An interactive blog, curated by composers and performers, tracing the ideas and process behind the music.
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November 17, 2016
by Jacob Greenberg, ICE Director of Recordings and Digital Outreach
Tundra, ICE's in-house recording label and an imprint of New Focus Recordings, has been busy lately. Ryan Muncy's brilliant second solo album ism appeared in September, and just two months later, we're holding in our hands Aesopica, a retrospective of ICE's long collaboration with composer Marcos Balter. Aesopica collects five pieces written for the members of ICE over seven years; one was developed in the ICElab program (Aesopica), one written for the occasion of a retrospective of György Ligeti in Los Angeles (ligare), and three others for small groups of ICE soloists. Below are some remarks from ICE members, reprinted from the CD booklet, about our productive partnership with Marcos.
Ryan Muncy, saxophone
Wicker Park was my very first collaboration with Marcos Balter. Recalling the energy and vitality of the famous Chicago neighborhood from the turn of the millennium, the work marks Marcos's first time writing for saxophone, and has quickly become one of his most-played pieces. Wicker Park embraces the soprano saxophone's idiosyncrasies, using mechanical sounds and breathiness as expressive features.
Nadia Sirota, viola
To celebrate his fortieth birthday, Marcos wrote a joyous suite of miniatures that shows off four of his closest collaborators. Codex Seraphinianus is inspired by the Luigi Serafini work of the same name, a 127-page illustrated volume that is a kind of alien encyclopedia. The pages lay out indexes of different items: natural, man-made, and uncanny hybrids. This book is written in an invented, perhaps untranslatable language, yet to a curious reader, it has a strange internal logic. Inspired by its numerological patterns, Marcos fashioned eleven movements that play with the edge of understanding.
Claire Chase, flute
When the Art Institute of Chicago asked me to invite a composer to write a new work for solo flute inspired by the museum's permanent collection, Marcos Balter immediately leapt to mind. There was one piece in the Modern Wing, Cy Twombly's Return from Parnassus, by which I'd spent countless hours losing time, dreaming, meandering in colors, shapes, numbers, textures. And so Descent from Parnassus was born. The flutist recites (by turns whispering, screaming, singing, and scatting) a text from Book One of Dante's Canto Paradiso. The work pushes the limits of the instrument and the body, just as Twombly's brush strokes seem to skyrocket off the edges of the canvas and into a celestial space. Tragically, Twombly died just before the premiere of the work.
Jacob Greenberg, piano
ligare paints a placid yet eerie landscape. György Ligeti is recalled by the slow-moving microtones, passed among the six instruments, but the effect of the ensemble's whistling is entirely new, a signature device of the composer. A listener asks: where do these disembodied sounds come from, and why do they create such unease?
Rebekah Heller, bassoon
Aesopica was Marcos's first large ensemble piece for ICE. This whimsical yet intricate suite of vignettes, drawn from the larger semistaged work, adapts texts from Aesop's Fables. My favorite, "The Boastful Lamp," is a duet between the tenor Peter Tantsits and myself on a deconstructed bassoon (the wing joint, the part of the bassoon that looks like a mini-saxophone) that we dubbed an "oon." Each of the movements in this suite transports the listener to tiny universes of sound, unique and fully realized.
Marcos Balter, composer
My collaborations with ICE are the fruit of artistic kinship as much as they are of close friendships. Like may of my compositional heroes from the past, I prefer writing for people I know well and whom I know will understand and enhance my vision. As luck would have it, my dear friends from ICE are among the most skilled and sensitive performers a composer could dream of. The challenge, then, is to continue to push the envelope, mine and theirs, never settling for anything less than complete artistic truth. My music for ICE is very much like a diary of my own trajectory as a composer.
Stay tuned for more releases coming soon on Tundra! The fifth title on the label, music of another wonderful collaborator, George Lewis, will drop in January!
