“The premise behind this cycle is basically that I try to write a piece that helps me to create an imaginary animal in my mind and compose with it. And I mean actually compose with it, where the animal has volition and ends up helping to drive the form and ideas in the piece.”
Ammie Brod sat down with Ben Melsky to talk about his new record, Ben Melsky / Ensemble Dal Niente, and the process of creating new music for the harp.
One of the cornerstones of Party 2018 is “stutter-step the concept” by longtime ensemble friend (and fan) Chris Fisher-Lochhead. Originally premiered by Dal Niente at the Ear Taxi Festival, we’ll be playing an updated and expanded version on June 2nd. Dal Niente violist Ammie Brod chatted with CFL about his revision process, creative sources, and baroque object rotation.
Ammie: So we played this piece before, in 2016, but I know you’ve made some substantial revisions since then. Wanna talk about that?
CFL: I wrote stutter-step during a really chaotic period in my life - I was finishing grad school, working on my dissertation, and moving to a totally different part of the country - so my original creative process felt a little rushed and hectic. Basically, I liked the piece but I also knew I wanted to do more with it. In addition, I like it when creative processes are allowed to have multiple stages, and my revisions had more of an additive quality than anything like a total reworking. I wanted to layer more material on top of the structural skeleton I’d already built, to embellish and flesh it out, not to totally reconceive the piece.
Ammie: When we initially played this piece, I know we were all really struck by a sentence in the performance notes where you describe the piece as “a baroquely detailed physical object which is slowly rotating, exposing its many aspects,” and then you go on to talk about how the piece is a series of sonic “slices” of musical material. Those two ideas really form an interesting picture of the piece before it even gets going, and I’d like to talk about how you got there.
CFL: My basic approach to this particular piece came from a desire to consciously channel my love of hip-hop into a notated work. I intentionally drew on the tradition of building beats out of samples, discrete units of material, which are the “slices” I’m talking about. I love how hip-hop uses unexpected juxtapositions to create something new that can’t really be achieved through other means, and I wanted to use that idea to build a sonic surface like a mosaic of heterogeneous musical atoms. I mean, I don’t think anybody could reverse-engineer their way from my piece to hip-hop without knowing the connection, but there it is. The initial work was very pointilistic and intentionally didn’t smudge boundaries or create larger washes; it wasn’t really trying to go anywhere, but was instead an exploration of ways to look at the components that it’s built from. In this updated version, I did allow some amount of more intuitive creativity. Basically, I wanted to take the sampling technique and allow the ways in which those samples are combined to give rise to a fuller musical language. In my mind, I was thinking of this as an analog of the linguistic process of creolization, in which severed and decontextualized pieces of different languages integrate throughout generations to form a new systematic whole.
The way I intuitively crafted these embellishments on the slice structure feels reminiscent of improvisatory group dynamics. As an improviser myself, I've thought a great deal about how to create some sense of coherence and individuation within an ensemble where everyone is improvising. Of course, in this case, the level of detail and complexity that is prescribed in the score is totally unlike the ethos of freedom in improvised music; but, for me, both approaches serve a similar purpose. Reflecting on this kinship between improvisation and notational complexity reminds me of a personal epiphany I had in my early twenties. At the time I was really anti-complexity, but one morning as my music library was playing on shuffle, I ended up hearing John Coltrane's Sun Ship and Brian Ferneyhough's Second Quartet back-to-back. Right then, it clicked for me that both musicians were trying to do similar things in entirely different ways. Coltrane was using these unruly rhythmic gestures and pairing them with an intimate and extensive knowledge of how his instrument worked to articulate a revelatory catharsis of musical energy; Ferneyhough was applying a deeply considered critical awareness of how musical notation works and what instrumentalists are capable of within that framework and doing the same thing by stretching notation and technique to the breaking point. Realizing that these two different approaches could provoke similar outcomes broke the spell of some pretty naive aesthetic prejudices that I was holding on to at that time.
Ammie: Yeah, I definitely wasn’t like, ah yes, hip-hop, when I got my part, but that makes sense. What else went into this piece that the listeners (and musicians) might not know?
CFL: When I was looking back on this, I realized that it was written in the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign. I remember thinking a lot about the overt use of images and words to coerce, cajole, or persuade people, and I was so disgusted by that constant manipulation that I think I subconsciously tried to avoid narrative musical devices. I came to think of the music as something formally concretized, not as a temporal succession of sounds organized tendentiously to elicit an emotional reaction. In other words, I imagine that the experience of listening to the piece would be more like viewing a sculpture than hearing a story, thus the object rotating metaphor.
“stutter-step the concept” comes to Constellation Chicago on June 2nd as part of Party 2018. You can find more information about the other pieces on the program (shadow puppets! escalators!) and ticket information here.
