My Favorite CDs of 2013


Ok, so, first of all, this list is really late, please accept my apologies for that.
Another thing is that I decided that I can’t rank things anymore as it never seems like a fair assessment for anyone to be ranked higher or lower than anyone else, therefore this list is in NO PARTICULAR ORDER, so there is no “number one pick” or “lowest on the list” placement here.
These were the recordings in new music that truly stood out for me.
I also must apologize that I’m not a very good writer in discussing what makes this music tick for me–Can I just say there was something about it that stood out? It would be crazy for me to simply repeat that over and over for them all. I haven’t figured out why this is, maybe I just need a bigger vocabulary. And I also have chosen not to write CD reviews anymore for this reason.
But anyway, I hope everyone appreciates the picks and why I have placed them here.

I do want to point out about In 27 Pieces that I’m so glad it was finally released and we got to hear these pieces after only hearing them described to me by some of the composers, it was worth the wait. I’m also glad Hilary finally offered up some serious scraping that she held back on when I heard her play Antheil live a few years back.


Towards Daybreak ~ Bill Ryan, Billband

100 Names ~ Rebekah Heller

In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores ~ Hilary Hahn, Cory Smythe

A Single Breath: Beethoven’s Last Three Piano Sonatas ~ Beth Levin

A Single Noon ~ Gregg Kallor

Corps Eqxuis ~ Daniel Wohl, TRANSIT

The Spirit of the Garden ~ Rose & The Nightingale

Prelude Cocktail ~ Lawler + Fadoul

Voyages ~ Conrad Tao

I Do (The Wedding Album) ~ Polkastra

Death Speaks ~ David Lang, Shara Worden, Maya Beiser

Exiles’ Cafe ~ Lara Downes

23 rubai’yat ~ John King, Jenny Lin

Baroque ~ Nadia Sirota

Evensong ~ Caleb Burhans

Glass: Concerto Fantasy/Mohammed Fairouz: In The Shadow of No Towers (Symphony #4) ~ Paul Popeil, University of Kansas Wind Ensemble

There was also one particular pop album I liked last year:

No Sugar Added ~ Fight The Fear (a great local band here in CT that hopefully will be going places soon 😉 )


A Very Hilary Blog Post IV: The Encore Contest

Photo courtesy of Glenn Ross

When Hilary Hahn announced the In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores project, it sounded like an incredible concept of the likes that had never been tried. I know that she had mentioned in passing that she was going to have some sort of CD that would feature all-new contemporary encores, but I don’t think anyone anticipated that it would be an epic 27 pieces, and from composers as diverse as Jennifer Higdon, Du Yun, Nico Muhly, Mason Bates, Somei Satoh, Edgar Meyer, and James Newton Howard (composer of The Village soundtrack). She’s already been premiering 13 of the pieces in concert and intends to do so with the second half next year, and the 27th will be among them. The recording of the CD is supposed to begin after the performances this season, and she plans to release it sometime in the 2013-14 season. Continue reading

Musicians: Jennifer Choi

Violinist Jennifer Choi, player of an extensive repertoire for the instrument, and interpreter of composers as diverse as Mozart, John Zorn, and Rogers/Hammerstein (I neglected to ask her about her stint as concertmaster for the touring company of South Pacific; next time!) was recently given a boost of profile in the online classical media when she joined the esteemed quartet ETHEL, with whom she plans on giving her strongest efforts as a musician. On a beautiful late summer afternoon in NY, we hung out on an outdoor restaurant patio and had this wonderful interview.

CM: How is your take on your classical and your new music repertoires?

JC: I was trained classically and it was pretty rigorous–hardcore teachers who wanted a certain standard repertoire to be in your fingers and in a certain way, and I was always listening to the great violinists and to great musicians…Nathan Milstein, Henryk Szeryng, that old school…Michael Rabin, Perlman, I listened to Perlman when I was growing up ’cause my mom had these records in the house, and she had symphonies playing all the time. But then, when I started playing new music, I guess I was using the same approach that I had learned with classical music, and you’re using your technique–it is music after all, and there’s a thing called execution, you have to execute it well…It still has to be clean and has to be fiery. the approach is similar, although the music can be so completely different.

CM: What was it that got you started on the violin and classical music?

JC: I think it was a combination of things. My parents were very big classical music lovers, and my mother wanted to play instruments so badly in Korea when she was young, but they didn’t have the opportunity to do that. When she saw that she could have her kid do that–I have 2 sisters so we were all playing music at a very young age. But then I was also involved with the youth symphony–The Portland Youth Philharmonic, and so I saw my friends. I had a lot of friends in that group and they were all doing great things. You know Kenji Bunch? He was in that same orchestra as a violist. And people were taking it seriously, so, it was very encouraging and inspiring that people my age were thinking it was really cool, and it was cool, it was fun! We toured Europe together in this van–My first taste was probably more orchestral music, and that’s how it started.

CM: Where did your contemporary taste formulate?

JC: The Oregon Symphony was already programming modern works, and we’d go to the symphony quite often, actually, and that’s where I heard percussion sounds, brass sounds that kind of blow me away. Actually, my teachers–actually the conductor in our youth orchestra, Jacob Avshalomov, he was a composer himself. We would play his works, and he had friends in Europe and what not, and they’d give us pieces, so we were already playing a lot of new music from the time I was 14 in a professional setting, and we’d perform it in a big hall, make a big deal out of it, and it was a big deal. In fact the year that I soloed with the orchestra on Wienawski concertos, we played a piece by [John] Van Buren.

CM: No relation to the ex-president, right? [both laughing] Martin Van Buren!
Have you ever programmed music from both the old and new worlds of classical music together in one concert?

JC: Oh, yeah, yeah…Actually, I started doing that maybe from the beginning when I started playing a lot of new music. My recital at Carnegie Hall, I won this competition, and I just [programmed] it with a Schumann sonata, a John Corligliano sonata, John Zorn, Gershwin, I mean what a program, a little wild that way, and Prokofiev!

CM: And I love Prokofiev! The thing is, for me, there was a lot of later music that was hard for me to appreciate because I was so used to, like, [speaking in a posh tone] “Everything sounds like the 1700’s!”, you know, you wanted everything to be that inviting, and when I heard music from the 20th century, I was like “Wait a minute, this is a whole ‘nother feeling, this is a whole ‘nother flavor, I need more time to prepare to really kind of get into it”, and, the more you hear it, though, I mean Prokofiev is kind of melodious, he’s just got so much! I love the piano works, and of course the Violin Concertos too!

JC: In his time, though, it took a while for people in those days to get–It was new sounds, new harmonies. And now we’ve just sort of gotten used to it. I feel like it’s just how Mozart was to them, or Beethoven, people got used to that. That’s how I felt programming Zorn ten years ago, I was like “Wow, this is so out there!”, but now when I listen back, I’m like, “Oh, well what he was doing 10 years ago is not so out from music I’m hearing today!”. So, I think it just goes through cycles and the great thing is that people continue–composers, musicians–continue to come up with new material. Isn’t that amazing? That’s like amazing to me, that’s genius, that people can come up with that and then audiences get used to it eventually.

Jacob TV: Capriccio (Cafe Concert clip courtesy of WQXR)

CM: There’s a lot of things you’re doing right now: ETHEL Quartet, which Todd Reynolds is a former member of, the Either/Or Ensemble, the Anti-Depressant Duo…

JC: With Kathleen Supove!

CM: Kathleen Supove! And Classical Jam, Shoko Nagai and The Ephermeral…

JC: All of these groups are great! Right now, primarily I’m doing ETHEL, just because I just got the job in June.

