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May 15, 2015
On Tuesday, May 19 at Roulette, ICE and the JACK Quartet with soloists Tony Arnold (soprano), Jay Campbell (cello), and Jordan Dodson (guitar) perform works from Jason Eckardt’s new CD “Subject” (Tzadik Records) as well as "Necronomicon" and the world premiere of "Autumn Rhythm" by Tzadik founder John Zorn. "Subject" releases on 26 May and can be preordered here. In a conversation with ICE flutist Alice Teyssier, Eckardt speaks about "Tongues" (featured on "Subject"), his writing process, recorded vs. live performance, and more.
Alice Teyssier: I am very interested in your use of the voice, and your interest in the voice, so maybe we can start there - with your general motivations for writing the piece… I noticed you had written some vocal pieces earlier on, in the late 90s, and not so many after ‘Tongues’ (2001). Care to talk about your use of the voice here, and in general?
Jason Eckardt: ‘Tongues’ is really the first vocal piece that I wrote that I considered anything substantial. The idea for the piece more or less came out of the idea that I wanted to do so something at some point with solo voice. Pieces like the Berio ‘Sequenza’ were really influential in that decision, and when the opportunity came along to write the piece with the ensemble, I knew that I wanted at least one part of that piece to be a solo vocal part. So then I started to think about what that would mean in terms of the voice, and how I would use it. I had to think about what I wanted to do with text, and I started thinking about all kinds of different texts, ranging from archaic French medieval poetry to really contemporary experimental poetry and language poetry, and I just never really felt that there was anything that fit in that initial vision that I had for the piece. So then I started to think about using the voice in a somewhat nontraditional way; rather than thinking of it as a song cycle, I started to think about it as a concerto for voice, and then I thought about that solo part as being the cadenza. I knew I wanted to have different movements, because I wanted contrasting types of ensembles, textures and sets of constraints and so on. So I started to think about using this voice very instrumentally as opposed to vocally, so at that point it became obvious to me that maybe text wasn’t really going to be a part of this piece at all. Luckily, the International Phonetic Alphabet is something that singers know because of training and diction and so on, so this seemed to be a natural fit for what I wanted to do with the voice. I started thinking about the voice the same way that I would think about a flute or a cello or something like that - stratify different kinds of sounds, from pitched sounds to non-pitched sounds, from different types of vocalizations that were traditional, in terms of phonemes, or more non-traditional, like tongue clicks and coughing and so on. I began to think about having different kinds of profiles for the voice for each one of these movements; some of these movements would be really led by the voice and that the instrumental counterpart to the voice would be following or mimicking the voice, and then other times I wanted it to be the opposite, whereby the voice was really trying to blend in to the ensemble as opposed to being a soloist. With that, I began to compose each of these individual movements and thinking about the different kinds of contrasts; one movement is for just voice and guitar, and in that movement I don’t use any pitched phonemes, it’s completely unpitched, so theoretically that movement could be sung by any vocal range. In other movements I wanted to have a more traditional, lyrical, melismatic type of voice, and other times I wanted it to be mixed together. The cadenza is a sort of summary of everything that comes before in a hyper-compressed type of way.
AT: Your idea of wanting to write for the voice as an instrument is so interesting to me, because actually, I have found your instrumental writing to be particularly vocal in a lot of ways: many lyrical lines, many speech-like kinds of sounds. Is this just a natural approach to writing music for you?
JE: Well, after writing ‘Tongues’ and subsequently after writing ‘16’, those things to me do tend to go together. In fact, ‘16’ got its genesis from an idea while I was writing ‘Tongues,’ because I wanted to have one movement that was just for voice and flute, where the roles of the instrument and the voice would actually be exchanged: the flute would be doing much more vocalization than the singer would, and vice versa. I had sketched some of that out [for ‘Tongues’], but in the end it didn’t really fit into the structure of the whole piece very well. So, I tucked that one into my desk, waited a few years until it was ready to go for a different opportunity!
Thinking about the voice and singing and that kind of ‘singerly’ line is something that isn’t entirely new. I mean Chopin was trying to write a melismatic bel canto line for the piano, which in itself is a really interesting project. But especially with instruments that are dependent on breath for sound production, I do tend to think very vocally about those things… But I don’t think I ever formalized that thought until you just asked me that question! [laughs] That was very perceptive!
