Interview with Juan Campoverde

Nina Dante : Juan, your music is full of deep, secretive, and lush magic. There is something profoundly worshipful about your music, something ceremonial and reverent. Your pieces often revolve around nature and the deepest human emotions. In your music, I hear the water and birds and stones and stars. You were born and grew up in Ecuador, and from my travels there several years ago, I can affirm that it is one of the most incredibly beautiful places in the world. Your duo for voice, flute and tape Basalto is in a large part based on whale songs, and basalt is the rock of which Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands are composed; your quartet for two voices, flute and guitar Umbrales uses a text that likens a man to stone; your quartet for voice, flute, clarinet, and harpsichord/guitar Los lugares del deseo is full of metaphor linking the natural world to human desires, and is a lush landscape of a piece. Could you talk about the influence the natural world has on your music, and why it is so present (in direct and indirect ways) in your work? How much of Ecuador is embedded in your music?

Juan Campoverde : Thank you Nina. You have the words of a poet.

Indeed, I have lived half of my life in Ecuador and undoubtedly my music has been shaped by this fact in ways that I could not completely articulate. It is quite possible that what I see and feel as the raw and unmediated energies emanating from its volcanic landscapes (to mention one salient feature as example) has influenced the ways I think about forms and about expressive tensions and ruptures in my music.

On the other hand, I can say with greater certainty that fundamental aspects of my creative path can be found within the spaces that have emerged from the distance (geographical, temporal, psychological) that separates the experiences I have had in Ecuador, and those I have had here in the US. I think my music owes a lot to this sense of perspective, to call it in some way, that has allowed me to observe and feel what is dear and meaningful from different planes and gradients, using shifting lights and shades that touch the immediate and sensual and that equally illuminate the abstract and distant.

ND : Your writing for the voice and instruments is extremely distinctive and unique to you: lyrical, fluttering between textures (I think of the moving patterns that sunlight through trees casts on the ground), and deeply expressive. Spiritually, it is birdlike: always on the wing, always shifting... a sound is always in the process of becoming another sound. Technically, your scores decouple several parameters of vocal and instrumental sound production into different staves, which facilitates timbral shifting. In the case of your vocal writing, sound production is split into three staves: (1) consonants and vowels, (2) rhythms and pitch, and (3) breath. Your particular use of this method produces an effect that I feel when I sing all your vocal works: that I am in a secretive duet with myself. What impulses led you to develop your compositional style? How does the decoupling of parameters allow you to create the musical atmosphere you hear in your imagination?

JC : Probably the main impulse for my approach is the exploration of how simultaneous trajectories (musical parameters projected on individual time-lines) can weave together sound-forms that in their constant evolution facilitate the emergence of expressive energies defined by their transitional nature. Not as unforeseen occurrences however, but rather as the product of carefully designed environments that nurture this type of parametric interaction, with both its fractures and its strengths.

More generally, I believe that the use of simultaneous trajectories and time-lines also reflects the time/space compression that characterizes our existence and that can be observed around us if we care to see and to listen. The simultaneous presence of several streams of information competing for our attention; the porous and complex nature that informs the formation of our memories, feelings and sensations…

ND : In three of the vocal works you have written for Fonema, you embedded poetry by Ecuadorian poets. In the case of your 2017 quartet Los lugares del deseo, you set four poems by Cristobal Zapata, revolving around the sacredness of erotic love. In your 2013 quartet Umbrales and 2014 duo Basalto, you set fragments of a mourning poem by Efrain Jara Idrovo, which translates as Weeping for Pedro Jara; Structures for an Elegy. Both of these works are full of the most potent imagery, full of the natural world, full of the deepest expression of human emotion. What impulse led you to choose these texts? What is your relationship to the poets and their work? What role does the poetry play in your works, both musically and spiritually?

JC : I found that, as a response to what I felt to be a lack of historic continuity that has characterized several aspects of the musical life in Ecuador, it was helpful for me to embrace other forms of creative expression as points of reference and validation. In this regard, the resonances I perceived in the works you mention by Jara Idrovo and Zapata were instrumental in grounding and connecting my concerns and aspirations within a shared reality.

The depth and the power of their imagery, in a virtuosic balance with their meticulous approach to matters of form and structure, captivated my imagination, prompting me to explore latent aspects of my subjectivity.

