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April 2016  ||  David Grant on Water Ouzel
February 2016  ||  Samuel Rowe on Salut für Cauldwell
February 2016  ||  Shawn Lucas on Salut für Cauldwell
February 2016  ||  Interview with Mesias Maiguashca
November 2016  ||  Interview with Shawn Jaeger
November 2016  ||  Interview with Jonathon Kirk
November 2016  ||  Interview with Pablo Chin
October 2016  ||  Interview with Chris Mercer


April 2015  ||  Interview with James Dillon
October 2014  ||  Fonema’s Third Season


May 2014  ||  Joan Arnau Pàmies on Palimpsestus
May 2014  ||  Interview with Mauricio Pauly
April 2014  ||  Interview with Catherine Bolzinger
April 2014  ||  Pablo Chin on Pasos en otra calle
March 2014  ||  Katherine Young on Master of Disguises
February 2014  ||  Erin Gee on the Mouthpiece series
February 2014  ||  Alexander Sigman on Epiglottis

November 2013  ||  Stratis Minakakis on Apoploys III
November 2013  ||  Pablo Chin on Boschiana
November 2013  ||  Pablo Chin on Julio Estrada
October 2013  ||  Interview with Francisco Castillo Trigueros
October 2013  ||  Interview with Tomas Gueglio-Saccone
October 2013  ||  Interview with Andrés Carrizo
September 2013  ||  James Bean on this will rub against my grid
August 2013  ||  Etha Williams: On some affinities of “old” and “new” Pt II
August 2013  ||  Etha Williams: On some affinities of “old” and “new” Pt I


June 2013  ||  Etha Williams: Singing in “thinner and thinner air”
June 2013  ||  Interview with Ravi Kittappa
June 2013  ||  Live performance art by Shawn Lucas
May 2013  ||  Monte Weber on Mimesis
May 2013  ||  Interview with Peter Margasak
April 2013  ||  Joan Arnau Pàmies on <[IVsax(op_VIvln/c)]
April 2013  ||  Jonathan Kirk on Spirits and Elements
March 2013  ||  Etha Williams on Saariaho’s Mirrors
March 2013  ||  Scott Scharf on drifting the upper layers
February 2013  ||  Miranda Cuckson: New music, new musicians, new entrepreneurs
February 2013  ||  Shawn Lucas on Rhinocerous
December 2012  ||  David Kalhous on Sciarrino

2015-2016 Season

David Grant on Water Ouzel
April 2016

dcg-bio-imageOn April 18th at the Chicago Cultural Center, Nathalie Colas and Joann Cho will premiere composer David Grant‘s Water Ouzel as part of Standing Still: Songs of the Observer. In anticipation, curator and soprano Colas interviews Grant on the creation of this new work.

Nathalie Colas : What text have you used for Water Ouzel and what inspired you to chose it?

David Grant : The song cycle is based on the essay “The Water Ouzel” by John Muir. It is one of the most memorable of his many essays about his observations in Yosemite in the early part of the 20th century. The essay is about the bird, the water ouzel, that spends it’s life living next to running water, such as a stream, a waterfall or a river. Muir, observes in his essay that the bird seems to sing for it’s own enjoyment as he notices frequently that the bird sings next to extremely loud river rapids or waterfalls making communication practically impossible. I thought this idea was extraordinarily beautiful and it inspired me to write something to evoke that beauty. And, of course what better way to do that then to write music for my beautiful wife to sing.

NC : How have you used text in the piece? Are you using it as a sound object? Does the meaning matter?

DG : The text is only fragments of the essay and it is used sparingly. Much of the time Nathalie sings without text evoking the songs of the bird. The meaning of the essay and the text I use does matter enormously. In fact the text is what determined how the music was to sound. Much like the Florentine Camerata believed that the music should serve the text, this song cycle behaves in the same way.

NC : What interests you in the relationship between the voice and the piano?

DG : Writing for the voice and piano is certainly a challenge, as I usually tend to imagine a wider variety of timbres. As I wrote this piece though I thought the duet of these two (piano and voice) was extremely apt in order to convey the symbiotic relationship between the water ouzel and the water. I’m also thrilled to have two of my favorite musicians, Nathalie and Joann, perform the work.

Lachenmann’s Salut für Caudwell
Interview #2: Lucas Interviews Rowe
February 2016


This Wednesday, Fonema’s guitarists Samuel Rowe and Shawn Lucas will perform Helmut Lachenmann’s Salut for Caudwell, a relentlessly-paced duo of demanding synchronicity. In a two-part series, the guitarists interview each other, bringing you answers to questions that have come up during their long collaboration on this work. 

Shawn Lucas: Do you identify as a classical guitarist?  Although Salut für Caudwell has a great historical awareness of both classical ideology and the guitar, it is not a classical work.  If you do identify as a classical guitarist, do you feel like a classical guitarist when playing Salut?

Samuel Rowe: I do consider myself a classical guitarist, and remain attached to that tradition.  You’re of course right that Salut is not a classical work, though I also suspect that Lachenmann would be more willing to place his music in a historical lineage with nineteenth-century concert music then your question implies.  I often think that the piece contains eerie echoes, both aural and visual, of traditional guitar techniques.  In fact, many of these are associated with vernacular guitar traditions rather than concert music: the slides we use to create shimmering resonances, for example, recall southern blues.  I think of the end of the piece, in which we rhythmically rub the palms of our hands across the strings while fingering chords with the left hand, as resembling rasgueado technique in flamenco, juxtaposing a familiar-looking way of relating to the guitar with an unusual sounding result.  Then, of course, there is the famous Sprechstimme passage, in which we sing a duet while strumming along.  So perhaps I feel less like a classical guitarist and more like a folksinger . . .

Shawn Lucas: Lachenmann’s score is written in an invented form of tablature, and asks the performer to more or less immerse herself in an unfamiliar and unique form of notation.  How did this aspect of the piece influence your experience of learning it?

Samuel Rowe: The double staves (one for the right hand, one for the left) and myriad types of note heads (at least eight, by my count) do make for a daunting score.  But Salut is in fact a very intelligently notated piece of music, providing just the right amount of specific information to guide the interpreter.  For that reason, the tablature comes to feel natural after a while.

Shawn Lucas: As a performer who has played Salut für Caudwell several times with three different duo partners, how has your interpretation of the piece evolved since your first performance?

Samuel Rowe: I’ve gotten better at it, for one thing!  I also find the piece strangely inexhaustible: I think I’ve been playing Salut for almost 7 years now, and I’m not even close to getting sick of it.  Of course, different musical personalities make for different rehearsal and performance experiences.  But the music is so rigorous—so specific and intensive in its demands—that much remains the same.  Salut is this type of piece that makes the performer mold herself to it, and not vice versa.  This may be unfashionably modernist of me, but the fact that Salut allows for expressivity detached from individual personality is a big part of what I love about the piece.

Lachenmann’s Salut für Caudwell
Interview #1: Rowe interviews Lucas
February 2016

Shawn LucasThis Wednesday, Fonema’s guitarists Samuel Rowe and Shawn Lucas will perform Helmut Lachenmann’s Salut for Caudwell, a relentlessly-paced duo of demanding synchronicity. In a two-part series, the guitarists interview each other, bringing you answers to questions that have come up during their long collaboration on this work. 

Samuel Rowe: You and I have different training and come from different backgrounds on the guitar (yours electric, mine classical).  Do you think this has influenced our approach to Lachenmann’s work?

Shawn Lucas: I certainly think it has an important influence on the sound of the piece.  In fact, the first time we performed it last May I received many comments about how our own individual personalities were part of the magic of the performance. I believe Salut für Caudwell is aided by a contrast in characteristics between the two performers with its constant play of dialogue between them.  As with everyone, our individual personalities and training backgrounds effect the way we play our instrument. Individuality serves to enhance the overall sound and intensity of the performance, especially when considering the extremely persistent dialogue of Salut.

Samuel Rowe: What has been the most challenging aspect of learning and performing Salut für Caudwell?

Shawn Lucas: Definitely the ensemble work. Salut is a relentless piece in terms of how our instruments communicate.  It never gives you a break, there are no fermatas or significant pauses, and even the short pauses still carry a rhythmic intensity.  The piece is so detailed that precise rhythmic coordination is a must, which certainly challenged my musicianship in a way that no other piece ever has.  The piece is also extremely physically demanding both in its mental focus and physicality.  It’s truly a work that takes all of my energy, nothing is left to spare

Samuel Rowe: Almost none of the techniques Lachenmann calls for in Salut für Caudwell fall within the normal range of the guitar traditions we’re trained in.  Do you find the techniques Lachenmann requires intuitive?  Strange?  Demanding?  Bizarre?

Shawn Lucas: Demanding, yes.  Strange, certainly not.  I am going slightly outside the bounds of the question, but I am going to rant a little here.  As a composer, I am highly invested in inventive techniques.  I understand the term “extended technique” within a historical context.  I understand that instruments within the classical music canon were only used in specific, and dare I say, limited ways, thus a term was needed to describe everything outside of traditional boundaries.  However I believe that music in the 21st century should grow past the term “extended technique,” it is a term that I believe has been used to diminish the artistic validity and power of pushing an instrument to its fullest potential.  I am an absolute believer that the idiom of an instrument is whatever sound it has the capability to create, no matter how far the boundaries are stretched from traditions.  Lachenmann has proved the power of utilizing an instrument in a highly diverse and intricate way.  There are sounds that I never imagined the guitar making before playing Salut, but I never thought of them as bizarre or strange, in fact the adjectives I jumped to were more along the lines of “magical” or “remarkable.”  Especially considering how Lachenmann contextualizes every sound within a sophisticated formal framework.

Samuel Rowe: Famously, Salut für Caudwell contains an extended, and strange, passage of Sprechstimme performed by both guitarists.  Like most guitarists, neither of us are highly trained as vocalists.  Did you find it challenging to incorporate your voice into the sound-world of the piece?

Shawn Lucas: The text section of Salut is amazing.  I did not find it difficult to speak while playing, besides learning the German phonetics (something I’m still not perfect with).  Vocal work was something that I was already used to from singing and playing old jazz standards, a hobby that yields a few pick up gigs here and there.  I actually love using my voice, so it was a pleasure to practice the text section, even though it isn’t easy, certainly.

Interview with composer Mesias Maiguashca
February 2016

mesias-maiguashcaThe work of Mesias Maiguashca revolves around the central concern: giving voice to Maiguashca’s heritage as a descendant of indigenous American peoples through modern Western musical means. Nina Dante and Pablo Chin interview Maiguashca in anticipation of the world premiere of his new work for Fonema, 8 exercises to hear the inaudible, to be performed on February 24th as part of the inaugural Frequency Festival.

Nina Dante: The motivation for your new work for Fonema, 8 exercises to hear the inaudible is a musical practice from an indigenous people of Peru living in the Ucayali river, the Shipibo, “whose ritual songs have precise origins and recipients, for example: the song of a human being for another human being; the song of a human being for a spirit; the song of a spirit for another spirit.” Truly fascinating and fertile ground for the imagination. What about this concept appealed to you so strongly, and how did you structure the work around this idea?

Mesias Maiguashca: Well, being a normal westerner, the idea of conceiving a music for the spirits is somewhat crazy. More so, if you consider that the music of the spirits, if they ever answer, is supposed to be inaudible for us. But the idea of trying to create a music as a mean to hear the inaudible was fascinating to my imagination, certainly, not so for my rationality. But, why always be rational?

ND: You have written several works for voices before, including your Canción de los Guacamayos, which features vocalizations that conjure up images of non-existant birds. In all cases, you are not searching for a “classical” sound from the performers, asking instead for a rawer, more primal sound. What is it that you hope the human voice can channel in your works?

MM: Well, let us face it: European culture has become the rule for science and art, also all over in Latin America. Thus, “singing” means a certain educated form of producing vocal sounds. But the uneducated can also produce vocal sounds, can sing, certainly differently, with other qualities. When I write for the voice I try to get away from “classical singing”, “bel canto”, the european-educated way of singing. The vocal organ is extraordinary, the best synthesizer possible, so to speak. And I am sure there are endless sounds still to discover.

ND: In the case of 8 exercises to hear the inaudible, does the vocalist take on a different role than the three instrumentalists? What is the significance of the metal bar she plays, and in your own words, “becomes one with”?

MM: The spectrum of the metal bar provides the harmonic framework for the composition. Its sound is often mixed to the voice, in which case they intermodulate each other. They become thus a unity, a link in the attempt to access the spiritual world.

Pablo Chin: When we were discussing the instrumentation of the piece you ended up suggesting a resemblance between the final combination (voice, flute, guitar and accordion) and traditional Latin American groups. When looking at the score, at first sight the musical language seems distant from the music those popular groups perform. Is there an intention to reconcile both musical languages, or rather to create a friction that may open expressive territory?

MM: In fact, in the vallenato, a very popular form of music in Colombia, the instrumental basic combination consists of voice and accordion and includes often also guitar, wind instruments, percussion, etc. It creates a particular “sound” given by the instrumental combination, it has an “aura”. It is certainly not the musical material which I recall in the composition, but rather its “aura”. It creates spaces, which, as you say, may open expressive territory.

PC: What do you see as possible risks and benefits in exploring Andean indigenous sources through a medium that has roots in a Western musical practice? Having split your life between two seemingly distant scenes (Germany and Ecuador/Western Europe and Latin America) how would you describe the impact of your work on both cultural scenes?

MM: Well, two key words for the world of today (let us read the newspapers) are “emigrant” (he who goes) and “inmigrant” (he who comes). We are dramatically witnessing daily their presence and conflict in Europe and certainly in the United States as well. I am both, emigrant and inmigrant. In fact, who is not? And as such, I am trying to create a cultural language based on the language from where I come and confronting it with the language from where I have arrived.

Note from ND: Maiguashca’s program note for his Canción de la tierra illuminated much of his work and thinking for me. You can read the translated text here.

Sound and Video Links
Boletin y Elegía de las Mitas
Canción de la tierra

This collaboration and performance are made possible by The Frequency Festival, Chicago’s Goethe Institut and the Renaissance Society. 





EVER A NEW CYCLE Interviews : Shawn Jaeger
November 2015

shawn+sl1On November 29th, Fonema Consort presents Nina Dante’s EVER A NEW CYCLE, a DCASE-supported concert of new song cycles by Pablo ChinJonathon Kirk, and Shawn Jaeger. In a 3-part interview series, Dante dives deep into the composers’ approach to the genre and their artistic vision. Part III: Shawn Jaeger and In Old Virginny + Pastor Hick’s Farewell.

Nina Dante : One of the fascinating things about your work, is the extent to which it draws inspiration from the folk traditions of Appalachia, to which I can only imagine that you have the deepest of personal connections. What is it that drew you to this style? Why has it proven to be such fertile ground upon which you have developed your work?

Shawn Jaeger : I was initially drawn to Appalachian folk ballads and Old Regular Baptist hymnody out of a simple curiosity about musical traditions from my native state of Kentucky. I got to know these traditions through Smithsonian Folkways recordings, and the honesty, complexity, and immediacy of the music I heard absolutely floored me. There is an incredible sense of rhythmic freedom in this music. If you transcribe what the performers are doing—as I did in painstaking detail in my dissertation on folksinger Dillard Chandler—you see that the rhythmic structure is incredibly volatile, complex, and irregular.

When Old Regulars “line out,” each person sings the tune in their own way, at their own pace. The heterophony that results from this simultaneous variation is a central characteristic of my music. It’s a way of writing I return to again and again, because it’s very flexible, and at the same time, quite economical—one line becomes many varied, but related, lines. For me, heterophony also has an important political dimension: there is a tension between individual freedom and group coordination that serves as a kind of democratic ideal. In my music, I try to treat each part as the expression of an individual, and this is manifested most directly in the rhythmic complexity of multiple, independent layers of musical time.

ND : In Old Virginny and Pastor Hick’s Farewell two pieces date back to the early thousands, and since composing them, you have written numerous works for the voice including the heart-rending song cycle “The Cold Pane” (championed by soprano Dawn Upshaw), and your one act opera “Payne Hollow” (interesting that both pieces have in their title a word homonymous to “pain”). To my ears, these two pieces from the 2013-2014, although still referencing Appalachian tradition, have much more distance from the more direct references of the two early pieces. Are you finding yourself traveling further into a future incarnation of the Appalachian sound world? What does that tradition mean to your work now as opposed to 10 years ago?

SJ : Appalachian folk traditions remain very important to me, but I’ve tried, self-consciously, to explore other ways of writing and other sources of inspiration since the early duos you’re singing on this program. You mention The Cold Pane: the second song in that cycle is a kind of hymn with heterophony, but there are other elements at play—sum-tone harmonies and very gestural text-painting—that somewhat obscure the reference. Other songs in that cycle explore heterophony and canon, but in a melodic, timbral, and harmonic context not suggestive of folksong. The homophone titles—The Cold Pane and Payne Hollow—were definitely intentional! Both works are on texts by Wendell Berry about death, and were written back-to-back. I’d love to do a third Berry piece at some point with “pain” in the title, to round things out.

After consciously moving away from folksong reference in my work, I’m now engaging more directly than ever with Appalachian folksong. My new piece for solo baritone saxophone, The Carolina Lady, was composed exclusively using the audio of folksinger Dillard Chandler’s 1967 recording of “The Carolina Lady.” The composition takes the form of a transcription of audio transformed through various means—stretching, compressing, looping, transposing, etc. Paradoxically, I believe this direct engagement with material I have previously imitated only indirectly has led to a music that is less derivative and more personal. If I’m traveling toward a future incarnation of the Appalachian sound world, it’s one in which there is a deeper engagement with both the underlying structures of the folksong tradition, as well as with the fleeting sonic details that often elude transcription. To me, now as before, the Appalachian tradition means richness, complexity, and singing with heart.

ND : Two questions in one. You have written so many wonderful works for the voice- what is it that drew you to the voice as a young composer, and still today? Additionally, you seem to have developed a close collaboration with three gifted sopranos: Lucy Dhegrae (of Contemporaneous, also your wife!), Mary Bonhag (of Duo Borealis), and of course Dawn Upshaw. Has your approach to composition changed in writing for each of these unique voices? What has collaborating with each of these singers brought to your music?