AT: Well, it is something I tend to think a lot about because my life ties both aspects of music-making together, and I sometimes have the opportunity to play pieces that wed the two, wherein the sounds can blend together in amazingly lyrical ways, but also through the percussive elements of speech and vocalizations that can be transposed and even amplified by an instrument like the flute. So clearly this kind of thinking is of interest to me, particularly!
JE: Yeah, well you can basically use the flute as a resonating body through which the voice is projecting, but there are so many gradations within what one would associate with a prototypical flute tone and something like a very percussive type of speaking that could be the result of either regular types of phonetic sounds or other types of vocal extended techniques. With the construction of the flute itself and its open embouchure, it’s no mystery to me that writing for the solo flute in the last 20 or 30 years has just really exploded!
AT: Definitely! We’re still waiting for our recession! [laughs] So, in writing for the voice within this ensemble, how did you end up choosing when to use which vowels, consonants, syllables… Is this something you looked at timbrally - different colors that could be generated - or do they have some sort of semiotic link?
Definitely timbre was a huge component of it, especially for the unpitched phonemes and extended techniques, but also writing for the voice, thinking about which vowels would work in which ranges and so forth was another tried-and-true constraint that I had to adhere to. Mainly it was out of a desire to have different types of phonetic profiles for each one of those movements; for example in the first movement, you get a mix of a lot of different phonemes - it’s sort of a preview of the different types of writing that will come. The second movement in the most melismatic and probably the most traditional type of vocal writing, whereas the third movement has no pitched phonemes at all, and I was going for a very percussive type of effect. The fifth movement is again a type of summary as the cadenza, and the sixth movement passes the vocalization off to the ensemble in the end. Ironically perhaps, the singer doesn’t sing the last vocalization in the piece - that’s done by someone in the ensemble, where they have an unpitched phonetic canon between the vocalist and two of the performers. So there was a desire to figure out which kind of profile and character I wanted for each of the different movements.
As far as how I would pick things moment to moment, it boiled to me just having lists of possibilities, combing through them, or just imagining these gestures in my mind and transcribing these things using IPA symbols. This led to the concept of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. This was an attempt to capture the sense of possession - of being outside oneself - that one is reported to have in ecstatic moments (most notably in contemporary Pentecostal practice), whereby the supernatural is said to use a human subject as a vessel. Aside from the surface resemblance to a nonexistent language, I also think the concept is an extension of the performance practice that is suggested - perhaps demanded - by my music. Specifically, that one has to let go, at least in part, of their conscious self, and let the flow of precisely articulated physical gestures take hold.
AT: This is perhaps a good transition into my personal experience recording this piece with you, with the movements having such distinct characteristics and profiles, and I feel like that - beyond the practical considerations of endurance and what we had time for - that also played into the choices of which movements we were going to focus on, the kind of energy and feeling that each movement needed.
JE: In the recording session, obviously, you’re trying to work as quickly and efficiently as possible, and as you say, there are stamina issues which you need to really carefully manage in a piece like that. It was essential that we did it over two days because of those demands; there was no way we could get it into a single day, either practically or in terms of the voice being able to sustain that kind of repetitive activity for so long.
The other concern was about how these contrasting emotional characters would play out in the recording session, trying to - in not so many words - communicate what those emotional characters are but also to try to organize the session so that same kinds of emotional characters would be covered in one period of time. As practically as was possible, like sections would be connected together, so that people would hopefully understand that there was a shared quality from one take to the next, even if those sections were not actually adjacent in the music.
Photo credit: Tina Psoinos
AT: I am also curious, since I have not yet performed this piece live (and you have heard this piece live numerous times), what the difference is, in your perspective, between the rehearsal process for a live performance and experiencing it live, and this experience recording the piece with ICE in the studio.
JE: They are really different kinds of experiences, and there are obviously different ways in which one prepares for them. In preparing for a recording session, you’re usually dealing with much smaller chunks, and really drilling down on detailed surface-level things, and then putting them together later, when the session in done. With a live performance, clearly, there is the stamina issue that we discussed, but also the sense of the larger arc coming together and being able to successively put all these pieces together to make a convincing architecture. In the recording studio, the performers want to be as accurate as possible, so there is a lot of attention paid to the detailed types of gestures that might be particularly difficult that in a performance, it’s sort of understood that you’re just going to go for it. That is also kind of written into the score, and how I think about performance practice anyway in my music. So it boils down to a different kind of energy. In a live performance you have to gauge where you are in this piece, which is half an hour long - knowing what’s coming, knowing how to save your lips, your vocal cords, your breath, your concentration, for those moments when you’re really going to be called upon to use them. And that’s a lot different, of course, than a recording studio situation, where the level of concentration is highly elevated for everything, but you are able to stop and start, take breaks and relax mentally and physically if you begin to get tired. Live performance doesn’t offer that option!
