In February of 2017, Ensemble Dal Niente premiered Swan, a sprawling piece for seven musicians and electronics. Here, composer Murat Çolak takes us behind the scenes.
By Andrew Nogal, Oboist
Now that I’ve slept for approximately 48 hours straight and washed six loads of all-black laundry – the staple of the freelance musician’s wardrobe – I am ready and eager to reflect on the Ear Taxi Festival, no doubt the boldest and most daring musical project I have watched unfold during my many years as a musician in Chicago. From my unusual perspective, Ear Taxi was a triumph of both imagination and execution. While I didn’t get to experience any Ear Taxi events purely as an audience member, I can offer a behind-the-scenes look at my preparation as well as a firsthand account of the convivial backstage vibe.
I performed not only on Dal Niente’s Friday night set, but also on Sunday afternoon as soloist with DePaul’s Ensemble 20+ (conducted by our own Michael Lewanski) and with the CSO’s MusicNOW Ensemble on Monday evening. In the week leading up to the festival, I had several twelve-hour workdays, during which I squeezed two or three rehearsals into days already packed with my usual teaching commitments, practice schedule, and reed-making routine. (I don’t drive a car, and I am grateful to the CTA and Metra for delivering me to almost every engagement on time!)
Months in advance, I knew that Ear Taxi would push me to my emotional and physical limits, and so I made the drastic, uncharacteristic decision to limit my caffeine intake during the festival. If you know me well, you know that this is a big deal. It was in Darmstadt in 2012 that I transformed into the kind of person who drinks coffee at all hours of day and night, and since then, my life has been an avant-garde pinball machine: I drink coffee, I bounce off the walls, I play the oboe. Ding ding ding, new high score! I couldn’t afford to have my nerves or health fail me during Ear Taxi, though, and I trusted that the music-making would be invigorating enough. A tiny cup of coffee at breakfast would be my only caffeinated ballast for about ten days, withdrawal headaches be damned.
That turned out to be a really good decision, because I was right: Ear Taxi enveloped me in positive, productive musical energy of a kind I certainly haven’t felt since I was a student. I was inspired to perform well not just for myself, but on behalf of the entire creative community of which I am a proud and active part. We were given a big, resonant stage on which to stand in front of a large, curious audience. It’s unfortunately rare as a performer of contemporary music to “get presented,” i.e., to have much of the unglamorous but essential legwork of concert production (fundraising, marketing, schlepping chairs and stands, transporting gear, selling tickets) offloaded from us musicians. Festival curators Augusta Read Thomas and Stephen Burns, festival manager Reba Cafarelli, and their whole staff and volunteer team are to be commended for following through on such a comprehensive vision of what this festival could be. Thanks to the host venues, too, for providing exceptional and comfortable spaces in which to work intensely.
And what about the music? It would be impossible to make any sweeping generalization about the programs or artists showcased at the festival. Two possible (among infinite) takeaways from the festival’s programming are that today’s composers and performers are exceedingly willing and able to engage thoughtfully with the music of the past and, secondly, that hostilities have perhaps softened between composers formerly seen as representing rival schools.
Personally, I thought that a lovely classicist thread tied together Ensemble 20+’s two selections: the Oboe Concertino by Bernard Rands set me up as a rhapsodizing protagonist backed up by the band from Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. Next on the program, Eliza Brown’s watery, whispery A Soundwalk with Resi conjured the spirit of Richard Strauss.
On Monday night, Katie Young’s new piece where the moss glows received its world premiere at the festival’s finale, which doubled as the first CSO MusicNOW concert of this season. It stands to reason that the Chicago Symphony’s average concertgoer has probably never engaged with a piece like this – gnarly and knotted and whirring – performed live before. Dal Niente’s guitarist Jesse Langen described it with his usual aplomb: “maybe you’re somewhere in Portugal with a radio that’s 150 years old with these gigantic tubes coming out the back, and you tune in a faint signal from Dresden and it’s Wozzeck… that’s what this piece sounds like.”
Over the course of the festival, I overheard composers of what we’d generally call post-minimal music praising compositions that might get slammed elsewhere for being inaccessible or academic. It turns out that different listeners bring different life experiences to their seats in the concert hall, and those are hardly ever cut and dried; sounds that one person drably brushes off as “academic” might remind someone else of beats blasting at a warehouse rave. (Yes, I heard these two differing reactions to the exact same piece).
