or that intrigue you now that could be pursued at this point in your career?

FT: This is maybe slightly different, but quite recently I went to see a battle of Tutting. Dancers have one minute each with their choice of music or DJ, then improvise. Tutting is very specific form of dance using hands and arms to create the shapes and geometric structure in the space. I’m not that great at it, but it’d be nice to do a workshop. It’s totally different. I’m super curious and mesmerized by it, so I maybe start learning from a video, just the basics like figure eights and drawing. Perhaps one day!

BA: Are you still working with Wayne McGregor in London?

FT: I graduated from that last year. Maybe I’ll go back, I don’t know, but for now I want to focus on my work. We’re still in touch, but I’ve got to move on with my curiosities and interests.

Wayne McGregor

Wayne McGregor

BA: Mr. McGregor’s work is well known as being innovative, multi-disciplinary and technically precise. In terms in the way that he works as a creator and choreographer, and how you are making your work, do you find similarities, or are there things that you absorbed from working with him?

FT: Oh definitely, definitely. I learned a lot from working with him, as well as other choreographers over the years. He works with a neuroscientist, so imagery is very important to the process. I still use this lens, and constantly analyze what I’m getting data from in order to know, to understand, my thought process within the choreographic process. You know, I am quite anal with where the step is coming from. What is the source of the step? What does it mean? Why do I do this? Why am I in this space in this particular spot? To make sense of the piece, to understand thought process is quite important. It’s the key to the work.

BA: That sounds very scientific!

FT: Yeah, I know!

BA: …and organized and different. Not everyone choreographs in that way, so that’s really nice to hear! And in terms of collaborating with musicians, especially since 1001 is a shared project between you and Dustin O’Halloran, how has that fit in to your creative process and where might such collaborations lead? Is this something you really love to do, working with musicians?

FT: I first met Dustin through Wayne’s work Atomos. That was maybe 2013, and we clicked as friends but also… we sort of speak the same language! I’m not talking about English or Spanish, it’s an artistic language. We often said “lets do something together” but of course we’re busy people in a busy time, but I’m so blessed by this project with Liquid Music to make the time. I’m really happy to work with Dustin, he inspires me. When we discussed collaborating, we talked about how he approaches the music, how I approach the dance. Our lighting designer Yaron also speaks the same language. So just by talking on Skype or having a meeting, it doesn’t have to be a long phrase, it could be just one word, and it’s already inspiring for us what is exchanged. The notes, how he thinks about the chords, how I say “oh it sounds like this” or “I want a little bit more of this feeling”. We inspire each other by sharing our work.

BA: That’s great. I’m really excited to see and hear what you’ve put together, as well as the work of your lighting designer. It sounds like his involvement is a very important key to the piece! Speaking of 1 0 0 1, in this premiere you explore aspects of technology. It sounds like you and Dustin have known each other for a bit, so was there a specific process that distilled to this concept?

Dustin O’Halloran

Dustin O’Halloran

FT: We talked about what should we do, and around that same time the film Ghost in the Shell came out. I’m a bit of a fan of animation, so when I saw the film I was really impressed by it but I was also thinking “what’s next” from that animation. It was a mixture of feelings. You watch it and know it’s technology, but you know, at the same time, it gave me question as to our sense of reality. It’s a mind game. And it got me thinking how we could do that with the music. So that’s the beginning. But you know 1 0 0 1 is not about Ghost in the Shell, obviously. I thought, how can I relate to that feeling of a machine that has consciousness, and that the consciousness evolves? But the real question is “what is human being?” Because, basically if you have a source of consciousness, a human could be in anything. It could be a refrigerator, an icicle… those things could be human if it has consciousness or feeling.

BA: And so you’re saying consciousness and feeling are related, or connected—in order to have consciousness you have feeling, or if you have feeling you have consciousness.

FT: Yes, and that you are in it—your soul, your consciousness— you just have a shell of some form. But maybe also in some other form at the same time, out there showing intelligence, artificial life. It’s a crazy world we live in.

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BA: Very, increasingly so.

FT: Right? And that idea evolved into considering the realm. We have a realm that we live in, and also the spiritual realm, and now there is the world wide web realm.

BA: The world wide web is it’s own massive realm.

