Monday, June 15, 2015

SONiC Fest 2015 - Q&A with app designers Kenneth Kirschner & Joshue Ott

This Fall, ACO presents its second ever SONiC Festival, celebrating the diversity of 21st century music by composers under age 40 with 9 days of concerts. Interval Studios will be creating SONiC Fest's official app, featuring an interactive sound piece by Kenneth Kirschner and visuals by Joshue Ott.

Kenneth and Joshue were kind enough to give SoundAdvice a Q&A about the app, which is still a work-in-progress.

Composer Kenneth Kirschner. Photo credit: Molly Sheridan
Media artist and programmer Joshue Ott. Photo credit: Rebecca Black

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about how the 2015 SONiC Fest app will function and how users will interact with it?

Kenneth Kirschner: Well, we’re still very early on in the process, but I can certainly talk about our ideas for it – with the caveat that we very much expect things to change and evolve a great deal as we go…

Our starting point, and the first approach we want to try out, came out of a conversation we had over lunch a few weeks ago. I’d had this idea of doing a piece for the SONiC app with lots of silence in it, which is something I do a lot – but in this case I wanted to have an interactive component, so that the user would be responsible for triggering the sounds themselves. They’d touch the screen and trigger a big chord of different musicians playing together, then touch elsewhere and trigger another, etc. It would be interactive, but also indeterminate, with a chance element built in, so that each time they played it they’d get a different sequence of sounds. But since I’m envisioning some potentially dissonant material compositionally, I didn’t want the user to go crazy and start triggering new sounds every 2 seconds – it would be a mess! The silence is really key to the structure, and it needs to stay in there somehow. When I brought up this worry with Josh, though, he had a great idea for slowing things down and keeping those silences in there…

Joshue Ott: Drawing and touching will certainly be very important interaction methods for the app, as they are for the upcoming Variant apps that Ken and I are working on. But because the silences are so important for the piece Ken is hoping to make, my idea was to make the user wait a bit before hearing a sound when they touch the screen: each touch would trigger a visual event immediately, but the sound would play only when that visual event finishes. The user thus controls the pacing of audio events to a certain extent, but can’t trigger the next event until its preceding visual sequence has been completed, ensuring a proscribed amount of silence between each of Ken’s sounds. We’d be eschewing instantaneous aural feedback in order to build a delay into the musical response, which could get annoying – but if designed and balanced correctly, we hope it will actually encourage the user to listen and hear the composition better.

KK: But as they say, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. You encounter resistances and blocks as you start doing this sort of work, and the ultimate piece often ends up resembling more the path you follow to get around those obstacles than your early ideas for what you thought it might be. So this is really just a very rough first concept – we don’t know if it will work, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we end up going off in a totally different direction.

ACO: Kenneth, your component, an interactive sound piece, will use sounds and samples sent from the many composers and musicians involved in the festival. What was the inspiration or reason behind creating such an ambitious musical collage? Have you done anything like this before?

KK: I have done something like this before, actually. In 2003, I was invited to contribute a piece to a compilation CD for the record label 12k, and I had the “clever idea” of asking everyone on the anthology to send me sounds that I could build a new piece out of. But then … they all actually sent stuff! And it became this huge responsibility, this huge challenge – but I really loved it, and I think the piece came out pretty well. So I guess I wanted to set another challenge like that for myself.

Another inspiration I should cite was a sound installation work by my colleague Rutger Zuydervelt that I’d participated in a few years back called “Stay Tuned.” He asked an insane number of musicians from all over the world to send him a single note – an A – on their instruments, and he built up all these A’s into a huge installation you could walk through so that it sounded like all these people were in the same room tuning up together. It’s a really fun piece, and it was definitely something I was thinking about as well.

ACO: Joshue, can you talk a little bit about the visuals you are contributing to the app? Do the sounds inform the visuals, or do the visuals inform the sounds, or both?

JO: If we do it right, you won’t be able to tell which is informing which! The visuals for the app are all hand-coded and will be based on my visual instrument, superDraw (the same program I use to make live visuals in performances). My process is to start with superDraw as I listen to audio from the app or rough drafts from Ken. As I’m listening, I adjust the controls and parameters of superDraw until I have a combination of algorithms I like. Once I have something I like, I’ll save a preset and transfer that preset to the iOS version. At that point, I’ll start to make connections between what’s going on aurally and the parameters that affect the visuals.

ACO: What technical challenges do you have to overcome in this interactive art form? Can you explain any areas where creativity is constricted? Any areas where it's liberated?