AT: As exhausting as that recording session was, we all felt, as soon as it was over, the great desire to go perform the piece [laughter]! After so much stop and go, I really wanted to finally be able to let the dramatic arc actually BE a dramatic arc, to feel the long lyrical lines, and to experience the energies push and pull through the piece, so I am pretty excited to finally be able to perform this piece!
JE: Yeah! And after having done all of that very fine detail work, that all translates into the live performance very immediately. But obviously performing live is going to require a different approach, physically and mentally, to get to the end in good shape!
AT: Maybe just to wrap up, if you’d like to give us a few words about the rest of this CD, the idea for it, and what it represents for you in more global terms.
JE: Well, the idea for the CD was actually John Zorn’s, the proprietor of the Tzadik label, among many other things. He had for years been saying that he wanted to do a record; originally, I had approached him about doing the "Undersong" record, and he had his reservations about the vocal writing in particular, actually, and passed on the project, so when this CD project came along, I actually had to twist his arm quite a bit to get ‘Tongues’ on the record (believe it or not!). When I was putting together the record, I wanted to have ‘Tongues’ as the major work - it is by far the longest piece on the CD - and I also wanted to have a mix of different kinds of pieces on the CD. My CD "Undersong" was actually conceived as one single super-composition using four smaller compositions connecting together seamlessly; but for this I wanted to have different kinds of contrasts and also choose pieces that were from different parts of my compositional life. The earliest piece on the CD, ‘Flux’, is from 1995 and the newest piece is from 2011, and there are other pieces in between. I was also interested in the contrast between instrumentations, solo and duo and then larger ensemble pieces, like ‘Tongues’ and then of course ‘Trespass’, which you performed and recorded in 2006 [with the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble] and now it’s finally coming out! [laughs]
AT: Yeah! I find that exciting - being able to connect different points of our “being”, where we were at what times, and what we were doing, and the kinds of people we were around and the influences we had. I feel like this CD is such a cool way of kaleidoscopically seeing all the different kinds of things you’ve done over the last 20 years.
And it’s really interesting to me, with the recordings of ‘Trespass’ and ‘Tongues’ being on the same disc despite a decade separating them, that things have actually come full circle in a strange but, I think, profound way in terms of when we first met, back in 2005, and here we are in 2015. There’s something of a special resonance with me about that, because it was sort of taken from a particular point in our lives and being able to reflect on that from where we are now, and I’m pretty proud of both of us actually! [laughs]
AT: Definitely! I think it also underlines the real relationships that this kind of music creates a space for and the fact that we are there for each other our entire lives, and we can grow together and help each other and influence each other - and you certainly have done so for me and for many people close to me.
JE: I appreciate you saying that. And actually, I can’t say it surprises me that much that we’re working together in this completely different context and geography; the trajectory between Oberlin CME and the present situation with ICE isn’t very unusual at all.
AT: These are pretty natural and organic progressions.
JE: So if you had told me ten years ago, you’re going to be in New York and work with Alice again and make a record, I would have totally bought that! [laughs]
April 23, 2015
On Saturday, April 25, ICE returns to the MCA Stage with a concert of evocative music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir. In an interview with Chicago-based violist and writer Doyle Armbrust, Thorvaldsdottir speaks about the creation of the concert’s primary piece, her atmospheric trilogy In the Light of Air, as well as Tactility, an installation soundscape for percussion and harp, and Transitions, a piece for solo cello and electronics.
Doyle Armbrust: You just wrapped up performing at the Tectonics Festival, right? What were you playing there?
