David Grant on Water Ouzel
April 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with composer Mesias Maiguashca
February 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





EVER A NEW CYCLE Interviews : Shawn Jaeger
November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EVER A NEW CYCLE Interviews : Jonathon Kirk
November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EVER A NEW CYCLE Interviews : Pablo Chin
November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boschiana Trio

Recording Chin’s “Boschiana” (January 2014)

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

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

7 Studies Premiere

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

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

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

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

Photo credits: Thomas Crosse and Marc Perlish

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

April 2015
James Dillon on his Music

Dillon Trio

Dillon, Dante and Schulmeister in Minnesota – 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ND : What are these risks?

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

ND : As in the Boulez tradition?

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

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

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

ND : Enthusing with her environment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JD : I think its lazily categorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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