KK: I’ve done a lot of work with indeterminate music, which is something I’ve become pretty comfortable with – but interactive music is really new to me, and in truth I’m finding it quite challenging so far. As of right now, Josh and I have done two apps together – variant:Blue and variant:Flare – and both have limited interactivity in terms of the music. Josh is very experienced with interactive work, but I myself just haven’t quite wrapped my mind around it yet; it’s a whole new set of musical challenges and problems that I’m only just beginning to explore. But I know that to do a truly interactive composition, I want to build it from the ground up that way, and think through the interactivity in all aspects of the music – so that it becomes a compelling part of the overall musical experience, not just a gimmick. And for me this SONiC app is an opportunity to take some first steps in that direction.

JO: I’m completely obsessed with my software and interactive artwork being as responsive as possible – meaning it should feel like an extension or augmentation of your thoughts or intentions, rather than software or a device that you’re interacting with. In my work, I strive to find ideal ways for technology to augment human creativity. That said, the amount of variability or freedom in an application like this can be a difficult problem, as too much freedom can let the user make things that look/sound bad, but without enough freedom, the user feels constricted – more like they’re just watching a music video. When I collaborated with Morgan Packard on our audiovisual app Thicket, we went for the feeling of an audiovisual instrument rather than a musical piece – there was a very direct sense of interactivity to it. So far my apps with Ken have been less focused on interactivity. There was a discussion at Eyebeam that Ken and I had with our fellow residents about whether what we are making should be thought of more as “tools” or “experiences.” I consider all of our apps so far to veer more toward the experience side of things. Like the first SONiC app, there will be no controls or parameters for the user to alter. Some people might be upset by this choice, but we feel it allows us more room to actually create a piece that stands on its own artistically.

ACO: Any other sonic or visual glimpses readers can get for the app?

Ken: I can certainly share some of my past pieces that I’ve been looking at for ideas. The piece I did for that 12k anthology – which used sounds from all the other musicians included on the compilation – is called “June 8, 2003”, and it’s freely available on my website.


Another piece of mine I’ve been thinking about during this process is “September 25, 2010”, which uses the sort of “structural silences” that I want to try out as a first approach to the SONiC app. The piece actually started life as a failed sketch, then got turned into an indeterminate composition, and then eventually became a “fixed” piece for my album Twenty Ten – but I have secret dreams of rebuilding it as an indeterminate work yet again. Until then, you can hear it here.

And for (many) more pieces of mine, you can visit my website: www.kennethkirschner.com

JO: Ken and I are currently working on a series of apps (teaser page here), as well as a residency at Eyebeam (which we’re documenting here).

Here’s a short superDraw video I did for a project on Ken’s music.


We are also involved in an electronic music collective called 00rtcloud.

You can learn about my app Thicket, created with Morgan Packard, here.

www.intervalstudios.com

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Underwood New Music Readings: Composer Spotlight - Polina Nazaykinskaya

Composer Polina Nazaykinskaya is one of the seven selected composers for ACO's 24th annual Underwood New Music Readings on May 6 and 7. Polina says of her selected piece, Reading the Wind, "Rhythms and sounds can reveal the power of the invisible world. Turning the pages of the Nature’s Book of Life, one may re-discover a sense of mystery that is part and parcel of our existence." Read her full program note here.

Polina was kind enough to answer some questions for SoundAdvice.

Composer Polina Nazaykinskaya
What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?
I am excited and truly honored to have my piece selected for the Underwood New Music Readings. It`s not only  a great chance for me to meet and work with the wonderful American Composers Orchestra and Maestro Manahan, but also it's a great opportunity to get a valuable feedback about my music from the mentor composers Derek Bermel, Kevin Puts and Gabriela Lena Frank.

The Underwood New Music Readings is really a dream-come-true in many regards. The chance to work with a professional orchestra is very rare and extremely important for young composers. It can be intimidating as well – what if my music doesn't sound right? What if the majority of my orchestration choices don't work? In any case, it's the best composition/orchestration lesson one can get.

What preparations are you making ahead of the readings with the American Composers Orchestra?
A lot of my preparation went into the revision of the orchestration, as I strived to ensure that the richness of musical material would thrive in the hands of the orchestra. I am always trying to find the right balance between practicality and vividness of orchestration. I also had to go through extensive revisions of the score and parts formatting, which was not exactly my cup of tea.