November 11, 2016
By Ross Karre, Co-Artistic Director and Director of DigitICE.org
At ICE, we talk a lot about pieces of music. Pieces are the building blocks of our events. They define the story that is told through our concert season. But looking deeper, a piece of music is also a hub of communication. It’s a sonic expression of a composer’s vision. It’s an act of translation on the part of the ICE musicians. And it’s an art of interpretation and discovery for our audience members. Creating new pieces and new interpretations is central to our day-to-day activity. It’s the reason that we do what we do.
Recently, we have begun to consider the entire life of a piece from a holistic point of view. Is a piece of music only its performance on stage? We think not. The reality is that most people don’t experience these new pieces in live performance. The majority of new music experiences happen via reading, viewing photos, watching videos, or listening to recordings online. While a premiere of a new work may have 40 people in its audience, thousands of people experience the piece online in faraway places.
We often “measure” music by metrics related to its immediacy: seating attendance, video views, record sales.The larger impact to the community comes from the small ripple effects of the other components of a piece’s life: the sketches leading to a new composition, the email threads between composer and performer, the rehearsal photos spread via social media, and the relationships built in the process. After the premiere, a piece has a legacy of transformation. It becomes a palimpsest as rehearsal notes and marginalia are added, erased, and scribbled on the printed sheet music. Second performances, studio recordings, critical reviews, anniversary concerts, and musicological study also contribute to the life of a piece.
Over the past five years, ICE has built a number of initiatives to make visible these larger aspects of the piece's life cycle, in the hope of enriching the audience experience and deepening a listener's investment in the new music community. One of the most important parts of the life cycle is ICE’s process of discovery. In the past, composers sent large packages of beautiful scores to our ICEhaus rehearsal space in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Our paper library of scores by composers from all over the globe occupies dozens of shelves. More recently, composers have sent these scores via email in PDF form. We welcomed this change with open arms, and it led to the creation of ICEcommons.
The ICEcommons.org library is a hybrid of a traditional call-for-scores and a crowdsourced reference system of new works. Composers are encouraged to add information regarding their works list to ICEcommons. When ICE (and any other ensemble or performance org) wants to find a new work with a non-traditional instrumentation, we look to ICEcommons first. As we get to know the piece, we use our LUIGI musical database software to catalog information about the work: rehearsal schedules, personnel lists, performance dates, and all of the minutiae related to the performance of a new work. Finally, our live performance videos are collected and distributed on our free library: Digitice.org. Pieces come into ICE’s ecosystem via ICEcommons and they are delivered to the world via Digitice.org. These libraries allow us to bring new audiences to this music and advocate for emerging and underrepresented composers. Our hope is that this three-phase summary of the life of a piece - DISCOVER, COLLECT, ADVOCATE - can become a consistent and holistic part of our daily practice, and we can use these new tools to make a piece available to the widest possible global audience.
As an example, let’s look to the piece of music ICE created with Ashley Fure from early 2015 until Summer of 2016 in Darmstadt for its premiere. The work, The Force of Things, was a collaborative, intermedia hybrid from the get-go. From the initial meetings and development rehearsals of the piece, we committed to capturing the process in video, still, and written form. The piece developed in several places and times throughout the season. The University of Michigan Liberty Annex at the Taubman School of Architecture played host to the material tests for this object opera while Miller Theatre at Columbia University presented a premiere of a segment of the work. Abrons Arts Center was a second home for the piece’s continuation as we prepared to present a second excerpt at Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn.
Photo: Ashley Fure with The Force of Things team: Ross Karre, Levy Lorenzo, Rebekah Heller, Alice Teyssier, Lucy Dhegrae, Ryan Muncy, Kivie Cahn-Lipman, Nick Houfek. Abrons Arts Center
Finally, at the official premiere in Darmstadt, Germany, we continued revising the work until the downbeat. The process of creation was meticulously documented and layered in a beautiful trailer created by the Digitice.org media team (Ross Karre, Merve Kayan, Monica Duncan, Bradley Rosen, and Caley Monahon-Ward).
