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November 16, 2015

Inventing New Dialogues

ICE co-artistic directors Claire Chase and Joshua Rubin offer these musings, adapted from the Boulez at 90 book for our four programs this week at National Sawdust.  ICE is thrilled to present these programs, in turn retrospective, celebratory, and ground-breaking, which reflect on the legacy of ICE’s most respected antecedents, role models, and inspirations.


When ICE was just an embryo at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1999 - not yet hatched and not yet named - we often mused on what it would be like to create an American improvisation on Ensemble InterContemporain, our musical heroes, whose rigorous and inspired performances of the works of Pierre Boulez and other mid-20th century masters we studied with fascination and a healthy dose of the kind of fear that is born of pure awe and admiration. How might the music of our time metamorphose if such an ensemble were formed to pioneer works of our generation of composers from all over the world, with a particular emphasis on artists from the Americas? And what would happen if such an organization made a commitment, like Boulez had, not just to the artistic excellence of performances of this new repertory, but a commitment to organizational sustainability – to the audacious notion that a group dedicated to experimental music could somehow, someday, make a living doing this?

Six years later, when ICE was a burgeoning collective based in Chicago and operating on a shoestring budget, we were invited to play at our first international festival in the beautiful city of Morelia, Mexico (significantly, the butterfly capital of the world). On our first night there, following a 12-hour journey, we attended an astounding solo concert of Pascal Gallois which included Luciano Berio's Sequenza XII--a piece written for Pascal and inspired by his limitless technique and imagination. We had never seen a wind soloist play with this butterfly-like combination of bravery and fragility, command and nuance, poetry and ferocity. Too shy to speak with him after the performance, we let that opportunity slip by us, and we simply admired him and his work from a distance for the next six years.

You can imagine our surprise when Pascal popped up on ICE’s Facebook page a few years ago, commenting on ICE performances he’d seen on DigitICE, our streaming video archive, offering encouraging remarks before concerts, expressing his heartfelt enthusiasm for the group’s efforts to advocate for new music on and off the stage. You can imagine our sheer delight when he suggested a few years later that we work together on a project centering on the work of Boulez during his 90th birthday year, and on the concept of the “dialogues” between cultures, generations and aesthetic viewpoints that have emerged from this iconic, at times incendiary, but inarguably visionary figure in music history.

We have taken this opportunity, first in France and now in New York at National Sawdust - our proud new Brooklyn home for contemporary music - to craft programs that capture the power and beauty of Boulez's music through a series of New Dialogues. Using Boulez's playful masterpiece with electronics, Dialogue de l'ombre double, as a springboard, these programs introduce new works by Olga Neuwirth, George Lewis, Sabrina Schroeder, and Franck Bedrossian that inflect the impossibly vibrant landscape of voices in the golden era of new music today that Boulez set in motion a half-century ago. And in the closing concert of the week, we put Boulez “en dialogue” with his closest musical compatriots from both sides of the Atlantic (Luigi Nono, Elliott Carter, and Karlheinz Stockhausen) at the height of their creative powers.

None of the preposterous dreams we indulged as adolescents at Oberlin would have even entered our collective consciousness without the intrepidity and the audacity of Pierre Boulez. Was it a coincidence that ICE is an anagram of EIC? In the words of Mr. Boulez himself, “Music is a labyrinth with no beginning and no end, full of new paths to discover, where mystery remains eternal.”

We are grateful to JazzBank, the French-American Cultural Exchange, The National Sawdust Factory, and most of all to Pascal for bringing this pulsating dialogue to life.

--Claire Chase and Joshua Rubin

November 13, 2015

Pascal Gallois speaks with Rebekah Heller about ICE, Boulez, and new works for National Sawdust

Rebekah Heller: Pascal, we are SO excited to have you joining us for our first concerts at National Sawdust (NS) this month! I can't wait to play Olga Neuwirth's bassoon duo with you on the first 3 concerts! (11/17, 11/18, 11/19)

Pascal Gallois: I am very happy and proud to share these first concerts at National Sawdust with you and the entire ICE team. Doubly happy to do this in homage to Pierre Boulez. You are so committed to the contemporary bassoon repertoire, working with composers and sharing it with the audience in the US - I find your work remarkable.

RH: Throughout your career, you have commissioned an enormous amount of solo repertoire for the bassoon, and have been a huge inspiration to me and to other young wind players to go out and do the same. How does a new piece come about for you? In what ways have these collaborations with composers influenced your playing and music-making? Have you noticed a development in your interactions with composers over the years?