SJ : As a young composer, I was drawn to the voice because of the unique opportunity it provides to say something concrete (via language). My first vocal work was an anti-war song cycle. As you point out, since then I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with many gifted sopranos, yourself included! The wonderful thing about writing for voice is that each person, and thus each instrument, is unique. In writing for the three women you mention, my approach was always to listen to each sing, and try to discern what is unique about their artistry and how their voice likes to move. In that sense, my approach hasn’t changed, but over I’ve learned much about the voice.

It was Mary Bonhag’s love of folk music that first led me to explore the folk traditions of Kentucky when I began writing Pastor Hicks’ Farewell. She and Evan Premo have performed my music more than anyone, so from them I’ve also learned how beautifully performers’ interpretations can deepen with time. Lucy Dhegrae has taught me a lot about the mechanics of the voice, as well as its relationship to body and spirit. By virtue of our close professional and personal relationship, I’ve been able to ask her to try out passages from work in progress, ask her questions about technique, pronunciation, and notation, and gain insight into how singers best learn and rehearse. It’s also very special to write love songs for your love! From Dawn Upshaw, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the communicative power of text, as well as a trust in the sometimes uncertain process of creating new work. She is a model of what a lifelong commitment to contemporary music and new challenges looks like. What has struck me repeatedly in working with her is her great humility and warmth. I am incredibly grateful to these three wonderful women for their impact on my life.

EVER A NEW CYCLE Interviews : Jonathon Kirk
November 2015

Jonathon KirkOn November 29th, Fonema Consort presents Nina Dante’s EVER A NEW CYCLE, a DCASE-supported concert of new song cycles by Pablo ChinJonathon Kirk, and Shawn Jaeger. In a 3-part interview series, Dante dives deep into the composers’ approach to the genre and their artistic vision. Part II: Jonathon Kirk and A Single Climb to a Line.

Nina Dante : You have now written two vocal works for me: the beautiful quartet Spirits and Elements in 2012  (which is actually when we first spoke about you writing a song cycle, I was so in love with that piece!), and now A Single Climb to a Line. In both of these pieces, you have writing in a meltingly beautiful style for the voice: highly melodic, yet very still; organic yet with a certain detachment from the activity of the instruments; generous in sound yet succinct in utterance. What role do you see the voice playing in these works, and what has influenced your vocal style? Do you see A Single Climb to a Line as a companion to Spirits and Elements, or something very new?

Jonathon Kirk : I approached the process of writing the vocal line much like Stein’s approach in Tender Buttons–as a continuous kind of fragmented sentence–resisting any strict adherence to set guidelines. Like Spirits and Elements, I was interested in the sensual–the kind of earthiness I adore in the vocal music of Charles Ives, Meredith Monk, Per Norgard, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen to name those few. This was an interesting point of departure for me–so many influences and ways to think about how I was writing spatial melodies. There was even some influence from the form of Kriti–the South Indian Carnatic style of devotional song. Certainly a connection to the past and something a bit new!

ND : So much of your work pays sincere homage to the natural world, so I was surprised by your choice of text to set for A Single Climb to a Line: extracts from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons  (Objects), whose abstract text is less about nature and more about the world of human objects and insecurities. Stein’s writing is inherently ambiguous, but I find that when singing your settings, a deeply moving interpretation (what I take to be your personal interpretation) suddenly becomes perfectly clear. What is your relationship with/attraction to Stein’s work, and what did you hope for in setting these texts?

JK : Yes, it is ambiguous, but certainly not unapproachable or difficult to form a relationship to. I grasp in Tender Buttons a strong overarching sense of nostalgia. I believe that Stein is inviting us here to form our own personal subjective reactions to these words and the images they invoke. While the language and rhythm of her text is certainly possible of so many interesting and experimental musical interpretations, I have put my energy in preserving the solitude of each word instead of focusing on phonemes, or chopped vowels, fricatives, and such.

In this way, I worked in larger sections of free-floating meter–very much inspired by Charles Ives–slower moving forms that I learned about in works such as Like a Sick Eagle or The Housatonic at Stockbridge.

I also felt it was important to read Stein’s texts that were consistent with the way she described these early writings, as “narration,” “description” and “sentences”–never in terms of any meaning or contrived structure. For a composer this is freeing in a way that I find satisfying–a meditation on the rhythmic patterns and melodic contour of the phrases. When I was in the midst of working on Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights last year (composing music and sound design for director Kelly Howe’s production), I began reading some of Virgil Thomson’s reflections on his settings of Stein’s text. Thomson articulates something about Stein that I found so spot-on and reassuring–that with her textual meanings “jumbled and syntax violated” made the words “shockingly present.” I think many composers and singers would agree that this conjures what Thomson describes as, “a minimum of temptation toward the emotional conventions” of the words. Wrapping her words in a highly melodic context allowed me to reflect on my own relationship with the way I use language everyday.

ND : I was very glad when you told me that you would be using live electronics for this piece. Spirits and Elements included a tape part consisting of deep boomings and cosmically high pitches… an ultimately organic environment evoking the natural world. You often work with electronics, and to my knowledge, almost exclusively paying homage to nature in some manner (for instance your Cryoacoustic orbCicadamusik). In light of the previous question, what role do the live electronics play in this piece whose textual themes revolve more around the mundane human world? What sort of environment will the electronics evoke, or do they act more as a third voice in this piece?

JK : My use of electronics varies so greatly from piece to piece. I would say that in this work, it allows the strictly notated ideas in the score to scatter and to come alive more–meaning that the live processing of both the cello and the voice add an unpredictable element to the surface textures of the piece. The cello’s timbre is removed and then thrown back through the speakers–yes, maybe becoming a type of third voice. But I think the primary aim of this piece was to create sound layers in the composition that would not be possible with only two musicians.

EVER A NEW CYCLE Interviews : Pablo Chin
November 2015

Pablo ChinOn November 29th, Fonema Consort presents Nina Dante’s EVER A NEW CYCLE, a DCASE-supported concert of new song cycles by Pablo Chin, Jonathon Kirk, and Shawn Jaeger. In a 3-part interview series, Dante dives deep into the composers’ approach to the genre and their artistic vision. Part I: Pablo Chin and Mythologies.

Nina Dante : We have worked together for a long time, and your music has meant very much to me: it was your Solo es real la niebla in 2011 that exploded my love of performing new music. What a thrilling experience to train my voice to do things it didn’t know it was capable of, to expand my vision of beauty and music, and to realize art that required my full creative and mental force! I am curious what it is like from a composer’s perspective to work with a performer over such a long period of time. To what extent does your knowledge of my instrument and interests have an effect on what you choose to write? How does this collaboration manifest in Mythologies?

Pablo Chin : First of all, there is no greater joy for me to know that what I do, what I believe in and what has transformed my understanding of life and my life itself has the power to transform other people’s life for better (hopefully not for worse!). As much as I tremendously enjoy working with “specialists” in new music to whom you do not have to explain what a certain notation means or how to perform certain “extended technique,” working with musicians who have never performed a “jet whistle” or who have never sung in vocal fry, or played a multiphonic, and overall who did not know how to fit these new sounds within a coherent discourse or experiential format, seeing them taking the challenge and feeling rewarded afterwards; that for me gives lots of meaning to composing music that at times can raise doubts about how it contributes to the world.

Returning to your question, it is difficult to express how your voice and our relatively long-term collaboration have changed the course of my compositional language. It inevitably makes me think of Berio-Berberian. After so many works tailored to your voice, capabilities and expressive urges, Mythologies posed a very difficult challenge: what else is there to discover about your voice?! More than trying to challenge you this time, I am trying to reflect on our previous collaboration through this piece. So it borrows materials from previous works for you and set them in a different context and different formal designs.

World premiere of Chin’s “(in)armonia: motetes”, with Voix de Stras’

ND : As you know, this concert celebrates the song cycle, and is designed as a platform to welcome in some new incarnations of the genre. To what extent did the concept of the traditional song cycle shape your piece? How does it compare to our traditional conception of what a song cycle is?

PC : The most concrete way in which the song cycle found its way into Mythologies is that the text is set in a more transparent way in comparison to previous works where words are taken apart into phonemes, or in which made-up language is used (Como la leyenda de Tlön for which you invented the language!). So far two pieces from a cycle of four pieces were completed, so in that sense, by existing as a unity these pieces relate to the song cycle. The text of Mythologies consists of extracts from the dialogues of the three witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The witches speak in verse, so in this way the piece is consistent with traditional song cycles in terms of their use of poetic texts; but different in that each piece is meant to deliver a conversation between the three witches, rather than using a poetic source with a single narrator/point of view.

Boschiana Trio

Recording Chin’s “Boschiana” (January 2014)

ND : Quite a number of your pieces deal with legends/myths (Como la leyenda de Ixquiq, Como la leyenda de Tlön, Como la leyenda de la gran muralla china), and if not a legend, they are usually based on clear and archetypal stories (Music for the Hedgehog in the Fog, Echoes of the Steppenwolf, Retrato del Gran Pájaro Feo). This new cycle Mythologies is among them, drawing on texts from the witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I would be curious to know what – in a post-serial, post-narrative musical environment of increasing complexity (also characteristic of your style)- initially drew you to using stories as inspiration for your work? How do you bring out the theatricality and narrative of these stories in your music?

PC : In Costa Rica I grew up listening to legends and now I understand legends are forms to create cultural bonds. However, for me these pieces you mention depart from concrete, simple concepts after which a more complex, sophisticated language can be applied without loosing touch with a more graspable foundation. The closer I come to the theatrical (especially since our collaboration and of course Fonema Consort) the more I find in these pieces fertile ground to let drama emerge. The stories I choose tell me more about how could I build a piece (they suggest approaches to form and structure) than about to represent something (a feeling, ideal, story). I must confess sometimes I envy writers (quite the opposite of for example Alejo Carpentier, one of my favorite writers, who really wanted to be a composer…and who actually left great sources of musicological work in his native Cuba).

7 Studies Premiere

Dante gives the world premiere of Chin’s “7 Studies on Chapter 34”

ND : Mythologies is part of your first chamber opera (in)armonia (excerpt here), which you have been writing for two years. We are gearing up to premiere a larger new section of the opera at the Ear Taxi festival in October 2016. Can you describe the opera itself, and how this trio fits into the larger work? I am guessing that no one dies of tuberculosis…

PC : The opera is slowly taking shape and finding its own way to develop as an organic creature (I really like to think of musical works as living creatures to whom we (composers) must listen to in order to know what they want to be!). What I can say now is that the figure of Julio Cortázar is central to it, since most of the texts used in the sections already composed comes from Rayuela (Hopscotch), even when the texts are citations in the novel from other writers. Now I think that Cortázar represents the general figure of the artistic creator in this opera (so he may be a mirror of my own persona), and the witches in these songs I relate to the figure of muses in Greek mythology; or of hunting voices such as sirens, which I use in other sections of the opera.

Oh, and nobody dies of tuberculosis…I am thinking of crucifixion since I’m turning 33, hmm.

Photo credits: Thomas Crosse and Marc Perlish

October 2015
Nina Dante interviews composer Chris Mercer on Octoid for pianist and 3 assistants


Nina Dante : Your works often involve electronics, so I find it interesting that this piece revolves around finding acoustic means (i.e. three assisting manipulating the innards of the piano) to extend the abilities of a traditional instrument, a role that electronics would “normally” play. Why did you chose to take this path for Octoid? Beside the obvious, how does the final result differ from using electronic means?

Chris Mercer : At the time I wrote Octoid (2003-4), I was trying to reconcile a computer music mindset with a “notational” mindset.  I was wedding a sonic sensibility gained from staring at spectral and waveform displays with quasi-serial combinatorial strategies; deterministic, grid-oriented rhythmic operations; layered parametric thinking in the instrumental writing.  Nowadays I really do think like a computer musician.  That means, among other things, that I conceive of pitch as a subset of “spectrum,” not as a central organizational category, and I don’t think of rhythm in terms of a grid (or if I do, it’s in terms of a millisecond- or sample-resolution grid whose units are not assumed to be appreciable as a “beat”).  So this piece differs from purely electroacoustic work in that it has a lot of pitch-based and “rhythmic grid” thinking.  It also has a notion of musical “gesture” partly adapted from the language of New Complexity.

Maybe you could call what I was doing Lachenmannian in the sense of musique concrète  instrumentale, but it lacked Lachenmann’s critique, and that’s a crucial distinction.  I was really going back before Lachenmann to the musique concrète source, i.e. the concept of a “syntax of sound objects” pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer in his wax disc and tape compositions in the 40s and 50s.  So despite its acoustic realization and its exacting notation, Octoid has a central organizational concept that originates in electroacoustic music.  [I wrote an article in 2003 on this very concept in reference to another idealistic quartet of mine.]

The result is, perhaps paradoxically, less naturalistic and more “controlled” than most of my electroacoustic work.  In computer music, I tend to explore and reveal things about the underlying nature of sound objects.  The compositional processes in Octoid, by contrast, tend to impose lots of constraints that frustrate the natural development of the sonic material, cutting sounds off in midstream, switching abruptly between sound objects, extending textures or actions uncomfortably.  It seems I’m nicer to my material in pure computer music!

ND : The title of this piece Octoid conjures so many interesting images. The first that comes to my mind of course is an octopus, but I could also see this being performed as a tyrannical showcase, manipulators controlling the pianist or vice versa. How did you envision the role of the pianist versus the role of the three manipulators?

CM : If anything, the keyboardist has actually relinquished a lot of control, no longer being able to completely shape the sounding result and being forced to count on someone else to “be there” on time.  The only tyrant here is the damn click track!  In that respect, the keyboardist is on the same ruthless treadmill as everyone else.

I think the piece ends up as a mixture of a keyboardist-plus-assistants model and a four-distinct-players model.  Much of the time, the piece is a legitimate quartet with separate lines of activity.  A lot of the performative fun occurs, however, when there’s a lot of assisting going on—the keyboardist collaborates with the other players to produce a sort of ever-shifting prepared piano.  That’s when it’s the most like an octopus.  So you’re watching this creature splitting into parts and then reforming into an eight-armed beast…and lots of states in between.

ND : Could you tell me about the many objects that the three assistants will be using inside the piano? Did you choose them in groupings to create specific categories of sounds, and if so, what significance does each category have within the piece as a whole?

CM : That’s right, I was trying to come up with a set of sound categories that could be physically manipulated with clear sounding results.  I wanted to physicalize the whole process of developing gestural material.   Hopefully, the listener can really hear the parametric knobs and sliders moving as the performers manipulate the various playing implements.  Things like buzzers, fans, metal/glass vibrating against the strings, etc. really announce their physicality, and you can hear a lot of grain in speed or pressure manipulations with those devices.  I think it helps to make the gestural syntax clearer when you can hear the parametric manipulation in such a raw way.  Each time a sound category returns, it takes on a new physical profile, and the global effect is that of gnarled and twisted gestural “sentence structures.”

ND : What inspired you to write this piece? Solo piano is of course a classic genre, but then add three assistants dedicated to manipulating the guts of the piano… you have something entirely new.

CM : I think that “something entirely new” is exactly what I was going for, as opposed to a comment on or development of traditional solo piano music.  To some extent, the idea grew out of a piece I had done the previous year for prepared piano.  In that piece, every single key is prepared.  I learned a lot about the inside of the piano doing that piece (!), and I realized that it might be interesting if you had someone changing the preparations during the actual piece.  So it’s really like an extension of the old prepared piano idea.  But in the course of creating the piece, I began to think of the four players as a real quartet, at least some of the time, and not just assistants.

It’s true there’s an odd little “piano six hands” moment at the keyboard that feels like a bit of a wink at the audience—“Hey, it’s a piano piece after all!”  But even that moment was primarily about getting the multi-handed beast to reform in a surprising way, sort of ticking off another practical combination of hands and gestures.

2014-2015 Season

April 2015
James Dillon on his Music

Dillon Trio

Dillon, Dante and Schulmeister in Minnesota – 2014

Fonema Consort’s history with visionary Scottish composer James Dillon began a year ago, when soprano Nina Dante and double bassist Kathryn Schulmeister traveled to Minnesota to work with him on his fiery duo A Roaring Flame. During this visit, the two performers interviewed Dillon on the piece and his music as a whole, which we are releasing in anticipation of our April 15 Chicago concert with Dillon.

Nina Dante : Who was A Roaring Flame written for, and what brought about its creation?

James Dillon : I worked a lot in the early 80s with a group called Lontano, and the director was a Cuban lady called Odaline de la Martinez and she asked me to write a piece for her bass player who was the principal bass player with the royal opera house, but he liked to play new music so he was an unusual orchestral player in that sense. And Josephine Nendick was the singer and she had a long career (she was really at the end of her career at that time) but she had worked a lot in the 50s with Jean Barraqué. She recorded things like Séquence with Barraqué. She worked with Boulez and Maderna in the 60s. But the piece was part of a planned cycle, a small triptych of pieces, all written for three different ensembles. Come Live with Me was written for a group called Suoraan; and the third was Who do you Love. But I planned them as a cycle in the beginning. They were all written around the notion of erotic texts. So Come Live with Me was a setting of an extract from the Song of Songs and Who Do You Love returns again [as in A Roaring Flame] to another Gaelic text, a Gaelic love song.

Kathryn Schulmeister : The bass part of A Roaring Flame is virtuosic, technically challenging, and full of unique sounds. What were your thoughts when you were writing for this instrument?

James DillonJD :
Well, probably on two levels. One, just the nature of the instruments itself. It’s this massive resonant
thing, this big box with strings drawn across it and horse hair and rosin and all those noisy aspect of it. So I’m thinking of it acoustically to some extent, of course. It was a request so I had to really think about what I’m going to do with the instrument, but its was also part of the way I was thinking about classical instruments at that time. I was trying to find a way to bring something to the instruments which was being denied by classical training, so I was really looking for something was that closer to a vernacular tradition than a classical tradition. And I wanted also something that had an intensity to it, and an intensity that didn’t let up, that was changing, that was alway in flux. And so hence I planned the piece around these sections which were extrapolated from the text itself. I cut the text up and I made this insert of a poem in Provençal. Once I laid out the structure of the text, it was a question of the textures around it. I wanted to maintain the same density of change from start to finish. Sometimes the changes are really big textural changes, other times they are just small nuanced micro events. But it was really just maintaining this onslaught of sound, in that sense unclassical.