Follow Polina on Facebook and Soundcloud

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Underwood New Music Readings: Composer Spotlight - Jules Pegram

Composer Jules Pegram is one of the seven selected composers for ACO's 24th annual Underwood New Music Readings on May 6 and 7. His selected piece Shadows of the Studio is a "musical tribute to the glory days of Hollywood’s 'studio system.'" Read his full program note here.

Jules was kind enough to answer some questions for SoundAdvice.

Composer Jules Pegram
What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?
My first reaction to being selected for this year's Underwood New Music Readings was one of sheer shock and gratitude.  All it takes is a glance over the impressive roster of past Underwood participants to know what an honor it is to be selected, and I'm truly humbled to join the ranks of such illustrious company.  I'm grateful to the American Composers Orchestra and their music director George Manahan for providing this opportunity to young composers, and for supporting new music through their constant championing of contemporary composition.

The ability to hear one's orchestral music realized is always an invaluable learning experience, regardless of who's playing.  But to work with an ensemble of the ACO's caliber, with their immense performing talents and storied legacy, is beyond informative — it's exhilarating.

What preparations are you making ahead of the readings with the American Composers Orchestra?
In advance of the Underwood New Music Readings, I have spent hours fine-tuning my score and parts.  For me, this meant making sure the score is impeccably precise and the parts clear and well laid-out; it is my hope that all of my musical intentions thus come across in as direct a way as possible, and that none of our precious rehearsal time is spent on dealing with errors or inconsistencies.  I have also spent time tweaking the orchestration of several sections of the piece, and I can't wait to hear what works well and what might still need some refining, particularly with regards to dynamics, timbre, and register.

I'm also eager to share insights into what inspired my piece Shadows of the Studio in the first place: early American film history.  Before and during the composition process I spent a great amount of time researching this rich topic, with a special focus on the rise and fall of Hollywood's so-called "studio system."  My continuing fascination with early Hollywood has led me to study countless historical texts, watch tons of old films, and delve ever deeper into classic film music, a life-long passion, and it is my sincere hope that this will all better help me express my motivations for writing my composition when I'm in New York for the readings.




Follow Jules on Soundcloud and YouTube

www.julespegram.com

Underwood New Music Readings: Composer Spotlight - David Clay Mettens

Composer and clarinetist David Clay Mettens is one of the seven selected composers for ACO's 24th annual Underwood New Music Readings on May 6 and 7. His selected piece Sleeping I am carried… is based on a melodic fragment from Alban Berg’s Mombert setting “Schlafend trägt man mich.” Read his full program note here

Clay was kind enough to answer some questions for SoundAdvice.

Composer/clarinetist David Clay Mettens
What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?
I was absolutely thrilled to find out that my piece was going to be read by the American Composers Orchestra as part of the Underwood New Music Readings! This will be my first time working with a professional orchestra. My piece, Sleeping I am carried..., has been read and performed by excellent student orchestras at Eastman, but I'm very curious to hear what a reading with professionals shows about the piece. It's so rewarding to have a piece performed by different groups. Each new performance brings out new qualities in the music. I'm also really excited to work with the composer mentors and see the perspective they bring to my work.

What preparations are you making ahead of the readings with the American Composers Orchestra?
Over the last few weeks I've made a few cosmetic edits to my score based on suggestions from ACO's engraving specialist. Otherwise, I've been trying to reflect on the questions that I had after the previous reading and performance of the piece: Am I really getting the balance I want in these two measures? Does this doubling produce the color I had imagined? Is the profile of a gesture in the strings clear enough? After a first performance, you wonder if these things are inherent in the score or just result from some particularity of the situation—the hall, the ensemble, etc. The answers to these questions help me to grow as a composer and sharpen my inner ear.




Follow Clay on Twitter and Soundcloud

www.mettensmusic.com

Underwood New Music Readings: Composer Spotlight - David Hertzberg

Composer David Hertzberg is one of the seven selected composers for ACO's 24th annual Underwood New Music Readings on May 6 and 7. His piece, Spectre of the Spheres, which draws its titled from Wallace Stevens' The Auroras of Autumn, seeks to "create something that moves and breathes like the unfettered Aurora, with a reckless vitality, inexorably, and of its own mystical accord." Read his full program note here.

David was kind enough to answer some questions for SoundAdvice.