PG: A new piece is the story of a three-way encounter: the composer, the instrumentalist and the audience. I have always approached composers after having studied their other works: their solo pieces for other instruments as well as for the bassoon and also their chamber and orchestral music. Above all, I needed to be able to imagine what such and such composer could bring to the bassoon. Exchanges and conversations are very important between the performer and the composer. Luciano Berio summed it up very well: “You have to explain to bassoonists that a piece doesn’t get ‘ordered’ from a composer the way a Saint-Saëns Sonata does from a music store!” This also influences my interpretations of the works, since I strive to recreate for the audience that miraculous moment - that spark - when the idea of a piece appears in the composer’s mind… Often, it’s not until after many long conversations that the flash materializes in their eyes. The bassoon and the bassoonist are a source of inspiration. This has always existed, but many times the instrument’s technical aspects have thwarted collaborations. It’s up to us to rationalize technique on the bassoon, to “simplify” it in some ways, to help the composer transcend it. Over the years, composers have opened new horizons for the bassoon, as fears of receiving poor performances from bassoonists have dissipated. And you count for a lot in that regard, Rebekah, since it’s important that composers feel understood by bassoonists on all continents. In short, it is essential to collectively share and feed into new repertoire!

RH: Besides commissioning, you are also active in transcribing music for the bassoon - we will hear you play Boulez's 'Dialogue de l'ombre double' - originally for clarinet - at NS. The Neuwirth duo we will play together is originally for cello and bassoon. What is it in a piece that makes you want to transcribe it? What is your process? Were there extreme challenges in these two pieces in making them sound authentic, and also idiomatic for the bassoon?

PG: With regard to transcription, I want to underline that I think it’s important to have the composer’s agreement, and if possible, his/her involvement. The idea of transcribing ‘Dialogue de l’ombre double’ for the bassoon came to Pierre Boulez and me simultaneously after a concert at the Festival in Avignon, where Boulez had just heard me play Stockhausen’s ‘In Freundschaft’, which is also a piece originally written for the clarinet.

Historically, this has often happened: Mozart transcribed his oboe concerto for the flute, Weber transcribed his own ‘Hungarian Andante and Rondo’ for the bassoon, though it was originally composed for the viola. When this happens in the composer’s lifetime - and with him/her - the piece then becomes a new original work. Furthermore, the clarinet and the bassoon both have a large range and the piece remains in the same tessitura.

Luciano Berio knew of my work with Boulez, and followed it closely. When we were working together on the bassoon ‘Sequenza’ [written for Gallois], he liked to remind me that ‘Dialogue’ was a gift Boulez had composed for him, on the occasion of his 60th birthday in 1985. ‘Dialogue’ contains elements and winks to Stockhausen and Berio… While I retain the original tempo, there are certain particularities of ‘Dialogue’ that distinguish the bassoon version from the clarinet one: for example, Boulez and I worked to develop flexibility and diversity of timbres on the bassoon, while the clarinet version plays more on the dynamic range. In this piece the “live” instrumentalist plays, or dialogues, with his/her “shadow”, which is a recording of the same musician played through a number of speakers surrounding the audience.

RH:  It is such an honor for ICE to work with you - we have all grown up with the Ensemble InterContemporain (EIC)'s seminal recordings and your trend-setting work. This inter-generational and inter-continental collaboration feels energizing and generative - we are sharing "our" repertoire with "yours" with the hope that it might inspire even younger musicians to look outside of their immediate vicinities for new relationships and influences. I am curious to hear your thoughts about our work together and how you imagine this going forward - what brought you to ICE? What has been different about working with us from your work with the EIC? What words of wisdom do you have for us, and for the younger generation?

PG: The Ensemble Intercontemporain (EIC) was born from the “Domaine Musical” ensemble that Pierre Boulez formed in 1954 in Paris. Without Boulez, the EIC would never have been. I had the unique good fortune of having been hired by Boulez at age 22, and I learned contemporary music, like my colleagues, under his supervision. Boulez was committed to training his team of soloists himself. In 1981, when I joined the EIC, Boulez invited all the great composers I have since worked closely with on their approach to writing for the bassoon: Messiaen, Stockhausen, Berio, Xenakis, Ligeti, Kurtag etc… and also Elliott Carter who was a close friend of Boulez’s! Carter was the composer of friendship and Franco-American exchange! Berio was also well connected to the US. We have the responsibility of taking this torch, this time between instrumentalists on both sides of the Atlantic. With the advent of technologies, your generation has limitless possibilities; and NYC is, more than ever, the capital of artistic encounters. The difference between the EIC and ICE is that you are a collective of musicians and you formed on your own, while the EIC is the brainchild of Boulez. Working with you, I feel deeply your exceptional curiosity and enthusiasm!