FT: Exactly! And that’s why it’s such a confusing time. We had two and that was a handful, and now we have three. It’s crazy. There’s a lot of people doing a cyber detox—they stop emailing, Instagram, Facebook, everything. I do it as well sometimes. And when you do it you feel more dead than before. Like you’re dead to the world almost, but of course you’re not dead.

BA: It’s as if you don’t exist if you don’t have a form of yourself that’s on a screen. When you drop those profiles, you can’t exist or coexist or get around the day. It’s pretty fascinating. That these other versions of us are so real, yet so two-dimensional.

FT: I know, right? I mean, there are many things, it really doesn’t stop. It’s so unknown, there’s so much possibility. It’s really exciting but also daunting at the same time!

BA: Elaborate on the questions you ask the audience regarding 1 0 0 1: “How will a new form of consciousness manifest inside a body? What will happen to our soul?” What ideas were on the table for you and Dustin that got distilled down to these core queries? Do you feel these questions have been somewhat answered for you, and offered for the audience to sit with?

FT: I think for me the closest thing to relate to a machine feeling is when I performed some of Wayne’s pieces for 5 years, some pieces for 8 years. Some of those performances I remember feeling like a machine. When you do the same things over and over, you lose this raw feeling from the premiere to the 200th time you’ve done it. You don’t have the same feelings of excitement from the first time it premieres, but you’re still striving for perfection as a dancer.

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BA: Always.

FT: Always, right? Your body has it’s own mind. It’s a result of repetition, striving for perfection, and such an intense concentration on your work. Also it’s a performing art, so you’re doing it in the theater—in a sacred space—with an audience of 2,000 people’s eyes on you. In this black box, every performance happens, but it’s not the same. This robotic feeling is muscle memory in dance, and it’s the same with music as well. Dustin plays piano, and his muscle memory is at work, as well as thoughts, feelings…

BA: You can become a bit numb with muscle memory.

FT: Yeah, exactly!

BA: Like you were saying before, performing over and over the same choreography is the most similar thing to being a robot that you can imagine. The more you perform a certain work, go through the motions, know the parts that are going to be more exhausting than others and how to mentally and physically to get through the piece… it becomes numb to the real experience of dancing instead of the joy and freshness that was once there.

FT: Yeah. I think I am still investigating, and it’s not an easy task for me. But something about repetition and maybe the way of repeating something.

BA: And predictability?

FT: Yeah, maybe predictability and also the accumulation of things.

BA: Moving forward, where do you hope to go from here? I know that’s a very general question, but you’re at a transition in your career. While you’ve done so much independent work already, where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years, considering the work that you’re making now collaborating with other artists? Is there some, I don’t want to say a “dream” idea of what life would look like, but something itching where we can find you in the future?

FT: I’ve always worked solo. I get to know myself by finding my language. In a dream, doing this commission with Liquid Music is a perfect opportunity for me to find myself. I want to keep doing this self inquiry. I’ve done it since I was 14 years old, though I haven’t been consistent with it. In contemporary dance, this research could be anything. There are so many combinations of steps, it’s not like traditional ballet, and I want to see how language evolves within me. Of course I’m getting older so I cannot do the stuff I could do 10 years ago, but that’s also a good challenge for me. The more restriction I have the more creative I have to be.

BA: Absolutely.

FT: And I have this opportunity to do Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece. It was first performed in 1964, ages ago. Yoko sat in a gallery with scissors in front of her and audience members cut her cloths, freely. It was up to them, so she, herself, became the artwork. I haven’t done it yet. I’m scared about that, but really excited. This is totally different—I’m not dancing in the gallery, I’m just sitting. To do these new challenges in this time period is an opportunity to grow as an artist. I want to do more of that, maybe more to do with interacting with other forms of art. I don’t know what will happen!

BA: One thing at a time!

FT: Yeah.

BA: Where do you call home now? London still, or…?

FT: I am here in Japan now and want to call Tokyo home again as an artist. London was home for the past 14-15 years. My family is in here, and I want to make Japan home too. That’s another project I have. But perhaps the country doesn’t really matter, I just want to find the place I can feel home after I’ve traveled around so much for a long time. Possibly a life where I can have a dog!

BA: That’s great, and a very important project that requires an artistic mind as well!