If you attended many of the concerts at Ear Taxi, first of all, thank you for being there, and second, I hope you weren’t expecting to love or connect with everything you heard! Even as a performer, I’m not crazy about all the music I play. Maybe that sounds controversial or surprising, but I believe it’s just a natural part of the great privileges and responsibilities of doing my job. It’s a meaningful and important challenge to try to give new music its best possible first (and second and third) performance. I cared so much about my concerts at Ear Taxi, I was willing to give up coffee for them.
Every year, musicians from around the world converge on Darmstadt to teach, learn, discuss, debate, perform, and redefine new music. We asked some nientes - and niente associates - to fill in the following blank: “Darmstadt 2016 was _______”
Below are just a few of the answers we got.
Ben Melsky, Dal Niente Harpist and Executive Director
Darmstadt 2016 was:
Theatrical. Interest in the new discipline seems to be hitting its stride and coming to the forefront AND taking off in so many directions. From Steven Takasugi’s Sideshow to basically anything by Jennifer Walshe, to a whole bunch of opera and opera-like projects from composers around the world, to plenty of George Aperghis (who happens to be among the world’s sweetest people), to music without sound but with bodies? What?
I think about this intersection of music and theater a lot. If you tell a musician to do X, they want to know “how fast, how much, how high, where, precisely when, in coordination with who?” if you tell an actor to do the same X, an entirely different set of thoughts or self-instructions precipitate.
How do you get a musician to act? In what context can this “acting” be successful and not contrived? Could you hire actors to perform these pieces? These are some pretty big questions.
Supportive. I had the distinct pleasure of working with Gunnhilder Einarsdottir (author of harpnotation.com) another harpist, Alice Belugou, and a bunch of composers from around the world. Over the course of two weeks, Gunnhilder, Alice and I worked with the composers on short pieces utilizing varying extended techniques and instrument preparations. It is always incredibly fascinating to watch other harpists (or any other performer) in the moment make decisions about whether they can do something a composer is asking for. This is a difficult line to walk because it requires the performer to voluntarily go somewhere a bit uncomfortable or even a bit vulnerable - honestly asking yourself “Can i do this?” and communicate that to the composer. And if you can’t, how to get what they’re after. You know, problem solving.
It is much too easy in situations like this to simply say no, something’s not possible, and of course, there are many many times when a request simply cannot be done. BUT it’s very important to realize that saying “yes” and working through problems is the process by which ideas become reality.
Ravenswood, Lincoln Square, Uptown, Edgewater, Lincoln Park. Chicago seriously represented at the festival this year. Myself, Mabel Kwan, Carrie Shaw, Michael Lewanski and Jessie Langen (with all those über creative Chicago Arts Initiative kids) held down the Dal Niente fort. Mocrep was there and did some incredible work with Steven Takasugi and Jennifer Walshe. Katie Young and Jenna Lyle had fantastic performances of their work. Ray Evanoff (Chicago by proximity, and he stayed at my place, so he counts) was there, Jonathan Hannau, the whole gang!
I was so proud of what Chicago had to contribute to this international festival. The energy, dynamic, ambition to do great work, and spirit of this city is truly unique and it really showed in Darmstadt. Weston Olencki, a pretty special guy who you can hear on our December 4th Enno Poppe concert, received the Kranichstein prize for interpretation and Bethany Younge received a Kranichstein stipend for composition. Great to see them recognized for their work.
Favorite moment: Overhearing Ray Evanoff explain to Michael Lewanski how to make french press coffee. I’ll let you guess who mentioned “Scelsi” and “the universe”
From Mabel Kwan, Dal Niente Pianist:
Darmstadt 2016 was not for the faint of heart.
Blood, foil, cellophane, raw meat, torture, ambition, pain, denial of death, fear of loss, anonymity, downfall, hybrid realities, alien bodies, skin, trash, fur coats and sunglasses and six inch heels, one sold out show, gender, sex, shop vac, harpist getting stabbed in the cheek, the human body, another sold out show, condoms, broken glass, disembodiment, survival, apocalypse, the lowest bass frequencies ever, yet another sold out show, freak shows, surveillance, oppression, ghost peppers, a cleansing, an enormous teddy bear, darkness, suffocation, power tools… and that was only the first 5 days.