To answer your first question, Rebekah, ICE gives me so much of its energy and responds whole-heartedly to the necessity of rethinking musical creation and presentation in the 21st century. The ICE initiatives online [] should be an example to all contemporary music ensembles. I learn a lot from you all, since, if one is truly interested in the creation of new things, the younger generation should be explored! I don’t feel in a position to give you any wisdom… In order to create, true wisdom would probably be not to have any. In the words of the philosopher Socrates: “Wisdom begins in wonder."

November 2, 2015

Hagoromo Tableaus

by Jacob Greenberg, ICE pianist, Director of Education

A fisherman dances a surreal pas de deux with a golden cape.  The cape is an angel’s garment, separated from the heavenly body which would give it shape.  The fisherman’s dance is full of wonder, as his imagination races—to whom does this luxurious fabric belong?  How is it that I can dance with it as with a real person?  The intimate scene is in complete silence, which signals a shocking loss, a detachment.  Planes of heavenly and earthly emotion cannot reconcile, and musical harmony cannot prosper.  The fisherman, bounding about with childlike energy, underscores the cruel, noiseless absurdity of the angel’s fractured spirit.

* * * *

A storm unfolds with the brutal inevitability of ritual.  A rope, whose end has a heavy knot, pounds and echoes against a stone.  The song of a bassoon embodies the reckless spirit of nature’s destruction: it wails, dances, and grunts, as its sound is broken, shattered and scattered.  Brittle percussion rattles and jolts.  Disembodied voices of girls trace the same rising scale again and again, building to delirium; they lament the waves’ ruthless thrashing, but also celebrate their epic force.

* * * *

The luminous angel confronts the earthbound fisherman and asks for her garment.  He stubbornly refuses.  They dance warily around each other, each searching for the key that will unlock the other.  This is Gagaku, stately Japanese court music; patient waves of sustained sounds are added and subtracted with measured precision from the taut musical fabric.  It is marked at the same time by a steady, seething pulse—sometimes from a plucked harmonic on guitar, an exclamation from a woodblock, or a chanted beating phrase in the chorus. 

* * * *

Phantasmal tones of a contrabass flute—shadowy sounds which exist between worlds, from a tall and imposing angled instrument—seek to bridge the earth with the beyond.  Amplified sounds of outward and ingressive breathing expand and contract a sense of psychological space.  A kaleidoscope of musical colors follows: dulcimer, gongs, multiphonic chords on bassoon.  A tremolo on electric guitar, and a high trill in the violin.  The dancers that tell the Hagoromo story respond to this music of constantly shifting perspective: it passes between exotic realities as they do, and it tries to find a place where souls can connect.


Hagoromo is presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music this week as part of the 2015 Next Wave Festival, at the BAM Harvey Theatre, in association with American Opera Projects.  Five members of ICE play Nathan Davis's transfixing music with the talented Brooklyn Youth Chorus.  ICE's amazing collaborators include dancers Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto, and director and visual wizard David Michalek.

August 17, 2015

Launching ICEcommons

ICE is launching a new call for scores via our new emerging composer index: Fill in the submission form for each piece that you’d like us to consider performing in the coming season! Submission is free. Selected composers will be contacted for permission to program their work on the 15-16 season on or before December 1, 2016. We look forward to fostering many new collaborations with emerging composers from around the globe via this new, searchable library.

ICEcommons is a crowdsourced index of newly composed music. It is designed to be a searchable repository of the catalogues and works of emerging, established, published, and unpublished composers. By collecting the metadata (instrumentation, duration, composer name, title) of living composers’ works, coupled with the means of acquiring sheet music (links to score downloads, rental, and purchase sites), ICEcommons will aggregate and organize new scores into one place—an open, public library hosted by through which performers, scholars, composers, and listeners can discover and obtain new works. With the help of musicians and composers like you, ICEcommons will grow to become a vital programming resource for ensembles around the world.

ICEcommons launched its pilot season on August 15, 2015, at which point the submission process became open to any composer interested in adding their worklist or score information. On December 1, ICE will announce the selection of ten ICEcommons works which will be featured on OpenICE concerts during the 2015-16 season. ICE will contact each composer to secure the necessary rights to perform the piece. Performances will be documented through HD video and audio and made available through ICE’s online library, DigitICE (after review by the composer and performers). Through partnering with ensembles and organizations in future seasons, we will vastly expand the size and reach of ICEcommons, allowing ICE to continue being an advocate for emerging and lesser-known composers, as well as unheard works from deep within their catalogues. ICEcommons represents our continued commitment to performances of rare and underrepresented works by living composers.

