Thursday, March 31, 2016

Orchestra Underground: Eastern Wind Composer Spotlight - Gity Razaz

Composer Gity Razaz attended The Juilliard School on full scholarship, holds numerous awards, and is composer-in-residence this year at National Sawdust. Her piece The Metamorphosis of Narcissus was premiered by Metropolis Ensemble at Le Poisson Rouge in 2011. The New York Times reviewed the concert, writing "The Metamorphosis of Narcissus ... was a world apart: a narcotic mix of dreamy French horn and clarinet calls, limpid Impressionist timbres and electronically induced expanse. Ms. Razaz’s music was ravishing and engulfing throughout ..."

Gity's piece gets its first full orchestral performance by ACO at Eastern Wind on Friday, April 1 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. Inspired by Salvador Dali's painting of the same name, the work is structured as a triplex musical soundscape with each section exploring an internal/psychological stage of Narcissus' metamorphosis.

Gity was kind enough to speak with SoundAdvice about the Iranian influence in her music and the upcoming performance.

Composer Gity Razaz

American Composers Orchestra: Can you tell us what influence, if any, your Persian heritage has had on your music?
Gity Razaz: I wasn't trained in traditional Persian music and I was raised in a non-musical family of doctors and scientists; I believe that the influence of Persian music on me is more subconscious rather than literal: Persian music is very lyrical and since it almost always accompanies poetry, it can reflect the drama of the text. My music is very lyrical and harmonically emotional. It is also very dramatic in nature --  I'm always thinking about the dramatic trajectory of my compositions through out the process of writing.

ACO: Do you think being raised in non-musical family was an advantage or disadvantage in finding your own, as you say, lyrically and harmonically emotional voice as a composer?
GR: I think growing up in a non-musical -- yet supportive and enthusiastic -- family has been a great advantage in finding my own musical voice. It gave me the freedom to explore various types of music from the get-go. I think it also made me work harder to discover what was out there and what appealed to me musically and stylistically; I was lucky to have the benefits of full artistic exposure from the start of my artistic journey without feeling limited by a certain sound world.

ACO: You've cited Salvador Dali's painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus as the inspiration for this piece. What initially drew you to this painting?
GR: I'm a big fan of Salvador Dali among other painters of the Surrealist movement. "Metamorphosis of Narcissus" is one of his works employing double imagery, a technique that I've always found fascinating. I also love the Narcissus myth so I was eager to write a piece about this tale inspired by Dali's painting.

"Metamorphosis of Narcissus" by Salvador Dali

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the performance of The Metamorphosis of Narcissus at Carnegie Hall by the American Composers Orchestra?
GR: I'm very excited to hear the orchestral version of the piece! The Metamorphosis of Narcissus was originally scored for chamber ensemble so I'm looking forward to hearing it performed with a large string section.

Hear Gity's The Metamorphosis of Narcissus at Orchestra Underground: Eastern Wind - April 1, 2016 at 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall's Zankel. More details and tickets here.

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Friday, March 25, 2016

Orchestra Underground: Eastern Wind Composer Spotlight - Reena Esmail

Indian-American composer Reena Esmail has strong roots in both Western and Hindustani (North Indian) classical music idioms. She holds a bachelor’s degree in composition from The Juilliard School, a master’s degree from the Yale School of Music, and her doctoral thesis explores the methods and challenges of the collaborative process between Hindustani musicians and Western composers. Avartan, her new commission for ACO, takes its name the "avartan" rhythmic cycle featured in Hindustani music, which it explores in the context of cultural perception. The piece receives its world premiere at Eastern Wind, April 1 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, and features a video by Neeraj Jain.

Reena was kind enough to talk with SoundAdvice about her musical background and compositional process for Avartan.

Composer Reena Esmail surrounded by her Western and Indian instruments

American Composers Orchestra: Tell us how you approached integrating the music of your heritage into a contemporary orchestra setting.
Reena Esmail: I have been a Western musician for my entire life, but for the last six years, I have also delved deeply into the Hindustani (North Indian) Classical tradition. Hindustani and Western classical music can appear to be polar opposites in so many fundamental ways: one is improvised and the other is written, one is primarily a solo art while the other can support massive ensembles. But I've found that, because of these differences, the two traditions don't step on each other's toes. For example, it is possible to explore intricate Indian melodies in the context of a large western ensemble. Most of the music I write is about finding points of connection between these two traditions, and about allowing one tradition to exist in the context of the other.