ND : Since these are mainly new sounds, and since at the time you wrote them you wouldn’t have heard them on a bass before, how did you find the sounds? Were you experimenting with the instrument, were you creating sounds in your mind?

JD : One of the things I never do is I never consult players. I don’t really want my imagination restricted in that sense. Players will tend to be a little bit conservative. I’d rather take a risk that’s impossible, but do what I need to do. If you look at works from that period like SpleenCome Live With Me is slightly different, I think I begin to play with a certain refinement in Come Live with Me – but in, Crossing Over, I’m playing with a kind of crudity, a deliberate crudity, a thing whereby if something’s impossible (I mean physically impossible) on the instrument, then I’m interested in what are the solutions to get around it, something that you can’t notate, so all I can do it circumscribe a space, draw the parameters around it and then say To physically achieve that is impossible, so what do you do? I guess that’s what I mean by crudity. I was curious about that transaction between me and the performer, how we come to that thing within this continuum, within an intense space.

ND : I know that that’s an element in the double bass part of A Roaring Flame, but of course you can’t help but noticing in this piece, that the voice part, there’s something so much more familiar about it, something rooted deeply in folk tradition. And we are curious why there is such a departure from what we are familiar with in the bass, contrasted with this more traditional voice part. Still very complex and difficult obviously, but something more recognizable.

JD : It seems materially the connection is tenuous at time. The connection for me is one of sound. When I talk about that kind of vernacular, when I’m looking for a certain rough sound, I think that’s something the two parts share in a way. Although you’ve got this sort of crazy bass part swirling around the voice, and the voice makes these allusion to a folk tradition in a way, the connection was to me that actually you don’t sing it with vibrato, it’s in a non classical form of expressivity. It’s a different kind of expressivity. It’s a rougher a more direct thing. So that was the connection between the two, but there are undoubtedly some incredibly virtuosic parts in the voice. A lot of the material keeps returning (particularly in the Invocation part) to something that’s more singable, shall we say. I don’t’ mind taking risks, but there are certain risks I won’t take in the voice.

ND : What are these risks?

JD : One of the things I really don’t like, mostly, there are one or two exceptions, is the kind of vocal music that was written in the integral serial period in the 50s, which is all these leaps everywhere.

ND : As in the Boulez tradition?

JD : Well, one of the exceptions is Le marteau sans maître, which I think is a masterpiece. But there is a lot of really bad writing in that period, just ignoring the nature of the voice, and based on tempered tuning, which makes no sense because if you are singing in tone rows and your pitch is not absolutely digitally right on, what the point? Singers’ relationship with pitch is different from an instrumentalists’. And every singer has their own particular way of dealing with pitch. For me, all this means that I’m probably closer to a lyrical tradition than people suspect.

ND : I would agree. Something I love about your writing for the voice is that you don’t try to ignore the cultural role the voice has played as an expressive force, a narrative and dramatic force. Was this a conscious choice for you when you decided to write for the voice?

JD : Yes, I think so. There is one exception. I wrote a piece for solo voice called Evening Rain and that was probably as far as I’ve pushed the voice. I’m really treating the voice like an instrument in that piece. Its a very onomatopoeic piece, the voice actually ends imitating the rain, making small vocal sounds. And it’s not only onomatopoeic, its pantheistic. Its the image I had of a singer who is singing in a landscape and then becomes the landscape.

ND : Enthusing with her environment?

JD : It starts out imitating small droplets of rain and it ends up the same way except even smaller sounds. Really, you need a radio mic to pick up these small sounds. The first section starts with these isolated consonants, and again the form is a kind of arc. It starts with the rain and in the end its the rainwater running off a building into a drain. And in between she goes through these various vocalization, but the vocalization (the actual singing) turns into onomatopoeia, gradually. That was a piece where I really treat the voice instrumentally in a way. If you look at all the range there’s a top E and a low F.

KS : Could you explain a little bit about the structure of A Roaring Flame? Working on the piece we noticed there’s these clearly defined sections and returning material, and we are wondering how everything relates to each other, how do we get from the beginning to the end of the piece?

JD : Well its difficult to talk about the structure in this piece because its based on the way I cut the text up and the repetition. I created a kind of form from the thing by inserting a glossolalia [a short poem in Provençal between two halves of a Gaelic Invocation], but apart from that, I suppose there’s a kind of ritornello in it, it keeps returning again to this invocation. Meanwhile like I said, this turbulence is happening around [in the bass], which is constantly changing. So this sectional aspect of it was based on the text. There’s no A-B-A or anything like that, but it is that kind of feeling at the end where I really wanted to… I mean the title A Roaring Flame, I didn’t want to represent a roaring flame, I wanted to bring it into being. So when I say to you [Kathryn] at the end that you have to catch fire, be wild, I really want to bring something into being, not just represent it. So its not symbolic in that sense. That kind of Heideggerian sense, its something that has an imminence, that just bursts forth. Something that’s latent that reveals itself. Heidegger uses this word Lichtung, which means clearing.

KS : So do you think that the section 11 [the last section of A Roaring Flame] for the bass should really be something that transcends the piece at the end, different from how I approach the rest of the piece?

JD : For sure. All of a sudden the instrument’s caught fire, everything’s going up in flames. Really to bring that off it has to be done without any inhibitions. It has to be done with a kind of abandon, almost like the Whirling Dervishes.

ND : Kathy and I have spent a lot of time discussing the relationship throughout piece for the voice and the bass. You told us earlier in the rehearsal how you envisioned the relationship and what inspired you on this island [the image of a singer throwing her voice into a strong wind]. Can you tell us a little of that on the record?

JD : I don’t’ want to push that too much, because in part, rehearsing it again with you two, a lot of things came back that informed what I was doing. It was really in the mid 70s I was really beginning to formulate what I think I wanted to do. Up to that point it was very abstract for me, making this transition from playing in bands to the written tradition itself. I went through various phases, most of them completely mentally lost, where I was actually teaching myself serial technique, for example and feeling very distant from it. Whilst I could to some extent master the technique, it meant nothing to me, it was just kind of exercise in abstraction. And it wasn’t until after that I got the confidence again then to return to the sound world I knew, but I was bringing it from one world to another world. And I suppose the person who really gave me the license to do that was Xenakis. Listening to Xenakis in the 70s, I began to realize that in fact the relationship between harmony, timbre and pitch can be a lot more complex. Then I realized I had to be more detailed with what I was doing. You don’t just write and E followed by an Eb followed by an F#. That its actually where is that C, in what register is it, where is it on an instrument? A C# on bass and the identical C# on a piano is the same pitch but in vastly different sound worlds. So that’s when I began to realize that I really needed to think much more acoustically if I was going to do this in a way that I had any control over. Xenakis unlocked something for me in my mind. I wasn’t interested in the style of Xenakis, I was interested in the fact that one of the things Xenakis does in book Formalized Music, is he goes back to the Greek and then retraces an alternative history to himself from the Greeks, which ignored most of Gregorian Chant and the Baroque. He stays with acoustics in the vernacular tradition. And that gave me the confidence to … You know, I started at the age of 9 playing the bagpipes. Your ear is not the same if you’re doing scales. And I think some of the least developed ears are often pianists, because they ever need to think about anything like turning or intonation. And those tiny little things are music in the end. The smallest nuance the smallest transition. If you listen to Heifetz, the first thing that strikes you is the extraordinary right hand this guy’s got. Every time he puts that bow on, its just this cutting sounds, its so confident. And then you begin to listen to the speed of his vibrato, its a very small, fast vibrato that he plays. And all those things accumulate into ah, its Heifetz playing. So it was really going into the grain of sound again that gave me the clue on how to progress in terms of doing something else. I’ve always had a slightly problematic relationship with the avant garde anyways, because I don’t come out of this tradition, I come out of a folk tradition. I think one of the problems that we have here in America is the way these things are cut up in the schools of music into these boxes. And its completely inauthentic.

ND : I think it interesting that you come from a rock and folk tradition but now you’re the standard bearer for New Complexity and the kinds of things that young composers in university are studying and trying to imitate or take further.

JD : Of course, but that just shows you the stupidity of categories and their lack of subtlety. You know, first of all there was no such thing as New Complexity. There was a musicologist called Richard Toop, an Australian, who created the notion by interviewing four post-Ferneyhough composers, who couldn‘t stand each other anyways, we never even talked. The relationship was the notation, the complexity of the notation, but we all reached that point through completely different paths. And this is the problem now. I was teaching in Stanford a couple weeks ago, where this things is now becoming industrialized. New Complexity is now becoming an industry, and the kids are poring through the scores, mimicking the gestures, mimicking the figures. One of the things I try to do is break that down in a young composer, and say you need to find your own voice. Everyone mimics someone at some point, but you’ve got to have the courage to shed it. Look more inside and trust your own judgement and instincts. Some composers want to create acolytes, who go out in the world and reinforce the fact that they are godfather.

KS: Yesterday you brought up Indian singers and vocal ornamentation, and it made me think about the lack of oral tradition in classical music training. As a composer and you said you think about the acoustics and sound world of everything. How do you reconcile this culture we have of reading text [scores] rather than relying on a detailed and specific oral tradition?

Dillon ShowJD : If you look at it, we’re talking about classical tradition. What is the definition of classical tradition. If one looks at the definition of other classical traditions, like the Hinudstani or the gamelan tradition of Indonesia, what makes the Western classical tradition unique is the text. In gagaku they have a tablature, but it’s not a notation because it leaves so much to the chosen players. So one of the things that fascinated me when I moved away from the vernacular tradition was the text itself. But it ran parallel with other interests, much earlier. One of them was Kabbalah, the relationship between Kabbalah and hermeneutics. The Hebrew scripts can be read both as letters and numbers, which is the way they can embed secret codes or symbolic information, sort of multi-layer. So one of the things that when I turned again to the idea of working with notation… one is acutely aware that one will make sacrifices, and that those sacrifices are something that – you use the words reconciliation which is a word I don’t like, because I really like contradiction, messy things. So I knew that I was hoping that I was only temporarily losing certain things, that I could find a way back where I was working with notation but also something that had multiple readings. By that I mean layers of reading whereby some of them could mock the idea of spontaneity coming almost from a highly structured position, rather than the other way around. So I knew the risks, but I’m also fascinated by the way that the western classical tradition has developed. Because if you look at the other classical traditions, they probably haven’t changed in a thousand years. You know, I studied Indian rhythm in 1971 with a lady called Benita Gupta, she was a sitarist. I got a contact and I went to contact her and asked her to teach me about tala and how it worked. And she said you have to play, which was the last thing I wanted to hear. I mean she was a sitarist but she taught me tabla. She took me to a place where they sold serious instruments – there is a big Indian community in London, so it’s possible to find good instruments- and I would go every Saturday morning to have lessons with her. And after 3 or 4 months she took more into her confidence more and told me her own history. She told me that she started sitar when she was 9 years old, but she wasn’t allowed to touch the instrument until she was 14. She had to learn to sing the entire repertoire. She said it took about 18 month for her fingers to find their way around the instrument, because the music was in her body.

KS : And its all completely by ear, they imitate.

JD: Right, so it some ways it threw me this, but it was such a beautiful image for me, this notion of music being in the body. And I suppose also that made me aware that if you make this transition toward notation, if you try to be detailed with things that the question then emerges of just how detailed are you. Like was talking about, the accumulation of small nuances make music. I knew that I wanted to access other things, like putting noise into the whole equation, but I wasn’t quite sure yet. I knew how to become more detailed, but I wasn’t quite sure what it meant for the reading of the text. And for me it meant taking a big risk. It wasn’t until I was working with good musicians that I realized I could modify things and see what works and what doesn’t work, so up to that point it’s a kind of informed guess work. But I was and still am fascinated by – I talked yesterday briefly about the editions of the Beethoven Sonatas by that great Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel. He died in 1951 but he was the first to record all the Beethoven sonatas in the 1930s and he was also a famous teacher. He made an edition of all 32 Beethoven sonatas which were published in 4 volumes, but he discouraged his students from using his editions. He made them for pedagogical reasons. But he always – and was the first person to do this because it was unknown in the 1930s – would tell his students to find the Urtexts. That became fashionable in the 60s but it was something new in the 30s. But if you see these Schnabel editions, you get a line of a sonata and the rest of the page is notes, different ways of looking at layers in the music, different ways of interpreting it. Again, he insisted his students didn’t use his editions, because it was his, and he said next week I changed my mind [about the interpretation], it was a fluid thing. Talking about New Complexity, Schnabel probably influenced me more than anybody else in terms of actually realizing just how many ways you can deal with text and subtext and sub-subtext and that kind of fascinated me. So I knew I would lose something but I knew I was gaining something. It was like stepping through the rabbit hole and coming up in another world.

ND: Speaking of text, I would actually like to ask you about the texts of A Roaring Flame, because there are actually 3 texts: the Invocation, the Provencal and then this beautiful quote at the beginning of the peace from the lament of Liaden “A roaring flame has dissolved this heart of mine” that doesn’t appear, the singer never speak this. I curious how you came upon the texts, why these texts spoke to you, why you needed them, and of course the significance of the quote at the beginning.

JD : I started with the quote but for some reason I never really wanted to set it. I knew the title was in there somewhere and it was pretty obvious in the end what it was going to be. So I had a kind of mystical image of the moth entering the flame whereby it surrenders totally to the inevitable. Most of the text, all of the texts I’ve set- there is one exception- but most of the texts are anonymous. I like ancient texts, you don’t know who the author is. I’m not destroying someone’s poetry. You know I have thing that poetry is a music in itself. I just don’t get why one would want to set it, you usually destroy it. The Carmina Gadelica, which was compiled by Alexander Carmichael. I’ve set a lot of texts from this. It’s a collection of invocations, prayers and folk recipes. Carmichael in the late 19th century decided that the gaelic tradition was being lost. He was a self-taught anthropologist and toured the islands visiting mostly women at home who had these old invocation and prayers. And its in 7 volumes. My grandmother used to make “mouth music” with no text, she comes from that Gaelic tradition. For me, it was also something in my roots. I knew the moment that I made this transition toward the classical tradition I had to bring something authentic to it, something authentic to me, and so it was really just working out how to do that.

KS : You were saying that you’ve been sort of inappropriate categorized.

JD : I think its lazily categorized

KS : We are wondering how A Roaring Flame fits within the body of work that you’ve done up to now. Also, have you ever considered revising this instrumentation?

ND : Right, what retrospectively your thoughts on the piece are, now from this view.

JD : Well, the latter question, no I haven’t thought about going back to the instrumentation, although I think its an instrumentation that works. I don’t really think about my past work much. I am conscious that from work to work I like to make small modifications, at micro-levels that I’m experimenting with. So I think the work grows in a more organic way in that sense. But I don’t like to look back too much. The other thing I’m conscious of is that I don’t like to repeat myself, so I like to just somehow just move on. So its a journey in a way for me. I suppose that if I see my work in any way at all, it’s more like a journal entry, and I’m not trying to build anything in particular although I do get involved in these large cycles. And I guess one of the multiple things about the way I work is that things are either in cycles of series, there are very few single works. It began as an unconscious thing and then I realized actually why I was doing that. And I realized that it was something that I brought up earlier- a dissatisfaction with the concert format. So I began to make cycles where the hope was that the cycle would be the program. It sounds egotistical (there’s ego in there of course) but more to do with someone trying to maintain this notion of the concert being enchanting, it should be magical. I think the moment the audience steps into the space where they’re going to sit down, somethings going to happen and they should feel it, before anything is onstage. And its not stepping out of reality, its stepping into another reality. Which for me, is the essence of music anyway. I don’t mean that in an escapist way, which I suppose is also why I really wanted to keep an element of the vernacular in things. It feels more real to me.

Join James Dillon and Fonema Consort on April 15th for a public interview and concert.

Ancient Rites II with James Dillon
Wednesday, April 15
6:30pm | James Dillon Speaks on his Music
7:00pm | Concert
Constellation, 3111 N Western Ave, Chicago
Ticket $12 / $10

October 2014
New Adventures : Fonema Consort Embarks on 3rd Season

Fonema ConsortJoin Fonema Consort for our 3rd year of musical adventures! This season, we will explore the boundaries between voices and instruments, push the limits of theatricality in chamber music, and expand our frontiers with national and international travels.

Throughout the season, Fonema Consort will continue its rich collaboration with living composers, presenting new works by fascinating composers largely unknown to Chicago such as Francisco Guerrero, Marisol Jiménez, Oxana Omelchuk, Zesses Seglias; and Chicago’s own leading and emerging voices such as Juan Campoverde, Francisco Castillo Trigueros, Morgan Krauss, and Chris Mercer. The ensemble will also continue their collaboration with two of our generation’s most influential living composers, James Dillon and Julio Estrada.

Fonema Consort’s 2014-2015 season is punctuated by participation in festivals abroad and at home, corresponding to Fonema’s mission to expand our audience nationally and internationally. Appearances include a French tour with the vocal ensemble Voix de Stras’ (Strasbourg); performances in Mexico at the Festival Internacional de Chihuahua (Chihuahua), Festival Interfaz (Mexico City) and Visiones Sonoras (Morelia); and in Miami at the New Music Miami Festival. Help support our travels by participating in Fonema’s first fundraising campaign!

With the exploration of the minimal phoneme along the small forms of Anton Webern in “Microscopia”; the human voice at the roots of music’s origins with the fantasies of James Dillon and Julio Estrada in “Ancient Rites”; and the voice as a vehicle of language and pure sound to convey human emotions in “Love Songs”; and the crystallization of theater and music in “Opera Scenes” which features three fully staged operatic scenes, Fonema embarks on a third journey into the depths of today’s music. See the full season!

Visit our 2013-2014 Blog Archives

2013-2014 Season

May 2014
Composer Joan Arnau Pàmies on the return to symbolic titles and a shift in his work embodied in PALIMPSESTUS

Pamies2013_ColorSoprano Nina Dante interviews composer Joan Arnau Pàmies on several intriguing developments and characteristics in his newest work for Fonema, PALIMPSESTUS, which the ensemble will perform in Drawing Music on May 14th.

