It’s a Wednesday night in February, the last rehearsal before Bang on a Can’s Sixth People’s Commissioning Fund concert. This year’s commissioned composers, the BoaC All-Star musicians, and about 30 donors are all crammed into a small second-floor rehearsal space in Hell’s Kitchen. A couple of bottles of wine, some cheese and grapes, and boxes of crackers are laid out casually on a card table just outside the door. There’s a buzz of conversation mixed with last-minute practicing filling the room, everyone ignoring that there’s something wrong with the heat, making things even more claustrophobic than they would be anyway. Except for a BoaC staffer trying vainly to fix the thermostat, no one seems to care.
Julia Wolfe, one of the BoaC founding composers, eventually stands to quiet the room and the crowd takes a seat, the front row only a foot or two from the band. The guests are all donors to the PCF project, writing checks to the group in amounts anywhere from $5 to $5,000, and the invitation to this rehearsal is a “Thank You” perk for their support. Seeming a little shy and uncomfortable with speech-making, even in front of such an intimate little club, Wolfe welcomes the audience to an event that, at its heart, strives to simply allow “really interesting people to work with a really interesting band.”
The program is unusual both on the commissioning and the fundraising end. Rounding up financial support by soliciting small donations from their fan base strengthens those connections while also freeing them up to make artistic decisions unhindered by the dictates of granting organizations.
Later, away from the room full of musicians and member-commissioners, Julia and fellow BoaC founders Michael Gordon and David Lang speak to how liberating this approach to commissioning becomes. Lang explains, “When you apply to a foundation, and you put the composers you want to commission next to all the other composers, the jurors are looking at people’s credentials, so what they are excited about and what they want to fund are people who have already demonstrated to the world that they can do it. But it’s always seemed to us that if you rely entirely on that kind of composer, the composer already doing exactly what you know they can do, it actually makes it very difficult to refresh the field. The system is set up to not allow in the people who might actually have opinions that would breathe some new life into the field, something that is forward-looking and exciting.”
A lofty ambition, but PCF is designed to allow BoaC to pursue precisely that sort of goal. They took the mandate particularly far this year and invited three artists to write for the six-member ensemble, each impossible to describe concisely, even using lots of hyphens and slashes: experimental/musical theater artist Cynthia Hopkins, genre-mixing composer/violinist Carla Kihlstedt, and producer/instrumentalist J.G. Thirlwell.
That the stretch put the players on edge was obvious in rehearsal. Hopkins’s piece in particular, which required the instrumentalists to sing extensively, prompts a pre-performance disclaimer from clarinetist Evan Ziporyn. “One of the nice things about this People’s Commissioning program is that every year we get something that makes us do something we have never done before and actually never thought we could do, and maybe have no business doing,” he explains, laughing. “But we’re doing it.”
It’s precisely that sort of energy and experimentation that the PCF program is geared to generate. “The players flipped out when they saw the score,” recalls Lang. “They thought, ‘We’re not singers; we can’t do this.’ But by the end of the show I think they felt they had not only gone through some incredible activity that they survived and did a great job of, I think they learned something about an ability that no one ever called upon them to use before. And that’s something that keeps them alive and stretched their world as well.”
Gordon also sees the risk taking as profitable. “It’s great to be uncomfortable, and I think this year in particular everyone was uncomfortable, the band and our three composers, and that means that something different, something exciting can happen for everyone involved.”
Granted, when you ask artists to step outside their usual boxes, certain barriers have to be circumvented, and that can be a significant challenge. Gordon holds up the working processes of classically trained and untrained composers. “Someone not working with heavy training and a written tradition is extremely intuitive, so there’s something very direct and immediate about what their musical ideas are. On the other hand, having the control of training gives you a lot of options. I find that a lot of [untrained] people are very creative, but when they’re put into a situation like this and they want to do something, they can’t translate it and that’s very frustrating.”
The discussion leads to the perfect analogy. “It’s like if I could speak French,” Gordon says, “then I could go into a French restaurant and order what I want, but I can’t speak French so I have to go in there and point to things or invite a friend of mine who speaks French out to dinner with me.”
Lang sees his opening to deliver the coup de grâce. “You need 200 people to pay $25 to hire a translator for you.”
Musically, it was a particularly interesting year for the PCF, but the stretch was no gimmick. The minds behind the three new compositions challenged themselves philosophically and musically. Here they discuss their process, their music, and their candid impression of the new music world from the outside looking in.
Molly Sheridan: You mentioned feeling out of place. Let’s just start there. I asked the other commissioned composers, J.G. Thurwell and Carla Kihlstedt, about performing at Merkin Concert Hall vs. the other clubs and theaters they do shows in, and they didn’t seem fazed, but it sounds like you had a different experience.
Cynthia Hopkins: Well, it seemed to me that they both had more experience with having their music played in those types of settings. I’m used to playing either in clubs or in theater works. Even when it’s a similar-type house—and it’s usually not—it’s a very different atmosphere. That type of venue is very serious and there just seems to be an air of prestige. It seems very upper class to me, and I’m not saying I dislike that, I’m just saying it’s definitely different from what I’m used to. Theater environments can be upper class, too, but you know, I actually don’t like that part of town for that reason; it seems snobby to me [laughs] I hope I’m not being entirely negative and you’ll have to cut everything out of my interview, but that’s how I feel.
MS: Do you think that adds or subtracts from your work in any way?