August 13, 2015

Announcing Vanessa Rose as ICE’s New Executive Director

The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) announced today that Vanessa Rose has been named its new Executive Director. ICE founder Claire Chase will remain ICE’s Co-Artistic Director and flutist. Rose comes to ICE from the Lark Play Development Center where she served as Director of Development from 2013-2015. She was selected by ICE’s Board of Directors on August 3 and will assume the directorship on September 1, 2015, alongside Chase and Co-Artistic Director and clarinetist Joshua Rubin.

ICE Board President, Claude Arpels, stated that “Vanessa shares ICE’s commitment to creating exciting new music through an artist-led organization. She brings the right mix of experience, sensitivity, and management skills to help ICE continue to succeed.”

Claire Chase adds, “Of all the trails that this mighty group of artists has blazed over the last decade and a half—from our seedlings as students at Oberlin in 2000, to our very first public concert in 2002 produced on $603 amassed from my holiday catering tips, to the group’s performances this coming Sunday at Alice Tully Hall—this moment of welcoming new leadership in Vanessa Rose stands in my mind as one of the bravest and most remarkable. I am so proud of the entire team at ICE for taking the enormous leap from being a founder-driven organization to being an organization that can stand boldly on its own feet. I have deep faith in Vanessa to lead ICE into the next era, and to do it with the passionate collaborative artistic spirit that has fueled everything this group has accomplished to date.”

Rose brings a range of experiences working in the arts and a passion for the innovative musical experiences synonymous with ICE. Her previous positions include Director of Development at the Lark Play Development Center, where she helped to lead the theater organization's expanded fundraising programs and strategic branding, and Managing Director of The Knights, a New York-based orchestra collective. While at The Knights, Rose developed a board of directors, created a fundraising program, and oversaw an international tour, WQXR radio residency and several recording projects. In addition, Rose has served as Associate Director of Patron Program and Membership at the Metropolitan Opera, cultivating and soliciting hundreds of donors and supporting key Board members in their own fundraising. In 2006, Rose completed the League of American Orchestras' prestigious Orchestra Management Fellowship Program, which included residencies with the Dallas Symphony, Elgin Symphony, Aspen Music Festival and School and the San Francisco Symphony.

"I am thrilled to have this opportunity to collaborate with the creative and inspiring artists, supporters and partners in the ICE community. A longtime ICE fan, I am very excited to help the group expand its groundbreaking programs and exceptional music-making,” said Rose.

Rose is a violinist and has performed with, among others, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Harrisburg Symphony, and Spoleto Festivals (Italy and USA). She comes from a musical family and attended the Eastman School of Music, Mannes College of Music and the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, The Netherlands. Rose lives in Riverdale, NY with her musician husband, Patrick Pridemore, and their two children.

The search for ICE’s new Executive Director began approximately 18 months ago. The Board of Directors conducted an international search and consulted with the executive recruiting firm Occam Global to support its efforts.

July 15, 2015

Mario Diaz de Leon in Conversation with Alice Teyssier

Denovali releases Mario Diaz de Leon's latest record, The Soul is the Arena, featuring ICE on July 17. The album compiles two previously released works featuring Claire Chase and Joshua Rubin as soloists, along with the world premiere recording of Portals Before Dawn for ensemble. ICE flutist Alice Teyssier talks with Diaz de Leon about his decade-long relationship with ICE, the role of metal, mythology, mysticism in his music, as well as upcoming projects.

Alice Teyssier: We are so psyched that you are continuing your work with ICE! Can you talk a little bit about how your writing for Claire and Josh and the rest of the group has evolved since our first collaboration? (Was that in 2011?)

Mario Diaz de Leon: I’m amazed and beyond grateful that its been continuing for so long now.  It actually started with a pre-ICELab program called “Young Composers Project” back in 2006.  We did a premiere of mine in October of that year, with a piece called “Trembling Time” for 5 strings and flute. I was really excited about it because I had wanted to work with ICE for years, and the 2 shows we did went really well.  I got to work with Dave Bowlin, Wendy Richman, Maya Papach, Eric Lamb - it was just great.  But there were no plans beyond that one piece.  Then in the summer of 2007, Claire got in touch and said that we should continue working together the following season, and asked if I had anything in mind.  Her timing was amazing, because I had just signed a deal for an album with Tzadik.  There was more music to write for the album when I signed, and older pieces to record, and we eventually spent the next two years finishing the album together.  That was when we really started to collaborate closely – I wrote “The Flesh Needs Fire” and “Mansion” especially for Claire, Josh, Eric, and Nathan.  The Tzadik album was finished and released in 2009, and Claire asked me to do the first round of ICELab about a year later.  Which was amazing timing, again, because I was already going to ask them if they would do something similar, without knowing that they were starting this big program.  We really wanted to present an evening length set of my works for the group.  That’s when I wrote the music for this album, between 2010 and 2011.  So the foundation was solid at that point, we had a history to build on, and there was certainly a lot of momentum leading up to it. 