ACO: You are one of the artistic directors at Shastra, an organization which cultivates the work of musicians who work between Indian and Western musical traditions. Is strengthening the relationship between Indian and Western music something you are also trying to accomplish with Avartan?
RE: Absolutely. There are so many incredible musicians who work between Indian and Western traditions in innovative and unique ways - because the traditions are so different, both in methodology and resultant sound, there are so many pathways to approach connection and collaboration between these musical worlds. Payton MacDonald (percussionist/Dhrupad singer) and I co-founded Shastra because we wanted to showcase the diversity of Indian/Western crossover that exists today.

Strengthening the relationship between Indian and Western music, and through it, Indian and Western culture, is one of the most important aspects of my career. For me, it is deeply personal - I am from two cultures that are literally on opposite sides of the world. Wherever I am, there is always a part of me that longs for the other place. If it is physically impossible for me to be in both places at once, I'm able to create that world through my music.

Watch Reena's TEDx presentation about differences in how Western and Indian cultures share our musical experiences:

ACO: What can ACO's musicians of primarily Western classical background learn from Avartan? Are there any aspects of the piece, such as the 'avartan' rhythmic cycle, that are difficult to approach from a Western perspective?
RE: The term "avartan" is used metaphorically here. An avartan is simply a rhythmic cycle - just as a measure of 4/4 would be in Western music. But the concept of cycles is so ingrained into so many elements of Indian music and culture (even up to the cyclical concept of reincarnation in Hinduism). In this case, I titled the piece Avartan because I saw it as one, single cycle. It makes a slow transition from music that feels characteristically Indian to music that feels characteristically Western, but yet it still slips right back into the beginning music at the very end, illustrating how connected even the most disparate musical worlds can be.

ACO: Avartan features an accompanying film by Neeraj Jain and explores first impressions. Have any of your personal experiences influenced the nature of these first impressions in Avartan?
RE: When I first returned from a year in India in 2012, I noticed this odd thing that would happen. For months, everything I owned was in storage, so I only had my Indian clothes. I love wearing Indian clothes - in India, they made me feel instantly beautiful and elegant. And yet I noticed that as I moved through my American life, the same clothes signaled to people that I was a foreigner. I noticed that people I met for the first time would speak a little more slowly and choose their words more carefully. They were a little more hesitant to interact with me, perhaps for fear of offending me in some way. And I found that people's perceptions of me actually shaped the way I behaved, from the physical gestures to my very thoughts about myself and my relationship to the world around me. In a way, I almost became the foreigner they thought I was.

I've spent years thinking about these interactions, I wanted to try to describe the experience through my music. When the piece begins, it seems to be completely Indian, perhaps even going so far as to feel like a transcription of a classical Indian melody. The accompanying film also shows a montage of Indian people, dressed traditionally. And as the music and the film continue, they veer further and further towards Western music and Western fashion. The beginning and ending shots of the film are the same woman - the first time you see her, she looks very traditionally Indian, and at the end, she looks completely American. The piece is definitely meant to reflect my experience and my fluid sense of identity as I navigate between these cultures.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the performance of Avartan at Carnegie Hall by the American Composers Orchestra?
RE: It's my first performance ever at Carnegie Hall! I'm so excited to have Avartan premiered by ACO in this venue that I've dreamed about since I was a kid.

Hear the world premiere of Reena's Avartan at Orchestra Underground: Eastern Wind - April 1, 2016 at 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall's Zankel. More details and tickets here.

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Friday, March 18, 2016

Orchestra Underground: Eastern Wind Composer Spotlight - Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol

Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol is a Grammy nominated composer, highly esteemed Jazz musician, and pianist and classical Turkish music singer whose "music is colorful, fanciful, full of rhythmic life, and full of feeling" (The Boston Globe). His Grammy nomination came for his piece Vecd, part of A Far Cry's album Dreams & Prayers, which was nominated for a 2015 Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance. Mehmet was JAZZIZ’s Top 10 Critics’ Choice 2014 pick and is currently in post-production for a CD release with his unique jazz orchestra/combo, Whatsnext. Recently, Mehmet's piece The Blue Typhoon, written for the Boston Cello Quartet, was performed at the Tanglewood Music Festival on a program directed by Yo-Yo Ma.