From Jesse Langen, Dal Niente Guitarist:
Darmstadt 2016 was educational.
I learned that, as valkyries descend from on high, the unfortunate hear a celestial harp glissando from the heights of the stars to the abyss of their doom. I saw Peter Veale recover improbably and in great style from death onstage. Also, kayleigh butcher likes several posts, according to mocrep.
And a paraphrase from sivan cohen elias, coaching Chicago Arts Initiative and Studio Musikfabrik youth ensembles: "i see a clown. But the clown wants to make a new kind of joke. Like a new music clown. And the clown is making its new music jokes by the river. But people just walk by the clown and ignore him. Play it like that." (The students play) "No."
From Jenna Lyle, Composer and Vocalist:
Darmstadt 2016 was fit-to-be-pickled.
...and in some cases actually pickled...From a wide array of vinegar-preserved cheeses and vegetables to some of the most touching and interesting performances, to some of the worst things I've ever seen, Darmstadt 2016 is something I'd like to keep in a jar, packed in salt. My experiences there will continue to ferment in my memory, decomposing and growing new strains of bacteria in my creative consciousness until eventually they become an explosion risk like that Kombucha Andrew made in our kitchen a couple of years ago. I mean it was delicious, but there were a couple of days where I was legitimately worried about scoby combustion.
By Michael Lewanski, conductor, artistic coordinator, musical cheerleader, melodica virtuoso
Friends, I sort of think classical music concerts are a problem. I know, I know; this is an awfully strange thing for me, of all people, to be saying. After all, I participate in a lot of them, and I have attended literally thousands and thousands. And I’ll go a step further: if I’m being totally honest, I’d rather go to a concert than do very nearly anything else. Some of my best, most deeply felt moments as a human being have occurred at concerts. Essential parts of my identity are constructed around certain concert experiences. In a sense, concerts are an expression of who I am.
Still, though, I can’t help but feel ambivalent. For every one life-affirming performance I enjoy, I may have two concert experiences that feel inauthentic or artificial or phoned-in or uncommitted or, at worst, completely pointless and time-wasting for everyone involved. There’s no shortage of blame to go around: performers, their training, audiences, US culture, funding structures, Wagner/Mahler (because they are partially the origin of what are now our dumb concert traditions), Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (because it’s a terrible song), Donald Trump (because Donald Trump, though one might more reasonably claim that he’s a symptom as much as he is a cause). But regardless, there’s just something about the format that works only some of the time. Many of us feel that classical music concerts in the US are inherently moralizing or judge-y. “This is Great Music(TM),” some concerts say, “and so you dress up fancy and you’d better like this otherwise you’re uneducated and DO NOT CLAP BETWEEN MOVEMENTS I SWEAR TO GOD.” But also: many of us have been noting this moralizing/judge-y tendency for a while. So there has been a trend in the opposite direction; and as a result sometimes in response we Try Too Hard: hey, let’s have a concert that only our friends will attend in a bar and let’s pat ourselves on the back while people talk through the performance because we’re making the music Accessible. (Uh-oh, does that mean secretly deep down we think it has to be made that was because it’s not? we hesitate to even ask ourselves.)
I’m wary of the sometimes-often alienating experiences of classical music concerts. I’m equally wary of Trying Too Hard. I am interested in searching for an authentic way of listening to performed music in a confusing world. Even if I can’t find it, there’s a lot to be learned from trying. Party 2016 is part of this search.