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Berit Ahlgren makes dances and performs in other peoples’ work, searching for ways to best implement how these two activities weave most beautifully with the world around her. Her work as both performer and independent movement researcher has taken her from Klamath Falls, OR, to Rishikesh, India, with many well-established and tiny towns between. In addition to teaching gaga/people and gaga/dancer classes regularly in New York City and the Twin Cities, she’s been a guest instructor at the New York University, Wesleyan University, University of California Berkeley, Carlton College, St. Olaf College and The Royal Ballet School of Sweden to share her knowledge in the Gaga Movement Language. While a company member of TU Dance from 2006-2014, she made significant creative contributions to the projects of resident choreographer Uri Sands, and retains close ties to the company and its dance school, based in St. Paul, MN. Ahlgren completed her M.F.A. in Dance from NYU/Tisch School of the Arts in May 2016, and continues to invest herself in dance that resonates for both the artistic team and curious audiences with equal importance. Ahlgren’s global citizenship leads her in fresh directions regularly, and offers myriad opportunities to be humbled while learning from the surroundings she lands in. 


Purchase Tickets for 1 0 0 1, part of Liquid Music’s New Music & Dance Duos double header April 17 & 18, also featuring Mike Lewis and Eva Mohn’s When Isn’t Yet.

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Receiving Music with Mike Lewis by Charlie Mogen

by LM blog contributor Trever Hagen

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Perhaps it is a bit tongue-in-cheek to call Mike Lewis a local musician. The saxophonist regularly (and literally) plays to hundreds of thousands of ears every year across the globe. But calling Mike Lewis “local” accomplishes three things: first, it gives us who live in the Cities some kind of pride, I suppose, that we can call him one of our own; second, it tethers ‘local’ to something socially organic, a luxury in the distributed digital culture of modern relations; third, Mike does in fact play remarkably often in the Cities. So how is he not local? For example you’ve surely heard Mike blow as part Happy Apple for the past twenty years. You’ve probably seen him at the Khyber Pass Café in St. Paul on Thursdays with Fat Kid Wednesdays. Or maybe you caught him singing background vocals while playing bass for Alpha Consumer at the Turf Club? Possibly you were lucky enough to catch him at First Ave. when Gayngs played their Last Prom (remember Prince gazing on from the side stage?). Or certainly you saw Mike playing with Bon Iver at Rock the Garden. If you haven’t seen him on any of these stages, then you have absolutely heard his recordings on KFAI or The Current. Mike is never far away, if you are listening.

This is all to say that Mike is a person whose depth of musical communication is matched only by his social grace. Furthermore, he has an innate ability to articulate his reflections on creative expression, which makes him well-poised to offer point after point of wisdom for any performer or curious mind. Why call it wisdom? Well, it seems that Mike has digested quite a bit of the contours of performance, improvisation, theory, narrative, storytelling, abstract communication and affect. He has digested it in a manner that feels natural—as if music was his mother tongue rather than a language learned in a classroom or through memorizing vocab flashcards. It is much less about the display of knowledge as it is about actually trying to engage communication. I recall some years ago asking Mike about his practice schedule when he was younger; I figured that he would confirm my assumption of musical learning by listing a host of jazz pedagogical materials. Rather, Mike stated: “I don’t like practicing alone, I just like to play with others.” Perhaps that statement could be considered an overarching ethos of Mike’s approach to playing music: to connect with other people.

On April 18, Lewis brings this ethos to When Isn’t Yet, a piece for Liquid Music with dancers Eva Mohn and Sarah Baumert, and Maggie Bergeron on lights. When Isn’t Yet is like a Zen koan, a linguistic paradox to expose intuition and reality. Their approach is with clear improvisatory intent, which requires one to shore up all of their perspectives on the unfolding drama of existence. Mike’s most recent work with dancers has been with TU Dance and Bon Iver’s Liquid Music-commissioned collaboration, Come Through. That project began with rehearsals in the spring of 2017 and most recently was performed at the Kennedy Center in spring 2019. However, Come Through is a much different collaboration than what we will witness in April. I caught up with Mike in Cincinnati via phone while he was on tour with Bon Iver to discuss how When Isn’t Yet will be realized.