Did I succeed in this exploration?
Does my work manage to inhabit these spiritual spaces?

I can only hope.

Further Reading/Listening
Juan Campoverde website
Efrain Jara Idrovo
Sollozo por Pedro Jara; Estructuras para una elegía by Efrain Jara Idrovo
Cristobal Zapata

Interview with Pablo Chin

Nina Dante : Si Chavela Met Matta started out as a work for solo voice (I), which I commissioned for the Resonant Bodies Festival, and which now exists in chamber orchestra (III) and trio form (II), the latter of which will be premiered on November 16 at Elastic. At the center of the work are traces of two iconic Latin American creators: Mexican folk singer Chavela Vargas, and Chilean painter Roberto Matta. Could you tell us about the origins of this series, and why it has proven to be such fertile ground for your imagination?

Pablo Chin : Si Chavela Met Matta I, like the innermost Russian doll, is embedded in the three acoustic pieces that you mentioned above, and a fixed media piece. It represents to me a convergence of different conflicts that I hope come across the listening experience. On the one hand there is the conflict of reconciling the source material, mainly the iconic and unique voice of Mexican folk artist Chavela Vargas, with the voice of a classically trained singer. (Chavela is well known in the Spanish speaking world, but think of similar iconic singers like Louis Armstrong or Edith Piaf…) The performer isn’t meant to imitate Chavela or to be overshadowed by her figure, but rather, to find in her art a point of departure to discover new alternatives in the performer's own performance practice. Chavela's voice and words gave me and my piece a vital force and deep layers of meaning, but the piece is ultimately meant to be owned by the performer. More than any instrument, the human voice projects so much specificity about a subject, that composing a piece for a vocalist based on another vocalist represents a huge conflict.

Another conflict arises from the sincere desire to create a connection between a musical language I have been cultivating for years, and musicians whose practice is technically and aesthetically distanced from such language. This is relevant for the third manifestation of this piece in its greater setting, for voice, piano, percussion and chamber ensemble. It was composed for the Symphony Orchestra of Heredia in Costa Rica and was premiered by them last summer. When I left my home country in 2006 there were no consolidated platforms for living composers, or ensembles dedicated to performing contemporary classical music. The Symphony Orchestra Heredia is only a few years old, and I am greatly honored to have them undertake the task of performing my music. Working with them is a rewarding challenge for composer and performers: not only the so-called extended techniques and non-conventional forms of notation in my music are exceptions in their repertoire, but the aesthetic itself is also unusual for their practice. Ironically, while my piece in this summer's concert was perceived by the audience as extremely abstract, I myself heard it as a sort of post-decadent piece, recalling sediments of Schoenberg-like atonal works though resulting from completely different processes than those of the Viennese School, and also aiming at different goals.

The conflict here may be imposed by myself, but it demands that I step out of the bubble of my personal practice and immerse into another practice while remaining consistent with my artistic impulses and goals. For more than a decade I have composed for ensembles, institutions and audiences for which my work falls within the normal range of musical practice. Confronting other contemporary music scenes shakes that comforting ground. Si Chavela met Matta forced me to rethink myself against my previous self – a meeting of two selves just as the fictional meeting of Chavela and Roberto Matta! And this fictional meeting represents a third conflict in the piece, but that I will respond in the next question.

ND : Your compositional process to create the Si Chavela Met Matta series is a departure from your usual method: you essentially composed the works electronically, using source material from Chavela Vargas and Roberto Matta, and then transcribed it for live performance. Could you tell us about that process? Why did you decide to take this compositional route? How much of a departure is it from your normal process?

PC : An essential element in this piece was the creation of an artificial language, just as you and I did with a previous piece, Como la leyenda de Tlön. In that piece I asked you to write a poem in a language of a fictional planet, created in a fictional country in a fictional story by J.L. Borges. Borges gave some clues about how that language may sound, in the form of very few words. You used those phonemes to create a vocabulary that later I set to music. In Si Chavela met Matta, I used a recording of Vargas singing a capella Las cosas simples in an interview shortly before she died. I loaded the recording in a granular synthesis application, which I used to speed up, slow down, freeze, play forwards and in reverse, and change the pitch of the recording, all "drawing" on the touchpad of my laptop. Then I superimposed the audio file over a painting of Matta, Le coeur de l'oeil, and recorded many sound files distorting Chavela's recording by "drawing" over the contours of the painting. The results are alternations between unintelligible language and snippets of Spanish text, and between computerized sounding voice and the warmth of Chavela's voice. The resulting “language” is nearly schizophrenic!

