Blog Archives

2013-2014 Season

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May 2014 – Interview: Joan Arnau Pàmies
Joan Arnau Pamies
May 2014 – Interview: composer Mauricio Pauly
April 2014 – Interview: Catherine Bolzinger
April 2014 – Pablo Chin on Fonema’s Debut Album
March 2014 – Katie Young on Master of Disguises
 March 2014 – Katie Young on Master of Disguises
 February 2014 – On Gee’s Mouthpiece Series
Erin Gee
February 2014 – Alexander Sigman – On epiglottis
Alexander Sigman
 November 2013 – Stratis Minakakis – Apoploys III
 November 2013 – Pablo Chin – Boschiana
Pablo Chin
November 2013 – Pablo Chin – Estrada’s Graphic Method in Yuunohui
October 2013 – Francisco Trigueros – LMF Interviews Week 3
October 2013 – Tomas Gueglio – LMF Interviews Week 2
Tomas-Gueglio copy
October 2013 – Andrés Carrizo – LMF Interviews Week 1
Andres Carrizo 300x300
September 2013 – James Bean – Through a Fog, Sprays of Light
James Bean 250x250
August 2013 – Etha Williams – Part II: Gusualdo, Stravinsky, Sciarrino
Carlo Gesualdo 200x200
August 2013 – Etha Williams – Part I: Gusualdo, Stravinsky, Sciarrino
Etha Williams 200x200
July 2013 – Etha Williams – Singing in “Thinner and Thinner Air”
June 2013 – Q&A with Permutations founder Ravi Kittappa
May 2013 – Shawn Lucas – A curiosity from Constellation
May 2013 – Monte Weber – On Mimesis and the speaking voice
May 2013 – Q&A with Frequency founder Peter Margasak
April 2013- Joan Arnau Pàmies on his work- Organicism
Joan Arnau Pamies
April 2013 – Jonathon Kirk – On nature, bioacoustics and Thoreau
March 2013 – Etha Williams – On Saariaho’s Mirrors
March 2013 – Scott Scharf – Marine snow and Drifting the upper layers
February 2013 – Miranda Cuckson – New music, new musicians
February 2013 – Shawn Lucas – The recurring dream, Rhinoceros
December 2012 – David Kalhous – Sciarrino and his Piano Sonatas

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

Score sample of Pàmies' "[IVsax(op_VIvln-c)]"

Score sample of Pàmies’ “[IVsax(op_VIvln-c)]”

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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