Trever Hagen: What would be different for you in this scenario of dance and music? How do you approach performing something like this?

Mike Lewis: The primary thing is trying not to get so lost in what I'm doing—like the orchestration of what I am doing—so that I'm unable to pay attention to what's going on with the movement. That is part of the reason that I'm considering pulling JT [Bates] in. Just so I don't have to rely on myself for every single part of what I want to pull off.  With what ends up being the composition or the general structure, I want to make sure that I can be engaged on a level beyond just the musical. Because [JT] will be taking on this conductor-type role and performing role I suppose. And yeah, just catching cues and providing them and trying to make sure that the narrative is somewhat clear. So that’s what I want to get [the performance] to be.

Is the narrative or orchestration something improvised or is there actually material you are composing?

We kind of put together an initial idea about it last year and right from the get go, we wanted to make sure that improvisation was a large part of it. Because that was actually the first conversation I ever had with Eva. [Dance can be] such an incredibly structured world and it's rehearsed so heavily—down to the most minute details—that we're kind of trying to play more with an idea of real-time reactions to things. Having areas that we know we want to hit, energies that we want to explore. So having “zones” that we arrive at but then within those zones, we try to have room to have things happen in real-time that are that are different. That's a nebulous answer. [laughs]

Sarah Baumert and Eva Mohn in residency at Carleton College, September 2018

Sarah Baumert and Eva Mohn in residency at Carleton College, September 2018

We're trying to embrace the title of the piece. It's kind of playing with the idea “what is yet”, or “when ‘when’ isn't yet”, kind of that idea. It’s the mastery of “Why did things happen when they do?”, “Why do you make the decisions that you make when you make them?”, “What makes one decision feel better than another one or translate better?” So much of the answer to these questions has to do with years and years and years of learning to create in abstract contexts. So improvisation is definitely a huge part of it. We're going to be relying on those skills that we've honed over long periods of time, and, you know, and try to really get inside of why those things happen when they do.

In terms of aesthetic decision-making, this approach or awareness you are speaking about seems to tease out all of this tacit knowledge we carry on our bodies.

It's like we're driving from where we have arrived at after all of this time. Like figuring out how to improvise—figuring out how to have it not just be wild scribbling but rather how to be centered in an idea, in an energy. So a lot of how we've talked about it thus far has been maybe not even necessarily like “Okay, when this happens, we'll do this.” Instead we'll talk about how we've been feeling that day; we've talked about film or what spaces and moments feel like.

So attempting to connect almost on an extra-musical level first?

Things are interesting, like simply the world that you exist in on a daily basis, just as a human being. And how that is affecting you. Like the way that people relate to each other, or like the way that people relate to a time in their lives and their equilibrium within that: communication between people even if you don't have anything in common. How do you connect? How do we translate something into something not necessarily extremely descriptive and specific, but how do you create an energy? How do you create the kind of give and take and release that everybody deals with? That's a difficult question.

How do you attempt that or know when that occurs?

There're definitely moments when it happens. Yes for sure, you know when you know. You're weirdly always able to tell when you're in the midst of one [of these moments] and that has to do so much with an openness and an energy that you're offering, how it's received and reciprocated by people that are in the room with you. And once you have successes in those lightning strikes, it's like [that energy] tells you when to do the next thing. You just get immersed in it and then that helps you, like, hold a note out longer or hold the pose. How do you make something come off pretty? How do you create tension in dissonance and then release it into something that makes people feel like they’ve had some travel?

It's like if we pull it off, if we do a good job with this piece, I think there will be moments that are goofy and funny and I think there might be moments that are really lonely and kind of scary and desolate. You decide to make meaning out of it for you. I think that's what we're playing with right now.

There's a lot of intent in that but you're leaving so much up to like just emergence. As if it isn’t completed until the audiences hears it.

Yeah which is why it is hard to put any of “improvisation talk” into exact words. This approach [with Eva] is almost obsessively restorative in terms of what a performance could be for people together. It's like you go back to the title of the piece and realize how true it is. It's like how do you know “yet”? It probably won't known until the day of the performance. You kind of have to just show up. That's the biggest, most important thing. And actually a measure of that.

Do you see dance and music as two different languages? Or could you say they're the same language? Or there's two different languages speaking together on the same topic?

