Thursday, November 20, 2014

Orchestra Underground: Monk's Sphere Composer Spotlight – Loren Loiacono

Loren Loiacono, a young composer of extraordinary talent, synthesizes her childhood experience playing with Barbie’s Dream House and her later discovery of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe in the NYC premiere of Stalks, Hounds at Orchestra Underground: Monk's Sphere on November 21 at Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall. Loren was kind enough to answer a few questions about the creative process behind Stalks, Hounds.

Composer Loren Loiacono

American Composers Orchestra: What was the inspiration for your composition?  Can you tell us about your creative process for this piece?

Loren Loiacono: As goofy as it may sound, the inspiration for Stalks, Hounds was a computer game I played as a kid, where whenever you clicked on various things, it would be accompanied by this harp-flourish sound effect.  Years later, as a teenager, I heard Maurice Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe for the first time, and was stunned to realize that the harp "sound effect" was, verbatim, taken from a gesture in that piece.  It struck me as odd how that particular phrase had been completely isolated from its original musical context, and had been turned into something completely, for lack of a better word, inane.  (I think I'm probably not alone in this experience – there is plenty of music that I heard as part of cartoons or games re-contextualized as used for a different purpose.)  In particular, I wanted to explore the idea of that gesture, not as an organic part of its original musical whole, but as a stock sound, that could be summoned with a click.

ACO: Are any of the musical gestures you decontextualize in this piece borrowed from anything a listener could recognize?

LL: The most obvious gesture is the Daphnis quote. The opening of the piece very closely replicates the experience I had of that flourish accompanying every computer click (including, if one were to click too quickly, the gesture becoming truncated).  Other than that, the materials I used were all very simple, even cliche (descending scales, circle of fifth harmonic progressions, etc.), but used in a way in which things are slightly askew.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the performance of your piece at Carnegie Hall by the American Composers Orchestra?

LL: Everything! Hearing an orchestra play your music is always an exhilarating experience to begin with, but this time is particularly exciting.  What I'm most excited about, though, is to hear how ACO is going to interpret the piece.  The piece has only been played by one orchestra (it was premiered by the Yale Philharmonia in 2011), and so for the last couple of years, the way I think about the piece has been completely tied up with how they played it.  This piece is particularly close to my heart, as well, so hearing another orchestra play the piece, and particularly one as well-attuned to the nuances of contemporary music as ACO, will be like discovering a whole new side of Stalks, Hounds.

ACO: What should the audience listen for during your piece?

LL: I'd say the best things to listen for are how each of the gestures introduced is derailed: the harp flourishes that keep getting overtaken by strings and percussion, the descending scales that get stuck on the way down, and, most notably, the piano/vibraphone groove that can't quite seem to find its footing.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Orchestra Underground: Monk's Sphere Composer Spotlight – Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk, 2014-2015 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair holder at Carnegie Hall, is a composer, singer, and creator of new opera and music-theater works. A pioneer in extended vocal technique, Monk has been called "at once fearless, unique, [and] uncompromising" by The Washington Post and "one of contemporary music's great innovators" by The Classical Review. Monk kindly shared with us the creative process behind Night, a rare orchestral work which will be performed at ACO's Orchestra Underground: Monk's Sphere on November 21 at Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall.

Meredith Monk

American Composers Orchestra: What was the inspiration for your original composition, Night, for ten voices, two keyboards, violin and French horn? Can you tell us about your creative process for this piece?

Meredith Monk: My daily practice is working at the piano. Sometimes I like to explore different scales. One day in the early ‘90s I started playing with one that turned out to be a Hungarian minor scale, and I began developing material inspired by the particular dissonance inherent in those sounds.

At that time, the former Yugoslavia was in the midst of a bloody war. I had been on tour there a few years before and was struck by the natural beauty of the region in contrast to what was now going on. At the same time I began thinking about suffering in the broader sense.

As with most of my work, I begin from an intuitive place and try to access something both timeless and contemporary. Night was one of those works that came to me as a full fabric. While I think of it as an elegy, it also evokes the sturdiness and resilience of life.

ACO: What prompted you to re-orchestrate Night for a larger ensemble? Can you talk about any of the specific choices you made in selecting the new instrumentation?

MM: I think of myself primarily as a vocal composer and have always thought of the voice as an instrument. As the years go on, I have become more and more interested in the idea of instruments as voices, and in combining voices and instruments to find new sounds. I recognized that for Night to have its full power, it needed the richer colors and textures of an orchestra. Using unusual instruments such as shakuhachi, bowed psaltry and harp played with a guitar pick allowed me to explore new timbres and to think of the group of instrumentalists as somewhere between an orchestra and a band.

ACO: What should the audience listen for during your piece? 

MM: I’m hopeful that people will engage with it on different levels. I try to create an open space for each member of the audience to experience the work in his or her own way, affirming the power and uniqueness of each person’s imagination.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Orchestra Underground: Monk's Sphere Composer Spotlight – A.J. McCaffrey

Motormouth, a world premiere by rising-star composer and ACO’s 2013 Underwood Commission winner A.J. McCaffrey, will be performed at Orchestra Underground: Monk's Sphere on November 21 at Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall. A.J. has kindly shared with us the personal story that has inspired his work and some of the strategies he used in the writing process.

Composer A.J. McCaffrey

American Composers Orchestra: What was the inspiration for Motormouth? Can you tell us about your creative process for this piece? 