One of the centerpieces of Party 2018 is Chris Fisher-Lochhead's "stutter-step the concept". We'll have more from Chris in a few days about his ongoing work with this piece, but for now here's a look back on our 2016 premiere (and a few words from Chris about his process).
"In hip-hop beat-making, I am drawn to the way that samples, found sonic objects pried from their original contexts, are able to reassemble a musical intelligibility in their new settings, much like the linguistic process of creolization. In stutter-step the concept, I tried to mimic and leverage this formal process."
Party 2018 hits Chicago June 2nd at Constellation Chicago. Are you ready?
Sky Macklay’s new piece for Dal Niente, to be premiered at Party 2018 on June 2nd, is a double concerto for oboe and horn that the composer has described as “wacky”. Violist Ammie Brod skyped (well, google hangout video chatted, because she’d forgotten her skype password) with Sky about mega-instruments, people movers, and her dual roles as a composer and performer of new music.
Ammie: So your new piece for Dal Niente is called Escalator! That’s such a fun name, and I’d love to hear more about why you chose it.
Sky: Well, I think this piece has a lot in common with the multitude of experiences you might have while riding on an escalator or moving walkway: accelerating, getting blocked by people, stopping and starting, and the whiplash of getting off. The musical material plays with drastic accelerations and decelerations of energy and dramatic directional stuff, sharp ups and downs.
*Cue dramatic story about dog poop, a moving walkway, and the horrifying confluence thereof*
Ammie: Wow! Well, back to the music, now that I have a new and very vivid little mental movie to reflect on... Can you tell me more about that musical motion and overall structure?
Sky: The piece basically has three sections. In the first, the horn and oboe play together to form a sort of mega-instrument (interviewer’s note: YESSSS), starting simply with a sort of sad little three-note descending gesture. That gesture gets expanded through a transparent and additive process, getting longer and more heterophonic as other instruments join and start decorating the same expanding phrase. It’s like the steps on the escalator: you start on one, but as you go up or down there’s a longer and more advanced line of them marching out behind you.
The second section starts fast and aggressive, lots of overblown low notes and playing up and down in a single overtone series, and then gets slower and more drone-y as it continues. As it moves into the third section there’s more back and forth between the oboe and horn inside of increasingly perceivable compound meters, jaunty bouncy gestures. The horn and oboe dialogue back and forth with the horn playing pitches related to the oboe multiphonics, and the strings are in this kind of weird A-minor circle-of-fifths thing, coming together briefly for chords that immediately dissolve upward into noisy clustery gestures. The whole thing plays with tonal information from the oboe multiphonics, and starts in the world of metered classical music but then goes to weird places from there.
Ammie: Why horn and oboe? I mean, I love it, but that’s not a combination that I get to hear a lot of.
Sky: When I started talking with Dal Niente about this piece, you expressed interest in writing for some of the less-programmed instruments in the ensemble, and since I play the oboe and I knew Matt and Andy would be down for anything it seemed like a logical choice. I also included harp and guitar for the same reasons, and as it turns out they’ve ended up acting as the kind of disturbing force within the string section.
Ammie: Matt and Andy are totally down for anything! I do know, though, that you’ll actually be playing the oboe solo for the premiere. Can we talk a little bit about what it’s like to perform your own music with other people?
Sky: Sure! I actually perform my own music pretty regularly with a group that I play in called Ghost Ensemble. I wrote a piece called 60 Degree Mirrors that we play regularly, and I’ve enjoyed that because I know so intimately what I want from the parts, and my part in particular, and I can make changes and add small details on the fly as we play it more times. In some ways it’s a lot easier than playing music by other composers, because I know just how flexible I can and want to be with the music.
Ammie: A related question: has that experience changed your relationship to other performers who are playing your music?
Sky: I really like asking for and hearing performers’ opinions. Sometimes performers will have a better way to get to the idea that I had when I was writing the parts, and discussion is a good way to ensure that we all know what that idea is. I’m really open to that discussion, and I definitely want it to feel like I’m welcoming others to the conversation.
Eliza Brown's The Body of the State premieres on October 20 at the EDGE theater. Here, the composer shares a handwritten sketch of part of Scene III and an audio clip from her recording session at the Indiana Women's prison.
We sat down with composer Tomás Gueglio and harpist Ben Melsky to talk a bit about Tomás’s new work Proa and working with dancers from Delfos Danza Contemporánea.
In this interview, EDN violist Ammie Brod sits down with composer Eliza Brown to ask some questions about The Body of the State, Brown's new monodramatic work that Ensemble Dal Niente will premiere as part of its STAGED series in 2017-2018.
Q: First off, can you tell us a little about the history behind your monodrama?
A: The Body of the State is a monodrama for soprano and ensemble about Juana of Castile. Juana, born in 1479, was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the rulers of what is now Spain. At 16, she was married to Philip of Burgundy, who soon proved abusive and unfaithful, denying Juana power in the household and locking her in her chambers as punishment.