CM: Oh yeah, it was big news, I saw! [both chuckling]

JC: I know, seriously! And so, the other groups I’m still involved with as much as I can be, because it still gives me a variety of music to play, like ETHEL plays a certain kind of new music, and Either/Or does another kind of new music, which is great, and Classical Jam does a mix of lighter fare and classical, deep classical music mixed with lighter new music. So, it’s a variety…

CM: Everything’s a different dynamic and a different perspective…

JC: Everything’s a different dynamic, exactly! And ETHEL, it’s a band, it’s a string quartet you got to be a unit when you play. Classical Jam is a little more amorphous, it could be 5 of us, it could be 3, it could be 2, we play all different combinations of chamber music. And then Either/Or is a little bit the same way, which leads us into that recording…

CM: Oh yes, 2 by Keeril Makan. Let’s talk about 2 because it’s the lead-off of his record “Target”. What I like about it is that it’s a very sonata-like piece, ’cause it’s got all these different sections to it, and, I love the high part, the really fast high part is like my favorite part of it…[After the quiet part] it comes back, and there’s this gigantic explosion at the end which, it just sounds like…It was a lot of roaring and screeching–I think my description was it sounded like “a large building falling on top of a den of lions inside the Grand Canyon if the Grand Canyon were inside the Sistine Chapel!”

JC: Oh my God, that’s awesome! What else sounds like that??

CM: I don’t know! I wasn’t sure, I was convinced that it was electronics and he was saying “No, there’s no electronics on the recording. What that is is a bowed thundersheet”. And you were making that screeching sound…

JC: It was crazy! The set-up! ‘Cause we were in this big hall when we recorded it. I think it was SUNY Purchase. It needed to be because some of that equipment took up a lot of space for Dave [Shively] and then me right here on the violin!

CM: Usually when you record these pieces, is it done in one take?

JC: We were working with Silas Brown, he was our recording engineer, and he’s fantastic for all kinds of music, but he’s just great at picking out the spots that really need work during the day, and so it actually took 2 days just to record that piece. So we went in and did it section by section. And then we may have done a couple of run-throughs, the whole piece as well, to get the flow going on, we built it that way, and Silas did along with Keeril and Dave. The sound they got out of that piece was pretty phenomenal! It’s like striking and clear!

CM: Have you guys ever done it live?

JC: Oh yeah! We played it live a couple of times before we recorded it. We want to bring it back in our repertoire because it’s such a cool piece. Hopefully this year, this season.

CM: There’s another piece you’ve done, Helmut Lachenmann’s Toccatina. It’s very minimalist–I looked up the composer, and essentially they describe him as “musique concrete instrumentale”, which sounds like a very elegant way of saying he’s weird. [both laugh]

JC: Helmut Lachenmann is another genius of sorts. I think he’s become well known because of his originality, and I think that he actually works like how Beethoven may have worked, to that kind of detail, like, where you see the notebooks of Beethoven, there’s like little cels of motives that he used, and then he developed those, well–Lachenmann told me once that it takes him a very long time to build a composition, and I think it’s because he’s so meticulous about what what he’s hearing, and how it’s going to get on the paper so that the musician can do exactly what he wants and what he’s hearing. And those sounds are sometimes really strange–In the Toccatina piece, it’s supposed to be a study in pianissimo. That’s why it’s so quiet.

CM: It is! It’s very, very, very quiet, and yet it’s very punctual. It’s a little bit like that cello piece that Ashley [Bathgate] did [Parisot’s Parisonatina al’Dodecafonia], it’s like this very percussive–It’s like it’s almost straight percussion on a stringed instrument. Maybe yours is a little less percussive…

JC: Well, but then, I am using the screw of the bow–col legno, and–nothing normal about that piece, and it's the same with the string quartets too, like "Grido", and that was the same effect, it was all special effects, but somehow when you put it all together, it felt like you were playing Beethoven! That's how intense it is!

CM: In a way it’s almost like that same kind of strength

JC: Yeah, and structure–detail…

CM: With that same kind of harmonic, except it’s

JC: Except it’s not harmonic…

CM: It’s more inward than that

JC: Harmony of sounds! [laughs]

CM: It’s harmony of disharmony!

JC: But now that I’ve played so much of his music and I’ve listened to it, when I listen to it, it doesn’t sound discordant to me at all, it actually sounds very beautiful!

Lachenmann: Toccatina (Live at the Tenri Cultural Institute, 5/23/09)

CM: Do you think that that’s the case with a lot of musicians, that after a while everything starts to sound more “musical”? Schoenberg is another thing, because when Hilary Hahn did Schoenberg there were probably a lot of people that were like “Why are you playing this? Why is this a release?”. Didn’t really make sense. It seems like maybe after a while if you’re a musician, everything is kind of “Where’s Waldo?” or it’s like a Rorschach test where you start to see something in there that other people can’t see.

JC: My take on that is…it’s part of history, and you live it through that music. So, whatever Schoenberg was going through at that time…

CM: It’s like there’s added appreciation once you’ve sort of gone through the history.

JC: Definitely, and language. Language has a big part of it too. I’m pretty sure Hilary Hahn has studied German and French. When you get into that, you’re getting into these cultures too, and it becomes fascinating, and the same with me and Zorn for instance–when he writes these pieces he’s got these stories in mind that have to do with, sometimes, mysticism, some religions but maybe are not so apparent in the here and now. And for me that’s interesting, to play this music that has meaning behind it. And then finding that meaning is interesting for a musician.

CM: In other words, he probably knows things that other people don’t, like in a supernatural way?

JC: Absolutely, not that he maybe believes in that, but like that he knows about it. And like Schoenberg probably knew about a lot of different things.

CM: Like tennis? [both laughing]

JC: Exactly!

CM: “Violectrica” is your solo project, and it’s a feast for the ears. It’s a little like a Todd Reynolds “Outerborough” kind of thing, sample elements, electronics, hip-hop elements here and there, particularly on the Randall Woolf piece. Any thoughts on this record?

JC: These are all composers that I have worked with really closely within the last–My gosh it’s almost 10 years, but within the last decade, and I wanted to document it because I have performed these pieces so many times in New York, and a little bit outside of New York as well. And I know that some of them are surprising to listen to a little bit, and “Oh, that’s different!”. I wouldn’t say it’s easy listening–I wanted to do an album with violin and electronics, so, ’cause I don’t think there’s too many out there, there’s a few right now but not a whole lot, and I just felt like these composers needed to be recorded, heard, and I thought this was a perfect opportunity. And the mix of composers is primarily New York-based–There’s Susie Ibarra, there’s Annie Gosfield, and Randall Woolf–Alexandra Gardiner is from DC, originally, and Padma Newsome is originally from Australia, but I had done a lot of work with him, and he is actually touring with The National now!

CM: Wow! Is there more than one composer in that band?

JC: There’s a lot, I think!

CM: ‘Cause Bryce Dessner is another one, right?

JC: Yeah, he’s great! Bryce is good! So, anyway, I thought it’d be neat to put all those together, because they’re all way different pieces too. It’s definitely an album of contrasts if you ask me. And how neat is that that you get to see so many aspects of what different composers can do?

Alexandra Gardner: Electric Blue Pantsuit

I want to explore more of that repertoire going forward, but right now I do have to focus on ETHEL.

CM: So ETHEL is your #1 priority. That’s kind of your main act.

JC: Yes, right now, exactly. I just learned 4 programs with them this summer, and I’m about to learn the 5th. They have a great amount of repertoire right now, seriously great, and I just want to give 100% to that at the moment. Our other violinist Cornelius Dufallo also does a lot of pieces with violin & electronics, and works with some really great composers in the area.