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Yes, that's true - I was asked to do a solo performance at the festival. I'm usually not performing myself, but decided to just go for it this time. The festival is presented by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra (curated by Ilan Volkov) and, when I was thinking about what I should do for my performance, I landed on the idea of 'placing an orchestra inside a grand piano', in a sense. I did some electronic collage, a "remix" of sorts, using material from one of my orchestral works, and placed three contact/vibration speakers inside the grand piano, turning the instrument into a grand-loud-speaker so that the sound board and the strings were singing along with the electronics. I also performed on the strings inside the piano, with bows, fingers and screws for texture and to enhance the sounds.
DA: Is it safe to assume you're doing a lot of traveling these days?
AT: Yes, I have been traveling quite a lot for music in the U.S. and Europe. I am very lucky to be able to be present for some of my major performances and events.
DA: I know a lot of Chicago musicians who are very eager to hear your portrait concert at MCA on the 25th. What is an element of experiencing these pieces that you feel is best captured in a live setting, versus, say, on your album?
AT: I have always been fascinated with creating atmospheres for concerts, to create a world that the audience enters into and becomes a part of. So my hope is that we will all be able to become a part of an atmospheric setting that is set by the music and enhanced by subtle visual elements and lighting. Also, these particular pieces really benefit from the intimacy that comes with a live performance setting.
DA: You've described yourself as quite private, even hermetical, during your compositional process. In the Light of Air was an ICElab commission. How did developing a piece with ongoing input from the performers change your writing process? Was it challenging to open up the door, so to speak, in this way?
AT: The process of writing the music for In the Light of Air was actually not different from writing other pieces. It was great, however, to be able to meet with the specific performers during the writing of the piece, and I really wanted to get to know each of them well so I could write specifically for them; this was really very precious. That was the musical input in this case. However, one of my initial ideas for In the Light of Air was to have a light installation as one of the "instruments" in the work. I wanted to have the lights be cued by the performers' breaths and instrumental performance, to have the lights "perform". It was great to be able to work on this technical aspect of the work with ICE since we had to find ways to get the audio to "speak" to the lights for cues. This was something that I couldn't have worked on alone since I don't have the technical know-how, so this was the collaborative aspect in the process of writing the work, which was a fantastic experience.
DA: You recently recorded In the Light of Air and other works with ICE for the Sono Luminus label. I'm curious about what it feels like as a composer to commit a piece to a fixed medium like an album. Do you have a specific approach to the way the recording is mixed in order to capture the live experience, or is it a different beast altogether?
AT: I absolutely don't have an issue with the fixed medium. I really like recordings for what they are and represent. That is, to capture a performance of a piece and keep it alive in the version it is recorded in. And also, in a recording it is, of course, possible to fine-tune every aspect according to the score. It is always a very different process from a live concert where every performance is unique and has its own magic, where the “here and now,” the concert space, the audience in the room and the atmosphere plays a very important role in the experience. So the two are very different, and I like both very much for different reasons.
DA: Can you tell me about how Transitions came to be commissioned? So much of your music you describe as inspired by nature, and here we have a piece with the theme of “man versus machine.” Is this new territory for you?
AT: ICE cellist Michael Nicholas commissioned me for a solo piece. His theme was man versus machine, and I found that very interesting. For me, this didn't restrict me in any way in how I approached the compositional process, but rather gave me an inspirational point to work from and think about. The approach I ended up with was to have the performer transition between being a man and a machine in the setting of the music material. Although nature is often a big inspiration in my music, it is not really a controlling factor, per se, but more of an overall inspirational element that I frequently visit in my creation process. I definitely like to explore a variety of perspectives and approaches.
DA: Tell me about the Klakabönd [which is featured on the April 25 concert at the MCA]. Is this typically used as an instrument in Iceland? If so, what role does it play in your music? Simply a sonic one?
AT: The Klakabönd is actually a small metal decoration recently designed and made by Icelandic artist Svana Jósepsdóttir. I got one as a gift a few years ago and thought it sounded really good, so I asked her to make me a few really large ones for In the Light of Air so that I could assemble them into an installation-like instrument, and they serve as both in the work.
DA: If your music wasn't being performed in a concert hall, where would be the ideal (if only imagined) setting?
AT: Hmm, in a resonating cave, I think.
DA: If you had one piece of advice for a student composer, what would it be?
AT: Work really hard and follow your passion.
DA: Finally, who are some young Icelandic composers we should keep an ear out for?
AT: There are many talented young composers, and some names that come to mind are, for example, Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir, Halldór Smárason and Úlfur Hansson. All are very different from each other.