Nina Dante: Let’s start with the title of this piece. When you first sent me the score of PALIMPSESTUS, you told me that it was your first non-parametrical title for years. I find this intriguing, and reflected deeply in the music. Why the return to direct symbolism? Does this represent a parallel shift in your writing? Why palimpsestus?

Joan Arnau Pàmies: My interest in parameterization started quite early with my first piece for double bass [d(k_s)b], although it wasn’t until my duo for bass trombone and double bass [5(bt)_6(db)] that I started to concretize what “parameterization” meant to me. Quite frankly, I would say I have been writing the same piece since early 2012: what used to be a rudimentary practice became a more sophisticated compositional approach, but in essence, the nature of those pieces is very consistent throughout. After finishing [V(fl.ob.vln/c)IIIkl] for ensemble recherche, I felt I got to a point where I could have become a manneristic composer and kept perfecting the same piece for years. Fortunately, I decided to pack my bags with everything I had learned at the time and took my work to another direction, thus forcing myself to reevaluate certain aspects that I used to follow dogmatically (i.e., cohesiveness, unity, consistency of notation, etc). PALIMPSESTUS was my first attempt to explore composition beyond the intricacies of my earlier works and as such, the piece needed a title that represented that shift.

ND: Your treatment of the voice in this piece is absolutely unique. I’ve told you that when first performing the piece, I felt very primal, and thought of fire and mud and magic. Can you tell me what you were searching to create in the voice, and if you were consciously trying to find a more primal way of singing?

JAP: I don’t think I was trying to create something in particular at first. I do remember, however, that I wanted to write something primitive—the word “primitiu” (Catalan for primitive) appeared repeatedly in my sketches. That urge probably emerged after having written a long essay on my work and several structurally intricate pieces for months without a break—I was mentally exhausted but the need to write music was still very present. Somehow, such primitiveness became an underlying influence that led to a strong impact on the overall process of composition. Consequentially, the voice quickly moved under the umbrella of this idea.

ND: In the last movement of the piece, the voice drops away, and the bass begins what I can only describe as a song, reminiscent of jazz (which I also hear in the percussion throughout much of the piece!). How was this movement born in your mind, and what does it represent in the larger context of the piece?
JAP: PALIMPSESTUS was originally meant to explore a latent linearity, from the simplest possible form of parametrical organization (unison) to the interaction between a diversity of techniques. After having written two thirds of the piece, I felt utterly bored and I loathed both the predictability of my compositional process (that’s the price you pay when you’re trying to deliberately write something primal!) and the mashup of previously developed sounds that I had planned for the conclusion of the piece. So I ended up throwing away all the sketches that I was supposed to use at the ending, I picked the bass, and I recorded myself improvising on some ideas I had developed throughout the writing of the piece. I finally transcribed one of those recordings and used it as the last section in its entirety. I was quite fascinated by how natural the conclusion felt in relation to the rest of the piece, so I barely had to tweak what I had already written.

May 2014
Composer Mauricio Pauly on his music, vocal works and Fonema’s debut album

Soprano Nina Dante interviews composer Mauricio Pauly on his vocal writing and the experience of collaborating on Fonema Consort’s debut album “Pasos en otra calle”.

Mauricio Pauly, composer

Photo by Marc Perlish

Nina Dante: The vocal writing for Apertura del Becerro and Dust Unsettled are starkly different. In my mind, the melting lyricism of Apertura seems like a beautiful dream that the more distopian Dust Unsettled would have had. Could you tell me about your mindset and process while writing these pieces, and how they resulted in such disparate works?

Mauricio Pauly: The short answer would be that there is 9 years, 4 countries and a couple dozen pieces from Apertura to Dust Unsettled. But let’s try and see if I can squeeze out some detail….

At the time of Apertura, late 2002 to early 2003 I had been exposed to a much smaller and narrower musical and life experience. That being said, Dust Unsettled is by no means a typical piece of mine (in as much as I can be the judge of something that’s so immediate, so recent…) – it is in fact the first vocal work I have written since early 2004 when, immediately following Apertura, I wrote a soprano and string orchestra cycle using texts by Camilo José Cela. Although I truly like writing for voice and I have a good understanding of its potential and limitations, my taste for voice belongs in a place much closer to pop music than it does to contemporary music – this stands starkly in contrast with how I feel about (and how I practice) instrumental writing. Dust Unsettled is in fact a representation of how unsolved this issue is for me.

I like how you view the relationship between these two pieces…where Apertura is Dust Unsettled‘s utopia….Dust Unsettled wishes it was Apertura. That is partially true – the vocal part of the former perhaps wishes it had the supportive accompaniment of latter.  It is a good representation of my lopsided development!  The state of my vocal writing pretty much following on the steps of wherever I was in 2004 pulling and being pulled by 9 years of what to me feels like very strong changes and developments in my instrumental writing. But interestingly (and possibly by chance) this is true of the relationship between the texts as well.

ND: Speaking of texts, you use the poetry of Gabriel Montagné Láscaris-Comneno in both Apertura del Becerro and Dust Unsettled. His work is… unsettling. How did you come upon the work of this poet, what drew you to it, and why did you choose these particular texts?

MP: Gabriel is my oldest and closest friend – I have known him since we were children and we’ve been close since our early teens. His texts, naturally, resonate strongly with me – both aesthetically (choice of words, pacing, the odd grammar) and in terms of their subject matter. The combination of not knowing the details of the (certainly autobiographic) situations he’s addressing but knowing quite accutely the way in which he thinks and processes ideas, events, relationships allows me to make connections with my own personal experiences from a rather unique vantage point. From a practical standpoint, I use his texts because he gives me complete freedom in how I use them. I am free to reorganise them, truncate them, repeat bits and even ommit entire verses.  Also, I don’t have to bother with contacting publishers and other undesirable middle-men.

ND: Going back to writing for the voice, I’ve found that all composers have a very unique approach towards vocal writing: some reject the voice’s inherent protagonistic role and it’s tendency towards theater, others fully embrace these elements. What is your relationship to the voice, and how do you use or not use its native qualities in your work?

MP: In terms of orchestration the voice resists losing its auditory gestalt. That is, it cannot fully disappear within a compound sound – there’s always enough that remains separate and perceivable as a voice. As such, we can’t avoid to expect it to communicate verbally. Almost without exception, any noise or utterance has the potential (to the listener) to become a word…a word to become a phrase,..etc…and the whole thing to ‘mean’ something. Given the way in which I approach orchestration this is no small issue for me. Due to this and to my pop voice preferences, my tendency has been to present it in the foreground (as it will be in the foreground of the listener’s attention no matter how much placed in the background of my intended texture) and flowing between speech and melody.

On the other hand, I often work the instrumental part to support, sustain, preempt or echo the vocal inflections. That is to say…I don’t consider the above-described constraints symmetric. Instruments, and more specifically, instrumentally created compound sounds can be or refer to vocal sounds much more successfully than vocal sounds can refer to instrumental sounds. The former is potentially beautiful while the latter one is almost certainly silly and even ridiculous.

ND: Can you tell us a bit about your experience working with Fonema Consort and the Experimental Sound Studio on the recording of “Pasos en otra calle”? You came at the epicenter of our notorious Polar Vortex, do you think this arctic environment had any effect on the interpretation of your works on this album, on the parts of performers and yourself?

 MP: I had a wonderful time. The recording sessions were by no means easy – but the ensemble was well prepared, willing and open to experimentation and attentive to the real time collaboration with both me and Alex Inglizian the engineer.

On the day of the Polar Vortex at minus infinite degrees we recorded the instrumental trio. As everyone’s car got trapped in the snow or refused to start, the day began by Pablo going around the whole city picking up each member. The five of us, huddled in Pablo’s tiny car made it to the studio on time and we had a fantastic, productive and contradictorily warm session!

April 2014
Interview with Catherine Bolzinger, Director of Voix de Stras’

Soprano Nathalie Colas (a member of both Fonema Consort and Voix de Stras’) brings us this interview with director Catherine Bolzinger in anticipation of our upcoming joint project Merging Voices. In addition to her work with Voix de Stras’, Bolzinger is choir master of the Strasbourg Philharmonic orchestra and professor at the Music Conservatoire of Strasbourg.

Catherine BolzingerNathalie Colas: What is your artistic background?
Catherine Bolzinger: My first instrument is the harp. I studied music at the Conservatoire de Grenoble, and specialized in choral conducting with Bernard Tétu. I was then appointed head of choral activities at the Conservatoire National de Strasbourg. It was a great opportunity for me, because of the strong choral tradition in the Alsace region, and also because the Conservatoire was early on very innovative and forward-thinking in the field of contemporary music. I closely collaborated with Georges Aperghis, Ramon Lazkano and Pascal Dusapin amongst others while they were in residency at the Conservatoire, which deeply influenced my early professional years. It was then that I created Voix de Stras ‘, as it had been a dream of mine for a long time, and there was no professional chamber vocal ensemble in the region. Early on the ensemble was invited to perform by the Opéra National du Rhin, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg and Les Percussions de Strasbourg. It was the beginning of a great ride! In 2003, I was appointed chorus master of the Orchestre Philharmonique, which I am still today, along my activities at the Conservatoire.
In the recent years, I have been fortunate to participate in projects abroad, such as collaboration with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, invited by Kent Nagano. I am very pleased to make my first steps in the United States this year.

NC: How do you know composers Ivan Solano and Clara Olivares? Have you ever worked with them and in what circumstances?
CB: I have known Ivan Solano since 2007, during his last year of his composition studies in Strasbourg in the class of Ivan Fedele. Voix de Stras’ premiered his pièce de concours (graduating piece). In 2009, VdS recorded its first self-titled album and one of Ivan’s pieces was featured on the CD. He was also the artistic director of the project. He then wrote us a piece for three male voices, and Kyogen for 6 female voices is the latest piece that the ensemble commissioned him. His musical writing is very soft, very poetic; it installs a very particular atmosphere.
Clara Olivares used to sing in the choir of the Conservatoire, so I have also known her for a long time. She then studied composition and I was then introduced to her music, which I was right from the start very interested in. VdS commissioned her for the first time in 2012. Nebula is our second collaboration. Her writing is intense; it contains pain, drama. Both pieces end in a cry.

NC: What does the collaboration with living composers bring you?
CB: The most important for me is the pleasure of meeting a living person. The perception that I can have of their personality completes the musical image of the score. It is a nice reprieve from the sometimes solitary nature of conducting. Finally, the fact that we are living in the same time period allows me to feel myself concerned with the issues they address in their art. I can share and relate to their imagination.

NC: How is writing music for vocal ensemble specific?
CB: A vocal ensemble first encounters specific problems regarding intonation: the singer must hear the note before singing it. He/she must find in the musical writing the elements that will help him/her stabilize the intonation, for example harmonic or contrapuntal relationships; he/she must be constantly connected to other singers or instrumentalists for that specific purpose. The different ways vocal parts are notated can either ease or complicate this issue and the composer needs to bear this is mind in order for the group to attain accuracy through connection between the singers. The other specificity is the text, which can carry meaning or not. The singer can be alternatively or simultaneously actor or musician. Finally, as in writing for instrumental ensemble, we encounter issues related to managing the strengths and frailties of a group as one entity, as well as the agogical aspect of a piece, which allows a meaningful and integrated performance.

NC: This is your first trip to the United States. What are your expectations and your desires regarding this project, Voices Merging?
CB: I am very proud of presenting concerts in Chicago as I know of its bubbly and enthusiastic music scene. I am looking forward to meeting audience members and performers alike, and observing the way they approach music, whether from the stage or from the seats. It is also a great pleasure to work with Fonema Consort because they are hyper-dynamic, demanding, and uncompromising on the artistic content – it is both enjoyable and motivating! I’m sure the collaborative rehearsals will be very interesting for all of us as the way we musicians work the music is deeply rooted in our cultures.  We will need to finely tune our voices and our minds!

April 2014
Pablo Chin on the creation of Fonema’s debut album, Pasos en otra calle

Fonema_Recording_Session_with_MauricioIt has always struck me that Mauricio Pauly and I took coincidentally similar paths in our compositional careers. We left our native Costa Rica at different times but around the same age, both to study composition in Miami. We later continued our journeys up north, in Boston and Chicago, respectively. Now Mauricio lives in Manchester, UK, while I settled down in Chicago, but we have coincided again multiple times in international festivals, such as the Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt in 2010 and 2012. Our music has also matured along the way. Fonema Consort’s debut album (partially funded by the Costa Rican Association of Musical Authors, ACAM, through their “Dotación Musical” grant), bears witness to this maturing process, and is comprised of the vocal chamber works Pauly and I have written.

The pieces on this CD showcase a wide range of texts and imagery, from references to Hieronymus Bosch in the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to the mythology of Mesoamerica in the ancient Popol Vuh. The essence of these pieces comes from the experimental nature of their sound world, derived from the phonetic content of texts from various authors from the Americas.This results in a deep research on vocal and instrumental possibilities to match and extend the inherent sonic quality of words, and to find common ground between such diverse possibilities (e.g. plosives and tongue clicks in the voice, slap tones and key clicks in wind instruments, thimbles on a bass drum, muffled tones, brushed strings in a piano, etc.). This album thus crystallizes Fonema Consort’s mission to foster the exploration of vocal and linguistic possibilities in today’s music, in this case featuring a rich palette of non-traditional sounds derived from imaginative treatments of the texts chosen by Pauly and I.

This album is a joint collaboration of Fonema Consort, with Alex Inglizian of the Experimental Sound Studio (ESS) (recording, mixing and mastering), and Fonema’s long term collaborators Benjamin Knight (art work and design), Marc Perlish (photography) and Etha Williams (musicologist).

The recording of the pieces took place in November and January, through six intense and adventurous sessions that included Mauricio’s visit from the UK during the Polar Vortex days! Despite the record low temperatures, Fonema’s musicians brought all their warmth into the making of the music.

The release of Pasos en otra calle consists of three dates in May: on the 6th the digital album will be available for download through New Focus Recordings; on the 7th, Fonema will present the CD in Costa Rica, with a concert at the Sala Maria Clara Cullel; on the 24th, Chicagoans will have the opportunity to acquire physical copies of the CD during a concert with the Outer Ear Festival at ESS.

March 2014
Soprano Nina Dante interviews composer Katherine Young on her new work Master of Disguises

Composer Katherine Young

Nina Dante: You chose a very intriguing text for this piece- dark yet playful. Can you share with us why you chose this text, and how you used it to shape the piece?

Katherine Young: The text is from Kelly Link’s short story “The Girl Detective” from the collection Stranger Things Happened. I have been returning and re-returning to Links’ work ever since 2005, when I first came read her writing, and her words find there way into many of my titles and pieces, actually.

The excerpt I used for this piece hones in on one of the story’s themes: loss and looking for something you don’t necessarily expect to find. Stemming from this text, Master of Disguises explores process, searching, elusiveness and instability.

ND: To fit with the theme of our concert “singing instruments”, you gave the singers tape recorders to “play”. Why did you chose this electronic device as a musical instrument, and what role does it play in the piece?

KY: The singers play the cassette players much like they would a percussion instrument. The clicks and clacks of the buttons create rhythmic motives and little grooves. There are also a lot of meanings people can read into the anachronistic (if I can say that, Parlour Tapes+ cassette players that could add richness of the music.

ND: Have you written for the voice before? If so, how does this piece compare to other works you have written with voice? Has there been an evolution in style, and what sparked it? If you haven’t, how did you develop this particular style of writing for the voice? Is it inspired by any outside elements/materials? And did your voice writing influence how you wrote for the clarinet and saxophone?

KY: I had written for voice just a little before starting this piece – mostly song form. For Master, I had a lot of fun finding sounds that created links between the physically very different sound sources of the voice, the cassette players, and the reeds. Some of the vocal sounds came from work Nina and I did early on. I asked her to read/sing some of the text in a way that imitated some reed extended techniques I’d worked out with Emily and Will. And then some sounds began with the tape players and infected the voice and instrumental materials. So once I found my materials, the process was not about “writing for the voice” versus “writing for winds,” but more about building a sound world that explored the poetics of the sounds and the text.

February 2014
On Composer Erin Gee‘s Mouthpiece Series

Erin Gee on the Mouthpiece series

My paintings have neither objects nor space nor time nor anything—no forms. They are light, lightness, and merging, about formlessness, breaking down form.

—Agnes Martin

When we study the science of breath, the first thing / we notice is that breath is audible.

—Hazrat Inayat Kahn

Erin GeeMouthpiece I (1999) was the first of the Mouthpiece series, which now consists of more than 25 pieces, and is based on non-semantic vocal sounds. The series began as a set for solo voice and now encompasses works for voice and orchestra, voice and large ensemble, opera and choir.

In the Mouthpiece series, the voice is used as an instrument of sound production rather than as a vehicle of identity. Linguistic meaning is not the voice’s goal.

The construction of the vocal text is often based on linguistic structure—vowel-consonant formation and the principle of the allophone—and is relatively quiet, with a high percentage of breath.

The Mouthpieces presuppose a state of listening. They engage physiology rather than psychology.

The Mouthpieces for chamber ensemble and voice map non-semantic vocal structures throughout the ensemble, expanding and refracting the articulatory possibilities of a single vocalist.

On the collaboration of siblings Erin (composer) and Colin Gee (dancer) on the Mouthpiece series

Composer Martin Brody on Gee’s Mouthpiece series

In her stunning series of Mouthpiece compositions, Erin Gee presents a set of voluptuous enigmas—a taxonomy of finely-etched vocal utterances devoid of meaning; an orderly syntax of sounds that vaporizes fixed forms; an aesthetic environment that feels at once extraterrestrial and uncannily familiar. The elegant sounds and fleeting structures that Gee composes to convey these inscrutable messages emanate from a humid, mysterious place—the inside of our mouths. And her deceptively innocent title, Mouthpiece, points to a long, strange episode in the history of Modernism, an ongoing artistic exploration of this singularly receptive, productive, altogether busy cavity that variously connects our bodies and selves with the world.