CM: So, pretty much everybody that works in ETHEL and everybody that works in all of your ensembles, they’re all very like-minded, there’s hardly anybody that goes “That’s a little over-the-top for me! I don’t know if I can handle that!”.

JC: You mean the music?

CM: Yeah, the music or anything you guys are going to play, everybody gets it, they get what’s happening?

JC: Actually, there’s a fair amount of pick and choose, though, ’cause we do get offers to play certain pieces, or pieces come in, and we have to decide “Can we really take this on?”, and sometimes there is over-the-top, too! [laughs]
Sometimes we’ll play pieces, and sometimes we’re like “You know what? This piece just isn’t doing anything for me anymore.” Then you know “Ok, it’s time to drop it!”. Or if it doesn’t affect us as performers, how is it supposed to affect the audience? We can’t deliver that. So there is a little bit of picking and choosing sometimes.

CM: Do you think that musicians or artists should share more of themselves? Like tell funny stories, have a journal, and talk about their life on the road, and would that be more helpful for the audience to chime in and possibly there would be more people plugging into it? Besides Hilary, there are probably more people that show this really funny or interesting side of themselves.

JC: That’s a big question, and I think a lot of people are trying to answer that right now…

CM: Because people are trying to find–“How can we market this? How can we do it in a different way?”. I don’t know other than I think that maybe what I’d like to see is more people sort of bringing out a part of their lives that you don’t really see very much.

JC: In the concert?

CM: In the concert, maybe, too, but not just in the concert, in any way that they can online, in the media.

JC: I think social media, and YouTube and Facebook, I think that’s actually probably helped, maybe you don’t see it right away–Personally I did see good results when I started posting that I’m going to play a concert here on Facebook or on YouTube, and people were coming out more, so I think social media definitely is a good thing. It’s not that hard for classical musicians to do that.

CM: The crossover thing works to some extent. It works to have people like Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt playing together. The fans of each one might not see the other one so much, but it’s another thing.

JC: I think people are definitely doing that. ETHEL is going to be playing with Todd Rundgren!
I think managers and agents definitely look at that as sort of the big sell for these groups, and you know, why not? Why not? We can do it! We can play with these people, it’s fun for us, and at the same time we’re getting our music across, too!

CM: The younger audiences are probably much, much easier with the idea of this than, say, the ones with the blue hair that people joke about, because they’re all “We don’t want to change anything!”, but I think younger people like the idea of everything sort of coming together.

JC: I think so, and people are used to playing their iPods in shuffle mode, so they’re used to going back from this genre to that genre, from this group to that group, so…

CM: So it’s not so cut-and-dry anymore, really, it’s sort of skirting the line.

JC: It’s a multi-tasking nation now, we’re kind of schizo that way, our generation! That’s all good! I just like to go with the flow. That’s what my career’s been about, mainly. I think it’s hard for anyone just to do classical these days. Like Hilary Hahn, you’d think she’d just do classical, but why should she?

CM: She knows that there’s other ways of doing it, there’s other dynamics, and I think that it’s nice that other classical musicians recognize that, too.

Kerry Muzzey: Architect of The Mind (Jennifer Choi, violin–I hope :))

ETHEL Central
Official website for ETHEL
Jennifer’s official solo site

Ashley Bathgate – Cello (via My Ears Are Open)

By James Holt courtesy of My Ears Are Open

“My name is Ashley Bathgate, I play the cello and I’m the cellist in the Bang on a Can All-Stars. I also play with the Metropolis Ensemble and I’m currently in a duo with Lisa Moore and we actually have a commissioning project that we just started of emerging composers.”

Ashley Bathgate – Cello (My Ears Are Open; podcast)

Official website

Composers: Daniel Felsenfeld

Daniel Felsenfeld, another one of our most celebrated new music composers, born in D.C., raised in California and living in Brooklyn, has consented to speaking with moi of all people, even with his busy activities writing music and doubling as a journalist (Besides his column in the NY Times, he has even authored books about the dead white guys! Bach, Tchaikovsky and Connecticut’s own Charles Ives, among others).
I have to apologize in advance for the lack of available clips either in audio or video form (save for a few) as I really wanted to do my typical form of saturation, but I was unable to imbed any of the audio that Daniel sent me. If you go to Daniel’s website, there is an audio page (Click on Sounds, and it gives you a list of his audio pieces).

CM: Before you had your training in composition, was there a time that you heard certain pieces that you weren’t ready for as a listener? I had this experience when I heard Del Tredici’s ‘Final Alice’ on the radio in the 70’s (It’s not quite as intimidating now).

DF: This is, by the way, an excellent question.
I got kind of a late(ish) start in music, especially that was not rooted in obvious tonality. So when I got to college I was ill-prepared for the 20th century. But some of the warhorse pieces—like the Rite of Spring or Quartet for the End of Time immediately turned me on. But the masterpiece I really had to come to on my own terms was Pierrot Lunaire. Now I have to say, I first heard all three of these pieces in the same few days, sitting in the listening library following scores, so perhaps by the time I got to Pierrot, I was already seriously misfiring with a lot of new information. But I listened hard—I tried it with score, without score, with the lights out, slightly drunk, wide awake, and it just never really spoke to me. Now, years later, having heard it live several times (and admittedly knowing a bit more than I did then) Pierrot and I have come to a kind of understanding. I love Pierre Boulez’ recording with Yvonne Minton, probably because she breaks the rules and “sings” more than a lot of people would deem stylistic. And its inherent resplendent creepiness holds a perverse appeal.

Funny you should mention Final Alice, because in that same week, my teacher, who made me rush to the library and hide the shame of not knowing these seminal pieces, included that piece in this list of great-and-imposing masterworks. So in my memory, Final Alice is up there with the Sacre and Quartet for the End of Time as necessary 20th century music listening.

CM: When you are writing, do you already have the title in mind to fuel the process?

DF: This depends. I am what one might call a “titler” in that I like evocative monikers for pieces. So often as much as I keep a running tally of musical ideas I also keep one for titles. Earlier on, I was more inclined to use “edgier” titles (in grad school I wrote pieces called “Smoking My Diploma”, “Cultivating Cool”, “New Forms of Control”, “Bad Coffee Serenade”, “O I LIKE the LIFE that I’m LEADING”, that kind of thing) while now, as a (slightly!) older person I am more inclined to write more emotionally solid music warranting titles to match (my new pieces are called “To Committee”, “Things Like That Never Happen to Me”, “A Genuine Willingness to Help”, “The Curse of Sophistication”). I do confess my love of a good title.

I don’t think I will ever write my Second String Quartet or my First Piano Sonata because musically I just don’t think that way. I don’t, though, have a problem with this kind of thing—many of my favorite composers, from John Corigliano to Lee Hyla, use these sorts of titles for their works—I just always get caught up in something at least cloyingly extramusical. But who knows. I’m not by any means averse.

Titles, though, are kind of the first line of defense for composers (or anyone who makes creative work), so they are as important as anything. We expect different things out of a piece called “From the Dawning of the Misbegotten Earth” than we do out of a piece called “Cracker Jacks” (and I am just making these titles up out of the air), and so when I hear something called “Quintet for Piano and Strings No. 97” I just have different things in mind than I think my music is good for.

All Tomorrow’s Parties (Robin Cox Ensemble, 10/20/09; Based on The Velvet Underground’s song)

CM: Is classical instrumentation (orchestra, strings, brass, chamber, operatic voice, etc.) a format, if you will, that you are most compatible with? I really like the use of the harpsichord on ‘Every Composer Is a Murderer’, but has anyone ever said to you “We’d like to hear you use electronics on a piece”? Would you consider that or is that best left to the Fausto Romitellis of the field?