CH: Well, I think it affected how I wrote the piece, honestly. I was sitting in the audience next to a woman who started talking to me at intermission and she had asked me the same question. She was a composer in that realm, and I said, “I think that the atmosphere has a lot to do with the way you hear music.” And she said, “Oh, really? I never thought of it like that.” But I really think it does.
I was trying to do some things that I can’t really do in my realm. Like a sing-along. For that you sort of need a big hall. I also thought it would be funny to have a sing-along in that environment because it’s serious and almost the opposite of folk, you know what I mean? It’s not music by the people, for the people. It’s music by virtuosos for people who appreciate virtuosos; people who can afford to go to these kinds of things. So I thought it would just be kind of funny and maybe a little bit disjunctive to have a folk song moment in that atmosphere.
MS: Was this sort of opportunity anything you had ever looked for then?
CH: No, I had never pursued this type of opportunity. I did not study to be a composer. I studied piano and I studied voice, accordion, and guitar. I’ve taken some music theory and jazz and blues music, so I’ve learned about music in a very eclectic way, but I never set out to be a composer. When I first found out about the commission it was very exciting to me. I thought, “Oh, this is something new. This is kind of a thrill.” So it wasn’t unwelcome, but I was very surprised by it. Basically, I’m on this path of trying to make my own work for myself to perform and then when other people ask me to do things sometimes it’s interesting and exciting, but it’s not something I seek.
MS: I did feel like there were some parallels directly with your show Accidental Nostalgia. Mark Stewart in fact says the word “nostalgia” early on in the piece. Did you mean for there to be any connection?
CH: Oh, no, no, no. I wanted it to be its own thing and I wanted it to be its own little event. It’s probably related to other things that I’ve done just because I’m making them, and the things I’m interested in are going to be reflected in whatever I do. Nostalgia is something I’m interested in, but it’s a very different type of nostalgia than is approached in my other piece that you mention.
I’m always reading and researching what I’m interested in, and then when I set out to make something, like for this commission, let’s say, I took whatever I was thinking and inspired by most at that time and wrote a lot of ideas down, notes and notes and notes, pages and pages and pages. Then that got distilled and whittled down over time. Initially I thought of making a requiem for my parents, actually, because although my father is still alive, my mother is not and my father is very ill, and they both inspired me a lot in music. They were both amateur musicians. My father is actually a classical music fan, so I grew up with that in my head, and then my mother was very much into folk music, we sang in the church choir together and stuff, so I wanted it to be sort of a thank you to them.
At the same time I was reading this book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, which is a fantastic book, and that’s what I was spending most of my time thinking about when I started writing the piece. It put me in the mind frame of all of human history because it goes back and talks about the very beginnings of human civilization. [A few years earlier,] I had been commissioned to write this other thing which was a piece that was going to be an imagined opera that Stravinsky and Dylan Thomas would have made together if Dylan Thomas hadn’t died, and I wrote a bunch of music but that piece never got made. Originally I thought I should do something with that music, so that plot line was in my head as well, and all of these things merged together to become the piece.
MS: I loved when Evan said at the rehearsal that sometimes the commissions make them do things that they haven’t done before and maybe shouldn’t, so I’m curious about getting them to sing.
CH: It seems to me that Bang on a Can was formed to explore new territory musically and really have an experimental spirit. When they commissioned me, they told me that part of the reason they did is that they’d be interested in having a piece where they would sing because that’s not something that they’ve done before. Also, I wouldn’t actually call myself a composer; I’d call myself a songwriter. I would have also been happy to have the challenge of writing something without words, but because I was told that was part of the reason I was commissioned I thought, OK, I’ll write some singing parts and maybe I can write multiple parts that my band would never sing so it could still be something like I’d never done before. I asked them all if they’d be willing to sing and Robert Black said, “No.” [laughs] All the rest of them said yes. This was by email.
Now, I think this is an indicator of the problem with email! It’s almost worse than the phone, because on the phone at least people listen and respond whereas with email I think people glance at things, and they don’t really think about it because it’s such a fast form of communication. That’s why meeting people in person is a better idea. The reason I say that is because I found out later, after I turned the score in, I got the feeling people were upset because there was so much singing. I was baffled because they’d said, “Sure, we’ll sing.” And then, when I came into the rehearsal, they seemed very angry at me. I’m not sure any of them would have commissioned me is what I ended up feeling like, which is fine. The other side of that is I ended up thinking that the quality of their singing actually made the piece very moving and beautiful because they felt vulnerable. These are not people accustomed to feeling vulnerable in a performance situation because they really are virtuosos.
I work mostly in theater and the quality of performance is something that’s very interesting to me. It’s not just what the people are playing or the music they’re playing when you see something live, it’s also the energy that’s going on on stage, what they’re wearing, what their facial expressions are, it’s all a part of it for me. Now, if it was a recording you were just going to listen to that would be one thing, but this is a live performance. And also, I’m used to working on something for a long time. I come from experimental theater so I’m used to saying, “Oh, let’s try this,” and “Oh, that doesn’t work so try this.” And that seemed upsetting to them somehow. And I think it’s because they can learn things immediately because they’re so talented and skilled. To me, it’s a performance and I think to them it wasn’t. It was like this is a piece of music. There was this little bit of rift between the way I think about it and the way they think about it. I think that’s them respecting the music and saying, “You wrote it this way, I need to sing it this way,” but, like I say, I think it ended up just by virtue of the structure having a moving and interesting quality to the performance almost because of this problematic energy.