The instrumental parts were composed using the same process, but instead of "drawing" over Chavela's voice I used a series of chord progressions that were similarly distorted. I imagined a couple of bongos and a guitar accompanying Chavela, hence the percussion and piano parts. The ensemble parts were further conversions of these deformed/transformed progressions and were meant as musical commentary over the course of the piece.

In addition to these three acoustic pieces, I used the processed audio files to create a fixed media piece, bringing out the original voice of Chavela Vargas over the original distortions of the chord progressions. This whole process was an expansion of previous attempts to free my music from rationally constructed compositional paths and follow more visceral impulses; to accept giving up control over the form and soundworld of the piece.

ND : Leading up the my first performance of the solo Si Chavela Met Matta, you asked me to create modest scenery for the performance: table, chair, a few simple adornments. For me, this illuminated the work on a deeper level when it came time to perform it: I was suddenly in the time, place, and soul that the music evokes. Your work for voice is so emotional and so uniquely narrative that theater inevitably emerges. Do you feel a strong theatrical impulse when writing vocal works? Do you feel that a theatrical context is the ultimate culmination of some of these works?

PC : More than theater, I feel compelled by narrative. I find sound in the abstract very expressive, but I find more satisfaction in searching and finding connections between sound and narrative experiences, and the voice easily leads to such endeavors. The setting in Si Chavela is meant to project the vulnerability, sincerity and humility of the context in which Chavela's a cappella recording took place: a casual interview, and her spontaneous singing removed from the grandeur of her shows at world class theaters with massive crowds and media attention. After all, the source recording of the piece is titled Las cosas simples/The simple things.

Interview with Tiffany Skidmore

Nina Dante : “no stars” is an excerpt from your opera-in-the making The Golden Ass, which is based on the Cupid and Psyche myth and is now nearing completion. Could you tell me about the opera itself, and the continuing story of its creation?

Tiffany Skidmore : The Golden Ass is a modern adaptation of the Cupid/Psyche myth that incorporates texts from the original version by Apuleius and newly-written texts by Patrick Gallagher.

About 15 years ago, I became interested in adapting the C.S. Lewis version of the myth, Till We Have Faces. I was very taken by Lewis’s consideration of the story from the perspective of Psyche’s sister and loved the book’s poetic language and imagery. After adapting the book, I went through an extensive approval process with representatives from the C. S. Lewis Company and then wrote about 30 minutes’ worth of the music. Over time, it became clear that restrictions on the rights to Lewis’s text would cause continual setbacks for the project, so I decided to shelve the work. Years later, while discussing my frustrations about the unfinished work with James Dillon, he suggested that I write a new libretto adapted from Apuleius’s “Metamorphoses,” the source of the original myth. Soon after, Patrick Gallagher and I met and worked together as participants in the Nautilus Music-Theater Composer-Librettist Studio. The work we created in the Studio felt very satisfying and we decided to continue to work together on a new version of The Golden Ass with a significant focus on psychological aspects of Psyche’s experiences of traumatic events and her relationships with the other characters of the story — particularly as those characters age and power dynamics begin to shift.

ND : Fonema premiered “no stars” back in 2017, and since then, I’ve sung two more of your works, both for solo voice: Without Solution of Continuity (with tape), and “Mais mes mains” (another excerpt from The Golden Ass). I’m stuck by the qualities that unite these works: the slow-moving textures, the glacial tempi, the galactic solemnity, the heavy emotions felt at a distance. I can’t help but think of Sciarrino’s description of his music: like watching a volcano erupt from a distance; but in your case, perhaps like watching a star explode through a telescope. Could you talk about your musical impulses, your own conception of your sonic world, and the purposes you hope it to serve?

TS : I’m endlessly fascinated by physiological and imagined responses to sound deployed in exceptionally reverberant spaces and the way our perceptions of sound-layering and distortion also interact with our perceptions of the passing of time, gravity, motion, etc. Perhaps time moves more slowly; sounds become increasingly heavy; the ends of phrases blur; hard, percussive attacks become less perceptible; pitches bend; subsequent entrances layer to create microtonal chords, etc.