DF: I think this is a two part question. The first is about being married to the conventional “classical” instruments, which I think is an interesting point of discussion. The answer is both yes and no, because there’s been so much use of certain “non-classical” instruments (and I put the scare quotes for a reason I’ll get into in a moment) in my field that I’m not sure what the conventional instruments are any more. Going to a concert of new “classical” music one might hear pieces for electric guitars, saxophones, synthesizers, non-operatic voices, drum kits, laptops, and a whole host of “world” instruments that the definitions of conventional have changed. Nobody should be surprised to see a concerto for balalika or throat singer or a hybrid electro-acoustic instrument. Nor should anyone be surprised to see a string quartet that simply plays music for string quartet. We live in an amazing age for music because literally everything goes.

Which leads to the second part of the question re: electronics. This kind of thing seems to be the specious “tonal vs. atonal” or “extended techniques vs. conventional techniques” false schism of our own disunified age. What I mean is, I think the use of elctronics in and of itself is nothing noteworthy (nor is it anything new; this has been going on for decades in some form or another) and yet I keep hearing about it as if the mere fact of doing it is a remarkable—or, perish the thought, rebellious—thing to do. There are composers who never use anything save for the acoustic instruments who I think are totally brilliant and there are those who I think are less so; same goes for the use of electronics. It has to be more than just done, it has to be done persuasively. And I think we’ve all heard it used in a less than artful way by someone who thinks they are on the vanguard, and to me, as a listener who is taking the music qua music, that is just not that interesting. On the other hand, I think, say, Mason Bates, Anna Clyne, Judd Greenstein, Paola Prestini, Missy Mazzoli, and Nico Muhly (to name a few) are good composers whose sound palate quite naturally uses different kinds of electronic sounds (and they do so differently because they are all singular composers) because that is how they are hearing things, rather than it being done to buck a (prebucked) system.

This is the long way of saying that, like anything, I am not averse to using electronics but I’ve never heard things that way—the old music I devoutly adore tends not to make use of these sounds and so neither do I. And I think one of the challenges a composer faces is to find the most appropriate bottles for their exact wine, and outlets for the work they believe in. If I just started writing electronic or electro-acoustic music because I felt that was what was expected of me I would certainly likely fall into the category of people using the medium in a less-than-artful way because the sonics of it all don’t necessarily gel effectively with the way I hear my own music.

We can live in a world that is both multivalent and not drawn by bunker mentalities—no “us” and “them” in art—because the divisions are never simple, and more often than not the “groups” of artists are more for the convenience of critics than anything the artists themselves want to be involved in. But ultimately, these differences come down to little aside from timbre. We associate a string quartet with “classical” music regardless of what they are playing (or at least often people do this with an eye to a sectionalized market) just like a saxophone means “jazz” and an electric guitar “rock,” but of course the realities are much more complex. And while the idea that people might finally start to accept “classical” music as not being a single line out from Gregorian Chant to whatever they feel like is the “next” step and start seeing the music world—or any world in which artists offer their wares—as a place impossible to pin down in any way, where there are listeners and thinkers who like one thing and other listeners and thinkers who like something that might be quite different.

I guess what it all boils down to is that I’d love to use electronics if; 1) I had a project in which it seemed appropriate and 2) I could do it without the “political” associations. It really is just another palate with which to play, which delights many talented composers and enthusiastic listeners, and what can be bad about that?

CM: Have you ever gotten any commissions that were bizarre or that you’ve had to pass on?

DF: If by this do you mean have I been asked to write a piece for bassoon octet or kazoo chorus and just found I couldn’t do it? No, not exactly—though there’s always that weird “talk” of commissions (meaning someone says “you should write a piece for…” and inserts the most absurd thing here) that never, for some unthinkable reason, make it past the idea stage—or even out of the bar.

There have been offers to write for too little, though. And by too little I mean too little of anything. Money, sure, but also exposure, prestige, a great reading, a handy piece in one’s work list, these are all good reasons to write a piece. But I’ve had bizarre propositions to do a huge amount of work in an absurd amount of time (meaning too little) for no money and a single performance in a far-off city by a mediocre pick-up group. These I pass on, without rancor though because I think it is important to take seriously anyone who wants to perform one’s music. We’ve all been the victim of too little at some point or other, and these can be valuable to a composer even if not the best and most immediate experience because honestly anytime you’re working with people who are trying their best—and I don’t believe that there’s a soul out there who plays music and decides to do so poorly and in public—to get down to the psychology of players, to figure out how to talk to a wide range of people in a slew of settings. But then there are those projects that feel like the return will be disproportionate, which are the ones I tend to (politely) decline.

CM: Is there a story behind the solo piano piece “Toscanini’s Glasses”? 🙂

DF: There is. An alarmingly long one, for such a short piece (!) I wanted to challenge myself with a kind of compositional etude: I wanted to make a piece that worked (by my estimation) out of something I totally loathed rather than something to which I wanted to pay homage. So many pieces that are variations start with the premise of greatness—Brahms on Handel or Haydn, Chopin on Mozart-—Or with the premise of a kind of national pride-—Anyone, from Beethoven to Bartok to Copland to Britten et al. who ever made a piece from a folk song. I wanted to do something from the point of an EarWorm, a piece of music I felt was just too out there and not remotely good. So I chose “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry. But what gave me the idea for the piece really was reading the book The Fortress of Solitude by my friend Jonathan Lethem (who is the dedictatee of my piece), especially the scene where one of the characters simply says the words “lay down and boogie and play that funky music ‘til you die.” I’d never really thought about that with any seriousness, playing music until you die. It conjured up all kinds of images of a certain kind of madness crossed with a certain kind of nostalgia—-Or perhaps nostalgia for madness? Either way, I took the title from another of Jonathan’s short stories. In a way, all homages (like the work or, in this case, hate the work to which you are paying heed) are a kind of refraction, seeing the thing, the object, through your own lens. Ergo my piece “Toscanini’s Glasses”.
I should mention I wrote it for pianist Andrew Russo, who recorded it, and it has also been taken up by Blair McMillen. Both of whom play it so absolutely brilliantly and in such different ways. I’m hoping it has a bright future!

(EDITOR’S NOTE: A clip of Toscanini’s Glasses could not be located, so a similar piece “A Dirty Little Secret” is presented here) A Dirty Little Secret (Blair McMillen, piano; Greenwich House, NY, 5/21/09)

CM: What was the main idea behind writing new music for the lyrics of David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’? Were/are you a huge fan of Bowie’s (I am, and I love ‘Ziggy’ in particular), and would you say your re-imagining of the story is like a folk song (or rather the story in a folk song) being re-sung or rewritten with a different melody?

DF: The idea of this project was to take David Bowie’s words and just pitch the music out altogether, re-setting them to my own music. And yes, I am a fan of Bowie, for so many reasons. But leaving aside his brilliance as a performer and songwriter, what the cycle is about is a pretty prototypical story of a confused teenager: me, riding around my ghostly suburb listening to the record and dreaming of escape, of bigger, epoch making things to happen, of places so distant (like, say, New York City, where I now live) as to seem like other planets. Everyone who’s even slightly weird can really get behind the fantasy that they are a landed alien sent across light years to observe. Add youthful frustrations viz. love and sex, glamour and obscurity, going forth as a comet or as a snail, and you have the appeal of the whole fiction of Ziggy Stardust.