MS: Well it definitely added to my experience just knowing some of the players and then seeing them sing.
CH: I have to say, I think there’s this thing about singing. I write for musical theater so I end up writing a lot for people who don’t consider themselves singers. Many people say, “Oh, I can’t sing, I can’t sing.” And then you give them a song to sing and they sing it and it’s beautiful to hear. I wish more people who think they can’t sing would sing in public because, for me, a lot of times I cannot stand the way supposedly virtuosic singers sound. I would much prefer to hear [BoaC pianist] Lisa [Moore] sing very quietly, a little bit hesitant. I know it’s hard for people who don’t feel confident about it to do it. But ultimately I was really happy with it the way it was.
At the rehearsal the day before there was a part where Evan would have been playing but other people were reviewing something, so [cellist] Wendy [Sutter] whistled his melody and I was like, “That’s so beautiful. She’s smiling, she looks like she’s having a good time but also she looks like she kind of knows something you don’t know.” So the next day at the sound check I said any time during the piece you can whistle the melody that’s being played if you feel like it. Of course that didn’t happen, and I don’t know if it’s because they thought I was kidding or they were afraid to try it or they thought I wanted it but they didn’t think it was a good idea. [laughs]
MS: I wonder too, we’ve been talking about theater where you get multiple rehearsals and then multiple nights to do it in front of an audience, and you only get one shot with this.
CH: I know, it’s tricky. In theater and even in rock clubs there’s not this thing of “This is the premiere!” and I think that puts a lot of pressure on it. I’ve never, ever written a piece in my life that has been presented in that way. So for me I’m like, “Wow, no wonder it’s hard to have a sense of humor in that situation.” And I respect virtuosity, but virtuosity isn’t the only thing that’s interesting to see. And actually the opposite of virtuosity is sometimes more interesting to watch.
MS: Speaking of watching, was it weird to sit in the hall and not be a part of the show?
CH: It is definitely more stressful because it’s a lack of control. I suffer from stage fright. I think it’s part of the reason that I like to perform—it’s scary so it makes me feel really alive and energized—but at least I’m going to be out there doing the thing. Another reason I like performing is that everything else falls away; it’s a very meditative state to be in and so no matter how scared I am, once I’m in it it’s actually the most ecstatic experience that I know. Whereas with somebody else performing it, I’m nervous and I have the stage fright, but there’s nothing to do and I’m definitely not going into a meditative state; I’m in a state of panic.
So would I do it again? I’d be interested in doing it again because it was a challenge and because, no matter whether you’re an artist or not, to continue experimenting I think really makes life worth living. This was definitely something new and I want to continue to have experiences that I’ve never had before. So for that reason I would want to do it again. Yeah.
MS: Did you get anything out of this process that will inform your own work going forward?
CH: I would say more from watching other people’s pieces being performed. A lot of times when I hear something that’s very different from what I do and I like it, I think I want to try and do something that has that quality to it. It’s inspiring. Jim’s piece made use of those instruments that Mark builds and Carla had that weird string thing [in the piano] which was really fascinating. Also I had made this thing that had sort of a story and a structure because that’s what I have confidence with and I was happy with that. But then when I was watching theirs, I thought I should really try to get outside of that box in my head at some point and try to make something in a different structure than the one I automatically tend toward.
MS: Because so much of your piece felt like it was in the words, was the music secondary to you? You said you wouldn’t consider yourself a composer but a songwriter, so how does that fit together?
CH: Well, when ideas are percolating, at the same time musical ideas are percolating. I had been going to these film-editing sessions and the director had reversed a piece of my music. I kept hearing that over and over again and I really loved it. I could also hear other parts over the top of it that weren’t there. I wanted to recreate that and I tried all these different ways. I tried to actually reverse the notation of the piece, and it didn’t sound like I was hearing it. So finally I was like, I’m just going to try and make something that sounds like what I like about that. The “all the beautiful things in the world” song that’s sort of the main song of the thing was just like any song. I was just walking along humming a tune and I sang it into my little tape recorder and then I worked on it later. I don’t know how other composers compose. I’m the opposite of a theoretical composer or something like that.
MS: You’re all intuition?
CH: Yeah, but you know, I have a feeling that Beethoven was more like “da-da-da-dah.” Melodies come from the air which is probably already stuff that’s in your brain from listening to it before, or they come from when you’re playing around on an instrument, or I hear something and a few minutes later I think of something that’s similar but that’s based on that. Like I was listening to CDs of the Bang on a Can people and all this Stravinsky, so I guess maybe all that filtered in somehow, but not specifically taking a phrase. I think that’d be an interesting experiment too, but it’s not what I did with this.
MS: I thought the sing-along was very funny. It completely changed the energy in the hall.
CH: I couldn’t believe people sang! I was amazed. I was really happy about that.
J. G. Thirlwell is a prolific composer, producer, and performer originally from Australia and now based in Brooklyn. He has been releasing acclaimed and influential recordings for over twenty years under many guises including Foetus, Steroid Maximus, Manorexia, Wiseblood, BabyZizanie, Clint Ruin, and many more. Over the course of many albums and live performances Thirlwell has proved himself to be a genre-defying and boundary-leaping artist. An accomplished remixer and producer, he’s also worked his magic on the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Coil. He is also an acclaimed graphic artist. More recently J. G. has also been involved with audio installations (the freq_out project curated by CM von Hausswolff, with whom he also conducted an audio workshop at the Staedelschule in Frankfurt). In 2005 he will be writing his first commission for the Kronos Quartet. Thirlwell’s new album as Foetus, LOVE, was released on April 24, 2005.