January 1, 2015
by Jacob Greenberg, pianist and Education ICE Artist Partner
Meanwhile, on the left coast of America, in between exciting performances and recordings, ICE started to establish a teaching presence. In the second week of December, the group began a major education initiative at Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, which is the El Sistema teaching program of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. On one of the three YOLA campuses, in the central L.A. Rampart district, eight intrepid ICE artists worked with forty-three middle school wind, brass, and percussion players on activities familiar to us but totally new to the students, involving improvisation skills, a classic American "process piece," and other mind-stretching activities. Over three days of work, we all got along famously.
Improvisation is always the hardest kind of activity to start, especially in a group. How and when does one begin to play? How can one spontaneously generate material that is not practiced or familiar, and distant from traditional ideas of harmony and rhythm? How does one engage a colleague in a “conversation"? Though hesitant at first, the students really latched onto the extended playing techniques that ICE introduced during our sessions, and these were a good point of entry. Sometimes it is easier to start with sounds not associated with one’s own playing, at least as one knows it. The students overcame their self-consciousness, and beautiful things emerged.
Josh and Rebekah led a choir of clarinets, bassoons, and oboes to create a forest of subtones, shadowy notes activated by special fingerings and light breathing. Claire and Alice worked with the flutes to make a structured improvisation with a storyline, using different techniques to convey each scene: key clicks, tongue rams, and whistle tones, among others. And Peter Evans and David Byrd made a game of rapid-fire directives, using a number system to start and stop each type of playing within their brass group.
ICE also focused on American composers that we’ve known and worked with: George Lewis’s Artificial Life was a point of departure for improvising, and tested the students’ knowledge of musical concepts. Christian Wolff’s Microexercises, an ICE commission, encouraged the young players to adapt musical material for different instruments. ICE also showed off one of our own composers: in addition to teaching in the residency, Levy Lorenzo brought his invented joystick instruments to a lucky group of four percussionists. Four video game joysticks controlled a wide range of sounds and dynamics, and the players learned Levy’s score, a evocative system of graphic symbols. Levy rehearsed and brilliantly conducted the group.
A final presentation for the students’ families and the community included all these activities, and one more: Frederic Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge, a favorite of our friends in eighth blackbird. This process piece has players construct an additive melody note by note, played continuously but always going back to note one in the sequence. ICE finished the piece with each student instrumental section taking a virtuoso solo turn.
And that’s not all! Happily, ICE has brought education programming on each of its recent tours, including an elementary school group in Morelia, Mexico, during El Festival de Música de Morelia. This was a session of The Listening Room, where the students got to know each of the ICE players and composed colorful graphic scores for us to play together. At the end of our time together, they gave us a cheer! And after David Bowlin and Jen Curtis’s amazing Chicago OpenICE performance, both players had memorable sessions with second graders at the Lycée Français and with students at the Chicago High School for the Performing Arts. Improvisation was the common link; the young students accompanied the violinists with handheld percussion, and Jen had the high schoolers play freely over a chord sequence from Vivaldi.
ICE education knows no limits! In the spring, we’re looking forward to more activities in New York public schools, and a continuing collaboration with CSIC, Composers and Schools in Concert, involving many of our ICElab composers. Stay tuned!
YOLA brass with maestro David Byrd-Marrow.
YOLA flute sextet with Claire Chase and Alice Teyssier.
ChiArts quintet with David Bowlin and Jennifer Curtis.
December 1, 2014
by Jacob Greenberg, pianist and Education ICE Artist Partner
ICE education has been literally all over the map this fall! In a few days, I’ll post about our workshops in Morelia, Mexico during our appearance at that city’s music festival over Thanksgiving. And this weekend, ICE starts our inaugural residency with Youth Orchestra L.A., the education arm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In October, ICE began a special year-long residency at the Lycée Français de Chicago, a distinguished international K-12 school in the North Lakeview neighborhood. Our first events were two all-school assemblies, introducing the students to myself, Claire, and Rebekah, and featuring lots of extended playing techniques, wild repertoire, and crowdsourced improvising.