In a way, what I wanted to do was have written that record. So this the closest I can get. I’ve already irked more than one die-hard fan with this one (the why of it all takes some explaining, and to a certain extent the real deep fans, especially those who had the same reaction and attachment to the record that I do, will be the least supportive of the project), but to them I say: do it too! Write your own take. Charles Ives taught me that the only reaction to a piece of music was another piece of music, and so this will be mine to Ziggy, a love letter to a great piece of art as well as a prior version of myself.

CM: Can you tell us anything about the upcoming commissioned piece for cello/piano duo TwoSense?

DF: One of the reasons I wanted to write for Two Sense (aside from the what-ought-to-be-obvious fact that they are not only astonishing players but also distinct and wonderfully forward musical people) was a conversation I had with Ashley Bathgate in which we both communed over what we liked in music, and what she wanted a new piece for her to be. One thing we agreed upon: It ought to be long. Not minimalist slow-developing long, but Beethoven-or-Brahms-sonata long. More than just the usual seven minutes. This sounded challenging in the best way: how, in this day and age, can you keep engaged and keep listening interesting with only two instruments in a long(ish) form.
Pictured Left: Lisa Moore and Ashley Bathgate are TwoSense

And I had read Georgio Agamben’s book Nudities, and while I’m still working out how the piece will relate to the ten separate chapters of the book, what struck me is the overarching theme, which could be summed up in the question: what is nudity? For a composer, the answer is obvious: chamber music. What’s more naked than two instruments playing, sans gimmick, for twenty minutes? And rather than gussy up the idea, why not embrace? My favorite composers—Britten, Brahms, Mozart, Bach, Chopin, etc.—were all unafraid to “expose themselves” in this way. To me, it is the essence of excellent art, that kind of exposure.

CM: You collaborated with singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding on ‘Charles Jessup Considered as a Murderer’, and on a future occasion we’ll talk about that project as well, but I might as well ask you about this clip of you performing with Harding along with several other folk-rock performers like Josh Ritter, David Wax Museum, Tift Merritt and Andrew Bird: How did that happen and what was your take on it?

DF: I met Wes (Wesley Stace, aka John Wesley Harding) twice: once at a party for our mutual friend Jonathan Lethem (who had just turned in his novel) and another time at ASCAP–we were both judges for the Deems Taylor Award (given out as a prize all to do with writing ABOUT MUSIC). He was, at the time, working on his book Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, which is all about a (fictional) composer and a grisly crime he commits. He wanted me to read it to just see about the trajectory of his title character (not for help with his prose or development–he needs little help from someone like me on that!). At that same time, he was commencing his series the Cabinet of Wonders, a thrice-seasonal concert over which Wes presides. He has writers, comedians and musicians perform, and I’m fortunate enough to be his “court composer”. So it means, not only does a piece of mine get played once a season–especially the two collaborations Wes and I did: a set of madrigals called Music Doesn’t Want Me and the song cycle Every Composer is a Murderer, both with words by Wes–but I also play piano (the theme music Wes and I co-wrote), sometimes (thrillingly) with the group. I’ve met some amazing people there (including these people) and it serves as an excellent counterlife to that of a quote-unquote serious composer. Plus it is always a good time. And I’ve made friends, met heroes, and had an absolute blast playing music as opposed to just writing it.

Cabinet of Wonders (Featuring John Wesley Harding, Josh Ritter, Tift Merritt, Andrew Bird, David Wax Museum, Paul Muldoon, and in the back, Daniel Felsenfeld; City Winery, NY 3/11/11; Rock on dude!) Official website
Felsenmusick Daniel’s blog
Opinionator Daniel’s column on the New York Times

Ashley Bathgate

Photo courtesy of Stephen Taylor

“I picked the cello, ’cause I felt like it!”

This being my first-ever “in person” interview, I guess it would be kismet that it’s with Ashley Bathgate, a young cellist with an upbringing from a sweetheart of the rodeo, an education from both Yale (Yes, that Yale! She graduated, btw) and Bard College, a student of cello virtuoso Aldo Parisot, and having been ushered into the world of new music with Bang On a Can, where she gets to play with great musicians and legends like Terry Riley and most recently Philip Glass, Ashley has come upon some unprecedented artistic freedom that some classical players perhaps only dream about. I was invited to come speak with her at her New York apartment, and the conversation with her was more rewarding than I ever expected, but this being a live interview, sadly, I couldn’t use the whole thing. Some of the things that made the back burner were her thoughts about having sung in a composition (Julia Wolfe’s Believing performed with the Bang On a Can All-Stars) and how it impacts her musicianship; Her collaborative work with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Wilco’s Glenn Kotche (Both are also composers that worked with BOAC) and her quote “Drummers kind of blow my mind!”, and her thoughts on working with outside genre artists or groups, sadly none of which have asked her to (I know a bunch of bands/artists that would probably love to have her play on their songs, me included). This version of the interview is sort of the “Theatrical cut” as opposed to the director’s one, and we do have her thoughts on music, on BOAC and the commissioning project TwoSense, and some wonderful words in general from this very spirited lady that makes me absolutely thankful her dad started talking to me about her at the Starbucks at WFC during the marathon in June! Thanks so much, Mr. Bathgate!

CM: You began studying cello at the age of 12. Was there a reason for what some people would say was a late start?

AB: Yeah, actually it was kind of random–I had always been interested in music. My mom was in the rodeo and rode horses, and I would travel with my parents everywhere. From the time I was an infant, I was exposed to a lot of country music, a lot of pop music, rock and roll–They took me to the Grand Ole Opry. I met Conway Twitty, Minnie Pearl–I was 3 and don’t remember any of it, but I have the photos, so…

CM: [laughing] You should put those on Facebook!

AB: [laughing] Well, actually there’s this one photo of me which is…it’s pretty adorable of me singing and playing guitar when I’m like 3 with curlers in my hair…

I guess I was always listening to music. I was always intrigued with performers and performance in particular, and then I grew up singing in school choirs and church choirs. It was part of me from the beginning, but I never thought to play an instrument, and I wasn’t actually exposed to classical music until I was maybe 9 or 10, and I do remember sort of seeing a quartet playing, and saying “What’s that instrument?”, and I loved it because it was big. I just said “Well that’s the biggest one!”

CM: You probably thought the violin was the baby cello! [laughing]

AB: Right, exactly! And so, I just picked it up because the school, in 4th and 5th grade, started offering instruments, and I picked the cello, ’cause I felt like it, and I started playing it, but I was like a normal kid, I wanted to go outside and play every day after school, I didn’t want to practice, I didn’t want to do any of this stuff, but I did, and actually after a year, I was going to quit. I told everyone “That was fun, but now I’m going to play the clarinet”, and everyone was like “NO! NO NO NO NO NO!! PLEASE DON’T QUIT! PLEASE DON’T STOP!” because I guess I was maybe showing some sort of promise towards the instrument, so, I said “All right If you feel that strongly about it!” [laughing]

CM: Wow! They really saved the day!

AB: Well yeah, I guess when I became serious about playing cello, and, sort of realizing in a roundabout way that this was what I wanted to do with my life, this was when I joined the Empire State Youth Orchestra in Albany, NY. That was sort of just an early introduction to what a conservatory is like. You finally find this group of people where everybody’s like you, everybody is practicing 3 hours a day and they’re classical music geeks.

CM: More like-mindedness that probably spurred you on.