Molly Sheridan: One of the interesting things about the People’s Commissioning Fund to me is that they take composers who you wouldn’t necessarily expect to write for such an ensemble, even one as adventurous as the Bang on a Can All-Stars. But what about for you? Is this an opportunity you had ever looked for?
J.G. Thirlwell: It’s not something I’ve pursued, but it’s something that’s kind of opened up to me as a result of the course that I’ve taken musically over the last ten or fifteen years in terms of creating instrumental music and music of a cinematic nature. It’s a little-publicized fact that when I started making music, the basis of my compositional process was coming out of a lot of theories mixed with more mainstream influences. I was reading Cage and listening to Stockhausen and serial music and that got me into it. The first Foetus single was called Foetus Under Glass which actually was intended as a double entendre. On the back cover it actually has a list of forthcoming Foetus releases, one of which is Foetus on the Beach. And on the B-side of that single, the first three minutes are serial music.
I do what I do and then things sort of come to me as the result. Particularly some of the commissions that I’m getting now are the result of a project I started a couple of years ago under the name Manorexia, which I just distribute through my website and at concerts. That project came out as a result of many frustrations, and musically it’s got a lot more space than my other stuff. I was in talks about doing a version of Manorexia, which was going to be strings and percussion, and another one which was going to be based on the remix project I had called Flow. I ended up folding those two projects in with another project of mine, Steroid Maximus, which is also instrumental, and I worked out what it would take to realize it, which is an 18-piece ensemble. So I set about working with this orchestrator, Steven Bernstein, dissecting what I had written, rearranging and re-voicing it for those instruments, and I think that process opened up some avenues as well.
MS: With references like Stockhausen and serial music, what sort of musical education did you come out of?
JGT: I’ve always had very broad musical tastes. I’d gone to see Steve Reich, Phil Glass. I saw John Cage, too, in London in those years. And I was working in a record store and investigated all that stuff and still have a huge collection from those days.
Very young I had learned a couple of instruments that never really stuck. I’d learned the cello and percussion but I never really was adept at reading music—it wasn’t an instinctive thing. So I had sort of put those down and then later on I started picking up bass guitar and then I started borrowing synthesizers and experimenting with tapes and things like that. I moved to London in the late ’70s in the post-punk era and that was a really fertile time for experimentation. There’d been a sort of democratization process, you know, about not needing technique to create, skills coming maybe a bit before ideas and implementation of them. I was working with this kind of avant-garde group called Nurse With Wound. What I was doing came about as a result of directly using the recording process as a compositional tool which meant I used the studio as my instrument. I would have as much technique as it required to make any one overdub, and then I would process that or put down another instrument over that.
In those days that was pre-MIDI, pre-sampling technology. I developed on those early records several different numerical systems of how to execute my stuff. I was working in an 8-track studio and the stuff that I was doing was pretty dense, so since I was playing all the instruments, I’d have to work out what order I’d make the overdubs in to create the density of what I wanted to do. So I’d have to fill up the tracks and bounce them to another track and so on, and I’d have to have this order worked out and also plotting things in different ways. And then I sort of moved away from that after a year or two. My processes change all the time.
MS: But obviously not a notation process you could use for Bang on a Can, so I’m curious, with that background and that experience, how you approached writing the piece that you’ve created for Bang on a Can.
JGT: Well, I thought about it a lot, and I was aware of what the instrumentation was, but I didn’t want to start writing for the sound of those instruments. I recorded a piece first and then went back and re-voiced it for the instruments, which was difficult because I was using a lot of orchestral sounds and much more dense stuff. It starts off based on some instructions and then it moves on to the score. The starting point on this was making a little fake twelve-tone thing that wasn’t strictly twelve-tone, but it was a piano motif that I wanted to experiment with which wasn’t bound by any one time signature. I tend to know where I want to take the piece next. I think it’s sort of bound by a weird cinematic process. I imagine a scenario which isn’t necessarily married to a story but, having listened to a lot of soundtracks disembodied from the film, which I do, I like the way you get unexpected twists and turns. They are obviously created to mirror the action on the screen, but when you hear it without that you get a lot of interesting dynamics. You make up a more abstract pattern of why they’re happening. I find that has crept into my own music, where I’ll put in things in weird places in the bar were it could be that someone’s head is being held under water or the killer emerges or something similar.
MS: Do you ever tell your audience what those stories are?
JGT: No, my audiences usually come up to me and tell me what they imagine, which I like much better, because it is evocative and I like to leave those pictures to the listener.
MS: You said there are instructions at the beginning of your piece for Bang on a Can?
JGT: There’s a free section where there are plucked piano strings and bowed instruments. Mark Stewart, the guitarist in Bang on a Can, plays various invented instruments. In fact, one of the things I did before I started composing the piece is meet with Mark and David Cossin, the percussionist, to get an idea what sort of different voices I could introduce apart from traditional instrumentation and to see if that would spark off some ideas, which it did. Mark’s got a lot of strange percussive, not necessarily pitched instruments at his disposal. So I wanted to use those to create more eerie atmospheres and to build up dense tonal clusters.