The Boston Globe has said "Sanlıkol is a citizen of the world ... another who could play decisive role in music’s future in the world" and it is no doubt that his multiculturalism plays an important role in his music. His ACO and Carnegie Hall commission, Harabat – The Intoxicated, is inspired by the classical Ottoman/Turkish music tradition and will feature a poem by a late 19th/early 20th century Sufi dervish, Edib Harabi. Mehmet will sing and play the dd in the world premiere at Eastern Wind, April 1 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall.

Mehmet was kind enough to answer a few questions about the piece for SoundAdvice.

Composer Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol with his ud

American Composers Orchestra: Tell us how you approached integrating the music of your heritage into a contemporary orchestra setting?
Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol: Interestingly enough, I discovered the music of my heritage here in the US. Both of my parents are from the island of Cyprus and my mother is a classical piano teacher who was trained by the British when Cyprus was still governed by them. So, when I was growing up in Turkey with my Cypriot parents I was exposed to Chopin, opera and bossa nova much more so than any kind of Turkish music… Then I came to Boston in 1993 to go to Berklee College of Music. At the time Berklee had a very strong Jazz Composition department with Herb Pomeroy still teaching his legendary “Linewriting" and "The Music of Duke Ellington” classes – I was lucky enough to take these two classes from him in his last year right before he retired. In any case, I was fully invested in that world as well as contemporary classical composition until 2000 when I suddenly took a deep interest in Turkish music and culture. At the time, I was just about to begin my doctoral studies in classical composition at New England Conservatory and, thanks to the flexibility of the faculty there, they allowed me to be able to seriously study a variety of Turkish music traditions and go to Harvard in order to learn how to read Ottoman Turkish in Arabic script. My discovery of the Near and the Middle East and it’s multi-layered cultural legacy was not due to melancholy and/or nostalgia but it was purely because of musical reasons. As a result, while studying the traditional musics and learning how to play the ud (as well as a number of other instruments) my musical experimentations began rather early on. Indeed, I found myself studying and experimenting with early European music polyphony and temperaments, the interpretation and attitude of Jazz against written music, and minimalist expressions in contemporary classical music in order to develop an internalized voice as a contemporary composer that was not necessarily looking to integrate Turkish music into an orchestral setting, but was all about truly reflecting on my own “Turkish-American” modernity.

ACO: Harabat – The Intoxicated features a poem by late 19th/early 20th century Sufi dervish, Edib Harabi, which you will sing while playing the Ud. Can you talk about why you chose this text in particular?
Sufi dervish Edib Harabi
MAS: First of all, for such a special commission I really wanted to compose a piece that had important things to say on a number of levels and I found that Sufism often helps me ground myself better, at least, culturally and spiritually. The type of Sufism (Islamic mysticism) Bektashi dervishes practice is the one that I identify with the most and, Edip Harabi happens to be one of my favorite Bektashi Sufi poets. So, as soon as I received this commission I wanted to look into Bektashi Sufi poetry and Harabi came up rather quickly. I also had a particular aesthetic in mind for the text as I wanted it to have the kind of meter which Ottoman classical poetry used. As a result, I read through a collection of Harabi’s poetry for about a month and found one that I really liked which was in the kind of meter I was looking for. On a spiritual level, the text I selected reflects on the idea of falling under the spell of (what I call) "divine intoxication." The word harab literally means to be devastated. So, harabat would then translate as "the devastated," however, what the author is referring to here is appearing devastated to the public due to being intoxicated with divine love. In fact, Harabi is masterfully creating an analogy here with being heavily drunk from liquor – intoxicated – and appearing devastated as a result. In the end, since he is a dervish, a man of religion, he picks on the religious orthodoxy and says that to the imam he may appear “intoxicated” but how can the imam understand the kind of pleasure giving up the material world brings…