AB: Yeah! And we had this fabulous conductor, his name was Francisco Noya, he was a really inspiring musician, teacher and character, all-around. They have a concerto competition that I entered, and I won it. (EDITOR’S NOTE: BTW, she didn’t say she won twice; At the time we talked, I had forgotten to ask Ashley which concerto this was she performed, but after some post-interview research, it is believed to have been the Saint-Saens Concerto #2 the 1st time in ’99 and the Schumann Concerto in ’01) And I had this wonderful opportunity to play a solo with an orchestra at the beautiful Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, and then I was hooked! I was like “Whoa! You mean I can do this by myself? You mean I can play like this in a hall like this in front of hundreds and hundreds of people? I’m sold!”

Kabalevsky: Cello Concerto in G minor, op. 49 (excerpt; w/Woodstock Chamber Orchestra, Nov 2003)

I think for a lot of people the big question is “Do you lose something if you start at a later age?”, and you can’t really answer that question. I may never know. Yes, there’s a part of me that believes that had I started when I was 6 and practiced my scales over and over and over again I might be a more fluent technician, but that’s what makes everyone individual in the end, it’s like, the experiences they have before, during and after, whether it’s actually playing the cello, or singing, or whatever, I think it all works out in a wash.

CM: During your studies, was there a building appreciation for certain kinds of classical music, or were you always open to any style?

AB: From an early age, I was exposed to music. They were all floating around the house. My dad used to play Aqualung by Jethro Tull, Nana Muskouri–we’d have classical music–Everything was like, piping in. I was always being brought to concerts. Saratoga, where I’m from, had the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where the Philly Orchestra comes to play, the NYC Ballet, etc. All of these different kinds of music–Aretha Franklin–I was open to all of it. But at the same time, then, when I started playing the cello, that was sort of a different thing, because you’re taking lessons, you’re beginning it for the first time, and naturally your teachers and the people around you are saying the cello is a classical music instrument, so you’re gonna play Bach and Brahms and Beethoven, and all of these traditional composers, and so I accepted that. I said “Oh cool, that’s what the cello does”. I became very interested and involved in that, and it wasn’t really until college that I was sort of aware of the fact that it had other possibilities and that were other kinds of music that I could be involved in, but I wasn’t. I was too immersed in the repertoire that I was trying to learn, which was a bunch of dead white guys! [both laughing]

So, when I went to Bard, I was around a lot of jazz musicians, and there were a lot of kids forming their own bands–then I started listening to a bunch of Steely Dan–I’m like a huge Steely Dan fan, actually (EDITOR’S NOTE: Me too! 😉). There was a jazz course, so I took a jazz course, and I said “Oh, I can do this! I can improvise!”. So then I go to Yale, and there is a stronger new music contingent there. They had New Music New Haven series. At Bard, there wasn’t so much aside from Leon Botstein and the ASO–They do a tremendous amount of contemporary music. There wasn’t so much going on, so, in New Haven, it started as more of a requirement, and something that I became involved in first involuntarily, then voluntarily because I started to like it more and more.
I remember I did this piece for my senior year at Yale, and then I did a debut in New York at Weill Hall; I played this piece by Donald Martino, which was written for my teacher Aldo Parisot, it was called Parisonatina al’Dodecafonia
It’s very serialist, percussive…there’s like large sections of improvisation, and you just kind of get to go nuts for 12 minutes! I spent 6 months learning and memorizing that particular piece, and studying it with the person for whom it was written, so that was a pretty special time, and that was perhaps when I sort of began to actually love contemporary music.

Donald Martino: Parisonatina al’Dodecafonia (excerpt; Yale Artist Diploma recital, Weill Recital Hall, NY 1/26/08)

That, and also getting to work with not only student composers who were my colleagues at Yale like Timo Andres, Ted Hearne, Missy Mazzoli…They were all there and we’re all at the beginning of our careers…It was great to work with them, and then you have faculty, like Ezra Lauderman…I took some composition classes with him, and Martin Bresnick…I developed an appreciation there for new music, but then, I never thought I was gonna do it, though. I always thought, “Oh, I’ll do a little bit of this, but my heart is with the dead white guys”! [both laughing again]

And that’s when Bang On a Can happened.

Continuing my development of love for new music. So I’m ending my time at Yale, and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I was completely terrified, and of course, when you’re terrified, and you have no idea what you’re gonna do, what do you do? You move to New York City!

CM: Yes, where all the musicians are!

AB: I was like, “OK, I guess I’m going to New York, I’m graduating, I have no clue, I have no job, I have no prospects. And as I was leaving, a couple of professors approached me, Jack Vees and Martin Bresnick, and both of them said “Ashley, there’s this call for cellist. This band, Bang On a Can, they’re looking for a cellist. We really think that you would be perfect for this. Send in an application, we’ll write you a recommendation letter”. So I said “Okay!”. Now, I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I didn’t know what Bang On a Can was at that time, you know. I heard of their summer festival, I’ve heard of the composers but had never seen them, heard them, or anything.

CM: Did you know about David Lang, Julia Wolfe…?

AB: Yeah, I knew that David Lang won a Pulitzer, and I had heard the other names–of course I had heard of some of the other members in the group, but I was really unfamiliar with the organization, and with a lot of what happens in New York City. Even in New Haven, it’s just sort of this far off island. So, I went and looked them up and I checked them out, and I heard my predecessors Maya Beiser and Wendy Sutter were the previous cellists in the group doing all these really cool things. I mean, they’re playing amplified, they’re playing ridiculously hard music, they’re improvising; I was there for Kyaw Kyaw Naing, the Burmese circle drummer, and after hearing him, I was like “Ah! What is this?? I’m so excited!”
So I applied, got an audition, and then, it was kind of one of those love at first sight kind of things. I walked in and I was expecting the normal audition where you sort of go with your excerpts, and there’s a bunch of people sitting at a table staring you down and kind of waiting for you to screw up. I walked in, and here’s this band, all cramped into Ayers Studio–amps and drum kits, and computers and laptops all over the place. I sit down and they’re like “Ok, so we’re going to audition you now. We’re going to play”, and that’s what we did. We just played for an hour, all this really cool music that I’ve been listening to for a couple of months now, and for me that was the best audition I’ve ever had, not because of how I played, but just how I felt! I was like “Oh, this is what music making is supposed to be like!”. Not only that, I’m getting to play with these incredible musicians, sight unseen! So, I sort of trialed with them for the next year, and it was down to me and one other finalist, and we each did a few concerts with them, each rehearsal I had with them I was more and more in love with what they were doing, what I was learning and what I was incorporating into my life. And so, by the time I actually won the audition, I knew that “Ok, this is where I want to be, this is what I want to do. I’m really invested in this music and these people”. So, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me, musically!

CM: And this year at the marathon you guys worked with Philip Glass, which must have been awesome! Please walk us through that!

AB: In the last 2 years that I’ve been playing with them, we’ve gotten to work with Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and now Philip Glass. I mean yeah, there’s a part of me that feels “Okay, I belong here”, and there’s a part of me that’s like “Oh my God! Steve Reich!” and “Oh my God! Philip Glass!” [laughing] So, we’re on this incredible rollercoaster between feeling at home in this world of new music, we’re also being starstruck from time to time, which is a pretty cool thing. So, Philip Glass walks in, we had one rehearsal with him a couple of days before the marathon, and he’s this quiet, very sweet sort of soft-spoken gentleman. Vicky Chow and I were both meeting him, and playing with him for the first time, and we’re like looking at each other going “This is cool! This is great”! He sits down at the keyboard, and we just jumped right into it. We started playing Music In Similar Motion and it’s beautiful to see such a legend and such a wonderful composer sort of play his own music, and play with us and to share that. Aside from the fact that it was musically enriching, I think we all just felt like we’re getting to be a part of something that might not be around forever.

Philip Glass: Music In Similar Motion (BOAC All-Stars; BOAC Marathon; World Financial Center, NY 6/19/11)

CM: Would you say audiences are starting to be comfortable with a mixed-bag type of program of classics and new music?