At the same time, I am interested in magnification — of gesture, of emotional state, of small details. I think your description of watching a star explode through a telescope is apt, although in my mind, the lens of the telescope is also distorted. Looking through one piece of the lens allows us to to zoom in, examining tiny details on the surface of the object. At the same time, another piece allows us to view the object from such a great distance that it shrinks and appears to float alone through a vast space. A lot of my most recent music has involved exploring ideas such as these.

These concepts are present in a different way throughout the myth of Psyche and Cupid, which is a story that inhabits many planes simultaneously — the story dramatizes large- and micro-scale natural phenomena and manifestations of deeply personal psychological experiences simultaneously.

Without Solution of Continuity explores these ideas as they relate to memory. Samuel Beckett’s play, That Time, tells the story of the life of Beckett’s protagonist at different moments throughout his life simultaneously. The play also has an overtly musical form. In Beckett’s performance instructions for the piece, he states that “Moments of one and the same voice A B C relay one another without solution of continuity…” While conceptualizing my piece, I became interested in the idea that tiny fragments of his stories — single words presented “without solution of continuity” — might still be capable of creating a textural fabric that gives impressions of the protagonist’s life. I created a new text using fragments from the play according to the same musical form that Beckett used. The tape (featuring readings by noted Schoenberg scholar, Dr. Michael Cherlin) and live vocalist create a tapestry of memories by performing the text at different rates of time.

Your question about purpose is a very complicated one. Beyond satisfying my own intellectual curiosities, I really believe that experimental music can help people to think differently about the world. I think grappling with complex ideas (whether musical or otherwise) helps prepare all of us to grapple with life-problems in a more nuanced way, because life is complex and art can reflect that reality.

ND : In addition to being a composer, you are a singer yourself. You’ve written quite a lot for the voice: choral works, solo and ensemble works, and now an opera. The three vocal works of yours that I have performed are all characterized by extremely slow and dramatically leaping lines that test a singer’s breath control, vocal range, and ability to span vocal registers smoothly. How much of a role do these challenges play in shaping the expressivity that emerges? What impulse has led you to creating this particular type of expressivity in the voice? How much of a role has your own voice played in the creation of your vocal writing?

TS : In some sense, I’m certain that everything I write is a response to my relationship to the voice as my primary instrument and, in particular, my relationship to melody as the traditional vehicle for a classically-trained vocalist. As a composer, I always find myself wrestling with the power that melody has to manipulate and I feel a responsibility to deeply consider whether and how to incorporate lyrical material. The dramatically leaping lines that characterize much of my recent music are due to my attempts to bring my lines into three-dimensional relief. I have been very heavily influenced by Webern in this regard.

More generally, I believe that testing the limits of a performer’s instrument and individual abilities creates a very special environment for expressivity, imbuing a work with tension, drama, and fragility. Music that asks so much also asks for a very high level of commitment to the work, trust in the performer’s and composer’s abilities, and a willingness by all involved to risk failure. I also think that breath and other physical mechanisms are so personal that incorporating them in a very conscious way into music creates new levels of connection — between a performer and the work, audience and performer, and, as a result, the audience and the music.

ND : The other works on our program for November 16th explore various roles for the voice within an ensemble setting. In Coïgitum, Richard Barrett asks the voice to take the role of sonic backdrop against which the instruments interact, drawing the audience’s ear into the piece without dominating the texture or even taking an equal role within the texture; and in Pablo Chin’s Si Chavela Met Matta, the vocalist retains her classic role as story-teller while the instrumentalists live their own protagonistic life beside her. What role does the voice play in the ensemble setting of “no stars”? Is this role consistent throughout your works for voice?

TS : The majority of the libretto for The Golden Ass is written in English. In "no stars", the flute is the primary declaimer of the English text, and yet the nature of vocalizing flute means that the listener rarely hears the text clearly. At the same time, the voice, moving in and out of the forefront, frequently echoes and presages translations of the English text in other languages whose cultures have retained some descendant version of the Psyche/Cupid myth within their storytelling traditions. The story is consistently obscured.

The way I treat the voice is always dependent on how I feel about a particular text. I love poetry, so sometimes I want the words I’m setting to be salient, while at other times I only want to create a musical atmosphere for the world created by the poem. Sometimes I think the best settings point to a text rather than declaiming the text directly. The best texts don’t need music, but music can talk about poetry in a way that words often can’t.