It will be instructive to recall a few of the ancestors in Erin Gee’s musical genealogy, the strong theorists of modern vocalization who found new, subversive opportunities for musical creativity and experience in the mouth. In his essay, “The Relationship to the Text” (1912), Arnold Schoenberg insinuated a radical position in an apparently innocent confession:

I was deeply ashamed when I discovered in several Schubert songs, well known to me, that I had absolutely no idea what was going on in the poems on which they were based. But when I had read the poems it became clear to me that I had gained absolutely nothing for the understanding of the songs thereby…. On the contrary, it appeared that, without knowing the poem, I had grasped the content, the real content, perhaps even more profoundly than if I had clung to the surface of the mere thoughts expressed in words.

Schoenberg coaxes us to invert conventional wisdom about words and music, to peel back the surface of thought in order to reveal the “real content” beneath the semantic field. The mouth thus becomes an ultimate Klangfarben device, a machine for reshaping the vocal production system to produce a rainbow of colors rather than a lexicon of meanings.

By contrast, Roland Barthes famously celebrated the erotic jouissance released by the friction of consonants and vowels coupling in the mouth. For Barthes, the excitement of oral music was not so much to be found in an art of sound but in the voice’s grain—as he described it, the palpable residue of the “body, brought to your ears in one and the same movement from deep down in the cavities, the muscles, the membranes, the cartilages…as though a single skin lined the inner flesh of the performer and the music he sings.” If Schoenberg (at least in 1912) located real content in the sonic rather than semantic aspect of language, Barthes found a latent and equally ineffable message of the body in the gritty sounds of the mouth at work.

In her Mouthpiece series, Gee has found a way to wed Barthes’s fantasy of a primal, corporeal message to Schoenberg’s vision of a vocal utterance so eloquent that it transcends meaning. She nudges both through a glass darkly, into a wonderland where Barthes and Schoenberg must not only confront each other but also mingle with an array of voice/mouth virtuosos from Cathy Berberian to Ella Fitzgerald. In Gee’s musical universe, the mouth is always a site of subtle tactility, the voice always a source of articulate if ephemeral structures. In this magical environment, structure and pleasure are mutually constituted, always linked in a process of playful interrogation that produces unending artistic opportunities.

The particles of this universe, the sounds produced by the mouth at work and play, are meticulously detailed in Gee’s instructions to her performers. She generally identifies a sound by reference to its conventional verbal context, for instance, “the “ɑ as in ‘fawn’ (English), ‘wann’ (German)”; or more trickily, “z(i)” means “sing on ‘z’ but mouth shape for the vowel ‘i.’” She then extracts her speech sounds from their familiar verbal environment, linking them into a meaningless, evocative chain of sonorities. Taking things a step further, she also creates new vocal molecules by recombining the atomic elements of speech, rearranging the movements of tongue, teeth, lips, and palette, and redirecting the breath… Read further.

February 2014
Composer Alexander Sigman on epiglottis

The Kingdom of Glottis

In 2012, I collaborated with the Croatian visual artist Damir Ocko on a video work entitled Spring. Layers of instrumental and electroacoustic music samples were combined with image and narration. The piece was exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris as part of a solo exhibition of Damir’s called The Kingdom of Glottis.

Scored for two sopranos, flute(s), cello, contrabass, live electronics, and video, epiglottis was intended as a sort of convoluted commentary on Spring. As is described below, the vocal, instrumental, and electronic material was derived directly from the images and text of the video work.

epiglottis consists of three songs, separated by brief audio-visual interludes, and concluding with an A/V postlude, for a total duration of ca. 13-14 minutes. On the February 2014 concert, the second song will not be performed due to time constraints.


The visuals employed in Spring consist of footage of the Stromboli volcano in Italy at various levels of lava activity, as well a collection of contortions, balancing, and precarious conditions to which the human body may be subjected, filmed on a constructed black-box set.

Using an image processing and analysis program, I created several representative still images from the video, which were analyzed for color density levels. This data was then converted into (audio) spectral information and used to synthesize audio samples. In turn, the newly generated audio files were analyzed and re-synthesized into images. While the produced sounds themselves became the basic ingredients of the electronics component, the spectral data associated with these sounds determined the pitch content of the vocal and instrumental parts.


epiglottis_fonemablog_entry copy

In the first two principal sections of Spring, a contortionist performs a series of complex, repeated motions:

These motions were transcribed (by hand), resulting in a collection of contours, of abstractions from the physical actions. Pairs of physical parameters were mapped to these contours, which were assigned to both voices and instruments. In effect, the performers reconstitute the anatomy, the moving parts of the human contortionist. Due to the changes in and rate of change of the parameter mapping and shifts in layer density, this “anatomy” takes on a volatile, fragile, and unpredictable character.


The Spring narrator recites four poems that Damir Ocko himself wrote for the project. In epiglottis, I set three of these texts, as well as one that was originally intended for the video, but was ultimately discarded.

The first poem makes several allusions to resonance, ringing, melting, trembling, and cracking. The subsequent text consists of an “instruction manual” for constructing a vocalizing meat puppet. Poems 3 and 4 appear in the third song (entitled “Nickering”), and depict a schizophrenic state. Through the gradual increases in tempo, rate of change, intensity, and exchanging of texts between the singers in “Nickering,” comprehensibility progressively diminishes, enabling the physicality, the sonic properties of the poetry, to percolate to the foreground.

Live Electronics

In the first song, the voices and instruments undergo live processing. Reflecting both the recurring imagery in the first poem and the Stromboli volcano footage, a resonant penumbra of varying harmonic content, density, and intensity surrounds the source-sounds.


The video component consists of three of types of material: 1) moving images of the human contortionist; 2) still images derived from Spring; and 3) images “resynthesized” from the video-audio-video conversion process described and illustrated above.

epiglottis_fonemablog_entry copy 2

Future Work

Besides presenting epiglottis in its entirety (to occur during the 2014-2015 season), I am planning to utilize this “song cycle” as the basis of a one-act chamber opera. Prior to Spring, I contributed to Ocko’s 2010 video The Moon shall never take my voice—”three songs for muted voice and various sounds”—a sort of song cycle in its own rite. The Moon was also presented on the Palais de Tokyo exhibition last year.

It would be of great interest in the chamber opera context to integrate themes, images, and texts proper to both video works, expand the epiglottis instrumentation, and incorporate lighting and staging.

November 2013
Inspiration Board : Stratis MinakakisApoploys III for two sopranos with frame drums and tuning forks

MinakakisOn November 10th, Fonema Consort will premiere the first movement of Greek composer Stratis Minakakis’ Apoploys III, Σκιαγραφίες (Shadow Etchings). On this Inspiration Board, Minakakis explores the sources of inspiration for this charged work (to be premiered in full in the Spring):


Source #1
Earlier in 2013, I composed Apoploys II for Noh Chant, flutes and percussion, based on the following text by Homer (Homer, Odyssey, Book 11, 204-208 (trans. A. T. Murray, rev. George E. Dimock):

Os èfat’ autar egò g’èthelon fresìn mermirìksas
mitròs emìs elèein katatethnèis
tris men eformìthin, elèein te me thumòs anògei,
tris de moi ek cheiròn skièi èikelon è kai onèiroi
èptat’ emoi d’achòs oksù genèsketo kìrothi màllon.
So she spoke and I wondered in my heart how I might
clasp the ghost of my dead mother. Three times I sprang
toward her, and my will said, ‘Clasp her’, and three times
she flitted from my arms like a shadow or a dream. As for
me, the pain grew even sharper in my heart.

Listen to Apoploys II (work in progress)

Source #2
The text has haunted me since to the extent that I decided to revisit it in Apoploys III, for two voices, and do so in a complete different way. In the first movement, Skiagrafies (Shadow Etchings), I dwell on one verse:

Tris ðe moi ek xeiron skiei eikelon e kai oneiroi eptato
Three times she flitted from my arms like a shadow or a dream

The entire movement is permeated by “shadowplay”: sounds are deflected from one singer to the other, gestures exchanged, sounds echoed, all in a desperate effort to communicate.

Source #3
Apoploys III engages the corporality of the singers, who sing, whisper, speak, shout, strike, touch, move in space. For the singing gestures, I look for a natural, non-stylized, guttural type of singing that I am familiar with from Greek and Balkan music, in particular polyphonic singing and lamentations (Epirot and Maniot moiroloia, Croatian ganga).

Listen to Alismono ke Cherome (I forget and rejoice), Polyphonic song from Epirus, Greece.

Listen to Ganga from Croatia

Apoploys III, mvt I Score Sample
Minakakis | Apoploys III | Movement I Score Sample
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November 2013
Inspiration Board : Pablo Chin‘s Boschiana for soprano, tenor saxophone and piano

Pablo ChinWhile we anticipate the world premiere of Pablo Chin’s Boschiana on November 10th , we can appease our curiosity by exploring the sources of inspiration for this new work…

Source #1
Carlo Gesualdo’s Moro, lasso al mio duolo (the ending of Boschiana borrows several lines from this incredibly bizarre piece of music):

Source #2
A fragment Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “A Coney Island in the Mind”, found in Julio Cortazar’s novel Rayuela:

… Yet I have slept with beauty
in my own weird way
and I have made a hungry scene or two
with beauty in my bed
and so spilled out another poem or two
and so spilled out another poem or two
upon the Bosch-like world.

Source #3
Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (pay special attention to the instruments featured in the third frame):

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch

Boschiana Score Sample

Score sample of "Boschiana"

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November 2013
From Estrada’s graphic compositional methods, to Surrealism according to Breton
By Pablo Chin

"Yuunohui" Graph

Graphic used for Section VI of the Yuunohui series, designed to capture the sounds in Estrada’s imagination. Photograph courtesy of the composer.

After nearly a year of research and immersion into the musical world of Julio Estrada, I could not help but draw connections between Estrada’s use of graphics and transcription to compose, and the surrealist thoughts of André Breton as stated in his Surrealist Manifesto.

In surrealist expression, the image is at the center of things, triggered by a “spark” (inspiration) that, based on its beauty (according to Breton’s manifesto), defines the value of the image. The spark, and the image itself reach a higher state of emotion and intensity during states of low consciousness; according to Breton, “[man] cannot chase them away; for the will is powerless now and no longer controls the faculties.” Thus, the challenge is to record as many images as possible while in this state, and in the highest possible resolution. Of these images, Breton said he “could easily trace their outlines. Here again it is not a matter of drawing, but simply of tracing.”

Estrada’s graphic method of composition, developed after Yuunohui, can be thought of as means to trace inner impulses. His primary concern when composing is to capture and express sounds as they occur in his imagination, unfiltered by traditional compositional methods in which intuitive impulses are controlled by rational laws and logic. He attempts to trace inner impulses through drawings that are later transcribed into music notation.

It is Estrada’s hope that those who listen to his music will similarly rely on their intuitive faculties, as when he composed it, thus leading to a more creative and edifying listening experience.

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October 2013
Latino Music Festival Interviews Week 3: Francisco Castillo Trigueros

Leading up to our Otras múscias concert on October 17 with the Latino Music Festival, the FonemaBlog presents a series of interviews with three of the Chicago-based Latin composers featured in the concert. Director Nina Dante asks the same three questions to each composer, painting a picture of their diverse aesthetics, backgrounds, and inspirations. Week 3 of the series features Mexican composer Francisco Castillo Trigueros.

Francisco Castillo Trigueros, composer

Francisco Castillo Trigueros, composer
Photo by Ximena del Valle

Nina Dante: Since our upcoming concert with the Latino Music Festival is designed to showcase the unique compositional voices of Latin composers in Chicago, I am curious to know if you find that your Latin heritage and culture manifests itself in your music? Or does your music strive to be free of cultural ties and influences?

Francisco Castillo Trigueros: I was raised in Mexico in an ethnically diverse environment. The prevailing self-identification of Mexican culture as “Mestiza”, or mixed, played an important role in my development. Rooted in both pre-Hispanic and European civilizations, and most recently influenced by American trends, Mexico is a hybrid culture in which many influences have converged to create new and unique traditions. My upbringing exacerbated this tendency. From a young age I was submerged in a multi-cultural philosophy. I was taught Spanish and English simultaneously. I was enrolled in a Japanese music school at the same time as in private classical piano lessons with a Asian-Mexican teacher, learned Latin-American and Spanish Guitar, all while being exposed to local and international music in the media. This diversity and the hybridity that result from it intrigue me and they are something I want to share through my creative work.

In my own work I have looked beyond Mexico and have worked with music and instruments from other geographical regions (see: My diverse background has informed my post-nationalist position. Ironically, while I’m not interested in a nationalist aesthetic, through my intercultural work I’m emulating a cultural phenomenon that occurred in Mexico.

I don’t believe that music can be free from cultural ties and influences, but we shouldn’t expect these influences to always be constrained by geographical or racial motivations.

ND: Out of pure curiosity: was there a seminal piece of music in your past that lit the compositional spark in you? What was it about this piece that captivated you?

FCT: Absolutely! When I was 15 I discovered Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in a middle-school class. We had to listen to the piece, analyze the form, and some of the pitch collections that Bartok used. Not only was I captivated by the amazing energy and unique sounds in the piece but I also discovered that there were beautiful chords and structures different to those I had encountered up to that point.

ND: Fonema Consort is fascinated with the role of the voice in new music. How do you approach writing for the voice? Does its inherent qualities and associations change or influence your musical language?

FCT: Some of my favorite new music is vocal music! In my own music two of the voice’s inherent qualities and associations affect my musical language:

1) The hyper-emotionality that having a singer on-stage involves.
2) The additional layer of meaning that including a text introduces.

I try to play with the emotional connotations that having a singer on-stage brings. I tend to compose for a super-objective singer, every once in a while allowing bursts of emotion. (See:

The meaning of the chosen text can be emphasized or obfuscated by the music it is set to, and by the emotional affect by which it’s delivered. This additional layer opens up many dramatic possibilities, normally absent in instrumental music, that really interest me.

In Absimo azul, floreciente the text is mainly recited. This allows for a cleaner narrative. The music I composed is more like incidental music, something that surrounds the text, creating a kind of emotional mist around it.

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October 2013
Latino Music Festival Interviews Week 2: Tomas Gueglio-Saccone

Leading up to our Otras múscias concert on October 17 with the Latino Music Festival, the FonemaBlog presents a series of interviews with three of the Chicago-based Latin composers featured in the concert. Director Nina Dante asks the same three questions to each composer, painting a picture of their diverse aesthetics, backgrounds, and inspirations. Week 2 of the series features Argentinian composer Tomas Gueglio-Saccone.

Tomas Gueglio-Saccone, composerNina Dante: Since our upcoming concert with the Latino Music Festival is designed to showcase the unique compositional voices of Latin composers in Chicago, I am curious to know if you find that your Latin heritage and culture manifests itself in your music? Or does your music strive to be free of cultural ties and influences?

Tomas Gueglio-Saccone: It’s really hard to tell…if the question refers to the presence of Latino topoi or programs, my music does not really feature them. On the other hand, back in Buenos Aires I would listen to quite a fair amount of tango and also took part in a group of Improv-Prog-Argentine-Folklore so maybe some of that exposure and experiences remain a part of my musicking at a deeper level, but (again) it’s hard to tell.

ND: Out of pure curiosity: was there a seminal piece of music in your past that lit the compositional spark in you? What was it about this piece that captivated you?

TG-S: I can’t pinpoint one specific piece. It’s more like a whirlwind of pieces. I began in music as a rock (and then) blues (and then) jazz guitar player, so once I got to school and began my training in composition I was a little bit overwhelmed by the constant exposure to music that I had no idea existed. I can list some of the pieces that I remember had an impact on me and therefore tried to imitate when I was taking my first steps in composition. In no particular order: Mendelsohn’s Variations Serieuses, Messiaen‘s Louange à l’inmortalité de Jésus, Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna and the Nonsense Madrigals, Petrouska, Bartok’s Music for Strings, percussion and celesta, Vortex Temporum, Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum, O’King, Feldman’s Neither…Of course my relationship with those pieces changed over the years, but I remember they had –even if temporarily – a strong impact on me in my early days as a composer.

ND: Fonema Consort is fascinated with the role of the voice in new music. How do you approach writing for the voice? Does its inherent qualities and associations change or influence your musical language?

TG-S: I have three pieces with voice, and the way it is used is quite different for all three cases. In …Pellicanz (the piece you will be performing as part of the LMF) the voice works as another instrument partaking with the violin and piano in a rather uniform texture with sudden and sporadic bursts of spoken text. In Enfants de mon Silence the voice is used more traditionally, in a somehow “ravelian” fashion and in …I begli occhi the technique employed is a “sprachgesangish” recitative of sorts. These different approaches are more a response to the text employed in each case than to a pre-existing musical need or idiosyncratic treatment of the voice: the first, a sentence of surreal scent, the second a Paul Valéry poem and the third texts from Gesualdo madrigals. So I guess for me it is “prima le parole” and figure out what to do with the voice later…

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October 2013
Latino Music Festival Interviews Week 1: Andrés Carrizo

Leading up to our Otras múscias concert on October 17 with the Latino Music Festival, the FonemaBlog presents a series of interviews with three of the Chicago-based Latin composers featured in the concert. Director Nina Dante asks the same three questions to each composer, painting a picture of their diverse aesthetics, backgrounds, and inspirations. Week 1 of the series features Panamanian composer Andrés Carrizo.

Andres CarrizoNina Dante: Since our upcoming concert with the Latino Music Festival is designed to showcase the unique compositional voices of Latin composers in Chicago, I am curious to know if you find that your Latin heritage and culture manifests itself in your music? Or does your music strive to be free of cultural ties and influences?

Andrés Carrizo: I certainly don’t consciously think of my cultural heritage as I’m writing, though I certainly don’t consciously seek to shake it either! The anxiety of influence, be it artistic or cultural, is something that every creator has to deal with, particularly in this context that prizes “originality” seemingly above all else. But it also seems like folly, and one that’s caused me a lot of frustration in the past: how do you rid yourself of the things and experiences that have shaped you? You can’t, and to try and do it is to shoot yourself in the foot.