AB: That is something that’s important to me now, as a player, it’s important to me to maintain both worlds equally. I love classical music, I love what I learned from classical music, I love what I learn and do with new music, and the fun thing for me to do is mix the two–to take different qualities from each world, and they are very different worlds for a player and for an audience member, but for a player, and see what I can throw back and forth and mix between the two. Now, you’ll get a lot of people who sort of have a hard time. If they think they’re going to a concert where they’re going to hear Beethoven, that’s what they want to hear. They want to hear Beethoven and all that goes along with that. If they want to go to a Bang On a Can concert, they think “Ok, I’m gonna get Steve Reich and Michael Gordon, and that’s what I’m going to get”. So when you actually shake it up and throw some new pieces into the mix, people are like “Whoa! Whoa! What are you doing? What are you doing? You’re screwing with me! You’re screwing with me!”. But then, more often than not, I find that afterwards people like “Whoa! That was really interesting! I’m so glad you played that new piece you commissioned on a program with Bach and Janacek or Beethoven”, and a lot of people come up to me and say “It made Schumann sound young”. It made Schumann sound like a new piece of music, and vice versa.

We commissioned a piece by Stephen Fiegenbaum that was our first commission for TwoSense [Suspended Animation] and put it up against the Janacek, and it made…They exchanged qualities, and people stopped viewing it as “old and new music”, they just view it as music, and that’s the whole point. It’s not an innovative thing to, like, mix up your concerts with old and new music, but I think it’s essential. You can only go right. What I’m realizing, when I go back to work on a Dvorak Concerto or anything like that, I look at it differently now. I look at it not as a piece that should be played a certain way, or has this long tradition of performances. I look at it as a piece that I’ve never seen before or a piece of new music, and I try to imagine, actually, that if this composer were alive, what would they be saying? What would they mean by what they wrote on the page? A lot of times it’s like, you get these scores, and it’s like The Holy Bible, it’s like [shouting] “BUT HE WROTE ‘SFORZANDO’ AND HE WROTE THIS, AND THOU SHALT HONOR!”, and like, what I learned by playing new composers, often times they don’t always know what they write is like not exactly what they meant to communicate or maybe they did, but they want it to sound like this, and so, it means there’s much more room for interpretation and expression.

CM: TwoSense is the piano and cello duo/commissioning project you started with pianist Lisa Moore. Can you explain how this got started?

AB: When I performed a piece by Martin Bresnick around the time I was leaving Yale, I had sent him a tape of my performance, and he liked it! He said, “Hey, do you want to record this piece with my wife Lisa Moore?” and I said “Pianist Lisa Moore? Are you kidding me? I would love to work with with her! I heard her play, I heard her recordings! So I did, but I was so excited because of what I had heard about her and her playing. So we worked on this piece and we recorded it, and during that time there was a great chemistry, in terms of playing, so Lisa had said “Ok, so, why don’t we do a concert?” And I was like “OK”. “Well, why don’t we commission some pieces?” This is where TwoSense came about because–She’s the founding pianist of Bang On a Can, and she’s commissioned dozens of works, and, I’m new to this, but equally as excited about it.

There are all of these pieces for weird ensemble orchestras, or different instrumental combinations, but for a very traditional ensemble like cello and piano, there’s not an overwhelming repertoire available, in sort of the “downtown contemporary music scene”.
I was excited about this. I was like “Sure! Let’s do it!”. I was approached by Stephen Feigenbaum, and he said “You know, I heard you guys were playing. I love your playing! I really would love to write you a piece and write a piece for cello and piano.” I’m like “Great!”. Well, then, that was just a snowball, and it was like “Ok, well let’s ask some composers that we know”. So we asked Missy Mazzoli, and we’ve asked David, Michael and Julia, Judd Greenstein, Ted Hearne, and Kate Moore–Kate had written us a piece already called Velvet. Daniel Wohl just finished a piece for us.

All of a sudden it was like “Okay, we are asking all of these amazing composers and they’re saying “Yes!” It was kind of a beautiful thing. It was like”Well, we don’t have money!”. We can’t pay all these composers out of our pockets! And we don’t have money to put on concerts, and all we have is our drive, and creative innative, so it was like “All right, let’s go!”, and these composers were of the same mind, they were kind of like “Yeah, let’s do this! We wanna write for you, we wanna make this happen!”, and TwoSense was born. We have a project and we have a mission, which is to expand this repertoire, and to also give composers of today a platform where their music can be showcased and made known to the world, so, not only have we commissioned a lot of younger, up and coming composers, but also…Martin Bresnick is writing a piece for us now, as well as Jack Perla and Paul Dresher on the West Coast are also writing pieces for us. It’s just coming from all sides and it’s glorious!

CM: Andy Akiho’s 21 is really incredible! What he does is great with the steel drum, and YOU, you got the cello, and you also got…It sounds like you’re working with a loop station, which a lot of people in pop music are using now when they play out acoustic, and you are also clapping, and you’re also using the kick drum!

AB: It’s a funny story. Andy is a very special person and he’s a very amazing composer! He’s gonna go very far! I was so happy to play his music, and he had this piece and playing with steel pans, but what was comical was when I was told “You also have to play the kick drum…”, and I was like “Oh! I’ve never done that! Okay…”, he was like “Well, you also have to do the loop!”, and I was like “Well wait! Why do I have to do the loop? Why don’t you do the loop?? You’re playing the can! Don’t you want something else to do?”. He’s like “No no no!! I’ll screw it up!! I’m too afraid I’m gonna screw it up! You gotta do it! I don’t wanna mess it up!”. I was like “All right, Andy!”.

CM: He didn’t take into consideration it could go wrong on your side too, but…

AB: I know, but I was happy to take on the challenge! I loved having a couple of kick-drum lessons with my percussion buddies who had got me working on that end. It does take a lot of practice to sort of coordinate and do these things, but that’s part of the reason why I’m so enamored with doing new music. After a while, people don’t think of you as just a cellist, you’re simply whatever they want to ask you to do, and they encourage you to try to do it, and I’m happy to experiment, and do many things that might be not “cellistic” but, you know…

CM: It definitely must take you out of the world of, “Okay, God here we go again with Beethoven…” It’s probably much more rewarding.

AB: Yeah, because you feel like you’re learned. At the end of the day, you’ve learned something that you never thought you’d learn. Keeps it fresh!

CM: Crazy time signature, too!

AB: Yeah yeah yeah!  But in Andy’s mind, he just hears it! There are no time signatures. He can bounce it back and forth!

CM: It’s like there’s a time signature only to get from point A to point B.

AB: So that mortals! Mere mortals like us can read it! [laughs]

Andy Akiho: 21 (w/Andy Akiho on steel drums, Ashley on everything else; Firehouse12, New Haven, CT 10/2/10)

CM: You even studied composition at Yale. Are you considering ever maybe composing something at some point?

AB: When I was a kid, I did write music, it was kind of one of those things I did in addition to singing in the shower! I thought it was really cool to write songs because I listen to songs, and I loved Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, and the ballad was probably my favorite before I even knew what a ballad was, so I did write when I was a kid, for fun, before I could even write music, actually, like I would just have a keyboard and I would sound it out, and I would memorize it all, and I had it! Actually, one of my compositions, when I was in the choir in church, I remember I must have been like 12, they actually performed it in front of an audience, and that was a fun thing! In college, I took a lot of different courses. I did take a composition class with Joan Tower, and I also took a class with Ezra Lauderman at Yale, and both times, I guess, they were both sort of these ‘composition for performers’, these classes, and I learned counterpoint a lot, and I think I just wanted to experience and see what it was like to be on the other side of the page. Now I actually think I would get a lot more out of it, having worked with so many living composers, and played these new pieces. At the time I just realized “Whoa! This is not like picking up another instrument where you can teach yourself how to play the guitar, you can learn how to cook, you can learn how to bake.