Mike in residency at Carleton College

Mike in residency at Carleton College

I'd say like two different vocabularies. But not wildly dissimilar conditions. My understanding of modern dance is basically nil. I am approaching that purely from a completely reactionary and up to certain extent, obliterated perspective. But I'm also trying to trust my ability. Instead of just deciding that, I don't know anything and deciding that I don't get it. If you know who you are, where you are, and what you think about, then you're able to be able to receive—like the ethereal part of [performance]. At the end of the day, that's how any artistic output is working. Because you can’t expect anybody to know anything about what’s going on.

Indeed, aesthetic affect should be able to be received no matter of what age, concept, background, school, etc.

I think that about jazz music all the time. It's sometimes a major downfall with jazz music. Especially when it comes to the musicians who are working in such a small camp. It is so misunderstood, for lack of a better term. So often the way jazz music is sold is like what's playing in the background while you eat dinner or it's like a weird, corny aesthetic that people make fun of. And I think a lot of musicians get bitter about that and then just end up saying, like, “Well, you wouldn't get it, because you don’t know Eric Dolphy.” Or “You wouldn't get it because you don't know what was happening in New York in the 50s.

I think that's really unfortunate. I think it's understandable because we're all human beings, we're all real and we're insecure. And it's like, so easy to kind of lash out in the context of that insecurity. And to get defensive. We're all animals. It's like if you're afraid of something, you lead with anger. But I do believe that if you drop me in the middle of a shopping mall food court in Oklahoma City, you know, with JT and we played free music, I think we could translate something. And I could get some people with an open heart and with the idea of like, truly trying to connect as opposed to some ego-based activity. Something to make myself feel better. I think that you can translate to anybody and I don't think that prerequisite knowledge has to be involved.

Fat Kid Wednesdays

Fat Kid Wednesdays

I have a tendency to I lean away from the “placard”, you know? I know they're there. But I also know that that's somebody’s summation of what I'm supposed to receive. I don't know if I want to be told. Maybe that's why I'm an artist. I would rather know absolutely nothing and be completely cleared out so that I have every faculty available to me. Like in terms of how I think about the world at large or how I live so that I can be more fully present with a completely open mind as I'm receiving whatever that given moment offers.

How do you see this type of so-called specialized language and its relation to communication?

It's not like ridiculous to want to showcase your work. But it's a very slippery slope. That's why when you're younger you're amassing so much knowledge and technical ability to play fast or to play complicated or jam, you know, like or if you're writing, you know, you have an insane vocabulary and an understanding of all these different theoretical ways to write where you can display the raw intelligence of whatever. And I think sometimes it takes a long time to realize sometimes you get so far down the rabbit hole of that you're not—after all this work that you already did—in the present moment anymore.

It became for me a long time ago so much more about how do I clear as much of my fragile human psyche. The vessel, you know. How to clear as much of that shit out as I possibly can? So that whatever actually is happening is something that I can translate to whatever actually is happening in the room.

How do you see theory entering into our understanding of musical communication?

MLEW_JUL18_067F.jpg

Some of my favorite [former students] to teach were kids who wanted to learn about theory, you know? And it's like, “Okay, cool. Let's talk about theory.” But understand that theory is math. It's a code. It's a way to code what's happening. It's not the reason why. And it doesn't mean some people don't take theory to such an infinite degree that it becomes just a tool with which they used to arrive back at that original point. Why you're doing anything in the first place.

Theory lessons for me, inevitably, always turned into: let's play the melody of the song. Where did that melody come from? Where's the song from? It had lyrics. Go back and listen. Oh there's this whole other phrasing. It is all about relation. What is the trail of breadcrumbs? In any given piece of art—what is the melody? What is the theme? Then as you create around that, that's why the melody sounds like it does and it becomes so malleable and simple in a way. You can add more color wherever you want to. But it has so much more to do with the relation of the colors next to each other. No color exists purely on its own. You don’t know red until it's next to blue.