MS: Is this an extension of other work that you do or do you see it as something completely separate? In other words, would you have written this music anyway in some other format?
JGT: Yeah, it’s all an extension of what I do, which is quite a few things. [laughs] It’s hard to say if it would sound out of place because there’s no formula at work, but yes, it’s a facet of what I do, definitely.
MS: So you’ve been to two rehearsals. Is it what you thought it was going to be?
JGT: It was real interesting to hear them do it the first time, to hear those pieces come alive, and now it’s a matter of hearing it sort of fleshed out on the concert stage, because it is a piece that has a certain intensity to it and it really needs the dynamic that would be brought into it by the live performance and the energy from an audience. Also, I’m more inclined to hear it when they’re sound checking it and we’re hearing it through a PA. Then I can hear the frequency spread much better.
MS: We talk a lot about the “literate tradition” in music and how, because of the rise of a lot of technology and electronic instruments and samplers, people no longer have to learn to notate music in a traditional Western classical sense in order to create music that’s as complex as anything else. You’re obviously sort of straddling both sides right now. How does it look to you? Do you see a value in writing things down in the traditional way?
JGT: Yeah, I do see a value in that, in creating scores that will go on to be played by other ensembles, that can stand alone as a score and the ensemble can bring their own flavor to that as well. I’m respectful of that tradition. At the same time I think that there are contemporary ensembles that are borrowing back, as you said, from people who aren’t working strictly from that place, an example being Alarm Will Sound doing works of Richard James, which I’m sure he never sat down and notated in the first place. So I think that that process has opened up a lot. You could take it further and talk about the nature of audio vs. music as well—where do you draw the line between that, really. Is it music? Is it organized sound? What is it exactly? I think it’s all valid.
MS: What about in your case, especially with the Bang on a Can piece, you were talking about the sounds you were working with. So you created the track and then notated it after the fact?
JGT: Yeah, I worked with Steven Bernstein. I got commissioned by the Donaufestival in Austria to do the same thing with the next Foetus album, which I’ll be performing in April. I create the piece and then reverse-engineer it, if you like—worked out how it can be voiced by these instruments. There are several choices at any one time. It’s a matter of knowing the range of the instrument, knowing what’s physically possible and what would best serve the purpose and then taking a look at it. For example, when we were working on these Foetus charts, I noticed it’s the end of the song but the strings aren’t doing anything, so I’m adding a new string arrangement. It’s a different sort of procedure.
MS: Do you work very closely with Steve during that process or do you let him make decisions at that stage too?
JGT: We sit down and dissect it, usually in my studio where I can isolate tracks. Sometimes I can print out a score from the program I use, which is Logic, and we’ll come up with the best way to notate it. He’ll bring things to the table which I wouldn’t have thought of. Especially on one or two of the Steroid Maximus pieces which have a little bit more of music concrete organized sounds, and he’ll propose ways of recreating that with instruments, like breathing through a trombone. Or he’ll hear a piece of feedback and say we can give that to the flute, where I just hear it as a sort of transient sound that I wouldn’t have notated. So he’s bringing a whole different discipline to it, which is great.
MS: Does it feel like the same piece by the time you’re done shifting it then?
JGT: Oh, yeah, it’s totally uncanny. It’s all there. The stuff is pretty meticulously arranged to start with and then it’s really nice to hear with these different feels.
MS: Obviously this is already something you’ve been working on then with Steve in your own projects, but is there anything from working on this Bang on a Can commission that you’ve picked up that will influence you compositionally going forward?
JGT: I’m kind of in the middle of it now so it’s hard to say. I’m sure in a couple weeks I’ll be able to look back and say, “Yeah, I could have tried this or I could have done that.” But each thing is a new prospect and sometime I won’t know until I sit down and I do it again and I remember what I ran into last time. I’m supposed to do one for the Kronos Quartet, and I’m doing this thing in Austria: we’ll do the Steroid Maximus set which is already charted and I’ll conduct, and then the Foetus set which I’ll be singing. That’ll be a sort private revelation for me because then we’ll have these two sets of charts that I can take and do as a big piece in other places.
You mentioned not being part of the ensemble. There’s another project I’ve been doing for a couple of years, freq_out, which is curated by Carmichael von Hausswolff. We’ve done it in Copenhagen and Oslo, myself and eleven other audio artists. It was Carmichael’s idea to sort of split up the frequency spectrum into twelve slices and give each of us a part to work within. We go and create the piece, within that space, which is then burnt onto a CD and looped and then becomes an installation and reacts to the space. We’re not there at all and that’s an interesting thing as well. That blurs the line between audio and music and performance and art and architecture. It brings in a lot of different elements across the board.
I don’t think it’s necessary to act as a performer in a traditional sense. I’ve done laptop shows and there’s a lot of people who have a resistance to that because you look like you’re checking your email, but a lot of the best shows that I’ve seen in the past couple of years, most interesting musically, have been laptop shows. You have to give yourself over to the fact that it’s being created on the spot or, if it’s not, it’s being generated for this specific performance. The way that I chose to do it was by incorporating visuals at the same time, so you’re not really supposed to be watching me studiously moving a mouse, but you’re supposed to watch the visuals behind. A lot of those people working in that milieu are also crossing over into the world of composition.