The Force of Things’s life enters new stages with upcoming presentations at the University of Michigan, PEAK Performances in Montclair New Jersey, and additional possibilities around the world. The Force of Things also has led to three smaller works which will have their own lives: Shiver Lung for seven players, Etudes from the Anthropocene for septet and large silicone structure, and Shiver Lung 2 for percussion and electronics. The origin of the idea, which started as a conversation in a bar in Darmstadt 2014 between Ashley Fure and Ryan Muncy, became its own world of creation, spawning new projects with a linked consciousness; and every detail of the work's gestation became an essential element in its forward motion. ICE believes that its documentation of this process is inextricable from the way The Force of Things took shape.
Photo: Ross Karre testing the new monocord system with custom styrofoam bridges.
ICEcommons has also spurred the lives of several pieces which are new to ICE but were created by other composer-performer pairings. Monte Weber, Mauricio Pauly, Seth Cluett, Ann Cleare, David Coll, Camila Agosto, and many more have had their works discovered via their contributions to ICEcommons. Each will have outlets on Digitice.org, social media, photos, text, and audience conversations at concert after-parties and open rehearsals.
Photo: ICEcommons selection Objects in Stillness by Seth Cluett. Abrons Arts Center Playhouse. Also viewable on Digitice.org.
ICE makes the communal nature of musical creation into a public endeavor--connecting performers, composers, and audiences via open libraries and forums. We know that a piece isn't confined to its rehearsals and performances; it needs and deserves more. And the musical community thrives when we communicate creatively across many platforms. Stay tuned to iceorg.org as we continue to DISCOVER, COLLECT, and ADVOCATE.
October 16, 2016
I have some exciting news to share with you. The New York Times announced that after 15 years, I am proudly passing the Artistic Director torch to my beloved colleagues Joshua Rubin and Ross Karre. Together with Vanessa Rose, our Executive Director, they will lead ICE through another electrifying evolution.
Today we are celebrating at ICE. This is an occasion of rebirth, metamorphosis, and, in many senses, formation. When I formed ICE with my classmates at Oberlin a decade and a half ago, we had big, bold, audacious dreams: we wanted to create an artist collective in the tradition of radical trailblazers like the AACM; we wanted to form an American ensemble that played the music of our time with the precision and distinction of European groups like EIC; and we wanted to forge a new kind of non-profit organization, one with a hybrid and adaptive identity as a producer, advocate, educator, and transformative force for cultural change.
We wanted to create an institution dedicated fiercely and uncompromisingly to new work – dedicated, importantly, to the work of our generation of artists, vital work by underrepresented composers, improvisers and music-makers toiling gutsily in the margins. This organization would be as indispensable to the life of a city as its symphony orchestras, opera, and theater companies. I said this very thing to the New York Times back in 2007, when Steve Smith wrote a profile on ICE’s work as we were setting up shop in the Brooklyn loft affectionately known as ICEHaus.
With your support – you, our treasured community of listeners and friends, fellow artists and advocates – ICE has accomplished all this and more. A quick scan of our 2015-16 season showed that rather than rain, snow, or a meteorological catastrophe, there was a 42% chance of an ICE concert on any given day. Last year alone, the group played 151 shows, gave 91 premieres, and performed 10 new operas. We also had an outpouring of new programming through OpenICE that was free and open to the public – something that has been central to ICE’s mission since our very first free public concerts in Chicago in 2002.
Each of these programs, each of these pieces, and each of the unforgettable musical moments that fuel them is a formation – a new beginning, the restless and sensuous act of creating, making, changing– a practice that this group of artists does more fearlessly and faithfully than any group of people I have ever known. Making something beautiful out of whatever we have is the daily, hourly, and lifelong work of this organization.