Many of these conclusions that Mike speaks about are kind of like musical exemplars: phenomena that happen while making music that can be abstracted in order to understand non-musical situations. How can we approach our fears that arise from lack of knowing? How can we shed perspectives that do not arise from direct experience? How can “the unfamiliar” in fact be a place of learning? How can all that knowledge that we share and confirm with those around us be used to connect to people far away from us who have different ways of receiving information? How do you communicate with other people when speaking languages that complement rather than denote or specify? How can “room for error” be a positive thing? Perhaps these questions are only for the world of ideas and philosophy, but only if you wish for them to remain there. Music, clearly, is a limitless resource. Music, in anybody’s hands, can be a champion of communication, a point of connection, a way to understand humanity and a method to negotiate one’s fragile place in it all. The context of music is people, in other words.


Trever Hagen, PhD is a writer, researcher and trumpeter living in Minneapolis. A former Fulbright Fellow, JSPS Fellow, and Leverhulme Trust Fellow, Hagen’s work targets how the arts function in societies. 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. 

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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Ben Frost on “Braids” and the Utility of Self-Imposed Parameters by Charlie Mogen

by William Gardiner

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Ben Frost is an Australian composer and electronic musician who has been based in Reykjavík, Iceland for well over a decade now, where together with fellow composers Valgeir Sigurðsson and Nico Muhly, he co-founded the Bedroom Community record label.

Ben is one of my musical heroes, and my interest in his work started long ago and took me all the way to Iceland in the summer of 2016, where I was lucky enough to get to work with him for several months, and we’ve been in touch ever since. So it gives me great pleasure to introduce Ben’s music, and to report on a quick chat I had with Ben about his upcoming piece for Liquid Music as he made his way to the USA from Russia, where he had been performing.

Perhaps a good place to start with Ben’s work is to note that many of the ideas involved in his pieces originate in visual artist sensibilities, and indeed his formal studies were in visual art rather than music. For instance, his most recent record The Centre Cannot Hold was inspired in part by the rich, deep glow of the pigment ultramarine blue, while also being a response to recent political currents. In this sense the work is often highly conceptual, which enhances its ability to reach for and grapple with ideas and issues from the wider world—as will be seen this is very much the case in his upcoming work for Liquid Music.

So that starts to give a sense of the cerebral dimension to Ben’s music. But what really sets Ben’s music apart, for me, is that at the same time as being thoughtful, conceptual, aware, and all of those things, it is at the same time some of the most unabashedly visceral music I know. He has a reputation for making some truly fearsome sounds, which he meticulously places into sometimes unrelenting, even violent arrangements. The boldness, the sheer gall of this visceral quality was what struck me when I first heard his music, and I remember the feeling was disorienting, even upsetting, because something important about how I then understood music was turned on its head: the visceral and the cerebral do not have to be opposites.

Ben’s piece for Liquid Music, Braids, draws its text from testimonies of three survivors of a human-trafficking disaster that occurred in late 2015 when a boat carrying 300 refugees capsized in the Aegean Sea. Ben Frost was there in artist-journalist mode, together with visual artist Richard Mosse and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, seeking to document what was going on.


WG: Ben, how did you approach working with the voice in this piece? I know that in the past you have worked very closely with singers—for instance when you directed your opera The Wasp Factory—and the dynamism that results from that is certainly evident in the recording for that piece. Will you be working closely with the singers in this project?

BF: For this piece I used the original interviews I recorded and the individual pacing and phrasing of the speakers to dictate the translation—and it was very much a translation—to notation. When I am dealing with what is ostensibly witness testimony I feel there is a heavy obligation to stick to that testimony as closely as possible.

Creatively I think my work has always benefited from coming up against rules—inherent or self-imposed. I like the way working within strict parameters forces my hand, and makes me work a bit harder, to get away with something. Perhaps it’s a Catholic school thing.

Technically I am taking these recordings, processing the audio to slow down the rate of speech to a more singable pacing, listening to the rhythm of the resulting phrases, and building melodic structures out from those. I don’t write notation in any meaningful way, so by using the audio as a guide it allows me to circumvent the need to work in a traditional way and allows me to instead drag this process back into my realm. In the score there is a great deal left to chance and to interpretation by the ensemble which I’m really excited about seeing play out. These stories are presented democratically; they are ostensibly different camera angles on a singular event. In my mind the way it should work is that the ear functions not unlike a lens pulling focus. All these phrases kind of dovetail in and out of one another in such a way that the language kind of rearranges itself to create a myriad of chance phrases out of individual words unified in space. In my mind this speaks to the secular nature of these events and the unyielding strength of the testimony.