MS: It makes me think about Merkin Concert Hall. The venue is very straight ahead, everyone sits more or less quietly in their chairs. Do you have any reaction to working in that kind of space?
JGT: With the large ensemble, I prefer it to be in that kind of environment because I like there to be silence. A lot of what I’m doing is really quiet and so I don’t want to be in a place that has a bar, like a normal rock club where people are milling around and talking. I think you really have to concentrate. So no, that’s fine with me to be in that sort of environment, I prefer it.
MS: I realize we never spoke concretely about the piece. It’s a question that always makes me uncomfortable to ask and usually makes composers uncomfortable when they try to answer. Should we or just wait to hear it?
JGT: I think it sounds like a mixture of a lot of things I touch on musically in that it’s intense, it’s dramatic, but it’s also suspenseful and at times atonal and quite violent, and then moves out into open space. So it’s all over the place, but it takes you on a journey.
Carla Kihlstedt has stretched her experience of music far beyond the classical stage. The violinist, vocalist, and composer is a founding member of the acoustic instrumental group Tin Hat Trio, the more song-based 2 Foot Yard, and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, a 5-piece band that constructs rock-based music on an atypical array of instruments, many of them homemade. Kihlstedt has had the opportunity to work with Fred Frith, Tom Waits, Lisa Bielawa, Erik Friedlander, Don Byron, Ben Goldberg, Klangforum Wien, and the Rova Saxophone Quartet. She has also collaborated with choreographers/directors such as Jo Kreiter of Flyaway Productions, and Shinichi Momo Koga and Allen Willner of Inkboat.
Molly Sheridan: From what I know about you, it seems like you started out on a classical path, and then you started pushing on that. So thinking about this Bang on a Can commission, do you feel like it’s just another extension of that pushing or is this something totally different for you?
Carla Kihlstedt: Actually for me, or at least the way I interpreted the commission, it in some ways is closer to my history as a classical museum—[laughs]—musician than most of the other things that I do. Having to write on paper a finished product of a piece to put in front of players to sight read down, work on for rehearsal and perform, that’s much closer to how I grew up and my early relationship to music than anything I do now, so in a way it’s kind of a throwback. But I’ve never been in that position as a composer before.
Most of the composing I do is for the groups that I’m in as a permanent member and as a performer. I realized early on that my strengths as a musician are that I’m a great collaborator, that’s what I get the most out of and enjoy the most. So I’ve created these three different bands with my friends that are really challenging and really great. None of them are about any one person’s vision—it’s very collective kind of writing and a collaborative approach to music. So this is really a different kind of situation where I am the chef of the operation and I tell everyone what to play to one degree or another. I have written some more open sections because I want to be able to use their own instincts and the player’s intuition. But it was challenging for me because of that.
MS: I wondered about that because I read about a project you started initially to find out what your own voice alone would sound like and even that ended up becoming a very collaborative project. This time it was on you to deliver this piece.
CK: And it was terrifying! [laughs] All the music that I’ve written in the last ten years has all been with people that I know so well as musicians and as friends that I can write an idea for them and really trust them to develop it in a certain way. I’ve developed these relationships over so many years that they really are a part of my process and I am a part of their process in that way. So when I was trying to figure out what to do I spent a lot of time initially listening to a lot of the Bang on a Can recordings which ended up being a mistake in a way. Well, not a mistake, but not something that ended up being helpful to me in the long run. They tend towards sort of a post-minimalist sort of aesthetic and that’s really not anything I’ve ever been involved with as a composer or a player. So the things that I kept hearing over and over again and the kind of aesthetic tendencies I was hearing in their recordings weren’t something that I was comfortable doing.
So I ended up writing something that in many ways is a more traditional kind of chamber piece. There’s a lot of openness in the beginning and towards the end of the second movement a lot of improvisation but is more traditionally notated and is a piece for instrumentalists. There’s no electronic component. But it was difficult for me to make the initial decisions about which direction to take it. Usually those decisions are emotionally very linked to my relationship with the players, and I don’t really have a relationship with these people. I hadn’t realized how much my musical ideas had to do with those actual friendships before, so that was interesting for me to see that so clearly.
MS: So once you got over that, where did that leave you?
CK: Actually, I gave myself a kind of conceptual foothold. I started getting interested in the development of communication technology and was reading about Samuel Morse and the first sentence that he ever uttered over his telegraph in a long distance communiqué. It was a biblical reference, “What hath God wrought?” And I ended up taking that sentence and applying it to different kinds of musical ideas. The first movement is based on the actual rhythms of that sentence in Morse code and I attached notes and chords to it. The second movement—it’s even traditional in that it’s a three-movement piece!—the second movement is my idea of a silent film soundtrack for the actual sped-up filmic version of the development of communication technology with everyone talking, the development of chatter in our lives, really. The third movement is a hymn. On a whim one day, I was taking a break from writing because I was kind of bashing my head against the wall with it and I just laid down on the carpet in this studio I was using and all of the sudden I was struck by this really silly idea. I was almost embarrassed to follow it through, but ended up doing it. I picked up the telephone and dialed in the sentence, “What hath God wrought?”. Every button has a dyad, a two-note interval that’s associated with it, at least on “old fashioned” phones. So I just dialed it in and transcribed the notes and it ended up being this beautiful hymn. I actually took that set of notes and re-harmonized it, added a couple of voices, and started using that as the basis for the third movement. Then on another whim I was thinking about work song and how with the development of technology the work song is kind of lost or at least losing ground. You can’t really sing in a factory. So I started looking into different work songs and folk songs. Of course the song that most represents the pace of technology is John Henry because John Henry was a steel-driving man who wanted to beat the machine and claimed that he could. And he actually did, he beat the machine through the mountain but then burst a blood vessel and died anyway. So it’s a tragic symbol of the impossibility of fighting technology. So I put that theme overtop of the hymn and for whatever miraculous reason, it worked really perfectly.