ACO: Your background spans Western classical music, Jazz and Turkish music. Have you found connections between these three musical spheres, and if so, do these connections find their way into your piece? 
MAS: As I noted earlier, I discovered that early European music and classical Turkish music have a lot in common. On the other hand, the improvisational nature of Jazz and classical Turkish music also present commonalities. All of that being said, simply discovering or learning about commonalities between musical traditions do not necessarily mean that a composer can suddenly begin to express these subtleties. Surely, it is a different matter if the composer is only looking to be inspired by a particular musical tradition. However, in my honest opinion, in order for a complex musical expression incorporating a number of musical languages to emerge, the composer must internalize the musical languages with which he/she is working with. After two decades spent studying, performing and composing Jazz, classical Turkish music, early European music and contemporary Western classical composition, I am hoping that in Harabat – The Intoxicated all of these musical languages will be heard in a fashion where they do not necessarily coexist but they are intertwined.

Watch the teaser for Mehmet's upcoming Jazz album with his Jazz ensemble Whatsnext?:

ACO: You will be singing and playing the Ud in Harabat / The Intoxicated. Does either your singing or the Ud take melodic responsibility in the piece, or do they coexist as the solo lead?
MAS: My voice is really the solo lead with the ud supporting it which is directly modeled after the kind of singing that occurs in the classical Turkish music tradition. In this tradition it is common to find the ud or the tanbur (long-necked lute) performed by the singer. And, if the performer is a male singer then the instrument and the voice end up being in the same octave. As a result, the instrument provides support as well as attack and rhythm due to the plucked nature of it.

Watch Mehmet perform a Sufi song notated in 17th century:

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the performance of Harabat / The Intoxicated at Carnegie Hall by the American Composers Orchestra?
MAS: I poured my heart and soul into this piece as I wanted to fully reflect on the “divine intoxication” that got a hold of me several decades ago in Bursa, Turkey. However, only a few weeks after I started composing Harabat – The Intoxicated I lost my father due to a sudden and a completely unexpected heart attack. I know that the tragedy of this loss is deeply buried inside this piece too. As a result, I am looking forward to celebrating my father’s life by performing this piece at Carnegie Hall with ACO.

Hear the world premiere of Mehmet's Harabat – The Intoxicated at Orchestra Underground: Eastern Wind - April 1, 2016 at 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall's Zankel. More details and tickets here.

Learn more about Mehmet, is Jazz outfit Whatsnext, and all his endeavors at his website

Friday, March 11, 2016

Orchestra Underground: Eastern Wind Composer Spotlight - Saad Haddad

Composer Saad Haddad is in his last year the Juilliard School, pursuing a Master of Music Composition with John Corigliano, but already he has been performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Columbus Symphony, Milwaukee Symphony, and American Composers Orchestra. Saad is a first-generation Arab-American who combines the influence of Arab music with a knowledgeable use of music technology in his compositions. His ACO commission Manarah, which will be premiered at Orchestra Underground: Eastern Wind, April 1 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel, uses traditional performance practices of Arabic musicians such as microtonal intervallic relationships, glissandi, and unconventional changes in vibrato, and is scored for two digitally processed antiphonal trumpets and orchestra.

Saad was kind enough to answer some questions about his piece for SoundAdvice.

Composer Saad Haddad

American Composers Orchestra: Tell us how you approached integrating the music of your heritage into a contemporary orchestra setting.
Saad Haddad: Before I elaborate on this, I first have to mention another one of my orchestral works, Kaman Fantasy, which highlights the orchestra's string section in particular, mimicking the embellishments, vibrato, asynchronous bowing, and microtonal language most commonly found in the string section performance practice of traditional Arabic ensembles. In Manarah, my approach has less to do with the strings (although I do employ some of the effects from Kaman Fantasy, but to a lesser extent) and more to do with the winds, in respect to embouchure fluctuations and dense ornamentation in the woodwinds and an insistent reliance on the brass section to provide the microtonal language borrowed from the maqam scales. So far, my approach with percussion has been to steer clear of instruments like the tambourine or the darbakah, which I think don't give the listener a chance to draw from their own aural observations on where and how my influences are being incorporated; they're much too immediate for me. Instead, I use percussion that's commonly used in symphony orchestras today like the timpani, bass drum, tom-toms, cymbals, and tam-tam, but in ways that might suggest an outsider's perceptive.

