ACF interviews Miranda Cuckson / by Liquid Music

We asked our friends across the street, American Composers Forum, to interview Liquid Music artist Miranda Cuckson in anticipation of her November 14th show.  Innova (ACF's record label) Operations Director Chris Campbell took on the task. Learn more about Cuckson's work with electronics, how she gets to the heart of a new piece of music, and her passion for collaborating with living composers.        

  photo by Damien Olsen

photo by Damien Olsen

With the “Sun Propeller” concert, you’re performing pieces by composers from all over the world. How do you tie it together, or bring a through-line to such a diverse program lineup?  Or do you?

Sometimes I do programs that have some kind of thematic thread, sometimes not. Either way, I go for a sequence that's satisfying to the senses, emotions and mind: from the way pieces lead to each other or juxtapositions that perk up your ears or mix up the kinds of energy. I love when a program has you, as a listener, on some level continually aware of the experience as a whole. An overall theme can be a fun or thought-instigating way, though, to group music together. When I started thinking about the "Sun Propeller" program, I realized a couple of the pieces I had in mind had titles referring to elements in nature: light and wind. So I decided that would be a beautiful idea for the program. Dai Fujikura's "prism spectra" and Nina Young's "Sun Propeller" both are about light, and Kaija Saariaho's "Vent Nocturne" is about wind, Richard Barrett's "Air" is about air and breath, and Ileana Perez-Velasquez's "un ser con unas alas enormes" means "the being with enormous wings" and evokes many natural elements.

As someone with a mixed background (European/Asian/American/Australian) and as a woman, I do like to involve composers from different countries, and women since they are still under-represented in general. I think programming that way often happens quite naturally for me because there is just a very diverse bunch of composers that I know of and want to program.

What about performing with electronics appeals to you?

I'm fascinated by a lot of things about it. I'm not a tech geek and I'm wary of many implications of technology for human behavior, but the developments are also amazing in what they make possible. Basically I enjoy exploring the relation, and tension, between the human and technological. 

On the one hand, there's something so primal about the traditional instruments and the physicality involved. Essentially you're playing with a wood box and stick or blowing in a metal tube or hitting an object or plucking a string. The instruments have been sophisticated over the yearstechnological advances in themselvesbut the basics of what they are and how you use them are the same. Now we have computers which use all kinds of complexity of coding and software to create sounds, in ways that are not visible or physical to us in that basic sense. 

There are infinite sounds that can be created with electronics so every piece can be a different sound world.  Also the ways of interacting with electronics can range from having a pre-recorded track to play with the pieces in which electronics are triggered at certain moments or by certain sounds, or are molded by a person in a more improvisatory way. Sometime I'll probably learn how to trigger and control the electronics myself during a performance, but I've also enjoyed having someone be the "sound artist" so we are playing "chamber music"again maintaining a human dimension. I'm delighted Nina C. Young will be the sound artist for this concert.

Electronics can produce sounds in ways that would seem technically impossible for human players in terms of speed or crazy jumping between registers or sudden changes of dynamic. This makes for some amazing effects and it's fun when it also pushes you to strive to do some of those things yourself!

How do you discover new work or composers?

A lot of ways. Often I just listen to things and then in that intuitive way, let that lead me to listen to something else I didn't know. Sometimes I have the radio on. Sometimes I get obsessed with some area or group of composers and burrow into finding out more. I check out recommendations and people send me things they've composed. I'm very immersed in music and being a musician, so I am involved in a lot and know a lot of musicians and people doing premieres and newer works and I keep tabs on what's going on.  I work with a lot of younger composers, through programs at schools and universities and summer programs, so sometimes I get to make note of new talent that way.

  photo by Damien Olsen

photo by Damien Olsen

You’ve recorded composers such as Ralph Shapey, Donald Martino and Luigi Nono, but you embrace a wide range of repertoire. What qualities draw you to a piece and compel you to commit to its realization?