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WG: The harrowing texts for your piece, transcribed from interviews with survivors of the disaster, reveal trauma at work, almost in real time. Trauma is a profound concept, and one which I have only recently begun to appreciate more fully in large part due to reading Bessel van der Kolk's book on the subject. It changes people, in ways that can be tragic, but equally: the capacity for resilience people can show, in the ways they adapt in order to survive unthinkable adversity, can be truly inspiring and life-affirming. Could you talk a little about the subject matter this piece deals with?

BF: In the waning tide of human trafficking into Southern Europe, say in comparison to Greece the fall of 2015, I think there is too little attention given to the fact that beyond the trauma of events like the ones described in this piece, even now years later, families, often multiple generations are still divided. Initially by climate change and the ensuing conflicts in Syria and Iraq but now again within the safety of Europe. It is one thing to say, ok, you are welcome to come and live in say, Sweden, as a registered refugee and there is solace in that, but what of the lasting violence of making it a condition of that registered refugee status, that you have no ability to travel outside of Sweden? That you don’t have the rights of other Europeans like myself who can move freely? I have personally witnessed customs officers in Berlin airport now in 2019 straight up racially profiling incoming passengers on flights from other EU countries. Refugees are often never allowed to leave their host country, even though a spouse might be similarly trapped in Greece, parents still in Iraq, even children in another country.

Being a refugee often means being in solitary confinement from everyone you love, sometimes for years. The psychological cost of this is devastating. The same is true in the US for migrants from South and Central America who manage to make it to the U.S.—they can’t leave for fear of risking not being allowed back in, or worse. Epigenetic research is demonstrating that stress-induced rises in cortisol levels such as those inflicted on children at the U.S. southern border when they are ripped away from parents and isolated in a cage—events like that are capable of changing genes. These are state sanctioned intergenerational crimes.

WG: And lastly, could you say a little about what drew you to this project--i.e. contributing a piece as 'rep' as part of a program in which the performers are separate entities to yourself, and present works by several composers? That's a roundabout way of describing the usual situation when presenting 'classical' music, I suppose. Of course you've done it before, notably with Bang on a Can, but it's not so often that we hear your work presented this way; you are more often performing evening length solo sets, your opera projects, scores for dance, and so on.

Frost with LM curator Kate Nordstrum, Berlin July 2015

Frost with LM curator Kate Nordstrum, Berlin July 2015

BF: I suppose simply I don’t really have so much rep to pull from, most of my music doesn’t exist in a traditional score. But also it’s changing shape constantly as I tend to work in a range of scenarios, often simultaneously, which maybe confuses a lot of people? But I’ve been working with Kate for over decade now on a range of projects and so she is one of the few people who kind of gets that irrespective of album cycles, or touring, or film commissions, I am perpetually mulling away on ideas that are often just in need of a gentle push, an outlet. And that is a really precious thing for an artist like myself, to have someone say ‘I have this space, at this time, and these tools- could you imagine that being useful in your current work?’ This is common practice in the visual art world, but not so much in music.


William Gardiner is an Australian composer who works with both acoustic and electronic instruments. He studied composition with David Lang at the Yale School of Music, and has also worked under the mentorship of Ben Frost at Greenhouse Studios in Iceland.


Letras Para Cantar with Angélica Negrón by Liquid Music

by Liquid Music Blog contributor Patrick Marschke

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“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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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. 

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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


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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

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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
11.15am
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.

kim-gordon.jpg

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.

Dimitri Chamblas.jpg

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

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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?

Ty1smallercropped.jpg

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.”

BUY TICKETS TO THE WORLD PREMIERE OF HANNA BENN & DEANTONI PARKS: PROCESSION SEPTEMBER 23 AT MACHINE SHOP, MINNEAPOLIS.


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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!

BUY TICKETS TO THE WORLD PREMIERE OF HANNA BENN & DEANTONI PARKS: PROCESSION SEPTEMBER 23 AT MACHINE SHOP, MINNEAPOLIS.


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

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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: 
Photographer
Art Critic
Writer
Musician
Composer
Improvisor
Professor
Performer
Curator

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

MUSIC

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
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