As far as my Latin heritage is concerned, it’s a tricky thing, because there’s an expectation that your music will somehow reflect a specific part of your identity, when identity (musical and cultural) is an incredibly complex matter. The use of “exotic” sounds as representative of Latin culture is certainly not something I wish to communicate, primarily because that’s not something that’s exclusively me. I certainly grew up listening to salsa, Panamanian folk music, bachata, merengue, bolero… you name it. It’s definitely part of who I am, and I know it’s affected me compositionally in an infinity of ways. But I also grew up listening to jazz, to classical music, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Piazzolla, and a number of other types of music. Yet I don’t consciously seek to emulate these influences either, and they’re as much a part of who I am musically and culturally as the prototypical Latin musics are.

ND: Out of pure curiosity: was there a seminal piece of music in your past that lit the compositional spark in you? What was it about this piece that captivated you?

AC: Though there are hundreds of pieces that have excited me, and propelled me forward, I’d have to answer that Bartók’s “Augmented Fourths” Mikrokosmos piece was the one that really set me on the path. Not so much through the music itself (though I love Bartók!), but because I had to arrange it for an assignment, and the experience of handling the sonic material and shaping it in new ways was incredibly exciting.

Andres Carrizo | Score Sample | Through this Old Stone

Score sample of Andres Carrizo’s “Through this Old Stone”, written for Nina Dante (soprano) and DuoX of the Netherlands (shô and clarinet)

ND: Fonema Consort is fascinated with the role of the voice in new music. How do you approach writing for the voice? Does its inherent qualities and associations change or influence your musical language?

AC: I find writing for the voice to be *incredibly* challenging! For two reasons: the first is that I find it really difficult to set text. I don’t tend to read texts musically (i.e. hear melodies as I’m reading), and so setting them to be sung instead of spoken often seems dangerously artificial to me. And the second reason is closely related to the first: I often find sung text to be unnatural, or cliché… I have a lot of trouble ridding myself of this impression. It’s definitely tied to my literal understanding of the text: I enjoy opera, though much less so when I can understand the language it’s being sung in. This is, naturally, not true 100% of the time, but it applies more often than not.

Because of this, it takes me a long time to decide on a text when writing for the voice. I usually decide on short texts, or on exploiting vocal phonemes musically rather than setting linguistically understandable material. And this I find very satisfying, particularly in combination with other instruments: the voice can be the greatest imitator, yet turn on a dime and acquire a sonic personality that’s all its own in an instant.

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September 2013
Through a Fog, Sprays of Light: Composer James Bean on this will rub against my grid for solo flute

James Bean, composer

Composer James Bean

For a year I lived atop a heavily wooded hill in the Pacific Northwest. The dense chilled fog of the late-night and early-morning that settles around the hill’s base is most definitely an object in and of itself, though it operates further as a modifier of other things, as well as the modified. Point-source headlights in a night clear of this fog pierce through the trees, offering an observer a distinct location, direction and velocity of a car floating up and down along the undulative descent. This car moves, though it is localizeable. As the fog accumulates, the lit car exists outside of itself, in an increasingly non-localizeable spray of light, through which now the trees puncture. The once-point-source has now split and crawled into each static damp particle, becoming a composite lit presence. The fog has ignited and is ignited.

As the local altitude gradients surge and recede, modulating the overall decline, the car and its lights pop in and out of this diffusive filter. At one moment, the car exists at a single point; at the next, it is swallowed (in one dimension) and is reemerged expanded (in another). While it loses its focused presence, it gains a distance, warmth, and ubiquitousness.

Perhaps this is a fair analog from upon which we can enter this music for flute.

this will rub against my grill - score sample

this will rub against my grid – Score Sample

When approaching the potential materials for this will rub against my grid, I considered this sense of diffusion and interpenetration — not only the ways in which breath could be filtered locally (density of fog, temperature) but also dynamically over time (dipping up and down into varying densities of diffusion, texture). There are times in this piece when pure pitch materials emerge, pointed, directional, and definite. The flute is moving, though it is localizeable. There are other times when the location of sound is dispersed in a bath of lateral dimension, as the air coming into the flute is heavily filtered by obfuscatory activity in the mouth.

This fleeting sense of activity is resultant from a relationship of many motions, the way the tongue is interacting with the teeth in various ways, and how that affects the flow, direction, and dispersion of air. What is perceived during the performance can’t be defined by any singular activity, but rather it must be an incalculable multi-repercussion of many events. The sonic and performative material here must be the connective tissue between the objective directions on the page, not the directions themselves. In a sense, what can be put on the page is the location of the car, the temperature and humidity of the air, possibly more meteorological data. Maybe the lumen-rating of the headlights. What is experienced, however, is the disorienting momentary glow of the fog, and the thrill, or possibly the danger, of driving through it late at night.

What is on the page, the information that the player must physically and intellectually internalize in various ways, are things like the pitch content (which emerges more directionally at some points and more diffused at others — sometimes it is miles away), tongue activity (consonants like [k], [t], and [s], and other techniques like tongue-pizzicato, flutter-tongue, and traditional articulations), loosening the embouchure to create an “airier” sound, singing, and a few other environmental figures. These obfuscations themselves are given further dimension, as well as intensity, when the player may have indicated to inhale while going through these motions.

I imagine this piece as a set of sounds where there may be multiple lit objects, independently bobbing in and out of these blurring states throughout our field-of-view. Sometimes we are able to sonically capture many of these objects; sometimes we are staring into one head-on.

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August 2013
PART II: Gesualdo, Stravinky, and Sciarrino – On Some Affinities of the “Early” and the “New”
By Etha Williams

Carlo Gesualdo

Carlo Gesualdo, 1566-1613

Stravinsky may have been the first to write works inspired by Gesualdo’s music, but he would be far from the last; to examine the fate of Gesualdo’s music in a later work, we can turn to Sciarrino’s Le voci sottovetro (1998). Le voci sottovetro, like Stravinsky’s Monumentum, arose out of a sustained engagement with the earlier composer’s work and counts as one of several Gesualdo-inflected works that Sciarrino has written. Sciarrino had initially planned an opera about Gesualdo (Luci mie traditrici) but, upon learning that Schnittke was in the process of writing a similar work, Sciarrino amended his opera to center around the French Renaissance composer Claude le Jeune. Nevertheless, Sciarrino’s interest in Gesualdo persisted, and he eventually formed the four-movement concert work Le voci sottovetro out of “crumbs left over from Luci mie traditrici.”

Le voci sottovetro, whose title translates to “the voices behind glass,” takes a somewhat more elaborate form than Stravinsky’s work, with four musical movements – two transcriptions of Gesualdo’s instrumental music (for Gesualdo did write instrumental music, albeit not in nearly as prolifically as vocal music!) alternating with two transcriptions of madrigals – between which troubled “lettere poetiche” by Torquato Tasso, a famous contemporary of Gesualdo who wrote many of the composer’s madrigal texts, are read. The work as a whole thus runs as follows:

I. Gagliarda del Principe di Venosa (instrumental work)
A Girolamo Mercuriale, Padova (lettere poetiche)
II. Tu m’uccidi, o crudele (vocal madrigal)
A Maurizio Cataneo, Roma (lettere poetiche)
III. Canzon francese del Principe (instrumental work)
A Giovan Battista Cavallara (lettere poetiche)
IV. Moro, lasso (vocal madrigal)

In arranging his work thus, Sciarrino engages with questions of vocal and instrumental music and text-music relations in a rather different way than does Stravinsky: interspersing purely instrumental works and purely verbal, spoken ones casts new light on the sung texts that come in between. Too, as we shall see, Sciarrino’s manner of recasting Gesualdo’s madrigals throws new light on their aesthetic assumptions as well. (The choice to end with the madrigal Moro, lasso is interesting as well – it is by far Gesualdo’s most well known work, and one of his most chromatic.)

For the sake of scope, I’ll focus in the rest of this discussion on just Sciarrino’s settings of Gesualdo’s madrigals (“Tu m’uccidi, o crudele” [Book V No XV] and the renowned “Moro, lasso” [Book VI No XVIII]). These two movements, set not for vocal ensemble but rather for solo female voice, bring Gesualdo’s hyperexpressive variety of the Renaissance madrigal in a strange and, to my ears, enticingly uneasy rapprochement with the Italian operatic tradition (a stylistic combination that no doubt owes its origins to Sciarrino’s initially planned Gesualdo opera). Unlike Stravinsky’s setting, the vocal, textual element remains, but the solo vocalist’s melodic line is taken so freely from different voices of Gesualdo’s original madrigal as to be nearly unrecognizable; in the opening of “Tu m’uccidi,” for instance, the first phrase comes from Gesualdo’s Tenor part, the second from Gesualdo’s Alto I and Tenor, the third from the Tenor again, and the fourth from the Alto I and Soprano. In constantly moving between voices (often to lines that are least prominent in Gesualdo’s setting) as well as removing some lines of text entirely by giving them over to the instruments, Sciarrino creates a solo setting of these madrigals in which their melodic content and stylistic context are both profoundly defamiliarized. (The accompanying instruments, too, borrow freely from the original work, and – somewhat similarly to the Stravinsky – often alter voice leading without substantially altering Gesualdo’s harmonic palette.)

Even beyond these profound alterations, however, the most distinctive aspect of these settings must be the extravagant instrumental effects (sometimes so out there as to seem in potentially questionable taste – to excellent effect) that, true to Sciarrino’s title, cast the low solo voice as though “behind glass.” This occurs perhaps most strikingly at the opening of “Moro lasso,” in which the voice enters on the G# below middle C amidst high register pedaled piano counterpoint, sul tasto viola and cello, and bass flute and bass clarinet – all at a pppp dynamic. The effect is distinctively strange, and Gesualdo’s most famous work, too, suddenly sounds strange again – is defamiliarized. Its chromaticism and affective resonances here, in contrast to in the Stravinsky, remain present but are refracted as though through a prism.


To my mind and ears, one of the most intriguing things about both Stravinsky’s and Sciarrino’s Gesualdo settings – situated nearly 40 years apart from one another, and over three centuries after Gesualdo’s own works – is that in bringing the “early” into productive dialog with the “new,” they cast into question one of the very musical precepts that Gesualdo’s music seems to accept unquestioningly and, indeed, upon which it relies: namely, the relationship of text and music, and off concrete affective expression and compositional technique. While in Gesualdo’s madrigals – much as in Monteverdi’s seconda prattica not much later – particularly poignant aspects of a text call for particularly pungent chromatic effects (and while even when performed in viol consort, they would have had such a tragic affective connotation), Stravinsky’s and Sciarrino’s settings either refuse such assumptions altogether, in Stravinsky’s case, or musically reexamine and defamiliarize them, in Sciarrino’s. In this way both provide vivid musical expressions of how we understand the distant past in our present, such that – to quote Proust, remarking on a somewhat different aspect of this past-present relationship – Gesualdo “is made to play upon the keyboards of several ages at once.”

Sources Consulted/Further Reading:
Balanchine, George. “The Dance Element in Stravinsky’s Music.” Reprinted in Opera Quarterly 22(1) (2007), 138-43.
Crawford, Dorothy. Evenings on and off the Roof: Pioneering Concerts in Los Angeles, 1939-1971. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Deutsch, Catherine. “Antico or Moderno? Reception of Gesualdo’s Madrigals in the Early Seventeenth Century.” In The Journal of Musicology 30(1) (2013), 28-48.
Mason, Colin. “Gesualdo and Stravinsky.” In Tempo 55/56 (1960), 39-48.
Watkins, Glenn. The Gesualdo Hex. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

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August 2013
PART I: Gesualdo, Stravinky, and Sciarrino – On Some Affinities of the “Early” and the “New”
By Etha Williams

Etha Williams, musicologist-in-residence

Since my two principal interests lie in early music, on the one hand, and new music, on the other – and having met numerous others with similar interests –, I spend a lot of time thinking about what common affinity such temporally distant eras might share. The very phrases “early music” and “new music” – common parlance in the world of concert programming, CD marketing, and the like – are perhaps a good place to start. The modifiers “early” and “new” both define their respective eras not in terms of compositional practice (as does, for instance, the phrase “common practice period”) nor in terms of an aesthetic (as do “baroque,” “classical,” or “romantic”), but rather in terms of their relative temporal position. In that one is “early” and the other “new,” they appear to be opposed; but in that both lie temporally outside the canonical works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they share a common “otherness” that composers, performers, and listeners – myself included – have seized upon.

The explicit correspondences between these two fields of music are manifold – including, to name a few, Anton Webern’s dissertation on the Renaissance composer Heinrich Isaac, the extraordinary confluence of early and new music programming in Los Angeles’s Monday Evening Concert Series and in Paris’s Domaine musicale during the 1950s and 1960s, and the Ensemble Recherche’s “In Nomine” project, which has commissioned works based on the Renaissance “In nomine” melody from numerous contemporary composers. Having largely faded from cultural memory, such “early” influences become sites at which composers can find new ways of thinking about pressing musical questions such as those of contrapuntal procedures, of unfamiliar sounds, and of borrowed musical material and intertextuality.

Rather than trying to enumerate such correspondences comprehensively, though, I want to focus on just one site of such an interaction of the “early” and the “new”: Carlo Gesualdo, a Renaissance composer who has occupied a particularly prominent place in the modern musical imagination. Gesualdo’s figure has loomed large in the twentieth century – a legacy detailed comprehensively in Glenn Watkin’s study The Gesualdo Hex, from which much of the information presented here is drawn –, provoking a film by Werner Herzog (Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices) in addition to musical works by numerous composers including, but by no means limited to, Igor Stravinsky, Klaus Huber, Alfred Schnittke, and Salvatore Sciarrino. Examining just two of these works – Stravinsky’s and Sciarrino’s – can cast light on Gesualdo’s legacy for modernity as well as the manner in which Stravinsky and Sciarrino used his music to rethink issues such as the relationship between vocal and instrumental music, affective expression and sonic abstraction, and the immediacy of text-music relations.


The standard narrative on Gesualdo runs something like this: during his life, at the twilight of the Renaissance, Gesualdo composed music of extraordinary chromaticism and dark expressivity, a darkness often read as stemming from the the composer’s murder of his adulterous wife. As a courtly amateur, Gesualdo’s music had only limited influence during and immediately after his life and was thus more or less forgotten until being rediscovered in the twentieth century, when it came to be prized for its anticipation of the radical chromaticism of Wagner and, even, of atonality itself.

While largely historically accurate, this narrative engages in a fair bit of exaggeration, particularly concerning Gesualdo’s status as a neglected (until the twentieth century, that is) genius. While his influence during his own time may not have been as great as that of, say, Monteverdi, Gesualdo was indeed recognized and seen as a modernist then as well as now – albeit for somewhat different reasons. In the early- and mid-seventeenth century, commentators praised Gesualdo’s ability to bring out the affective content of a text in a rhetorically eloquent manner, both through the extensive chromaticism for which he is now renowned and also through contrapuntal artifice, and saw him as a precursor to Monteverdi’s quintessentially modern seconda prattica.

Nevertheless, Gesualdo’s prominence waned in the subsequent centuries (without his being entirely forgotten – his figure persists at least as far as the later eighteenth century in writings and engravings!), and Gesualdo’s renewed importance in the twentieth century did indeed mark a qualitative, as well as quantitative, change in the composer’s historical fortunes. Putting a precise date on the modern renaissance of this late Renaissance composer is, like most such ventures, impossible, but the 1910s (the same time at which Schoenberg was making his forays into free atonality) saw an increase in both publications regarding Gesualdo (Ferdinand Keiner’s dissertation [1914] and an edition of his madrigals by Ildebrando Pizzetti [1919]) and citations of him. One of the earliest such remarks came in 1915, by Hugo Leichtentritt, who praised Gesualdo’s prescience thus: “Only at present, in the age of Richard Strauss, Debussy, Scriabine, Busoni, can one see that this great impressionist Gesualdo is akin to these modern masters, their brother. He is three centuries ahead of his time in his novel and extremely daring use of tonality or rather lack of tonality, his bewildering manner of modulation, his fine sense of colour in harmony.” And Egon Wellesz likewise, one year later, compared Gesualdo to Schoenberg, citing the former for chromaticism of a sort “which we cannot observe again until we reach the later works of Richard Wagner.”

Gesualdo, then, who during his own time was regarded as at the forefront of efforts to restore the affective-rhetorical power that music presumably possessed in antiquity, throughout the twentieth century gradually gained a reputation as a precocious practitioner of a chromaticism that would only find its ultimate fulfillment centuries later in the works of Wagner and Schoenberg. It might seem strange, then, that one of the first composers to extensively draw on Gesualdo’s influence in his own music was a composer who had been aggressively diatonic during much of the first half of the twentieth century: Igor Stravinsky.


Stravinsky composed his Monumentum pro Carlo Gesualdo (1960) at a time when Gesualdo’s prominence was growing both in general concert life and in Stravinsky’s particular compositional imagination. The work consists of three movements, each a setting of one of Gesualdo’s madrigals from his last two (and most extravagantly chromatic) published books: “Asciugate i begli occhi” (Book V No XIV), “Ma tu, cagion di quella” (Book V No XVIII), and “Belta poi che t’assenti” (Book VI No II).

The most notable difference between Stravinsky’s setting and Gesualdo’s originals is, of course, Stravinsky’s elimination of the voice: what had been works in a preeminently vocal genre – the Renaissance polyphonic madrigal – have been made purely instrumental. To this end, Stravinsky evokes another baroque tradition – that of Venetian polychoral church music – in the way he deploys “choirs” of instruments in antiphonal contrast with one another. (Indeed, as Watkins has shown, the third madrigal subtly references Giovanni Gabrieli’s famous polychoral Sonata Pian e Forte.) Thus the first and third movements constantly alternates wind and string textures (a practice, moreover, that sounds distinctively Stravinskian as well as faintly baroque), while the second makes use of the contrast between woodwinds and brass. Such alternation between instrumental choirs, along with other free alterations of voice leading and octave displacement on Stravinsky’s part, qualitatively alters Gesualdo’s sinuous chromatic voice leading, removing much of its vocal lyricism and shifting the aural focus further towards the (now wordless) vertical sonorities.

