An interactive blog, curated by composers and performers, tracing the ideas and process behind the music.

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October 16, 2016

From Claire Chase

Dear Friends,

I have some exciting news to share with you. This morning 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!

Yours adventurously,

Claire Chase

ICE Formation artwork by Maryam Khosrovani    

September 22, 2016

OpenICE Launch Weekend in Pictures!

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

Mostly Mozart 50 Interviews: David T. Little, Seven Responses Project

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

Mostly Mozart 50 Interviews: Anthony Cheung

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

Mostly Mozart 50 Interviews: Dai Fujikura

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

Mostly Mozart 50 Interviews: Marcos Balter

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.


Learn more about the Five Premiere Concertos event here:

August 19, 2016

Mostly Mozart 50 Interviews: Santa Ratniece, Seven Responses Project

A conversation between Martine Thomas (ICE intern) and Santa Ratniece (composer) about her new work, "My soul will sink within me". 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: From your perspective as composer, how does this piece interact with your larger body of work?

SN: I have written a number of vocal works - a capella, with a large orchestra, even an opera for 12 singers (WAR SUM UP. Music. Manga. Machines) - probably because of my close relationship with Latvian Radio Choir, which is an excellent choir. In every new composition, starting from "Saline"  in 2006, we have slowly and carefully explored new sound worlds. However, I have never composed a piece for a larger ensemble like ICE and choir, so I was so grateful to write a new piece for them. In the beginning, the possibilities of choir and ensemble were almost frightening but pleasant at the same time.

MT: How would you describe the emotional center of this piece? How do the instrumentation choices fulfill these intentions?

SN: There are a few emotional centers in the piece and those, sung with a text, are very noticeable. But my intention was to create other peculiar centers which are sometimes hidden deeply in instrumental parts. The silent peaks coming from instruments are essential for those particular emotions. Without words, without direct meaning, they touch listeners' hearts in unusual ways.

All sounds and textures are immersive in this piece. Choir voices submerge into strings and a new violin melody is born out of nowhere, without associations. Towards the end especially, violin becomes more meaningful, reaching heights no human voices can approach. Cello and english horn duo or clarinet solo distantly illuminate the main melodies before they are exposed by the choir. Harp is extremely important here, as it reflects everything like a mirror with its sharp and crystal clear sound, at unexpected moments apart from the others. These invisible connections were so exciting during the compositional process.

MT: How would you describe the relationship between Buxtehude's cantata and your piece?

SN: The whole idea of seven contemporary composers responding to Buxtehude's cantata was a great inspiration source. Even though I had never met the involved composers in real life before the rehearsals and premiere in Philadelphia, for me it was a wonderful feeling to be all connected somehow in the working process - listening to the same music, studying the same texts and contemplating these big questions of life. I was listening to a lot of different interpretations of "Membra Jesu Nostri", and feeling such an aesthetic synergy.

MT: What was your experience with the contrast between the human presence of the chorus and the divine, almost inhuman, material that influences the music?

SN: This project was surrealistic. From the moment I entered the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral for rehearsals, it was immediately like being in another, unreal, universe. The church acoustic, the dimensions of light design, the text and visuals directly on the ceiling fresco, the murmur of flowing water, all created a sublime space. The sound of Quicksilver playing Buxtehude and the responses of ICE's contemporary voice were in absolute balance. I was thinking about how close actually these two worlds are. Baroque period and today. Human and divine. And human voices probably bring these two worlds together. The voices of "The Crossing" singers are close to heaven.

MTHow did you encounter the letters of St. Clare of Assisi that you use in the text of this work? Why did these letters in particular speak to you in this context?

SNThe history is very long. We all know the great works based on the life and works of St. Francis of Assisi, like Olivier Messiaen's opera "St.Francis of Assisi" and Sofia Gubaidulina's "The Canticle of the Sun of St. Francis of Assisi". There is also the movie "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" by Franco Zeffirelli, which I loved so much and still watch from time to time... I was once very inspired by the texts of St. Francis, which I used in my choral piece "Fuoco Celeste". Writing that piece, I was trying to look behind the text and give a chance to the cello to sing the inner voice of Francis, as he was in the beginning when he was so alone.  

Clare was the only one who felt how precious he Francis was as a creature of God and said: "People say you are mad. When you went off to war they said you were fine, intelligent - and now you are mad, because you sing like the birds, you chase after butterflies and you look at flowers. I think you were mad before, not now". Because of this, I was waiting for the right moment to dedicate a piece to St. Clare.