ICE’s project at the Lycée is inspired by the great French-American composer Edgard Varèse, whose complete works ICE presented at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2010, with Sō Percussion and Steven Schick. Varèse’s pathbreaking piece Poème Électronique, written for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, was one of the first pieces written purely for tape, and, originally, one of the first multimedia presentations with music; it was housed in a structure designed by the great architectural firm of Le Corbusier, and supervised by the architect and composer Iannis Xenakis (another ICE favorite). During the six months of the fair, millions of people heard the piece as they walked through the structure, and were simultaneously treated to a light show with projections depicting the history of civilization.
The Poème Électronique was notable for another reason: it was notated by Varèse in a purely graphic style. (ICE presented some realizations of Varèse’s graphic scores at the Kitchen in New York a few years ago.) ICE is no stranger to teaching graphic scores; it’s the basis of our Listening Room program. The combination of electronics and non-traditional notation will influence the Lycée’s piece, which will take the form of a large-scale three-dimensional graphic score that listeners can walk through. It will use many art media, and varied performing forces: four ICE players, student players, electronic processing and spatialization effects by Levy Lorenzo, and a special programmatic theme: the Lycée’s engagement with its Chicago communities.
The workshop sessions will involve diverse ICE players over the school year. In November, Ryan Muncy joined me at the school for some improvising sessions with saxophone techniques. In two weeks, ICE violinists David Bowlin and Jen Curtis will play part of their Hideout OpenICE show for a second-grade audience, and will lead a game with voices and percussion. The classes so far have involved nearly every grade at the school, and the entire faculty has taken part, including art and music teachers. Sessions have ranged from a discussion of piano acoustics, for twelfth-grade physics classes; an introduction to ideas in contemporary music theory, for a sixth-grade math class; and guiding a middle-school literature class through the Poème, where the students created a narrative of their own for the piece. All students have learned about Varèse, who found his modern compositional voice when he left his European nest and became an adopted citizen of New York City.
The students have been great. I’ll never forget when a fourth-grader perfectly described and imitated a theremin. And a first-grader brilliantly encapsulated the Poème with this description: “It’s like a lot of different ideas all put together to make one piece of music.” A third-grader compared the score of the Varèse piece to a cardiogram. And an upper-school class had a philosophical discussion about musical notation, in which we explored how notation compares historically to other written forms of communication.
And this exchange, with a second-grader who remembered me from the school assemblies:
Student: “Are you ICE?”
Jacob: “I am ICE!”
October 26, 2014
Impressions from Row G
by Arlene and Larry Dunn (@ICEfansArleneLD)
[Ed: ICEfans Arlene and Larry Dunn’s poetic take on Claire Chase's sold-out run at The Kitchen in NYC, October 2nd and 3rd, 2014.]
density haiku: meditations on breath
coiled wire muscles flex
daggers of platinum light
young girl breathe your voice
paroxysms of wind
swallowing herself in sound
deep drone of silence
swirling gossamer echoes
she breathes whom she seeks
cheeping creatures scurry
she dances with many selves
her spiraling gymnastics
breathe an unknown code
a new moon rises
railing at breathless spirits
where is eurydice
Claire Chase: density 2036: part ii
The Kitchen, New York City, October 2-3, 2014
I. Density 21.5 for solo flute (Edgard Varèse, 1936); II. Meditation and Calligraphy for solo bass flute (Felipe Lara, 2014); III. Parábolas na Caverna for solo amplified flute (Felipe Lara, 2014); IV. Emergent for solo flute and electronics (George E. Lewis, 2014); V. Beyond (a system of passing) for solo flute (Matthias Pintscher, 2013); VI. an empty garlic for solo bass flute and electronics (Du Yun, 2014)
June 30, 2014
Impressions from Row G
by Arlene and Larry Dunn (@ICEfansArleneLD)
[Ed: ICEfans Arlene and Larry Dunn’s journey following composer Daniel Dehaan through his ICElab experience has reached its destination.]
ICE closed out the 2013-14 concert season in stellar fashion with a tequila toast at Constellation Chicago on June 15, 2014. Tequila shots notwithstanding, the most intoxicating grog of the evening was the Chicago premiere of ICElab composer Dan Dehaan’s Trompe l’Corps. If Roulette in Brooklyn was an apt venue for the December world premiere of Dan’s piece, owing to its connotations of the chance nature of the cosmic forces Dan is reckoning with, Constellation was equally relevant for its evocation of astronomical phenomena.