For some reason, now I want to tell you about Count Karl von Zinzendorf (1739-1813), an Austrian civil servant, an accountant, an otherwise pretty regular dude who had an active social life going to dinner parties, concerts, operas, etc. in Vienna. His most remarkable characteristic is none of this, but rather that he wrote it all down—that he was an incessant diarist. Karl (I’m sure he doesn’t mind if I call him that) made observations that are remarkable as much for all of the music he saw (the premieres of the now-standard-repertoire Mozart operas, say) as they are for their nonchalance and ho-hum-ness. Mozart wasn’t a Great Composer(TM) to him, he was a guy writing music for his time and place that had such obvious relevance that that question was never even engaged. It’s astonishing to us how much live music Karl encountered on a regular basis, how much he understood, and also how casual he was about it. And that only makes sense: Vienna was a very different place in 1800; it had a population of 270,000, and music all sounded much more same-y than it does today. (Which is NOT to say it’s not amazing music; it is; it exhibits a mastery of craft that we probably don’t really appreciate as people listening to it 200 years later. It’s just to say that with way fewer people, less advanced technology, a different sort of social hierarchy, etc., of course there’s less stylistic diversity.) So a trade-off exists here. Their music (what we consider today to be, I suppose, “classical music” or “art music”) was much less diverse than ours is today. But their music was also the stuff of everyday life that in a way that ours simply is not, unless you’re talking about Taylor Swift, which (mostly) I’m not. (Not that I mind Taylor Swift; no, really, I think “I Knew You Were Trouble” is a good song, like when the bassline comes in at that one spot and all.) The reasons for this are complex, and off the top of my head, are related to: commercialism, the culture industry, late capitalism, commodification, reification, the division of labor, American political and education systems, and cultural imperialism. (OK, yeah, that’s a different convo; or is it?)
My goal, nevertheless, is for you to go to Dal Niente/Parlour Tapes+’s Party 2016 and encounter and really engage with and love and hate and feel “meh” about and be troubled by art of your time and your culture—not someone else’s. And I think this might make most sense in a context that is familiar to you: a social event. Our friend Karl the Viennese Accountant went to music parties (of a different sort), and so should you. In a sense, I want you to have a cultural experience that is deeply regular and profoundly non-transcendental. OK, maybe some of it will be transcendental; James Tenney’s Critical Band, with its tuning A ever-expanding into the complete natural harmonic series, is—just being real—a pretty out-of-body experience. Most of it, though, I want to feel like your life. And your life is complicated and perhaps difficult; as much as you might want it to be otherwise, it is probably a bit chaotic and ununified and not always altogether pleasant; so is our program. It’s a party, yes, but it’s not just easy; to pretend otherwise would be lying.
So, a few words about a few of the pieces:
Greg Saunier’s Deerhoof Chamber Variations is an arrangement of Deerhoof songs for Dal Niente by that band’s drummer who also happens to be a brilliant and idiosyncratic musician with a particularly quirky sense of style. What he’s done here is taken songs from their various albums and put them together as fragmentary arrangements, each of which engages a different style that you sort-of recognize. “Like the score of a neoclassical ballet,” said Daniel Johnson of WQXR, in what maybe the greatest and/or least likely description for a bunch of rock songs ever.
Natacha Diels’ Elpis is a particular blend of styles you may also sort-of know, combined with certain kinds of movements that walk the human/mechanical line finely. In the meantime, someone is cutting out photographs of models from magazines, while some of the performers imitate their poses. What is the relationship between the movement of these performers and the sounds produced by the instruments?
Stefan Prins’ Generation Kill: gosh, this is a dark work that is hard to read, whose meaning is actually difficult to pin down: but this hard-to-pin-down-ness forces you to ask a lot of questions. Some performers are playing video game controllers, some are playing musical instruments. What’s similar about those actions and what’s different? What is the agency of these people? Who’s controlling what? Actually, is anyone in control here? And how does supposed control over video and musical sound reflect on musical style? How does musical style relate to the world we live in? Writes the composer: “I realized that my next piece had to musically reflect [...] on a society which is more and more monitored, on the increasing importance of internet, networks and social media, which are fueled by videos taken with webcams and smartphones, on video-games and on wars fought like video-games, on the line between reality and virtuality which gets thinner by the day.”
Parlour Tapes+’s Inside-Outside Rave Pyramid: Um, this. Trust me, just watch it.
Louis Andriessens’ Hout (Wood): This feels like virtuoso performers playing four different fast lines at the same time. But, OMG, they’re actually the same line, displaced by one sixteenth note. Says the composer: “the successive voices are so close together that it is more like a unison melody with ramifications. Ramifications and branches are the same word in Dutch.”
Good thing we have different ones in English, because “ramifications” is a word that I really like; it describes something about the way I think about art. It’s the sense that the work is not simply the printed score or the performance. Rather, it’s how we all (musicians, composers, audiences) collectively and individually experience what we hear and the aftermath of that hearing—how we talk about it, how we think about it, how it alters our lives in small but accumulatingly meaningful ways, and how we become different based on the art we experience.