I actually haven’t heard the piece yet anywhere but on my keyboard and my head, so I really don’t have a very clear idea of whether it works as music or not, but I had a great time writing it.
MS: So you come out of a classical background but now you’ve talked about writing for colleagues who can pick up your meaning and what you’re going for. What sort of compositional training did you have?
CK: When I was seven, I took composition classes with this really funny old woman who had a big bouffant and two grand pianos with candelabra chandeliers on them and she always wore white patent leather go-go boots. I can’t remember her name, but I don’t even think those count. Growing up studying the violin, you have to do ear training and sight-reading and sight-singing, so I’m actually fairly quick. Reading music is like reading English for me. It’s a different thing having to articulate on paper what your musical ideas are, and I actually have a newfound respect for anyone who attempts to do that. But there are things that I realized. There’s a certain element of chaos that I really wanted to create at the end of the second movement, and I realized that no amount of writing fast chromatic notes was really going to get that, so I ended up writing up to a point and then giving frameworks for improvisations, figuring that these players are great players. They’d be more comfortable improvising what is comfortable to them than reading notes that I think would sound good. So sometimes it was difficult to articulate in visual writing all of my ideas, but the actual writing of notes is pretty easy for me.
I was talking to J.G. Thirlwell right before our interview at WNYC, and I got very jealous because he said he had a transcriber, and I was like, “Oh, why didn’t I think of that!” I did the whole thing by hand, which in some ways was appropriate to the piece from a philosophical perspective. But, oh my Lord, it took so long and was so painstaking, just sitting on the floor for however many days it took me to write out the score and then the parts in pen. I had this whole system to pencil in the notes so the bars are all exactly the right length and then pen in the heads with a .6 pen and then pen in the stems with a .4 pen and then erase. It’s was this incredibly painstaking process which I’m not sure if I’ll do again.
MS: We’ll have to at least get you a copy of Finale or Sibelius or something.
CK: Exactly, when I get the back half of my commission check I’m going to go straight to the store and buy Finale for myself.
MS: So now that you have been through this sort of compositional process, will it affect you going forward?
CK: Yeah, I think it will. In the most obvious way, as I was trying to figure out which direction to take the piece in the beginning, I wrote many, many sketches for many different kinds of pieces. Now I have a whole notebook full of things to go back develop. I have an outline for a string quartet. I just wrote and wrote and wrote and then threw most of it away. And I think I’ll probably try to do more of this kind of composing. I think it will inspire me to do more private and in solitude kind of work. And it forced me to get a keyboard—I’ve been meaning to get one forever—so I’ve kind of assembled some more practical tools for composing that I hadn’t every really had to sit down and make happen. I’m setting up a studio in my house now that it will be a much more efficient kind of place to write.
In another way it made me really excited to be in the groups I’m in. I would go to rehearsals at night with my band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and never be happier—to be in an actual room with actual people bouncing ideas off of them in real time. It was really so satisfying. So in one way it made me appreciate what I do have as a musician and a performer and in another way it also was really exciting to have to be the sole engineer of a musical piece.
MS: Is it strange for you not to be performing?
CK: Yeah. I don’t think—is this true?—I don’t think I’ve ever written something that I wasn’t performing in ever. I was even commissioned to write David Krakauer, the clarinetist, a piece a couple of years ago and I wrote a duet for the two of us because I approach writing from an experiential place. I’m primarily a performer and the writing has always been a way to further the performing. They go hand in hand, but this is really the first time that I’m just going to sit back.
MS: Do you think you’re going to be able to sit still?
CK: I have no idea. At this point I really feel like this is a draft because the way that I work, I need time with people to push and pull things, so I’m looking at this whole thing as a draft of the piece. And it’s a very public draft, which is interesting and nerve wracking, but at a certain point I was getting really stressed out about having to make all these little decisions that as a player I wouldn’t want to have someone make for me. Like how specific should I be? I really want to have time to work with these guys and trust them to learn the music and add their own two cents to it. It’s not really going to happen that way in this particular situation, so at a certain point I just decided that the best part of it has happened already. The fact that I had to meet this deadline and they’re all great musicians, so we’ll all learn from it what I did wrong or right or what I’d do differently next time and probably rework it at some point.
It’s a great thing that Bang on a Can does by asking people that aren’t necessarily used to this kind of process. So it’s a brave and really great thing that they take the risk to ask people who aren’t used to just tossing off scores. But it also means that there’s a lot more uncertainty in how it’s going to turn out as a final product.
MS: It makes me think, too, in the situation you’re normally working in, if a piece isn’t working you have a pretty immediate opportunity to fix it or try it a few different ways or scrap it altogether. A piece for an ensemble the size of Bang on a Can, it could be a long time even before you get to hear it again.
CK: Yeah. Luckily, I’ve got a friend in California where I live who hasn’t heard the piece but just emailed me and said, “I really want to get some people together and perform this piece out here in your hometown.” So, maybe I’ll end up having another hometown version of it and a chance to work it out.