I'm basically looking for vividness and some quality that is very strong. That sounds general but I am open to different aesthetics. I just want the piece to create its own world and suggest something that makes me feel something very strongly emotionally or want to try to understand it more fully. A piece might take you through a compelling progression of moods, a structure that's somehow meaningful, it could be remarkably static or slow, it could offer astonishing sounds, or provoke surprising emotions. I do like technical challenges and to explore what my instrument can do, but if the piece is just a collection of sounds or tricks, I get bored with it after a little while and want to do something else.

What is classical music to you?

I think at this point it comes down to intention and the framing of the music as a defined work of art. There are no templates of form or harmony or anything anymore, every parameter has been challenged and upended, and it doesn't even have to be notated in the conventional way, it could even be just verbal instructions. But the piece has to have a clear intention as a distinct work of music, and a concept about how it is put together, whether in time or content. 

I like to think/hope that even people who have upended those parameters still put their work in the context of classical music's history. The term "classical music" as we've known it has referred mainly to Western, European-derived culture. Its origins are seen as coming from medieval chant through to the music of European Baroque and Classical/Romantic eras, which was exported to America and the rest of the world.  But as the world has gotten smaller, classical music has become less European per se and more inclusive of anything, in the best American sense of embracing all origins and ethnicities.

You play both violin and viola. Can you speak about your approach to both?

I've played the violin much of my life and I took up the viola about six years ago. I just love the expanded sound possibilities of playing both and adapting my playing style to each. It's comparable to wind players, who often play the full range of registers of their instruments: flute goes from piccolo to C flute to alto to bass, clarinet has the E-flat, A, B-flat and bass clarinets, etc. There are players who double on violin/viola but it's not as usual a thing for string players.

I relish the upper and lower extremesthe high E string of the violin, which can be soaring and radiant or delicate and whispery or even charmingly squeaky,  and the low C string of the viola, which can be rich or dusky and velvety. In the middle range which the instruments share, I'm always intrigued by the difference in tone colorthe viola has its grainier sound, almost reedy, which I find particularly beautiful quiet in the upper positions, and the violin has its own kind of warmth but tends to be more focused and direct, and with a more nimble response to quick motions of the bow.

People often ask how it is to switch between violin and viola on a program. I've found the physical adjustment is pretty simpleyour kinesthetic memory as a player becomes quite intuitive with years of playing and I get a physical sense of the viola quickly. The approach to sound production is certainly differentwith the viola, it's more effort to draw the tone.  When I go from viola back to violin, the violin feels like a toy instrument, it seems so small and light!  Of course there's the matter of reading the viola alto clefI occasionally still second-guess myself!

Besides viola and violin, I'm also going to be featuring a sort of hybrid instrument, because Nina Young's piece is for scordatura (de-tuned) violin. The lowest string is tuned down a fourth so it has a sound color all its own! 

 photo by Damien Olsen

photo by Damien Olsen

I’d like to ask about your process. How do you get beyond the mechanics of a complex piece and get to the expressive heart of it?

Part of it involves being so immersed in new musical languages that you start to hear and feel the emotional meanings and tugs and nuances as spontaneously as you do with traditional tonal classical music. For both performers and listeners, that takes time to listen to enough of the music so you can internalize it and just tap into those feelings and the colors that you hear in your mind. Once you do that, you can also make more purposeful decisions about how to get across the shape of a piece and how it evolves. 

The other aspect is that for me performing music is basically a form of being an actor. You are an actor embodying and conveying the personality of the creator, the composer, and within that you are also conveying a great range of emotions and moods and states of being that the composer is communicating in that piece. On a conscious level, I sometimes read about the composer, not necessarily drawing heavy-handed connections such as "he/she was going through this at that time so the piece is about that", but just getting a sense of the composer as a unique individual. If the composer is living, of course I like to talk with them, spend time with them, so I get a sense of who they are and what it is they felt they needed to convey through music. And on a less explicit level, I often try to sense the person in the music, kind of acting in a non-verbal way... it may sound vague but at my communicative best, that's pretty much what I am doing!