Further listening/reading
Skidmore's website

Interview with Richard Barrett

Nina Dante : Your quintet Coïgitum contains traces of work (direct and inspirational) from two sources: 20th century Chilean painter Roberto Matta, and 19th century Italian philosopher Giacomo Leopardi. Could you discuss why these two influences converged in Coïgitum at that point in your life? And what role their work had in propelling your own message (if there is a message!) forward in the piece?

Richard Barrett : The work of some artists, of whom Matta has been one (others might include the writers Samuel Beckett, to whom I’ll come back shortly, Paul Celan and Simon Howard), has the quality of seemingly spontaneously bringing sound-images to my mind, which then, as you’d imagine, brings with it a compulsion to explore that relationship further, to try to understand it, and to do so by realising those sound-forms in actual musical compositions. In the process, maybe something can be discovered about the nature of the imagination, in particular the feeling that for a creative musician there’s no such category as “extra-musical” source. I would go so far as to say that Matta’s paintings have had at least as much influence on what I do as the work of any composer, in (to name only these) its sense of colour, its irrationally interlocking perspectives, its expressivity which is bold and spontaneous but at the same time meticulous and precise; and I think all of these characteristics are very clearly audible in the music of CoïgitumI first saw Matta's paintings in the flesh in late 1977, a couple of months after I moved to London as a student, in an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery dominated by five enormous canvases, including the one whose title I took for this piece. At that time, the beginning of my involvement with musical composition was still a few years off, so maybe it could be said that seeing these paintings was one of the factors that eventually led to my abandoning a scientific career, more or less immediately after leaving university, and devoting myself to music. In fact Coïgitum was only the first element to be completed of a whole group of pieces entitled After Matta - it was followed fairly rapidly by the ‘cello solo Ne songe plus à fuir and the electronic piece The Unthinkable, then by Illuminer le temps for ensemble, which was performed a number of times in a provisional version in 1990 but not definitively finished until 2005, and then finally by a piece for ensemble and electronic sounds, Wake, in 2016. So this inspiration predates my compositional work and has continued to be present throughout it.

My encounter with the writings of Leopardi actually came through my involvement with the work of Samuel Beckett, which informs most of my work written between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s in one way or another, as well as several compositions written since then, being again something that has stayed with me throughout. Beckett quotes from the poem "A se stesso" in his novel Molloy, and refers to Leopardi also in his important essay on Proust. The quotation used in Coïgitum comes, you might say, at a point of confusion and crisis in the music, whose central section consists of a collage of quite disparate components: the music becomes lost in its own convolutions, and from these emerges Leopardi’s voice - more or less the only clearly enunciated words in the whole piece - saying “life is bitterness and tedium, and the world is mud”, which very much parallels the situation described in Beckett’s novel How It Is. At the moment the voice is finally isolated, after being submerged in the instrumental textures almost constantly until now, it’s unable to complete this sentence - there’s a moment of inarticulate panic, after which the music suddenly rediscovers a sense of direction, and begins a headlong process of repeated accumulations of sound which only finally come to an end when everything is absorbed into the piano in the final minutes, after which all that density is gradually erased until nothing is left. I wouldn’t want to be too specific about what this all “means” in poetic or dramatic terms. Like Matta and Beckett, in their different ways it has very many layers. I would prefer listeners (and performers) to explore what, if anything, it might mean to them. It’s important to me to be thinking in terms of encouraging the musical experience to open horizons rather than close them, to activate and empower the listener’s imagination.

ND : Coïgitum is quite an early work, written between 1983 and 1985. You must have been in your mid-20s when you first sat down to work on it. Since then, you’ve written relatively extensively for voice: chamber works, theater pieces, and large-scale concert-length works. What was your approach to vocal (+instrumental) writing for this and other early works, and how has your approach changed since Coïgitum up to - for example - CONSTRUCTION (2003-2011)?