Composer David Hertzberg
What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?
I was thrilled to hear that my piece had been selected for the Underwood readings, and am very much looking forward to working with Maestro Manahan, the orchestra, and mentor-composers Gabriela Lena Frank, Kevin Puts, and Derek Bermel. I have always admired the American Composers Orchestra, not just for its artistry, but as one of few ensembles of its size dedicated exclusively to the music of our time. I look forward to their interpretation and insight.

What preparations are you making ahead of the readings with the American Composers Orchestra?
Most of the preparation took place a few months ago when I was touching up the score and parts. Right now I am in Hong Kong rehearsing for a performance with the fabulous Tanglewood New Fromm Players at Hong Kong City Hall Theatre.




Follow David on Twitter and Soundcloud

www.davidhertzbergmusic.com

Underwood New Music Readings: Composer Spotlight - Igor Santos

Composer Igor Santos is one of the seven selected composers for ACO's 24th annual Underwood New Music Readings on May 6 and 7. Igor says of his selected piece, "ploy, pivot is the first work in a series of pieces of mine that attempt to create a narratological structure using the superposition of music with completely different characters." Read his full program note here.

Igor was kind enough to answer some questions for SoundAdvice.

Composer Igor Santos
What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?
The opportunity to hear one’s orchestral work more than once is a rare event for most student composers, so I was very pleased to receive news that my work would receive a reading with the ACO. This was the first time I submitted a work for the Underwood New Music Readings, and I am humbled to have been chosen.

What preparations are you making ahead of the readings with the American Composers Orchestra?
It has been an entire year since I wrote this piece, so I am re-studying my score in preparation for the ACO rehearsals. One particular concept for this piece, “ploy, pivot”, involves the superposition of music of different affects (for example: having a layer of calm lyrical music against a texture of abrasive pointillist attacks), and there are moments in the work which are quite “thick”, with many independent musics occurring simultaneously. My preparations involve reminding myself now of what layers should be prioritized and the best ways of balancing certain sections, so that I can express this to the conductor and players in the case that my score fails to do so. I should add that although this piece is inspired and written in the spirit of Charles Ives’s orchestral works (e.g. Three Places in New England, Holidays Symphony, Symphony No. 4, etc.), my approach to multi-layered music is different: I do not reference vernacular music (e.g. Ives use of popular tunes, marching bands, church hymns), and independent musical characters are not isolated objects – they find points of convergence, moments of simultaneous transformation or separation, and so forth – my technique is, perhaps, aimed towards self-referential relationships, and I ultimately strive for clarity in this piece. This is no way a criticism on Ives - I am just pointing out that although I use a similar technique, the intent and scale of the music are quite different.


Follow Igor on Soundcloud

www.igorsantos.org

Monday, May 4, 2015

Underwood New Music Readings: Composer Spotlight - Kay He

Composer Kay He one of the seven selected composers for ACO's 24th annual Underwood New Music Readings on May 6 and 7. She dedicates her selected piece Passeig de Gràcia to her parents, and was inspired to write it after visiting the famous Barcelona avenue. Read her full program note here.

Kay was kind enough to answer some questions for SoundAdvice.

Composer Yuanyan Kay He
What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?
I felt so happy.  Writing for orchestra is always one of the biggest challenges for emerging composers, so hearing our music performed by a professional orchestra and learning from the orchestra are some of the most valuable experiences for young composers.  Also, the master classes instructed by leaders in the industry, which provide information on subjects such as instrumental balance and timbre, communication skills between conductors and musicians, part preparation, and copyright commission agreements, provide important learning opportunities and skills for aspiring composers.  I am so lucky to be chosen for ACO's Underwood New Music Readings. This opportunity will inspire me to keep working hard in my composition career. I also hope my music can convey a new music spirit to other young composers and encourage them to write their own orchestra music.  Many thanks to ACO for selecting my work.  It means a lot to me.

What preparations are you making ahead of the readings with the American Composers Orchestra?
In my piece, there are many sudden mood changes and different layers of foreground and background instruments. To prepare for the reading, I studied my score very carefully to make sure all mistakes were eliminated. But, because there are about 30 or 40 systems in the full score, it wasn't easy to catch all the mistakes. Then, I spent some time completing the parts, which is a good way to proofread the entire score. Additionally, while I read my scores, I always try to imagine my piece in my head and sing the music with my heart in order to remember the characteristics and tempo of each section.  I believe doing this exercise and fully understanding my score/piece will allow for better communication between me and the conductor.