It’s not often we hear an ICE premiere a second time. But following Daniel through ICELab as he composed Trompe l’Corps collaboratively with ICE musicians, we had the pleasure to hear both the Roulette and the Constellation renderings. While we lost the element of surprise (something we usually delight in) for the second hearing, it was fascinating to hear numerous ways in which the piece had subtly morphed.
Of course the acoustic character of the spaces are different, creating significant challenges for Dan and ICE sound engineer Levy Lorenzo to reshape the sound of the piece to fit Constellation. In addition, all of the players were different except bassoonist Rebekah Heller. Katinka Kelijn took the cellist's bench (which she had occupied during development of the piece). The other instrumentalists were violist Maiya Papach and percussionist Ross Karre.
The most striking change in roster was soprano Alice Teyssier replacing Tony Arnold for this second performance. The timbres of their voices are quite different and their stylistic choices emphasized different aspects of the score and this critical role in it. Alice’s treatment was brighter and conveyed a sense of amazed wonderment, where Tony’s approach felt earthier and expressed a more knowing acceptance of the cosmic mysteries Trompe l’Corps assays. Despite these difference, each of them compelled our rapt attention.
Another revelation we had from the ongoing evolution of the piece was Dan’s further refinement of the realization of the electronic elements of the performance. In both cases we were overwhelmed by the sonic evocation of Jean Baudrillard’s “unbearable incandescence.” But at Constellation, Dan (in partnership with Levy) achieved a much more clearly delineated sense of individual components as we experienced aural stimuli coming at as from every direction until the multiple layers collapsed to a point of frightening chaos.
The Constellation performance brought the ICElab process for Dan and Trompe l’Corps to a close. Still unrealized is Dan’s full-scale vision for the piece in a multi-day, multi-room sound installation version. We’re hoping we’ll get to experience that sometime very soon.
June 12, 2014
Daniel R. Dehaan
from the composer
Trompe l’Corps has been developed in close collaboration with members of ICE as part of ICElab 2013. It was first premiered by ICE in December of 2013 at Roulette in New York. The guiding inspiration for the project came from the book The Perfect Crime by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007). In the first chapter of the book Baudrillard makes a comparison of reality to a perfect crime, in that you cannot prove nor disprove its existence. Uniquely, Baudrillard phrases this as a statement of thankfulness.
“Fortunately, the objects which appear to us have always-already disappeared. Fortunately, nothing appears to us in real time, any more than do the stars in the night sky. If the speed of light were infinite, all the stars would be there simultaneously and the celestial vault would be an unbearable incandescence. Fortunately, nothing takes place in real time. Otherwise, we would be subjected, where information is concerned, to the light of all events, and the present would be an unbearable incandescence. Fortunately, we live on the basis of a vital illusion, on the basis of an absence, an unreality, a non-immediacy of things. Fortunately, reality does not take place. Fortunately, the crime is never perfect.”
Trompe l’Corps comes from within this place. It attempts to make present what has always-already disappeared, exposing both a potential violence and a potential beauty. I imagine time as a car hurtling down a dirt road, and we existing caught in the debris swirling about behind it, always crashing forward, but ever entangled in the refuse of the past and present.
The work is oriented around a chamber ensemble comprised of a soprano (Alice Teyssier), a bassoon (Rebekah Heller), a viola (Maiya Papach), a cello (Katinka Kleijn), & percussion (Ross Karre). Their sounds get expanded, collapsed, or placed in dialogue with live electronic manipulation/accompaniment (Levy Lorenzo & myself) and lighting design(Nick Houfek). No one element of the concert is limited to a single role, but rather they all work contemporaneously with one another as a tangled mass which moves around the audience.
THe audience’s position within the soundscape plays an important part in the piece’s formal structure that shifts from different locations of the interior and the exterior. While the acoustic materials explore these concepts in their own way, the spacial aspects are more readily understood through the changes in the electronics, amplification, and lighting. I am really looking forward to sharing this work with Chicago at Constellation. We will be embracing the venue as much as possible to expand the concert into the space and around the audience.
After over a year of development through ICElab, I am extremely pleased with what we have created. What will be presented at Constellation is the concert version of Trompe l’Corps and I hope to continue to work with ICE towards a future version that further blurs the boundaries between concert and installation to even further explore Baudrillard’s concepts through the lens of music.
A special thanks to Larry & Arlene Dunn, whose support, conversations and enthusiasm contributed greatly to the development of Trompe l’Corps.