When I begun to study Buxtehude's "Membra Jesu Nostri", the connection with the era of St. Francis and St. Clare (the Middle Ages) was so exciting- Buxtehude used poems from Medieval Cistercian monk Arnulf of Leuven for his cantata. I discovered another connection to the Middle Ages when, improbably, I came across a verse in the letters of St. Clare of Assisi to St. Agnes of Prague that was taken from the text, "Song of Songs" (Canticum Canticorum). Although it was different excerpts, the text was also used by Buxtehude in his fourth and sixth cantatas. Besides these connections, I thought the letters could be interesting in this project, since most contemporary composers are collaborating with poets and writers of today or writing scripts themselves.


Learn more about the Seven Responses event here:

June 6, 2016


by Jacob Greenberg, Director of Recordings and Digital Outreach

A group of eleven musicians from ICE sat cross-legged in the Abrons Underground Theatre, as Pauline Oliveros guided us through a warm-up for a meditation.  Our leader helped us to awaken our senses, instructing us to vigorously rub our faces, our throats, our ears.  And then we sat, becoming intensely aware of our environment, its unique energy, and our place in it.

This was a rare session with the master herself, the composer of so many staples of ICE’s concert repertoire, to prepare for two "Morning Meditation" sessions this week at the Ojai Festival in California, structured around Pauline’s music.  Founder and Director of the Deep Listening Institute, Pauline’s work has informed ICE’s programming and the group dynamic of ICE’s entire history.  Pauline couldn't join us for the trip out west, but we are all here now in Ojai, soaking up this magically scented town, and becoming aware of its energy as we did last Saturday at the Abrons Underground. 

Back to that meditation at Abrons: as we all sat there, each of us heard the building’s quiet ventilation system, but each of us, it became clear later, heard something different in it; as I listened closely, I was aware of a central pitch, but also a spectrum of pitches around it.  This in turn was in dialogue with a soft hum of overhead lights, and shifts and creaks from the participants.  Listening for a character in every sound I perceived, I was truly able to hear a subtle interaction between the objects in our environment. 

The first piece that we practiced built on this experience: called Environmental Dialogue, we used our instruments and voices to pick up on sounds that we heard, and to continue those sounds, approximating their pitch and general affect.  This achieved what Pauline had in mind, namely a subtle amplification of our atmosphere, using our powers of listening and musicianship to magnify everything sounding around us. 

Next was The Well and the Gentle, another classic Oliveros piece, which was featured in our very first concerts at the Abrons Arts Center.  Each performer draws from a “well” of concentration for inspiration to action.  Using a fixed set of available pitches, the players choose from gestures that one associates with any kind of performance—accompanying, merging, soaring above, matching sound, supporting an idea or texture—with the option also of just listening.  It was wonderful to have to the opportunity to ask Pauline about this piece, after many ICE performances and teaching workshops with student groups, to learn how we can perform the work most sensitively.  Many times, she told us, “Don’t be timid!”  While we were all aware of the overall atmosphere that we were creating, no one wanted to rock the boat, and Pauline gave us license to be daring and use the maximum dynamic range. “It’s okay to add some drone notes,” she also said of the second part of the piece, which is more rhythmic; we worked to find just the right tempo so that one could perceive waves of rhythmic counterpoint moving across the group.

One thing that is especially difficult to explain to students about Pauline’s pieces, and pieces that involve improvisation generally, is how they end.  How do we know when the piece is over?  The answer, always, is that one just knows—by intuitively feeling the closure of a piece’s structure, and knowing when everyone has contributed something essential.  Remarkably, ICE never has a problem with this—but each performance setting is necessarily different, and we can’t force an ending on a piece that wants to keep spinning out.

More complicated pieces were discussed, in detail: Out of the Dark, a process piece centering around one pitch—a concert D.  The players slide to specified pitches above and below the D, explore its overtone spectrum, and time their gestures to a partner positioned across the performing circle.  It’s a challenging one, and Carla Kihlstedt, another amazing improviser and composer, had many questions about when to move from one part of the piece to the next.  Pauline not only knew her own piece intimately but was able to discern when we performed it exactly when one part of the group moved between sections—no small feat of listening.  A key moment in the rehearsal was when the players practiced making single sounds with our instruments, separated by silences, that were completely unlike each other in every way.  It took a couple of tries, but we got better; it was a real challenge to not imitate our colleagues, and to contribute best, by actually acting against our instincts as chamber musicians.  

In The Witness, another complicated piece in multiple stages, each player moves from an egocentric focus to a more empathic performing mode: first playing original gestures, ignoring the group; then continuing a sound heard around us; and then merging with the gestures we heard, dissolving the sense of self.  This third state, called The Witness, Pauline explained, was “a special state of consciousness,” empowering one to listen and contribute in equal measure, feeling oneness with the whole of the group.  The question arose in this challenging work: within any “rules” of performance and any restrictions, how can one add to to the experience most fully, and most originally, by listening deeply and therefore giving the best of oneself?  In the space of a few hours, Pauline started to show us how.  All of us felt how lucky we were to give witness to the spiritual teaching of our trusted musical guardian and closest of friends.