Follow Kay on Facebook and Soundcloud
www.kayhecomposer.com

Underwood New Music Readings: Composer Spotlight - Carl Schimmel

Composer Carl Schimmel is one of the seven selected composers for ACO's 24th annual Underwood New Music Readings on May 6 and 7. Carl says of his selected piece, "Two Variations on Ascent into the Empyrean is a pair of short orchestral movements inspired by my children’s artwork." Read his full program note here.

Carl was kind enough to answer some questions for SoundAdvice.

Composer Carl Schimmel
What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?
I was very pleased and also surprised; when I submit works to competitions and calls for scores I always do so with the assumption that my work will not be selected.  Opportunities to work with professional orchestras are hard to come by, as are opportunities to work together with composers who are as accomplished as Derek Bermel and Gabriela Lena Frank and Kevin Puts.  Furthermore, I always enjoy getting to know my fellow composers and their music.  So, I'm very much looking forward to my time in New York and I anticipate that it will be educational and inspiring.

What preparations are you making ahead of the readings with the American Composers Orchestra?
Right now I'm trying to finish parts for another orchestra piece!  But in the days leading up to the Readings, I will be double-checking the parts and score for any errors that I might have missed the first few times around, and I'll spend additional time with the score to formulate some questions and come up with possible edits.


Follow Carl on Soundcloud
www.carlschimmel.com

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Berkeley Symphony EarShot New Music Readings: Composer Q&A - Natalie Williams

Composer Natalie Williams is participating in ACO's Berkeley Symphony EarShot New Music Readings on May 2 and 3. Her selected piece Les Chants du Maldoror is, in Natalie words, "a Chamber Symphony, a suite of orchestral contemplations on four etchings by surrealist artist, Salvador Dali." Read her full program note here.

Natalie was kind enough to answer some questions for SoundAdvice.

Composer Natalie Williams
What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Berkeley EarShot New Music Readings?
I am truly thrilled to be selected as a participant in the EarShot New Music Readings. The opportunity to work with an orchestra of the calibre of the Berkeley Symphony is a rare and extremely valuable experience for any composer. The support of this program offers invaluable career development, mentorship and networking with the musicians, orchestra management and of course the ACO team. I am very honored to have this opportunity, to work with a fantastic group of musicians and mentors and to enable my music to reach new audiences and performers. The chance to work alongside composer peers is also a wonderful experience and I am very humbled to be a part of the new and emerging voices that will come from workshops such as the EarShot program.

What preparations are you making ahead of the readings with the Berkeley Symphony?
I have spent much time with my score, revisiting the textural decisions that I made during the orchestration process. The piece contains many varied approaches to orchestral colors and I am very keen to workshop these with the orchestra in Berkeley. The opening movement features a Passacaglia and I am keen to hear the live realization of my piece, to judge how I have treated that constantly-moving voice amidst the textural choices that I made for the entire ensemble. Movement three of my piece "The Memory of Music" relies on techniques of echo and melodic replication through many instrumental voices and dynamic levels; the delicacy of these color changes is something that can only be shaped by a live performance and I am excited to hear the reading sessions to explore the intricacies of those sounds.

www.natworksmusic.com

Berkeley Symphony EarShot New Music Readings: Composer Q&A - Michael Laurello

Michael Laurello is one of the composers selected to participate in ACO's Berkeley Symphony EarShot New Music Readings on May 2 and 3. Read Michael's program note for his selected piece Promises here.

Michael was kind enough to answer some questions for SoundAdvice.

Composer Michael Laurello
What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Berkeley EarShot New Music Readings?
I felt honored and surprised! I'm excited to work with Joana Carneiro and the musicians of the Berkeley Symphony, as well as mentor composers, Ken Ueno and Derek Bermel. Being able to receive aesthetic, technical, and logistical feedback on an orchestral work-in-progress within a supportive environment is the best part about the EarShot readings for me, and I'm thankful to be receiving guidance from an incredibly talented team of individuals who operate on all sides of the creative process.

What preparations are you making ahead of the readings with the Berkeley Symphony?
Much of the preparation for the readings took place while I was adapting the score to fit the Berkeley Symphony's instrumentation. The original version of this piece was for a larger orchestra, and in the process of scaling things down I was forced to clarify my ideas and decide what is essential. This was a great exercise, because the music feels leaner now, and I believe it speaks without as much effort. These preparations also gave me the chance to tweak a few minor things that bothered me about the first version of the piece. In the days leading up to the readings, I'll be studying the score closely, isolating complicated passages and taking them apart so that I understand, and can articulate, exactly how things are supposed to lock in.


Follow Michael on Twitter and Soundcloud