On January 6, 2002, the original ICE formation was a ragtag concert at The Three Arts Club in Chicago. We produced it with $603, which was what I had in my bank account at the time – amassed from my holiday catering tips. Investing what I had in the dream of ICE was the best financial and artistic decision of my life. I am as proud of that decision as I am of my decision to invest my MacArthur award in ICE’s programs and in nonprofit causes in the new music field. Thousands of people have joined me in contributing to the ICE cause and to our community’s shared cause over the years.
And so today, as I lovingly hand the reins of ICE’s direction to my brilliant band mates and executive staff, I am proud to unveil ICE Formation, a new initiative that will seed ever more audacious formations by ICE’s artists and collaborators. I logged into LUIGI, ICE’s database (named, of course, after Luigi Nono, for his collaborative ideals) to see what I had made in concert fees playing with ICE last season. LUIGI told me it was $25,650, an amount that in 2002 I never, in a million years, would have believed I’d make playing the music that I love most with the people I love most.
I am donating that amount - $25,650 - to ICE Formation today with the same spirit of adventure and big dreams as when I gave $603 to ICE. With this donation, I am thrilled to smash the champagne bottle on the launch of a new era, to celebrate the infinitely regenerative act of formation, and the process of crystallization that is the liquid shore of ICE.
I won’t be straying far from the ICE nest. I will stay deeply involved in the organization’s work as a band member, staff member and cheerleader of the ICE artists’ metamorphic vision for the field.
I am delighted to share with you that as of this afternoon, we have already had several donors match my contribution, making the ICE Formation $115,000 on its first day out of the box. Will you join me with a contribution? Let’s make something beautiful with whatever we have.
To the future!
ICE Formation artwork by Maryam Khosrovani
September 22, 2016
The opening weekend of 16-17 OpenICE at the Abrons Arts Center was a resounding success! Between concerts, information sessions, and education workshops, ICE opened its arms to the public with free admission all around!
Friday evening opened with a Gallery concert of works from the spare, intense tradition of Wandelweiser composers. Erik Carlson returned to ICE from San Diego to share his expertise, and Alice Teyssier alternated as vocalist and flutist with incredible focus.
The main event on Friday in the Playhouse involved the participation of the incredible students of the University of South Carolina--some of them non-music majors--for an epically dramatic performance of Michael Pisaro's Ricefall(2), for rice falling on varied amplified objects. The USC students bravely came up to New York by bus for the concert!
After a happy detour to an elementary school class at the Henry Street Settlement...
...the celebration of Michael Pisaro's music continued on Saturday in the Gallery, with four hour-long presentations of the 4 Messages, with Erik Carlson joined this time by Dan Lippel on guitar. Back in the Playhouse later on, ICE gave the local premiere of Seth Cluett's Objects in Stillness, selected from the ICEcommons open call for scores. Works by Elliott Carter, Christopher Bailey, and Wojtek Blecharz (for reed box!) completed the program.
To explain the evolution of ICEcommons and ICE's new collaboration with New York Public Library and Nordic Music Days, Ross Karre led a Public Archiving Forum with a rapt audience.
The Playhouse events finished on Sunday with two dramatic concerts. First was a portrait concert of Anna Thorvaldsdottir, which included the world premiere or her Sequences for quartet of low winds, as well as multimedia solo works.
The grand finale was a no-holds-barred improv jam session with the best in the field: Peter Evans on trumpet, Cory Smythe on piano, hornist David Byrd-Marrow, Dan Lippel on guitar, and guest vocalist Sofia Jernberg. ICE is grateful for the wonderful audiences who reveled with us all weekend! There was a shared creative energy with everyone who attended and participated!
August 20, 2016
A conversation between Martine Thomas (ICE intern) and David T. Little (composer) about his new work, "dress in magic amulets, dark, from My feet". A response to Dietrich Buxtehude's cantata, Membra Jesu Nostri, this work and six other responses will be presented alongside the original cantata in two performances by ICE, Quicksilver, and The Crossing at Lincoln Center on August 21 for the Mostly Mozart Festival.