A.J. McCaffrey: Just around the time that the ACO commissioned me to write this piece, my then-four-year-old son began telling jokes. He would start off by telling the jokes the way he had heard them. Then, excited and emboldened by the laughter they generated, he would look for ways to make the jokes bigger and better, repeating them over and over and adding his own variations. The jokes would become these manic, absurdist, free-association epics, with tigers and fire hydrants invading jokes about astronauts (and vice-versa). I’m a sucker for this type of humor, and I would egg him on during car rides, passing mutations on various knock-knock jokes back-and-forth with him until the punch lines were as far away from the set-ups as possible and we were both laughing our heads off.

When I sat down to compose, I very much wanted to convey this hyperactive, overjoyed (and exhausting) energy in the music I was writing. I saw this piece as an opportunity to write “about” or “for” my son, although I also recognized that this was not the first time that I had been drawn to this type of playfulness with language and momentum. I love taking rhetorical musical devices (like certain phrases or melodies) and ratcheting up their intensity until the frenetic emotional state of the music seems completely at odds with its grammar or logic. I feel that there is similarly mischievous, slapstick, or satirical quality to the music of some of my favorite composers, like György Ligeti and Gerald Barry, and I often find myself paying homage to them in my own works. In Motormouth, a few melodic lines are taken through a myriad array of moods and levels of activities – from giddy to frustrated, from manic to calm – that one might experience in a typical day as the parent of young children.

ACO: You say that Motormouth is inspired by your experiences as a new father. Can you describe any specific moments with your child that have found their way into the piece?

AM: The first image I began composing with was that of “coloring outside the lines.” I tried to convey this concept through a melody in which the intervals kept getting farther apart, like widening scribbles, but I was unhappy with the actual sound of it. I kept paring the melody down until it was just a rising and falling major third (which is heard all throughout the piece). It was my wife who pointed out that this sounded exactly like a fire truck siren, or at least a boy’s imitation of a fire truck siren – one that will be very familiar to anyone who has visited our house in the last two years.

Perhaps more consciously, there is a section about nine minutes into the piece in which I most overtly tried to channel my son’s joke-telling: a repeated series of herky-jerky, falling-down-the-stairs melodies that are routinely punctuated by what I thought of as two loud “ta-DA!” chords.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the performance of your piece at Carnegie Hall by the American Composers Orchestra?

AM: Given the level of skill, talent and devotion to new music exhibited by Maestro Manahan and the ACO, and the history and prestige of the venue, it is extremely difficult for me to narrow down what I’m looking forward to. I am absolutely thrilled and honored to be part of this concert.

ACO: What should the audience listen for during your piece? 

AM: Although I think it can be helpful for an audience to hear how composers approach their own works, I never want to impose my own agenda on someone else’s listening experience. When writing, I try to make sure that the concept never overwhelms the music, and I hope listeners can enjoy the sounds for their own sake without feeling beholden to any particular narrative.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Orchestra Underground: Monk's Sphere Composer Spotlight – Theo Bleckmann

Composer Theo Bleckmann's My Brightest Garment will have its world premiere at American Composers Orchestra's Orchestra Underground: Monk's Sphere concert on November 21 at Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall. Theo has kindly shared with us the personal story that has inspired his work and some of the strategies he used in the writing process.

Vocalist and Composer Theo Bleckmann

American Composers Orchestra: What was the inspiration for My Brightest Garment? Can you tell us about your creative process for this piece? 

Theo Bleckmann: The inspiration behind this piece was the recent death of two close friends. The idea that we exist one day and are completely gone the next really hit me hard. Whatever one believes in, the mere fact of dying on earth suddenly seemed like a magic trick to me. How could we be so present and real one moment, and irrevocably gone the next? I found there to be a strange beauty. I wanted to write an exuberant piece of celebration, not a dirge.

The piece started out with a 5-bar, repeated harp-and-piano counterpoint sketch, that very quickly evolved into a full form with some orchestration. The real work began then: I amended, changed, tweaked, switched, refined, obsessed, went back, filled in for months and months, a seemingly infinite process. I wanted to have something that was static while shifting colors, sometimes abruptly, sometimes with a sleight of hand.

ACO: Did you encounter any unusual challenges in writing this work? If so what were they and how did you resolve them? 

TB: This is my first commission for large orchestra, so I had to really familiarize myself with instruments I had never written for before. Some of them came easier to me, like the tuba e.g., others I had to research quite extensively and really figure out what is feasible and what is too ambitious. Composer and orchestrator Kirk Nurock was very helpful in this process, as I went to take lessons with him, especially for this piece. I also talked to friends who are virtuosos on their instruments. I consulted with them about all kinds of details and asked them to play sections for me to hear - it was very tempting to write endless extended techniques, especially considering the high caliber of players in ACO, but somehow the piece wanted to be much simpler and less oblique - more like a dance - so I followed that.

ACO: You describe My Brightest Garment as “an orchestral song about death as a vanishing act, a magic trick of sorts; pondering the ‘now you see it - now you don’t’ aspect, while wearing the most beautiful, brightest garment to pull it off.” How will your use of live electronic processing help achieve this concept in your piece?

TB: The live electronic looping I do is very simple and direct, technically speaking. There is no laptop or hidden hardware anywhere. I push a button, sing into the machines and out comes the music. I want there to be very little worry in the listener’s mind as to what is going on. I want them to see and hear that what is being created is happening right now and that it is not pre-recorded or hidden from them behind a screen. 

When we die, not much is left of us except for the people we affected and the things we owned or made. I came to realize that audio recordings are an eerie residue of a person’s soul. With the live looping I’ll be doing, I am capturing the now to be re-lived later, which is very much like looking at a photo of someone you lost.

ACO: What should the audience listen for during your piece? 

TB: There is no homework or checklist for this piece. I hope for the listener to enjoy it and relax into the music, be surrounded and immersed by the sounds and words.

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