Stravinsky’s transcription was not the first transformation of Gesualdo’s madrigals from vocal to instrumental media; as early as 1635, just over two decades after Gesualdo’s death, Giovanni Battista Doni proposed that, in incidental theater music, “for action of a melancholy nature one plays a madrigal of the Prince of Venosa on the viols.” Yet there is something qualitatively different from the theatrical use that Doni suggests and the instrumental settings Stravinsky prepared. In Stravinsky’s setting, the affective connotations of Gesualdo’s chromaticism are heavily suppressed, and the alternation of instrumental choirs and changes in voice leading serve to foreground the way that individual phrases balance and contrast with one another rather than the affective content of Gesualdo’s pungent dissonances. Too, the treatment of phrases in blocks of relatively static color and dynamics contributes to this sense. Indeed, Robert Craft reported that Stravinsky described the work as “no less than a ‘definition of what is vocal and what instrumental’” – a quintessentially metamusical abstraction if ever there was one. If Paul Lang’s judgement of Craft and Stravinsky’s approach to Gesualdo as “arctic” may seem somewhat harsh, it is nevertheless hard to deny that in Monumentum, the molten lava of Gesualdo’s expressive chromaticism has hardened, over the centuries, into something akin to igneous rock.

In this regard, it is instructive to note that while it originated as a concert work, Stravinsky’s Monumentum found a place – indeed, probably its most enduring place – in the theater. Balanchine, who saw the element of dance as central to Stravinsky’s style in the composer’s balletic and non-balletic works alike, choreographed a ballet to Stravinsky’s music and premiered it just months after the concert premiere of the work. A clip of the ballet, following Balanchine’s staging, can be found starting 4:13 in the video below:

What is perhaps most noteworthy here is the degree to which the theatrical setting corresponds with and, indeed, enhances the music’s sense of abstraction – through the simple black and white costumes, the degree to which the dancers’ choreography often follows the interweaving of the polyphonic lines, and the lack (typical in much of Balanchine) of narrative or even overt affective content. Such an understanding of Gesualdo’s music – in terms of abstraction of sound and movement alike – would likely have seemed stranger to the composer’s contemporaries than would the chromaticism itself.

Stay tuned for PART II, to be released next week. For information about Etha Williams, click here.

Sources Consulted/Further Reading:
Balanchine, George. “The Dance Element in Stravinsky’s Music.” Reprinted in Opera Quarterly 22(1) (2007), 138-43.
Crawford, Dorothy. Evenings on and off the Roof: Pioneering Concerts in Los Angeles, 1939-1971. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Deutsch, Catherine. “Antico or Moderno? Reception of Gesualdo’s Madrigals in the Early Seventeenth Century.” In The Journal of Musicology 30(1) (2013), 28-48.
Mason, Colin. “Gesualdo and Stravinsky.” In Tempo 55/56 (1960), 39-48.
Watkins, Glenn. The Gesualdo Hex. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

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July 2013
Singing in “Thinner and Thinner Air”: On Schoenberg and Ferneyhough’s Works for Soprano and String Quartet
By Etha Williams

Der siebente Ring Illustration1

Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet occupies a particularly special place in my musical life; indeed, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this piece is what eventually prompted me to pursue a career in musicology. I first heard the quartet – or rather, just its final movement – under what might at first seem not the most promising circumstances: an undergraduate music course for non-majors in which I was enrolled. Our TA gave us – most of whom had at best a somewhat shaky conceptual understanding of what exactly “tonality” entailed – a brief explanation of the work’s historical significance: that the first three movements, each in keys only distantly related to one another, became progressively less and less strongly rooted to their home tonality, and that the fourth and final movement departs entirely from tonality as the soprano sings Stefan Georg’s words: “I feel the air of another planet…”

Georg’s text in this movement – “Entrückung” (“Rapture”) from his collection Der siebente Ring, which also provides the text (“Litanei”) for the quartet’s third movement – treats, among other themes, that of transcendence: transcendence of the earth for “another planet,” of the self for “the holy voice..” The indescribability, the fundamental other-ness, of the transcendent is integrally bound up in our cultural understanding of it (indeed, it is arguably this issue that underpins the Old Testament ban on images). Thus Dante, attempting to describe a vision of Beatrice’s face upon arrival at the Empyrean, could only convey it by describing his inability to convey it: “Here I concede defeat. No poet known,/comic or tragic, challenged by his theme/to show his power, was ever more outdone.” Transcendence, so emphatically outside human experience is by necessity difficult to capture sensibly. Indeed, even Georg’s poem, with its descriptions of “unfathomable thanks and unnamed love” and “swimming in a sea of crystal radiance” can begin to seem almost kitschy, or at least over the top, at times. And so when I prepared to listen to the last movement of Schoenberg’s quartet that day, I wasn’t sure how to imagine what the “air of another planet” might sound like.

Whatever I might have imagined, the music was radically different from that imagination. I have long struggled to put into words just why this movement made such an impression on me at the time. Perhaps it was because it truly did sound as though “from another planet,” and yet it was also immanently sensible. It was strangely beautiful, and beautifully strange – and it made me want to learn more about music so that I could understand how a piece like this came about, and what gives its musical substance such great expressive and significant force.


Der siebente Ring Illustration2

In its 1908 premiere, Schoenberg’s Second Quartet prompted a small succès de scandale on account of precisely one of the features for which it is now celebrated: the inclusion of a soprano, singing the aforementioned Stefan Georg texts, in its third and fourth movements. (Reportedly, following the third movement there came calls to end the performance, and by the close of the quartet, Schoenberg’s music was more or less inaudible under the din of the crowd.) The first intimation of a vocal intrusion into the quartet, however, comes even earlier, in the middle of the second movement where, after building up to a fortissimo climax with tremolos in the first and second violins, the quartet quotes the Viennese song “Ach du lieber Augustin.” (The song’s refrain: “Oh, you dear Augustin/All is lost.”) The tune at once evokes programmatic allusions (in particular, the line “all is lost” can be read as referring both to Schoenberg’s dissolution of tonality in this quartet and the simultaneous dissolution of his first marriage) and sounds markedly – even comically – out of place. Eventually, the tune itself dissolves and “is lost” as it becomes chromatically inflected and is subjected to Schoenberg’s process of “developing variation.”

When the voice – a solo soprano – itself comes in in the third movement, it, too, seems to be something of an alien intrusion into the string quartet even as it helps provide extra-musical significance for the work’s audacious moves away from tonality. In many ways, including a solo voice – particularly one that, like the soprano, floats above the quartet redo – seems to go against many of the central principles of the quartet genre – those of equality of instrumental parts, of relative textural homogeneity, and of “durchbrochene arbeit” (the practice of developing musical material by splitting it amongst various instruments).

Schoenberg actively foregrounds such tensions in his setting of Stefan Georg’s “Litanei” in the third movement: written in variation form, the movement’s quartet part treats the principal themes from the previous two movements (continuing in the venerable tradition of cyclic form; compare Schoenberg’s use here with the invocation of previous themes in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) while the soprano sings new, thematically independent material. The result is a remarkable, anguished commentary of sorts on the music that has come before – a commentary that, moreover, seems to derive its force as much from the gulf between the vocal and the quartet parts as it does from their union. This anguished prayer leads to the fourth movement’s other-planetary “rapture” – and, moreover, to the quartet’s most radical movement: not only is the final movement largely removed from tonality (though it touches on triadic harmonies and does end, albeit somewhat tentatively, on a F# major chord, the parallel major of the key in which the first movement began), but it is almost entirely athematic, privileging texture over themes and departing entirely from traditional forms. Much of the harmonic and melodic motion occurs by fifths – an interval that traditionally forms the bedrock of tonality, yet here is presented divorced entirely from its conventional harmonic function. Tonal and formal gravity, so to speak, have been suspended on this new musical “planet.”

Extra-musical associations have long been used to justify transgressions of musical norms; indeed, such practices can be traced back at least as far as Monteverdi’s seconda prattica, in which Monteverdi justified departures from Palestrina-style perfect counterpoint through the demands of attentive text setting. But what seems remarkable to me in Schoenberg’s employment of this device is that while Georg’s texts help articulate the decisive strangeness of the quartet, they do not explain this strangeness away. Rather, the quartet’s deliberate incongruities – which caused such a stir at the quartet’s premiere – expressively heighten this strangeness, and in so doing begin to make it sensible.


Der siebente Ring Illustration4

In an essay exploring the relation between music and language – and, in particular, music’s Sprachähnlichkeit, its similarity to language –, the philosopher Theodor Adorno likewise touches, from a slightly different angle, on the work’s complex mediation between expressiveness and expressionlessness: “Schoenberg…had to find means of composition that would rise above the gliding of the chromatics without reverting back to a lack of differentiation. The solution lay precisely in those extraterritorial chords that had not yet been occupied by musical-linguistic intentions – a kind of musical new-fallen snow in which the subject had not yet left any tracks. … In the last movement of the F-sharp Minor Quartet, the new chords have been inserted as literal allegories of ‘another planet.’ It follows that the origin of the new harmony must be sought in the realm of the emphatically expressionless, as much as in the realm of expression, as much in hostility to language as in language – even though this hostile element, which is alien to the continuum of the idiom, repeatedly served to realize something that was linguistic in a higher degree, namely, the articulation of the whole.”

Such issues lie at the heart of another work that has been very important to me in my explorations of recent music, Brian Ferneyhough’s Fourth String Quartet (1990) – which, like Schoenberg’s Second Quartet, employs the unusual combination of string quartet and soprano and which the composer wrote in conscious response both two Schoenberg’s work and to Adorno’s larger treatment of the issue of Sprachähnlichkeit. Crucially, Ferneyhough was concerned with exploring the viability and limits of the music-language relationship in contemporary music; as he writes in a discussion of the work, “I don’t take Sprachähnlichkeit for granted; in fact, the appropriateness of the concept was part of the problem I set myself. … In my Fourth Quartet, I set myself the task of examining, one more time, how, and if, the phenomenon of verbal language and the essentially processual nature of much recent musical composition could be coaxed into some kind of Einklang, some mutually illuminating coexistence.”

In contrast to Schoenberg’s quartet, whose movements progress with ever-increasing tension to the final movement’s ecstatic Entrückung, Ferneyhough’s quartet employs a rather different strategy. It is structured in two pairs of movements, each consisting of a rather short instrumental movement (the first of which Ferneyhough compares to the “curiously truncated sonata allegro structures in the opening movement of Schoenberg’s Second Quartet”) followed by a longer movement with voice (setting Jackson Mac Low’s “Words and Ends from Ez,” a deconstruction of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos). In both of the pairs, the vocal movement quite audibly mirrors the structural organization of the preceding instrumental movement.

The first movement consists of progressive, though often somewhat violently fragmented, developments of the opening idea, a rapid repetition of a single pitch played on two alternating strings; the second movement shares not only the first’s impulse towards linear development, but also its fragmentary, fractured quality, now expressed directly through frequent grand pauses between sections. In this movement, the vocal part is consistently directly tied to the quartet part, constantly imitating (in various, constantly shifting fashions) material heard in the latter; however, this imitation seems to become increasingly free over the course of the movement, particularly in the middle of the movement when the soprano begins speaking parts of the text – emphasizing that Sprachähnlichkeit can describe not only a similarity to abstract language, but also to spoken language itself. The third movement moves to a different type of fragmentation – one of instrumentation, as different instruments drop out and are foregrounded over the course of the work, casting into question the concerted nature of the string quartet. This reaches an extreme in the fourth, vocal movement, which concludes with a remarkable lengthy passage for solo, unaccompanied voice. In both pairs of movements, the opening instrumental movement sets up the problem (fragmented variation, disintegration of the concerted quartet) that is qualitatively transformed, and placed into dialog with the problem of linguistic and musical expression, through the vocal movement.


Der siebente Ring Illustration3

Retrospectively discussing his Second Quartet in 1949, Schoenberg let his sci-fi side show through for a moment, remarking, “The fourth movement, Entrückung, begins with an introduction, depicting the departure from earth to another planet. The visionary poet here foretold sensations, which perhaps soon will be affirmed. Becoming relieved from gravitation – passing through clouds into thinner and thinner air, forgetting all the troubles of life on earth – that is attempted to be illustrated in this introduction.” Thinner air, but still breathable – and it is this that, for me, makes much of “new music” so fascinating.

Sources Consulted:

Adorno, Theodor. “Music, Language, and Composition.” In Essays on Music, edited by Richard Leppert, 113-126. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Arnold Schoenberg Center. “Zweites Quartett (fis-Moll) für zwei Violinen, Viola, Violoncello und eine Sopranstimme” Accessed July 9, 2013.
Crispin, Darla M. “Arnold Schoenberg’s Wounded Work: ‘Litanei’ From the String Quartet in F sharp minor, Op. 10.” In Austrian Studies 79 (2009), 62-74.
Ferneyhough, Brian. “String Quartet No. 4.” In Collected Writings, ed. James Boros and Richard Toop, 153-164.

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June 2013
Q&A with NYC new music concert series Permutations founder, Ravi Kittappa

We of Fonema Consort hold a special place in our heart for the young NYC concert series Permutations. Both Fonema Consort and Permutations were founded around the same time, and it has been a mutual joy to watch each other “permute” in these formative years. We are curious about the series’ founder Ravi Kittappa’s journey with the series, and his vision for the future, and had some questions for him:


Rehearsing in the beautiful Permutations venue for our first performance with the Series in 2012.

Nina Dante : Attending a performance on the Permutations series is more of an experience than a traditional concert. Set the scene for us, if you will: what is the concept of Permutations?
Ravi Kittappa : Permutations is meant to be a few things: a performance series, a fundraiser, and a party. All three equally. Each permutations is the same format but a different experience, hence the name of the series. The basic idea is that artists can use the event to present something a little different and more intimate than their usual shows while connecting more directly with their audience, raising some money, and having a party with their friends and supporters.

ND : Can you tell us the inspiration behind the creation of Permutations, and its history up to today?
RK : The first Permutations was a little over a year ago – permutations040612, featured the Color Field Ensemble, which came full circle at the last Permutations (permutations032913) which featured members of Color Field performing virtuosic soli. Since the first Permutations I would estimate that the events have raised over $8000 for the various ensembles and artists who’ve presented their work. We’ve had performers from NYC and from throughout the US as well as performers from Germany and France. The money raised from Permutations has gone to funding music festivals, producing a radio-play, making recordings, funding tours, and keeping a German performer in NYC!
Around the time that Permutations started, I was keenly aware of NYC musicians that would perform to small crowds of 30 or so people and either have to pay to do so or get something paltry at the end of the night. They would feel that these performances were successful (and they were!) but would be in the hole monetarily afterwards. It’s a discouraging thing. From my experience in my younger days in punk rock and the rave scene, I knew the remedy was just a little of the DIY ethic. Along with getting the musicians paid in order to allow them to keep producing and performing, Permutations had to be a fun, community building party. Our hope is that people come to Permutations even when they are unaware of the performer or the music, because they want to experience something new, support the artists, and have a drink and some fun afterwards. I think at each successive Permutations event there are more and more folks like that.

ND : We loved performing at Permutations last year- the series has such a unique vibe, which I think has partially to do with the atmospheric venue in which the concerts take place. Can you tell us a little about the venue, and what role it played in the creation of the series? How do you think the venue lends itself to performances of new music?
RK : The venue is kindly donated to us by Jake and Heather Boritt, patrons of the arts and more specifically, arts and culture in Harlem. I can’t thank them enough. Jake had told me of the space after some of the renovations were complete and I specifically had heard about a Highlands Dinner Club event that had happened soon after. Once I saw the space I knew I wanted to do Permutations.
The speakeasy nature of the event as well as being in Harlem, give the night a lot of character. Of course, the performers really interact with the space, deciding how exactly it will work best for them. All the performers are aware of the city soundscape that can sometimes interfere with the proceedings, but it has always worked.

ND : Permutations takes place in NYC, a city whose new music scene is quite mature. Can you tell us what role you would like Permutations to play in this scene?
RK : My humble answer is that Permutations attempts to make NYC more accessible and more of a viable venture for performers and groups. In general, Permutations is a lot of fun too, which often only happens at the bar after a typical NYC new music performance. So there’s a hope for community building as well. Permutations is about empowering the performer. We haven’t taken one cent from any of the performers who’ve played . All the money goes to the performers. I’d love to see someone sell out a Permutations at $200 and put on a crazy show and put that money towards a project that would be difficult to fund in another way.

ND : We of Fonema Consort are so happy to be a part of Permutations in these exciting early years of its growth. We are so curious to see what the series becomes in the next few years- what is your vision for the future of Permutations?
RK : Ahhh. Well I don’t want to give anything away, but as you know, I no longer live in NYC. The virtuoso pianist and my friend, Karl Larson, has been running NYC Permutations events since September. We are looking to start Permutations West in San Francisco and are hoping to help facilitate performers playing the east and west coast. Groups could plan their tours based around the funds they raise in NYC and SF permutations. We have some other things cooking as well, but I can’t divulge that info just yet.

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June 2013
A curiosity : composer Shawn Lucas‘ visual impression of Fonema’s Constellation Concert

Composer Shawn Lucas also funnels his artistic impulses into visual art. We were stunned at his unique visual impression of music sketched during our Constellation concert, and want to share it. You can find more examples of Lucas’ visual art here. To find out what Shawn was hearing, check out the repertoire for the concert here.

Shawn Lucas | Constellation Sketch

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May 2013
Composer Monte Weber gives us an inside look the creation of the speech-transforming Mimesis

Monte Weber

Monte Weber, sound sampling for a recent collaboration.

The conceptualization of Mimesis came about through the struggle to pinpoint my own compositional aesthetic with regards to stuttering and speech therapy. Instead of portraying the struggle and inconsistency of my own speech I decided to let the process of repetition and fluidity govern how words transform. Hogs in suits with wet cigars becomes A hut damned king throws thorns which riddles by transforming single words: hogs–>hags–>august–>hot–>a hut, etc. The process involves the repetition of each word while altering one or more vowel/consonant sounds to achieve fluid transformations and to arrive at a word with a completely different connotation. In Mimesis, the conversational discourse between the two performers explores the inherent unnoticed virtuosity involved in speech.