It’s like, for me, if I were to take on composition, that would take another lifetime. It would take every day twice. I wrote 2 pieces which were only performed out of the class, at the end of the class. It takes a tremendous amount of work, so I have a great deal of respect for composers, to start with, but especially after these classes, and I think that I could see one day writing my own music. Todd Reynolds writes a lot of his own stuff. He has the new CD Outerborough, and half of it is the music that his friends and colleagues have written for him, and half of it is his own stuff. The thing is, I hold Todd in very high admiration because he is not only an amazing violinist, but he is doing exactly what he wants to do in music. He’s at the point in his life where he has all the tools, and he’s chosen what he wants to focus on, which is that he likes to write, he knows what he wants to hear, he’s really into the whole ‘he’s a one-man band’ with his loops and able to run this to an impressive degree, in these shows. And I hope that one day I can be like that, and know what I want to do.

Right now, I’m still tasting everything on the buffet. You put a piece of Bach in front of me, and I’m gonna eat it up! You put Michael Gordon in front of me, and I’m gonna eat it up! You put an amp with a bunch of wires in front of me, and I’m gonna eat it up! Even if I have a week to go and they say “You don’t have a cello, all you have is some paper and a pen”, I would love to do that. I’d love to have the time, but what I feel like as a performer is that there just isn’t enough time in the world to do all of the music, or to do with music, all of things I want.

CM: It would probably have to be something transitional for you…

AB: I would have to have already felt satiated with my playing and with the concerts I’m doing. It’s too early to tell. It could be there, but I have too many other things right now that I want to do before I start writing my own stuff.

Ashley’s official webpage

Ashley’s page at Bang On a Can

Ashley’s YouTube Channel

Composers: Thomas Deneuville

Photo courtesy of Axel Dupeux

My first interview for The Glass! Hopefully the first of many!

Having been both a fan of compositional music and a longtime member of the Twitter and online community in general, I came to know a gentleman by the name of Thomas Deneuville. He goes by the name “tonalfreak” on Twitter, possibly to inform us of the fact that he is a strong practitioner of keeping the melodic element in the world of contemporary music, and this he does very well. Having been invited to come see one of his premieres in NY (This one being of his cantata titled Waiting For Thoreau, programmed in a recital along with some of his other works), I was very humbled to see a quite laid-back presentation of compositions arranged for both classical instruments and those that are more typical of rock like electric guitar and a drum kit. At the end of his Summer Miniatures suite he even has a transcription of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”.

CM: Thomas, you taught yourself guitar as a rock musician, and you went from that to studying classical violin a few years later. Was that an easy transition?

TD: It was actually a relief. I remember struggling with theory for a couple of years on my own while I was teaching myself guitar. Going to a music school brought me to another level. I immediately fell in love with solfege and literally ate the violin methods that were put in front of me, tackling second and third positions after a year. On the other hand it was also my first contact with the French music education system that still owed a lot (in spirit) to the 19th century. The same system pushed me to leave France years later.

CM: When did you decide you wanted to compose music?

TD: It was not really a decision. As soon as I was able to play chords and melodies on the guitar it was obvious that the next natural step was to compose, regardless of my technical level. What else was one supposed to do with one’s musical chops? Immediately after, I spent my spare time recording my compositions in my bedroom on a DIY multi-track system made of two boomboxes and using as many instruments as possible: violin, bagpipes, mandolin, snare drum, guitar, zither, recorder, etc. The white noise level on these recordings was unreal. In retrospect, they were very funny too.

CM: Did you ever feel pressured to imitate or write in a certain style? Or did you know what your voice was when the music came?

TD: When I was still interested in indie pop, I used to try to emulate the sound of my favorite bands (The High Llamas, The Divine Comedy, Tahiti 80, etc.) as I wanted to fit the Parisian underground musical scene. Apart from the fact that I actually never got a band together (I left France to study voice in Italy), it felt wrong and contrived, and I learned from this experience.

I am not saying anything new by claiming that the concept of style is outdated. Composers have a vast palette of techniques, tools, aesthetics they can illustrate their (musical) ideas. I believe that very few composers define themselves as “purely” minimalists, serial, spectral, etc. but most of them borrow whatever they need from these “schools” to build their own sound.

The important thing for me is to find an emotional place where I feel honest, that seems to reflect the Zeitgeist and also contains an element of risk for my writing (Just outside of my comfort zone). I don’t really know in advance what the next piece will sound like, but I know that this is the place I want to be in to write it. One would call this a “voice’, but a vibrant, changing evolving voice.

Delicate Structures; David Pearson (sop. sax), Ryan Shapiro (piano)

CM: Why Henry David Thoreau as the subject of your cantata?

TD: A year or so ago, I decided to focus on my growing concerns about the prevalence of technology in our society. Years of experience provided me with an insight into I.T.: I took my first programming class at the age of 8, and I currently work as an application trainer, web designer/coder, and social media consultant. These experiences have left me wondering about technology’s impact on our well-being. Are we not experiencing a collective loss of savoir-faire (As craftsmanship, cf. Richard Sennett) and savoir-vivre (Of civic experience)? How can we, as composers, raise awareness of such issues?

The underlying ideas for my cantata came to me when I got acquainted with Thoreau’s philosophy. Even though I had studied French literature extensively in high school and college, the Transcendentalists were unknown to me before I moved to New York (Surprisingly enough, I discovered Thoreau through Gandhi’s writings).

Waiting For Thoreau is a 5-movement cantata whose texts are drawn from Transcendentalist literature, New Thought tenets, and a web-based “bragging generator”. The textual contrast is reflected in the instrumentation: 3 winds (Flute, oboe, Bb clarinet), soprano, baritone, harpsichord, viola da gamba, and drum kit. I was really excited to write for viola da gamba: Ever since my teenage years, I have emotionally associated the sound of the gamba with an age when craftsmanship was valued, long before the advent of the digital era and its consequences on our lives, on the arts, or on cognition (cf. Nicholas Carr).

The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to [Samuel] Beckett’s play. The ideals that Thoreau believed in could be reached nowadays but at the price of a deep introspection, through a fair critique of technology and faith.

CM: How do you feel about the current and future situation of classical/contemporary classical music and its audience?

TD: There’s never been a worst time to be a musician. There’s never been a better time to be a musician. The industry is not going well but we often don’t really need the industry. I believe in DIY and most tools a musician needs (Recording, promoting, selling, etc.) are largely available for very little money, if not for free.

Like many others, I also witness a shift in {new} classical music to something that’s hipper and appeals to larger audiences. Borders are blurred: Sufjan Stevens, Owen Pallett and Joanna Newsom were recently listed among the 100 Composers Under 40 by Q2 [Online substation to NY’s WQXR-FM], while Nico Muhly collaborates with Bjork or Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

I am both excited and worried about this: I enjoy the new energy and the experiments in new classical music, but I anticipate some empty fads. Nothing new, though. I’m pretty sure that people during the Baroque era, for instance, were facing the same challenges. As long as composers stay honest and never forget that music is intended for an audience, we should be fine. Easy on the synths, though…

Cyclothymic (Love) Diaries; Amanda Hick (soprano), Walter Aparicio (piano)
I care if you listen(.com) (Thomas happens to be an avid blogger as well! ;))