MT: In your program notes, you mention "the troubling historic use of crucifixion nails as magic or medicinal amulets." Could you elaborate on this history and how it informs the piece?
DTL: In my research for this piece I discovered that the nails used in crucifixions were often collected afterwards to be re-purposed as healing or magic amulets. I found myself imagining what it would mean for Christ, on the cross, to have known this; to know that after he was dead, the nails piercing his body would be taken for this superstitious use. His response, I imagined, would be something like a reinterpretation of "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani" (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) except directed at the people, rather than to God. That's the idea behind the work.
MT: How would you describe the relationship between Buxtehude's cantata and your piece? Was the cantata more of a launching point or a source of direct musical interaction?
DTL: At first, I had grand plans for a five movement work, emulating the form of the Buxtehude, etc. But as my response progressed--as is often the case for me--the original plan was cast aside. So the resulting piece is more about my own meditation on both Buxtehude's music in general, and on the ideas he explored in particular. Only a few small musical details crept in referencing the original Ad pedes.
MT: What vocabulary or imagery would you describe the soundscape of this piece? How would you describe the emotional center of this piece?
DTL: I was very interested in the idea of opposing forces: of a figure being held upright, suspended by nails in the hands and feet, while at the same time being pulled downward by gravity. The feet upon the suppedaneum became the tense nexus of these forces and a specific location of great pain. This tension informed the sound world significantly--which itself dictated instrumentation--and really serves as the emotional center of the piece. As the text says, "magic pain."
MT: From your perspective as composer, how does this piece interact with your larger body of work?
DTL: This is the only piece I've written that could even loosely be considered "sacred" in the traditional Judeo-Christian sense. (The only other work that comes close is Sunday Morning Trepanation from 2002, which equates going to church to getting holes drilled into your head. Definitely not sacred). That said, my work over the last few years has increasingly dealt with mystical, mythical, spiritual, and existential questions, and all of my work is on some level concerned with drama. This piece--and the way I approached the response in general--is definitely in line with all of this.
Learn more about the Seven Responses event here:
Photo by Merri Cyr
August 20, 2016
A conversation between Martine Thomas (ICE intern) and Anthony Cheung (composer) about his new Viola Concerto, written for ICE's Maiya Papach. ICE will premiere this concerto and four others at Lincoln Center on August 23 for the Mostly Mozart Festival.
MT: Which qualities of the viola are integral to your conceptualization of this piece? How did you intend for the piece to play to the instrument's strengths or to challenge its possibilities?
AC: I think the viola’s expressive range is wider than composers and listeners typically expect of it. I’m attracted to both the autumnal, dark-hued lyricism that we traditionally associate with the instrument, as well as the hyper-kinetic virtuosic elements that often go overlooked, but can be really gratifying in the hands of a great player. There is an abundance of both worlds in the piece. The last thing I wanted to do was to approach the instrument with trepidation or to simply think of a comfortable “middle-range” sonority, so yes, extremities of range and speed are pushed.
MT: In your bio, you mention that syntax and rhetoric often influence your music. What sort of syntax and/or rhetoric do you envision behind the many heaving moments (via dynamic swells, glissandos, dramatic intervals) versus the more clearly spoken moments?
AC: That’s a good observation, and is indicative of the macro- and micro- level interest in syntax at work in this piece, and most of my other work. The more declamatory moments reflect a kind of instrumentalized rhetoric of speech, especially in the many call-and-response phrases between the soloist and the ensemble. And then there are stretches where one might perceive a drawn-out process, which has very little to do with speech, dialogue, or argument, but rather a more physiological transformation, steady and gradual, moving between states. I’m interested in representing both, and believe there are syntactical ways of making both kinds of rhetoric heard effectively.
MT: Regarding the title, what are the roles that are assumed in this piece? Who assumes them?