AT: It is clear through your performer persona and through your use of electronic music in particular that your background in hardcore punk and metal music still pervades your creative output. How do these different musical worlds reconcile themselves in your life? What are some techniques you use in your compositions that blend the genres?

MDdL: I think that living in NYC, and the amazing communities here, reconcile the differences and make it possible for me to do this.  The scenes are really strong.  In March, I performed at Saint Vitus two days before I had a string orchestra premiere at Roulette.  A few weeks ago I finished a new Oneirogen EP and then I went straight into a new piano and electronics piece for Stephen Gosling.  I’m debuting a new metal band this year at Martyrdoom Festival, I’ll probably be in the middle of writing a new piece for TAK when that happens. This has been my life, in one way or another, for many years, and I can say from experience that I need metal, electronic music, classical music, and free improvisation in my life, its part of survival for me.  If one is missing I lose my sense of balance over time.  And I’m beyond grateful to the people who make it possible for to do this.  I’m also glad that Denovali is releasing the new ICE record, I’ve been working with them as Oneirogen since 2012, and if that makes it easier for people to experience these different sides of my work, that’s a good thing.  I would say that the themes stay the same, regardless of style. All of the music, titles, lyrics, and imagery deal with personal spiritual experience, mythology, mysticism, etc.  It’s an endless subject, and writing music for me is part of a spiritual practice.  Sonically speaking, the electronic music is definitely a bridge.  There are certain sounds and approaches that I use in all the projects….sub bass, “shimmering” sounds that fluctuate continuously, certain types of distortion, and formal structures that can suggest an abstract narrative over time, which for me relates to personal transformation, mythological themes of death and rebirth, etc.  When I hear music, it’s a synesthetic experience, its both visual and physical, and I am drawn to sounds that I feel are charged with an inner life.  Tone color, harmony, melody, rhythm, all the elements serve this in my music.  I love this quote by Iancu Dumitrescu: “You could say that the use of distortion in the sound comes from the attempt to reveal the god that is living in every piece of base matter.”  When first I read that, it changed the way I thought about metal and noise.

AT: The hardcore community spirit is so strong - do you find yourself gravitating towards other composers with similar backgrounds? Who are they?

MDdL: Yeah, for sure!  There is a “core” of people I’m involved with whose work overlaps with metal, avant rock, electronic music and classical composition.  But more important than background is attitude – intensity, urgency, imagination.  MV Carbon, Doron Sadja, Toby Driver, Jeremiah Cymerman, Charlie Looker, Andrew Hock, Nick Podgurski, Mick Barr, Mahir Cetiz, Sam Pluta, Steve Lehman, Jay King, Nate Young, and John Zorn are some people in my community who inspire me a lot.

AT: What other pieces or composers do you hope to be programmed alongside? If you were to (hypothetically) curate an ICE concert which included Luciform, what would it look like?

MDdL: If it was for an ICE concert, it would be something like “Paths of Resistance” by Jason Eckardt, “Acmed” by Mick Barr, “Landscape of Fear” by Marcos Balter, “Machine Language” by Sam Pluta, “Okanagon” by Scelsi, and “Paradies” by Stockhausen.  

AT: What's your next project? Any dream projects with ICE (let's publish them online so they have to happen!)?

MDdL: I’ll have a week of concerts at The Stone from August 11th – 16th, which is a retrospective of my work from 1999 to the present.  Part of that is the album release show for the new album with ICE, on August 11th, with Kivie, Josh, and Claire.  Then finishing up the first EP of Luminous Vault, which is a metal band I started with Andrew Hock.  Oneirogen releases a new EP in September and then tours Europe in the first two weeks of October.  The first Luminous Vault show is at Martyrdoom Festival in early November, here in Brooklyn at Saint Vitus.  I’m also writing a new work for TAK Ensemble, my first with soprano voice.

There’s been some talk about recording a third album with ICE sometime next year, we still have pieces which are unreleased.  Beyond that I would love to write a new large ensemble work for the group at some point, a few solo + electronic pieces for oboe and harp, and it would be great to travel and do some sets of this music at European festivals.

May 15, 2015

Jason Eckardt in Conversation with Alice Teyssier


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

Anna Thorvaldsdottir in Conversation with Doyle Armbrust


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.