RB : Coïgitum was for most of those two years the only or principal project I was working on - it came at a time in my life where I was trying to establish what “my music” was, what it could become, how to find a point of departure that would be somehow anterior to any supposed distinction between intellect and sensuality. The preparation for it involved hundreds of pages of sketches, as well as the writing of computer programs for articulating its musical processes, and only a fraction of all of this is really apparent in the score. (As for the programs, their potential has still not been exhausted, since I still use some of the ones I developed back then.) A sense of urgency about exploring worlds of musical possibilities whose shape was only beginning to become clear is something that feeds into the poetic identity of the music. Nowadays I work much more quickly and efficiently, although I think that urgency is still always there, since there always seems to be so much to do, and the further I get the more potential directions seem to open up. The only potentially important and vital contribution that can be made by music like this, which resists the pressures to conform to the supposedly inevitable priorities of corporate culture, is to emphasise again and again that there are actually no restrictions on our imagination, so that we can for example imagine a world different from this one, which might prioritise life and intelligence over profit, conformity and stupidity. I was recently reading an essay by David Graeber, "Revolution in Reverse", which expresses the fundamental relationship between imagination and social liberation movements in many beautiful ways, including this: "Right and Left political perspectives are founded, above all, on different assumptions about the ultimate realities of power. The Right is rooted in a political ontology of violence, where being realistic means taking into account the forces of destruction. In reply the Left has consistently proposed variations on a political ontology of the imagination, in which the forces that are seen as the ultimate realities that need to be taken into account are those (forces of production, creativity…) that bring things into being.” Anyone who recognises a necessity to struggle for equality and social justice is involved in what is literally a struggle of life against death. Even if listeners to music might not even recognise it as such, this is what is at stake when music (to name only this) is being made. That’s something that was already becoming clear to me at the time when Coïgitum was composed, and such issues have if anything gained in immediacy in the meantime.

As I mentioned before, there’s very little actual “text-setting” in Coïgitum, and this is to do with the way I thought of the voice as not being a soloist, or even an equivalent element to the instruments, but as something more like the coloured “wash” that forms the background in many of Matta’s paintings and draws the viewer through the complex foreground into something more still, if not necessarily static, and of course the presence of a voice in music is always something which attracts a listener’s attention, for evolutionary reasons so to speak - even in the background it draws the listener inward to the interior of the sound -textures. This reversal of the usual perspective in “vocal music” is for me one of the most prominent and perhaps individual features of Coïgitum - although I was interested to find, many years later on, a parallel in the sinawi ensemble music of Korea. It’s an idea that's reappeared in later pieces in which voices feature, Opening of the Mouth in particular, but in the years since the mid-1980s I’ve been interested in expanding my view of the potential of the voice in music. It’s not that the approach has changed but that it has gradually come to embrace more possibilities, including - in CONSTRUCTION - something that perhaps comes close to opera, where vocalists are embodying named characters (in this case from Greek tragedy). One thing that remains constant in my work with voices is that it tends not to create associations with the bel canto tradition, as a result of which the vocalists I’ve worked with most often over the years have themselves come from outside that tradition: for example Deborah Kayser, who's also an early music specialistUte Wassermann, who has spent much of her life researching and incorporating into her own work a massive range of vocal techniques, some newly invented and others inspired by vocal traditions from all parts of the world; and Carl Rosman, whose “day job” is as a clarinetist and conductor. I was attracted to write the theatre piece Unter Wasser for Marianne Pousseur after hearing her somewhat chanteuse-like performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. I’ve written two solo vocal pieces (dying words I and II ) where the performer also plays flute (they’ve been performed both by a vocalist who “also” plays flute and by a flute player who “also” sings); and one of my current works in progress involves a solo part for the Australian violinist Winnie Huang, which will employ both voice and composed movements along with her instrument. The voice has been an important focus in my work for many years but I think I’m always trying to find new ways for voices to “speak”.

As for instrumental writing, Coïgitum is a composition that exists at and quite often beyond the threshold of what instruments can do, particularly in its piano part (originally written for Michael Finnissy) which often involves an “impossible” network of voices crossing each other in all directions. This approach of creating a kind of transcendent virtuosity by enormous proliferations of notes is something that, once more, subsequently became one possible feature of my musical creativity, rather than the principal one. Sometimes when I think about this score I wonder about making a new version of it (or perhaps even several different ones) which might exclude half or more of the notated material and rework the rest into something that achieves a similar level of intricacy without that almost constant, sometimes opaque, high density of sound, as well as working with the grain of the instruments instead of this more speculative approach. But then I come to the conclusion that this is in a way what I’ve actually been doing all the time in the years since it was written. It’s better left as it is, as an expression of a sort of “big bang” in which most of the rest of my creative output has its chaotic point of origin. At least, this is my current thinking since the unexpected but extremely welcome news that you and Fonema Consort were planning to bring it back into the world, after many years in which it wasn’t performed at all. Listening to your previous performances I find it surprising and indeed inspiring to hear that I can hear it without my attention being focused on everything I’ve learned about music since then and that I had little idea of at that time. I’d like to think this is because what I hear as the freshness and sense of discovery in it are things I still try to concentrate on when making music. Of course it may also be because I haven’t actually learned as much in the meantime as I thought I had!