AC: How instruments behave, what we are led to believe they are supposed to do, where sound sources come from and why, these are all expectations that I like to question and play with in many of my works. I’ll often have shadow or complementary lines that purposely make something more ambiguous, more dimensional, less easily defined. That’s the starting point with this piece too. Yes, the soloist is front and center, but from the very opening, her lines are picked up, redistributed, commented upon. Is a concerto soloist necessarily a leader, or can she be a follower as well? Must she fit the grand heroic prototype of struggle and redemption, or can we have a little fun with subverting those expectations? When other instruments begin to encroach on the soloist’s ownership of the material, eventually usurping and indeed assuming it, how have our own assumptions been diverted?
MT: What imagery would you describe the soundscape of this piece? How do your instrumentation choices fulfill these intentions?
AC: I didn’t have specific imagery in mind for this piece. Since it is not programmatic in nature, I only wish that listeners come up with their own ways of seeing through the sounds. Sometimes I made mental notes describing the kind of intended effect a passage had in my own head; one such example was “multiple loops at different rates in orbit with one another.” At other points, the character of the sound could be derived from the function of certain instruments, like ones capable of sustaining resonance allowing for subtle harmonic blending and shifts in the final section, which also contributed to the floating, ethereal quality of the music.
MT: How would you describe the emotional center of this piece?
AC: I don’t know if there’s a single center because it is constantly in flux. One might perceive elements of impatience, franticness, over-enthusiasm, euphoria, skepticism, etc. The last section is very different in character from the rest. I couldn’t let the opportunity of a viola concerto go by without trying something unabashedly melancholic and lyrical.
MT: From your perspective as composer, how does this piece interact with your larger body of work?
AC: I’ve only written one other concerto, and that was an atypical piece for horn and orchestra that is heavily programmatic and suggestive of specific sounds and images. This piece is very different in temperament, and in its absolute nature it more closely fits the mold of a traditional concerto. At the same time, I’m wary of slash-and-burn virtuosity for its own sake, so it doesn’t go too far in that direction, and formally the piece is quite peculiar. But I’ve definitely caught the concerto bug now. And I’ve somehow avoided writing for the guitar before this piece, so there’s a first time for everything!
Learn more about the Five Premiere Concertos event here:
August 20, 2016
A conversation between Martine Thomas (ICE intern) and Dai Fujikura (composer) about his new Cello Concerto and Flute Concerto, written for ICE's Katinka Kleijn and Claire Chase. ICE will premiere these concertos and three others at Lincoln Center on August 23 for the Mostly Mozart Festival.
MT: Could you talk a bit about your compositional process? How did each piece germinate? What ideas, abstract or concrete, inspired or influenced each piece?
DF: Like all my music, these pieces were created by working together with artists. These pieces especially came from close encounters, with soloists Claire Chase for the Flute Concerto and Katinka Kleijn for the Cello Concerto.
For the Flute Concerto, I knew I wanted the solo flute to be doing some of the percussive playing that Claire does so well, in a way it is her signature playing, so I had to think of two things. The first: how to notate. My job as a composer is not to control the musician, but to make a world in which the musician can play with their best sound, their most beautiful sonority (whatever type of beautiful that may be). I wanted to come up with the most practical solution. Knowing what kind of sound I wanted, I discussed a lot with Claire, and came up with a slightly untraditional notation: all pitches and techniques are written but she can choose the combinations. The second: what kind of orchestra sound could match this solo line. I somehow thought of pizzicato-tremolo with some sea-shell chimes, which I remembered seeing in hotel gift shops.