Trompe l'Corps makes its Chicago debut on Sunday, June 15 at 8:30 pm.
April 11, 2014
photo: Joshua Rubin
by Levy Lorenzo
I had the wonderful opportunity to work closely with American experimental music visionary and pioneer - Alvin Lucier. I engineered and realized 11 of 15 works by Mr. Lucier spread out over ICE’s 3 night residency at the Chicago MCA, as well as served as the Project Lead for the ICE organization.
I was struck by Mr. Lucier’s commitment to sound as a physical entity. Mr. Lucier mentions in his book CHAMBERS (p35) that rather than conceptualize pure sine tones in terms of high and low frequencies, he thinks of them as measurable wavelengths. Sound waves exist as a physical distance.
In other words, given the nominal speed of sound at 343 m/s and using the formula...
Speed = Frequency x Wavelength
...we can find that the wavelength of a 440Hz (A4) tone is 0.78 meters (2 feet, 6 inches). Similarly, a low note of 100Hz will have a larger wavelength 3.43 meters (11 feet, 3 inches). If my body fits exactly into a 218Hz sine wave, I’ll let you readers figure out how tall I am.
Given the specific dimensions of the 4th floor space at the MCA, I used such calculations to create the realization of the piece Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas. Mr. Lucier’s first instruction is to create standing waves in the room. Just to explain a bit, a standing wave occurs in a room when a sine tone’s wavelength has an integer multiple relationship with a linear dimension of the particular room. Thus, when that wave bounces off the wall, both the incident and reflected waves reinforce each other. The result is a wave with exaggerated crests (high points) and troughs (low points) of sound energy that does not move in space - i.e. the wave is standing. Further, when this sine tone is played through 2 speakers, the respective standing waves create additional interference patterns. This results a “sound geography”, as Mr. Lucier puts it, where there are particular places in the room where sound is very loud (crests) and others that are extremely quiet (troughs). The main instruction of the piece is to have the performers slowly move through the space along the path of the troughs, using only their ears to guide them.
The performers would theoretically walk along the blue paths. In reality, the difference in sound volume is striking. During the actual performance Mr. Lucier, led both ICE and audience members in a haunting procession guided by a 140Hz sine tone. As an extension, I think this would be an amazing application to guide the movement of visually impaired individuals through public spaces.
One of the most interesting pieces that I had the pleasure of working on was Directions of Sounds from the Bridge. In this piece, Mr. Lucier wants to show that sounds of different frequencies radiate in different directions from the body of a violin.
As per the score, I attached a sound transducer to the bridge of a violin. Any surface that a transducer is attached to receives the transducer’s vibrations.
photo: Levy Lorenzo
I then attached this to an amplifier and a sine tone generator that I designed. This system essentially transforms the violin into a loud speaker that plays pure sine waves. The second part of the score calls for a system of sound sensitive lights to be placed symmetrically, surrounding the violin. The brightness of each light directly responds to volume of sound. The audience can then visualize the actual spatial sound movement of the among the lights.
video: Levy Lorenzo
I built this using 8 microphones, 8 lights, custom mapping software (on a 2nd computer) and a DMX interface. The performance was a mesmerizing, organic fading of lights as sound emanated in different directions through the space from the violin. After working with this piece, I then thought it would be interesting to have a transducer on a violin that was also being played live by a violinist. The performer could interact with sounds from the transducer in a sort of instrumental/electronic duet where all sounds radiated from the same resonating body.
Finally, the third piece I’d like to highlight is Music for Pure Waves, Bass Drums and Acoustic Pendulums. Four ping-pong balls were suspended from the ceiling using fishing line such that each ball was just touching the heads of four large concert bass drums. Each drum had a speaker behind it. Using his personal sine tone generator, Mr. Lucier played very low frequencies to excite the heads of the drums, causing the ping-pong balls to be launched forward, to then return and bounce again. Different frequencies caused different degrees of response in different drums to create various pendulum rhythms. Its as if the drums were playing ping-pong rudiments.
photo: Levy Lorenzo
This project has been one of my most rewarding and musical-mind-altering experiences. I feel so lucky to be in a position to thoroughly combine my skills as an engineer and a musician as a member of world-class contemporary ensemble and working with the inspiring, Alvin Lucier. He has reminded me that music is not only something we can hear, but also something that we can see and touch.