ND : In addition to being a composer of notated music, your work as an improvisor is a major part of your artistic life. Is there an intersection between your work as a improvisor and your work as a classical composer, or do they exist as separate practices in your life?

RB : I find the word “classical” quite odd when applied to what I’m doing, and actually I never use it myself! - but the relationship between improvisation and notated composition in my work is in fact much more than an intersection. I don’t regard improvisation as being complementary or opposite to composition, but as a method of composition, with its own structural/poetic possibilities just like any other method. While it would be true to say that the improvisational and notational methods of composition at the time I was working on Coïgitum were parallel rather than interwoven, this was really a temporary situation which I finally got to grips with around 2000, in the form of an idea I call “seeded improvisation”, in a typical example of which performers are individually alternating between precisely and complexly notated music and free improvisation, so that at some points these might sound quite distinct from one another while at others they might be completely blurred. Again this is connected with a desire to activate the imagination, initially that of the performing participants: the notated material, however precise, is intended to influence their creative spontaneity, but without explicitly directing it in any way. It’s a natural consequence of the way my work has developed on the basis of close and long-lasting collaborations, including of course those that have been principally focused on improvisation. To take an example: I’ve just finished a solo composition (with live electronics) for Peter Neville, the percussionist of the Elision Ensemble. Peter and I have been working together since 1990 and my conception of percussion has to a great extent evolved through our collaboration. At a certain point the ensemble and I began to work together in improvisational ways alongside the scores I was writing for them, and in this context Peter developed a flexible and portable setup mixing together purpose-made instruments and other objects, while avoiding traditional items such as drums and keyboard percussion. In preparation for the new solo piece I made a close study of video footage of Peter playing this “instrument”, and then developed together with him a “systematised” version of it consisting of a square array of 4 times 4 larger objects in whose interstices are placed a 3 x 3 array of smaller ones; and the piece is written for this setup, and incorporates several degrees of improvisatory activity alongside the precisely notated material, and also alongside a live electronic component whose output is to some extent unpredictable. The influences of improvisatory and notational collaboration in this piece are so interwoven as to be inextricable from one another.

So, since 2000 or so I’ve tried to explore very many ways in which spontaneous and precomposed musics can be intimately associated with one another. I’ve come to realise that, whereas historically the relationship between notational and improvisational methods has taken the former as a basic model, into which empty spaces for spontaneous actions and reactions might be inserted, my own approach has rather evolved in the opposite direction: the basic paradigm is free improvisation, to which notational material contributes points of structural and expressive focus. And this applies also to compositions which don’t involve improvisation - the systematic framework that lies at the heart of all of my compositions can be seen in terms of my “building an instrument” which I can then work freely and spontaneously with. While none of this was anything more than embryonic at the time that Coïgitum was written, it becomes a central issue in several of the more extended works I’ve written or am still writing in recent years - the electroacoustic sextet close-up for Ensemble Studio6, the large ensemble work natural causes, whose first installments were written for Musikfabrik, and several works in progress. It’s also the subject of the doctoral thesis I completed in 2017 which, in an expanded version, will be coming out in book form under the title Music of Possibility, some time in the coming months. For me it’s a vitally important and endlessly fascinating area, which I still feel I’m only just beginning to understand.

Further listening/reading
Barrett website
FURT website (Barrett and Paul Obermayer duo)
FURT listening
Barrett trio album with Evan Parker and Michael Vatcher

Interview with David Grant

On 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.

On Salut für Cauldwell

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. 

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.

On Salut für Cauldwell

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.

Interview with Mesias Maiguashca

The work of Mesias Maiguashca revolves around this 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.