The Cello Concerto was a slightly different story. It is based on my solo cello work, "osm", which was composed shortly before the Cello Concerto. Even though someone else premiered it, Katinka kindly helped me through composing "osm". Even while composing it, I was thinking how great it could be if I made this solo piece into a cello concerto. At the same time, Andreas Waldburg, our friend who supported this commission, told me he would like to commission me to write for my own 40th birthday. How amazing! I told him I would be happy with just a cake! I suggested writing a cello concerto from the material in "osm" with Katinka as a soloist, since she had already helped me. Thinking of who the orchestra should be wasn't hard because the best ensemble, ICE, was in front of our eyes! They loved the idea, but told me they didn't want to wait until 2017 for me to turn 40, so could we do it instead while I am still 39? I would do anything for ICE, so I shifted the composing schedule and started working on the Cello Concerto to be performed this year!
Since "osm" was already a stand-alone solo work, in making it into a concerto, I had to ask myself, how can I create ANOTHER dimension by adding the accompaniment of the ensemble? This was a really heavy task. As you can imagine, since I am a composer, it is most natural for me to make music from scratch. That's what I do, that's what being a composer means. Now I have to give already existing material (even though it was created by myself) "wings" or unexpected dimensions... without bothering its integrity.
Now to talk more about what it means to collaborate with musicians, such as Claire and Katinka. I compose music every day. I write by hand and then immediately put the music into the computer, since I always lose my sketches (or my family members throw them into the recycle bin, "accidentally", so they say). Then, almost every day, I email the musicians screenshots or PDFs of the score I have composed so far. The musicians - wherever they may be, whatever they might be doing, even at a holiday time (often I end up writing music for ICE around Thanksgiving, a tradition I don't know apart from what I have seen in US sitcoms) - will immediately play the materials into their phone and email the recording to me.
Of course I can imagine the sound, but it makes such a difference when real musicians, even sight reading, play it for me to hear. The energy of the playing fires up my inspiration greatly to get on to the next part of the composition the next day.
Sometimes I also skype with the musicians, and record a video. The musician often offers what the instrument can do, or what they have always wanted to do but never had a chance to. I always add suggestions, as I have ideas while listening to their wishes (I am like Santa at Christmas). I have counter ideas, and so on. They try things on camera, which often make us say "hey, that's great!". Then we both know that element will be in the piece somewhere. From those inspirations from the soloists, I know what kind of material I want to include, which makes me think of what kind of orchestration would match that playing.
These are the reasons I love writing concertos. I have quite a lot of concertos, including concertos for unusual instruments!
MT: Quite a bit of your music focuses on elements of the natural world. With all the connections that flute has to birds and wind, does the Flute Concerto have a natural element to it?
DF: I don't think this Flute Concerto has a specific nature theme. Although underneath and in specific areas, there is the impression of a bird gliding (I imagine Claire gliding) and flying into places. Maybe the orchestra is like a forest where the trees move the same way that a bird flies, sometimes with the bird bouncing and ricocheting in the trees.
The last section of the concerto is very seductive, I find. The bass flute (a very sexy instrument) is playing as if in between ice that started to melt. Maybe the surface is wet, dripping, though still cold and with the shape of ice... slowly the bass flute moves across this surface.
MT: The cello is often described as having a sound that's very close to the sound of the human voice. In writing the Cello Concerto, were you thinking of a human voice or a more inhuman voice?
DF: I didn't think of that! As I explained above, I was looking at the existing solo work, "osm", then thinking of what dimension to add, what would be the most non-obvious way to enhance the aura of this piece... that was the challenge. I wanted it to be like knowing someone, then spending intensive time together and finally seeing some very unexpected dimensions in their personality. That sort of thing.
I also wanted to write a cello concerto that was lyrical and, at the same time, unlike a cello concerto, rhythmic but not bombastic. Those were new things for me to work with. After hearing the first rehearsal, I thought those places worked particularly well. I was extremely happy because I was quite worried about it!
MT: How would you describe the emotional center of each piece?