ACO: Manarah uses two digitally processed trumpets which will be placed in the left and right balconies. What can you tell us about the digital processing and the sound created? Will the trumpet "sound" be recognizable?
SD: The trumpet sounds will definitely be recognizable (I hope!). What I'm doing is altering the sounds of the trumpets live onstage -- so you'll hear the live sound of the trumpets just as if they were playing normally (because they are!), but you'll also simultaneously hear their sound altered through a patch my electronics teacher, Mari Kimura, and I developed through a program called MAX. I view it like programming code, but for music. Every piece of 'code' that goes into the patch for this piece is absolutely needed -- if even one small part of the sequence of events goes wrong, it can prove detrimental to the piece. So there of course is an element of holding your breath hoping everything will work, and I've been very lucky in past electroacoustic performances of my other works to be able to anticipate what might go wrong ahead of time, so we'll see what happens. In terms of what you'll actually hear coming out of the speakers, well you'll have to come to the concert to find out!

Circled numbers in the MAX Opt. (Operator) staff indicate coinciding electronic events notated in the Tpt. (Trumpet in C) 1 MAX and/or Tpt. 2 MAX staves. The wavy crescendo and diminuendo-like figures above the Tpt. 2 staff indicate varying degrees of wide and fast vibrato from the live trumpet player.

ACO: The digitally processed trumpets will employ Arabic musical techniques, such as microtonal intervallic relationships, glissandi, and unconventional changes in vibrato. Does the digital processing enhance or mask these Arabic influences?
SD: I knew I wanted to use live electronics, but I wanted to do it in a way that would complement the personal research I've been doing acoustically on Western instruments -- that is, finding ways to incorporate traditional Arabic performance techniques onto instruments typically used in a symphony orchestra. That's the genesis of all the music I've been writing for the past few years. Now when it comes to live electronics, the same concept holds true. What can I do to bring out traditional Middle Eastern peculiarities through an instrument like the trumpet which is not easily capable of producing the effects that I'm seeking to hear? Well, that's when live processing comes in to play. That's the long answer. The short answer is I do hope the electronics enhance my influences!

ACO: Is there established notation for the Arabic techniques you used in the piece? Or did you have to invent your own ways of communicating them on the page?
SD: I've been kind of making up the notation for these techniques as each piece sees fit, although I do try to relate as much of the notation as I can to typical Western notation practice, especially in an orchestral context. Below is one example that I've developed with a couple oboe and bassoon players at Juilliard in regards to what I call 'embouchure fluctuation'. This kind of technique is influenced by the discrete sounds produced from the 'mizmar,' a double reed instrument from Egypt, and the ney, a flute-like instrument used all over the Middle East. In Manarah, this notation finds its way in the flute, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon.

The noteheads above the single lined ossia staff indicate to normalize embouchure for the given note indicated in the staff; the noteheads below the single lined ossia staff indicate to flatten the given note in the staff by a half-step with the embouchure.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the performance of Manarah at Carnegie Hall by the American Composers Orchestra?
SD: I'm really just looking forward to finally hearing how all these sounds work (or not work!) put all together. My process involves a lot of workshopping with musicians as I'm creating the music itself. I've recorded several chunks of this piece already with friends at Juilliard who were very gracious with their time and who've made the process of discovery so rewarding for me. So I've heard bits and pieces of it, with and without the electronics, and to me they all seem to work at least in my head. The ACO's rehearsals and premiere of the piece is the final goal though, and I really hope that all that work pays off in the end! Like with anything else I've written, there are always things that don't go as well as I would have hoped that I refine for the next time around, whether it's the way I notated something on the page, or the orchestration choices themselves; there are also rather pleasant surprises too that I'm of course elated to experience when they do happen! I'm looking forward to finding out what both of these are in Manarah and taking this opportunity as a learning experience for me as I figure out who I am as an artist.

Hear the world premiere of Saad's Manarah at Orchestra Underground: Eastern Wind - April 1, 2016 at 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall's Zankel. More details and tickets here.

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