In 1506, both Isabella and Philip died, leaving Juana, at age 27, sole heir to the Castilian throne. She found herself locked in a battle for power with her own father, who strong-armed her into signing away her governing rights, leaving her queen in name only. Rumors of her insanity were spread by her political enemies, and her father had her confined to a house in Tordesillas, surrounded by servants and priests whom he paid to lie to her, control her, and interrogate the legitimacy of her faith
Q: That’s very . . . operatic, isn’t it?
A: It is, and that’s part of what got me interested in Juana’s story. I was initially drawn to this as a “hidden narrative” of women’s history, the dark origin story of the Hapsburg empire. But I also appreciated its operatic-ness: the scale of its drama, its emotionally fraught scenarios, the family power plays that affect thousands of people, and as a composer I was interested in the opportunity to allude to and subvert the operatic trope of the madwoman.
Q: Has the focus of your interest changed as you’ve delved deeper into the story?
A: It has, for a number of reasons. As this project developed over the last few years, Juana’s story came to feel more and more relevant to the modern world. Women are still used as political pawns via arranged marriages. The stigma of mental illness is still used to discredit the voices of survivors of abuse and oppression. Educational disparities still undermine the human potential of women and girls around the globe. Incarceration is still used as a method for controlling the non-conforming and the politically threatening, and women still face intense opposition when they pursue political power. This is not only a historical story, but a human story.
Last fall I was involved in a faculty/staff reading group at DePauw University which met via videoconference with the graduate class at Indiana Women’s Prison. We read articles by philosophers and by women in the prison about the concept of “epistemic injustice.” Epistemic injustice occurs when we discount someone’s ability to be a knower, reducing that person to a knowable object. This form of injustice affects many marginalized people, including the incarcerated. As I learned about epistemic injustice from the women at IWP, I felt it perfectly described Juana’s situation. This changed my understanding of the character, and of the text and music she ought to sing.
I felt an ethical responsibility to tell the IWP scholars that their work had influenced mine, and an ethical desire to offer them a way to participate in this project as a small corrective to epistemic injustice. A number of women were interested in participating, and we scheduled a series of meetings to discuss the form that might take.
Q: There are so many levels of collaboration going on in this project! Can you tell me more about the form that this specific collaboration ended up taking?
A: It was important to me to approach this particular collaboration in a way that minimized the position of power I was systemically assigned to, so at first I asked a lot of questions: how do we do this together? Initially, we discussed excerpts of a book about Juana, and then the women wrote responses to it in the formats that felt most appropriate to them. We picked through these responses together, editing and combining them into a libretto. We went through several rounds of editing, giving feedback, and then editing again.
More concretely, I wrote the libretto for the second scene before the collaboration; the librettos for the first and third scenes were written with them. We have no text actually written by Juana to work with, despite her presumed education; all we know of her life is what other people wrote about her. Much as I wanted this monodrama to subvert the operatic paradigm of the mentally unstable female, I wanted this collaboration to subvert the epistemic injustice that prisoners, including both Juana and my collaborators, experience on a daily basis.
Q: Aside from the concrete contribution of a libretto, were there other ways this collaboration shaped your piece?
A: Absolutely. The piece now includes aspects of Juana’s story and psychology that I had not prioritized. For instance, the character now mentions her children several times, and at one point mistakes someone else on stage for one of her sons. I had initially planned to leave out references to her children for the sake of theatrical simplicity, but the women thought we had to find a way to include them.
Our conversations also complicated my perception of Juana as a constant victim. My collaborators picked up on her ability to maintain small forms of resistance to injustice, even if that resistance was sometimes to her detriment. They saw her as strong, because she’s aware of the injustices in her world and resists them instead of being broken by them. Juana heroically attempted to assert her agency against all odds, despite losing battle after battle and despite the opposition of everyone around her. Her story is simultaneously tragedy and triumph.
They’ve also had a hand in the sonic world of the piece. Juana’s mental health is somewhat ambiguous in the historical record: was her mental instability innate, or imposed by circumstance? Some of the women I’ve been working with have had personal experiences with mental health that are not unlike Juana’s, and this prompted a discussion of sound and what sounds could be used as triggers for or symbols of her mental instability within the scope of the piece. Some of these--an electric guitar string being scraped while a flute plays a particular sound, for instance--will be included in the final score. I will also record the women’s voices and incorporate those recordings into the electronics, and I’ve invited them to choose some of their individual text responses to the subject matter that can become part of the background info surrounding this piece. [Two of these texts are quoted above.]
Q: Any final words on this collaboration or your work in general?
A: I’d just like to thank the women I’ve worked with at IWP for their insights into Juana’s story, and the education program at IWP for approving and facilitating this project.