DF: You know, composing music is very much like having a relationship with the piece while you are writing it. The emotional center is often guided and led by the piece. Some pieces I write are quite tricky, as they don't show me where I should go. At a certain point, I am surprised by the piece: wow, you knew you would be like this the whole time but you didn't tell me? Then I have the whole piece in front of me. All the sketches the piece leads me to write suddenly all fit. Some pieces, like the Flute Concerto, are very straightforward (unlike the Cello Concerto). The Flute Concerto led my way like she was holding my hand and pulling me all the way until the end.
This is similar to when I am listening to rehearsals of the pieces. In some phrases, the music tells us, "C'mon, please let me stretch a little!" or "You should play this way!", and so on. We, as composer and musicians, sometimes just do what the music tells us to. The important thing is having a sympathetic situation, like the way ICE rehearses, with care. Then "she", as I often call the piece, feels safe to guide us the way we should go. Strange, isn't it?
MT: In previous interviews, you've mentioned the difficulties of combatting assumptions about your music based on Japanese stereotypes. Was that challenge on your mind as you wrote these pieces in any specific ways?
DF: That is true, especially when dealing with flute! In this piece, I didn't really fight not to sound like or be categorized as "Japanese music". I gave the contrabass flute riffs like a rock guitar and treated the bass flute more like a sensual being. But with those long melodies, I was careful.
I want to write music. Music is one of the rare things in life where we don't need language, and it is universal. What I want to create in music is the dream-like utopia I would like to live in. In my utopia, we don't have immigration officers!
Learn more about the Five Premiere Concertos event here:
Photo by Ai Ueda
August 20, 2016
A conversation between Martine Thomas (ICE intern) and Marcos Balter (composer) about his new Violin Concerto, written for ICE's David Bowlin. ICE will premiere this concerto and four others at Lincoln Center on August 23 for the Mostly Mozart Festival.
MT: How did the process of featuring violin in a concerto setting differ from writing for violin in other capacities (i.e. string quartet)?
MB: I think many composers - myself included - tend to go for negation when asked to write for a genre with strong traditional expectations, like a string quartet or, well, a violin concerto. The temptation is to write a non-concerto, to do something that negates the genre's identity. And, then something funny happens: negation becomes the new tradition, and these negational maneuvers actually become the expectation.
So, I decided to "negate negation" and dive headfirst into the idea of writing a violin concerto that actually pays a very palpable homage to the genre's history. My self-imposed challenge, then, was to use as many traditional expectations as possible, like a fast-slow-fast multi-movement formal design, and somehow come up with something that sounded unequivocally contemporary.
MT: How do you imagine the dialogue between movements?
MB: Even though one might miss it at a first listen, the three movements are extremely interconnected in every possible way: harmonically, rhythmically, formally, thematically, etc. That was yet another self-imposed constraint that clearly acknowledges the genre’s history. And, it doesn't even stop there. If you look at the first and third movements, there's a "ghost" of sonata form in them, with primary and secondary themes introduced, developed, and reintroduced. If I were going to comment on the tradition, I wanted to REALLY go there.
MT: How do your instrumentation choices fulfill these intentions?
MB: Instrumentation was actually an area in which I moved away from traditional expectations. The work uses a quite quirky ensemble that, when examined from a more traditional perspective, seems to create lots of balance and blending issues. I love these "problems."
They force me to think of new colors, new ways of making these instruments work with and for each other. I can spend hours, days, or even months plotting things like "how can I make this soprano saxophone sound like we are still hearing the acoustic guitar from the measure before?" Even more fun is to try to do it "lo-fi," with few or no extended techniques, which makes these challenges even harder. I fear I might be starting to sound like a masochist...
MT: From your perspective as composer, how does this piece interact with your larger body of work?
MB: I don't think about these things. That's for others to do, if they wish. To me, style is a consequence rather than a cause. I'm sure the simple fact I wrote it generates many connections to other things I've written before. But, why would I spend time thinking about that? It seems like an unproductive exercise on artistic vanity. I think carefully at what I'm doing at any given moment, and I am aware that what I think and do is linked to what I've thought and done. That suffices to me.
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