Each word’s ability to transform so fluidly tells me something about the connection between seemingly disparate words, that is to say that if hogs and hags dwell within such close proximity within this easily traversable continuum, perhaps for a stutterer learning to attain fluidity is only a matter of working through hogs in suits with wet cigars.

To hear Monte’s music, visit his site or his Soundcloud page.

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May 2013
Q&A with critic and Frequency founder Peter Margasak

Constellation LogoJust under a month ago, Chicago’s newest New Music series Frequency had it’s debut concert at Constellation, a new venue here in Chicago that hosts the series. In anticipation of our performance on the series on May 26th, singer Nina Dante had some questions for Frequency’s founder, critic Peter Margasak, on the inspirations and motivations behind the series.

Nina Dante : It is extremely exciting to see the emergence of Frequency, one of the few concert series dedicated to new music here in Chicago. Can you tell us when you started thinking about creating this series, and how the idea developed into reality from there?
Peter Margasak : I’ve been interested in the idea of programming live music for many years, always seeing voids in the local concert-presenting landscape and thinking about how it could be filled, but that was about as far as it ever went. When Mike Reed told me about Constellation, I shared some of my ideas and he proposed doing this weekly series, and getting a chance to present music that’s really important to me has been exhilarating. One of the primary focuses of the series is to give a regular spotlight to the explosion of interesting, independent, and adventurous new music ensembles I’ve noticed in Chicago over the last few years. There are so many terrific groups, but I think the sense of community that exists in Chicago feels a bit diffuse to the outsider–the average person probably doesn’t realize what an exciting moment this is, so Frequency is, in part, trying to concentrate the activity to make it more visible as well as to give the musicians their own space on a consistent basis.

ND : After the opening concerts of the venue and the series, what are your impressions of how Constellation’s environment lends itself to performances of new music?
PM : I think music sounds great in both performance spaces, and because the bar is in the lobby area and separated by two sets of doors there’s no issues with ambient noise. I’ve noticed that audience members are really hear to listen to music, which is the whole idea.

ND : You once described Constellation as a “hybrid space a la Roulette, Issue Project Room Le Poisson Rouge. Chicago needs and deserves this.” What role do you see Frequency/Constellation playing in Chicago’s blossoming new music scene? Can you share any reflections on how you see Chicago’s rapidly developing new music scene being unique from that of New York City’s?
PM : That description was a bit off the cuff–those venues all have very specific identities and aesthetics and I think Constellation is quickly developing its own. Because Mike Reed is at the helm, the bulk of the music is rooted in jazz traditions, but more importantly, Constellation seems determined to provide a platform for many stripes of non-rock music under-represented in the city. With the presence of Links Hall, Constellation feels like a real performing arts center and I don’t feel like Chicago has had anything like it, especially one that focuses on more cutting-edge and progressive work.

ND : New music is a major part of your career as a critic, and it must be important to you personally for you to become an advocate through Frequency- definitely not a light undertaking. How did new music come to be a part of your life?
PM : I’ve been obsessed with music since I was a kid. I started out with pop music, buying 45s and K-Tel compilations. I think what’s always defined my relationship with music is curiosity–I’ve always been driven by new sounds, new experiences. Explaining how my tastes developed could fill a book that probably wouldn’t be too interesting to read, but my relationship with new music is a relatively recent development. I’ve had my early experiences–I remember skipping high school one day to catch a matinee screening of Koyaanisqatsi in the early 80s and checking out Milton Babbitt records at my public library, but it was decades until I seriously engaged. I’ve been buying and listening to contemporary music for many years—Cage, Luigi Nono, Luc Ferrari, Giacinto Scelsi, and Xenakis, and groups like Arditti–but a real cogent picture of the music didn’t emerge until I started hearing the music live, especially through concerts by ICE. I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m hooked. There’s no turning back.

The Frequency new music series takes place Sunday evenings at Constellation.

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April 2013
Organicism | some thoughts on [IVsax(op_VIvln/c)] – by composer Joan Arnau Pàmies

My interest in writing scores is strongly connected to the inherent ability of music to embrace reality. I understand music as a network of potential relationships, a priori, of any kind; as an extremely intricate machinery that allows interpretation to flourish. Not only do I understand interpretation as the act of performance (as in the activity that takes place between score and performer), but also as an essential aspect of both the process of composition and the act of listening.
When composing, I make an effort to meticulously analyze every single material that I am interested in. Whether I am dealing with a particular psychological visualization of a potential sound or the nature of a simple notational signifier, each object needs to function as an essential mechanism of the overall outcome.
To compose, for me, is a matter of penetrating into my own ability to discern the implications of every single compositional decision: it is an exhaustive process that attempts to transmute my own perception of reality into a different domain. Composing embodies labeling, triggering, listing, critiquing, but it also provides a setup in which noise causes a predetermined system to reorganize itself at a higher level of complexity—hence unpredictability, inconsistency, diversity.To hear Pàmies’ music, visit his Soundcloud page here.

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April 2013
Composer Jonathon Kirk on Thoreau, nature, bioacoustics and his Spirits and Elements

Spirits and Elements

Rehearsing for the world premiere of “Spirits and Elements” in Costa Rica (sax not pictured) – August 2012

In 1849 Thoreau published his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers–a profound and poetic memorial to his brother John who died in 1842. The book contains poetry, philosophy, musings on nature and the universal, and most importantly a detailed and beautiful account of their river trip to New Hampshire in 1838–it is a masterpiece.

I had always been struck by the calm mixture of prose and lyrical poetry in the book and I felt that I could set a small fragment of text to music when I was asked by Fonema to create a piece for them. It seemed that the poetry in this book was right for this–I always thought I could hear Thoreau singing certain moments in the book, where he dramatically stops his prose and lets the tranquility of the verse glow on the page:

All things are current found
On earthly ground
Spirits and elements
Have their descents

Night and day, year on year
High and low, far and near
These are own aspects
These are our own regrets

Ye gods of the shore
Who abide evermore
I see your far headland
Stretching on either hand

I hear the sweet evening sounds
From your undecaying grounds
Cheat me now more with time
Take me to your clime

More than just the poetry, Thoreau presents musical ideas in his writings–he had “a susceptibility to natural sounds” as Charles Ives would point out in his essay on the Concord Sonata. (Ives’ meaningful relationship to the writings of Thoreau proved as a great inspiration for my composition). Thoreau’s visual images and sonic representations are, to me, some of the most moving and mysterious and plainly spoken that I have ever read. To me, they read like sonic sketches, in need of a composition:

“At a distance over the woods the sound acquires a certain vibratory hum as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept” (from Walden)

I approached this compositional project much unlike the ones I have before–trying to bridge natural observation (a la Thoreau) to rhythm. When I began writing Spirits and Elements, my wife and I were preparing for a four month residency in Costa Rica where I was going to teach and research aspects of bioacoustics in the soundscapes of the rainforest. The bioacoustical patterns that interested me at the time were the ones that are described having invisible structures, while producing audible results. These Hidden Markov models have been proposed to study the speech of bird song and the repetitions (redundancies) audible in insect choruses. I was able to loosely generate various biacoustic structures algorithmically (through the aid of a computer) while at the same time freely work with the rhythm of Thoreau’s verse–for me it created colorful shifting moods (Ives describes Thoreau’s “elusive moods”). It created wonderfully unpredictable and placid rhythmic energy. In the end I hope I was able to use these “hidden processes” to generate short musical stanzas–sort of like John Cage’s chance procedures, which are hidden behind those sound layers we experience in the forest or along a rural river.

While the instrumental (flute, soprano saxophone, and cello) and electronic layers of the composition reflect these “natural” layers of sound, I yearned to put my energy and focus on the soprano’s foreground melody. All the while I obsessively listened to Thoreau’s words read out loud and to Ives’ works (Thoreau, the Housatonic at Stockbridge and the Concord Sonata) and even David Karsten Daniels’ exhilarating setting of the same poem (there are mangled quotations of all these things scattered throughout the piece). It came together in some unusual way.

It was reassuring to compose Thoreau’s simple and drawn out melody over the pulsing and tactile sound layers of an imagined river. Nina Dante’s voice is perfect for this–hearing Thoreau’s poetry sung in any manner pays homage to his undeniable musical spirit.

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March 2013
Musicologist Etha Williams on Saariaho’s Mirrors for flute and cello (1997)

La dame et la lycorne detail

La dame et la lycorne – sight, detail

Saariaho’s Mirrors consists of a series of fragmentary melodies in both the cello and the flute parts; in keeping with the work’s title, these fragments at all times mirror one another in various musical domains – pitch, rhythm, timbre, and gesture –, giving the overall work a sense of constant reflexivity. Moreover, even as the flautist participates in the creation of these musical mirrors – present both within her material and in her interactions with the cellist –, she simultaneously comments on them verbally: throughout the piece the flautist intermittently recites a text drawn from the Roman da la Dame à la lycorne et du biau chevalier au lion, a 14th-century poem that inspired the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestry (text below, image at right):

Miroir clair – Clear mirror –
brillant sans souillure – brilliant, unblemished –
dans lequel il peut se voir lui même – in which he can see himself
et voir l’amour de sa Dame. – and see the love of his Lady.

The mirror constructions in this work, then, are not mere abstract musical devices, but means of revelatory reflection – the reflection of the self through the transformative gaze of the Other, who is the object of the self’s desire.

Mirrors’s fragmentary construction reflects its origins as part of a CD-ROM, Prisma, dedicated to Saariaho’s work. On this CD-ROM, Mirrors appears not as a fixed composition but as a “game of musical creation” in which the user is permitted to create his or her own version of the piece by dragging and dropping the flute and cello’s pre-composed musical fragments as he or she wishes, combining the fragments either freely or in accordance with Saariaho’s mirror-based compositional constraints. The version heard tonight is Saariaho’s own realization of the piece.

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March 2013
Chicago composer Scott Scharf on nature and his work drifting the upper layers

Scott ScharfWhile perusing the photographs now on display in the “Luminous Garden” exhibit at The Project Room gallery, I could not help but think what an auspicious setting in which to hear my flute and bass flute duo drifting the upper layers. For me, each of Paul den Hollander’s photographs creates a surrealistic micro-world of biodiversity—an unseen ever-present image, or as Hollander describes, “the usually invisible electromagnetical fields that surround and penetrate plants in relation to a known physical reality.”

It is with a degree of humility that I, too, am enamored with Nature and her processes. A curiosity with deep sea explorations and the intangible characteristics of the ocean seem, only in retrospect, to be the kernel of my composition. Many explorers write about their slow descent and mention the marine snow: both organic and inorganic particles that fall from the upper layers of the sea to the bottom. Over the course of writing, this piece began to take on the movement of layered, seemingly free-floating, material that makes up this underwater haze. Though it was not my intention to wholly mimic the unsettled vestige, it has inspired me nonetheless.

I am excited to have Fonema Consort take on this challenging piece—challenging because of the constant state of motion. All of the piece has an underlying percussive element played by both performers. This is overlaid with each playing multiphonics (with increasingly fewer rests the performers struggle for breath). The piece is essentially a temporally stretched harmonic progression where the focus narrows on the density and register irregularly interweaving between the parts.

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February 2013
Violinist/Violist Miranda Cuckson on “new music, new musicians, new entrepreneurs”

Miranda Cuckson performs at Mirrors I

Photo by Marc Perlish : Miranda Cuckson performs in Mirrors I with Fonema Consort.

Last season, Fonema Consort came to New York to perform and I was asked to play as their NY-based guest artist. It was a delight to meet these young musicians, so gifted and thrilled about the music they were playing, the excitement of putting on their own shows, sharing their discoveries with new listeners and friends. It has been terrific lately to see so many musicians around the country and the world throwing themselves into new-music composition and performance, and to witness and take part in the entrepreneurial spirit that has become a necessity but also a positive expression of our modern era. Chicago has been very fertile ground for ensembles and composers, and Fonema Consort seems to have quickly made itself known amid that lively scene.

I’m interested in the group’s focus on the voice along with instruments. Co-founder Nina Dante has a remarkably flexible voice and a passion for new works that was evident as soon as I met her. I’ve always been drawn to the basic song/spoken nature of music, that primal utterance from the throat, whether blossomed into pitch and melody, or closer to speaking voice or other vocal noise. Also, always, I love the combination and balance of words and music, the great question that Strauss so memorably put forth in Capriccio. It’s wonderful to see a group explicitly focus on this fundamental aspect.

I am looking forward to play works by two great American artists with Nina. One is Charles Wuorinen’s Visible, which sets text by Paul Auster. The lines are stated three times, each time with more urgency and wildness. The twisting together of voice and violin is so effective in this piece- the lines swoop and turn and keep meeting at common notes, only to swerve away again.

We’ll also be playing Morton Feldman’s Voice, Violin and Piano. Feldman’s distinct language of quiet tones, floating sonorities and unpredictable silences sets such an example of exquisite craft, attention to beauty of sound and passing time, and brilliant thinking realized with simple materials. This piece will put the voice and the violin, which is often likened to a soprano voice, in duet along with the piano’s particular resonance.
I’ll also be playing two solos, by Oscar Bianchi and Kaija Saariaho. Bianchi’s Semplice is a solo that I recently recorded. Its title is rather tongue-in-cheek, for it is actually a very ornate piece full of curlicues and light, fanciful passages. He told me that it should sound “semplice” (Italian for “simple”), though the music is actually not. I think this means conveying a certain ease in executing it, and also having a large sense of the trajectory. Though much of the piece has a bright, radiant quality and wonderfully utilizes the sparkling, pretty high register of the violin, it gradually introduces a more edgy microtonal language, with ponticello adding a layer of grit. Oscar, an Italian-Swiss citizen, is very active, with performances lately with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Aix-en-Provence festival and Ensemble Modern, but his music may not be familiar in Chicago, so I am pleased to perform it there.

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Nocturne is a memorial piece that she wrote for Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski. Compared to her many lush and sweeping large-scale pieces – operas, symphonic works – this is a small sample of her music, but it draws the listener immediately into an amazingly vivid atmosphere and sound world. Moving in sensuous waves and rounded gestures, it is elegiac yet warm and enveloping. Like many composers of the last few decades, she explores some non-pitched sounds – here, crunching noise caused by pressure on the strings. Though this is often an aggressive-sounding noise, Saariaho applies it here subtly, using it to add a poignant twinge to the sighing lines.

I’m looking forward to join Fonema Consort for these works, to share them with listeners and to see and meet people in Chicago in early March!

To read more of Miranda’s thoughts, follow her blog here.

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February 2013
Composer Shawn Lucas on his new work for Fonema Consort


For one reason or another, the title my my new work (The Rhinoceros) reminds me of a movement from the Bartók Sonatina called “Bear Dance”. It comes from a reoccurring dream I had around four years ago, which was marked by the sudden emergence of a giant rhinoceros. In my piece, the rhinoceros is not transmitted by any vivid sonic representation, but exists more as a psychological realization which fueled a desire to compose. It lives as a shadow, existing but never tangible.

Initially I wrote very freely with a lot of improvisation and experimenting with extreme guitar scordaturas. I was completely liberated from any structural or “pre-composed” restraints. For me, the most arduous task of creating a piece of music is coming to terms with a structural hierarchy. My initial stages of writing do move toward certain goals, such as achieving specific timbral effects or defining a system of pitches for a scordatura, but these are nonetheless short term ideas and not yet integrated in a larger vision. The incredible volume of sounds and ideas at my disposal can make me feel like a kid exploring an endless jungle gym filled with any variation of structures in which to climb, which, at certain times, threaten to become a field littered with traps and landmines, leaving me with only instinctual methods to detect the danger ahead.

Understanding why I make certain creative choices has become just as important to my compositional abilities as analyzing The Well Tempered Clavier for my early studies of counterpoint. My frustration, in hindsight, has provided magnificent perspective and cleared a path which may have been otherwise impossible to navigate.

To read the full post, click here to be redirected to Shawn’s website.

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December 2012
Pianist David Kalhous on Sciarrino and the Piano

David Performing Sciarrino

Pianist David Kalhous performs Sciarrino’s Sonata No. IV in Arie

For many years, I have been drawn to Sciarrino’s music for strings, winds and voice. I’ve felt that the mercurial, unstable, and perpetually fragile nature of Sciarrino’s musical aesthetics is best expressed by instruments whose pitches are less fixed and easier to manipulate than those of the piano. There is much beauty in his De la nuit (1971), Anamorfosi (1980), and 1st Sonata (1976), where rapid piano figurations both hide and expose direct quotations from Liszt, Ravel, and Debussy. The brilliant piano writing, undoubtedly a result of Sciarrino’s extensive and longstanding collaboration with the pianist Massimiliano Damerini, was not lost on me. But these pieces always felt emotionally withdrawn, almost indifferent, their message hidden behind the veil of the sonic haze of the ever-present impressionistic coloration.

Sciarrino once described his own music “like the eruption of a volcano viewed from afar.” Sciarrino’s scores from the 1980s on are imbued with a searing intensity in which no musical phrase is purely ornamental. Every gesture—be it a rapid figuration or a series of violent chromatic clusters, a sudden extreme change of dynamics or a shift between registers—is of paramount musical importance.

This is why Sciarrino’s later piano sonatas interest me more. Starting with the 2nd Sonata (1983), Sciarrino’s approach to piano texture becomes less linear than in his earlier works. The uses of extreme registers and dynamics, as well as silences which structure and illuminate the instrument’s sonic outburst have a direct visceral impact on the listener.

The 4th Sonata (1992) might be Sciarrino’s most radical piano composition so far. The familiar quasi-impressionistic figuration is dispensed. Instead we are immediately overwhelmed by violent, obsessive, almost manic reiteration of chromatic and diatonic clusters played by both hands in extreme registers of the instrument. The physical tension the pianist experiences during the performance (the piece is technically very demanding) translates into a psychological uneasiness that the listener will undoubtedly feel while listening to this piece.

This is one of the most remarkable scores I have encountered as a pianist, and I look forward (with some trepidation) to the concert with EVL at the University of Chicago next week, where Sciarrino’s 4th Sonata will be followed by chamber works by Donatoni, Scelsi and Gervasoni.

Photo by Thomas Crosse.

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