The hardest thing in a way is the instrumentation. It’s very bizarre. It’s why I kept on writing string quartet material by accident. It’s not an ensemble that’s an established kind of sound; it’s not an obvious choice. So when they commission, they’re developing a whole body of work for that exact group. It allows a lot of flexibility aesthetically, because they can go the rock-ier direction with drums and electric guitar or they can go more experimental and quieter. So they have a really huge range. So I really obsessed over this and I still wish I had another month.
MS: But you must have put some time in if you hand-copied all the parts.
CK: Yes, indeed.
Molly Sheridan: So, this is the sixth year for the People’s Commissioning Fund. When you meet a new potential donor, what’s the elevator speech?
Michael Gordon: It’s very simple. The idea is that everyone chips in some money and that money is pulled together and it goes to artists to help them create a new piece of music.
The background is how things are normally done, which is you have to go to a foundation or agency and go through this long application process. That’s getting harder and harder to do just because there’s less and less money from the government and foundations. There are very few foundations supporting contemporary music anyway, but there’s been a big money drain over the last several years, so there’s less commissioning money. We just got this idea that if we asked people who liked what we do to send us some money, we could pull it together and commission new pieces and kind of cut through the red tape.
Julia Wolfe: There was something that we felt was radical about going to the public, and that may include people who can give a large donation, but going to the community that we’ve built, members of that audience, people who love new music and are excited about new ideas. And on the commissioning side of it, we’re also liberated from anything a foundation might dictate. We don’t have to think about that; we don’t have to gear it any sort of direction. We can go to any kind of individual with any kind of ideas, so they tend to be people who are unusual picks for a new music ensemble. People who interest us tend to be very strong and individual in their own worlds and somehow we think they can cross over into our world.
MS: Has the PCF always been about approaching this sort of composer?
JW: People ask, “What do you mean adventurous? What are you listening for when you hear someone’s tape?” And it’s almost [opens eyes wide], “Oh, what was that?” It does something to you physically, emotionally. There’s something fresh about it, there’s something unique about it. There are a lot of things we look for, but if I just had to pick one thing, it’s that sense of something very fresh. It’s not conscious, it’s not as if we say it has to be something we’ve never heard before from someone who has nothing to do with our world. This year was actually further afield than previous years. In other years, there were some older composers that are really fascinating that hadn’t really gotten the chance to work with an ensemble like ours, people who cross over into the alternative rock world, other people who fit very neatly into the world we’re identified with. So it’s pretty much of a range.
MS: How do you find these people, because they are all coming from these amazingly disparate worlds?
MG: Oh, you know, we like music. [laughs] People tell us about things. How do you find music?
JW: I think, also, now we’re at a point that people know we have a pretty broad spectrum and they send us stuff. We try to post it as many places as possible, but I think people know about it now because we get a range of applications.
David Lang: Also, people scout for us. It’s not just that we see these people, but musicians who’ve played on our festival will say, “I have this friend. You should hear their music.” There’s a way in which all this information flows once you get the word out that it’s welcome. I think one of the other great things for us about People’s Commissioning Fund is that when I go out in public, no matter where I am, in what kind of environment, if I hear something interesting I think, “Oh, that might be People’s Commissioning Fund.” We went to a theater production years ago with songs by Cynthia Hopkins, and because of the People’s Commissioning fund we can say, “Oh, there’s somebody who has a voice. We don’t really know what to do with them, but we’ll figure it out.”
MS: What does it really take to commission a work this way? To really get this off the ground, do you have any sort of advice you’d pass on to other composers who might like to try it in their own communities?
JW: I’d tell them to write everybody they know. That’s what we did the very first year of Bang on a Can in 1987. That wasn’t a commissioning project, it was putting on a concert. You write everyone. Your old girlfriend’s mother who supports the orchestra, your neighbor whose son plays music, anyone you can think of who might send you $25. And you can start very small with a personal note and see what you can do. Next year raise the money for two. It begins in a very personal place. Even with us, even though we don’t know everybody in our audience, it’s very personal. There’s a sense that you’re part of a community. At the open rehearsal, there are a lot of old faces that we see every year. One guy comes in from Colorado. You start with your own community and it will grow itself.
DL: [Foundations] can definitely give you enough money to make your life very easy and they can do it very quickly, but they may change their mind about what they want to give their money to next year and where does that leave you? For us, one of the other things that we really like about the PCF, these people are our listeners. Here’s your opportunity to have a closer relationship with us. It’s so much better to build a community that will last rather that taking in money from wherever you can find it. The money is really secondary. When you asked about other composers doing this, it’s saying, “This is what I believe and this is something I want to do, can you help me?” It’s the connection which is important.
MS: When your audience is personally invested like this financially, beyond purchasing a ticket, is their reaction to the music different?
JW: There’s definitely a personal connection that must make the listening experience different. They have opinions. They like something; they don’t like something. But the kind of person who is a regular donor, I find them to be very special people. They’re very curious, very committed. They believe in it. It’s not just that they write a check.
DL: Also, these people come to the open rehearsals and concerts, and they talk to each other and become friends. They see each other at other concerts that have nothing to do with us and their lives get connected in different ways. I love that and it can’t help but affect the way you listen to the music. That you feel like you’re actually participating in how your culture is changing. You’re talking to the other people in the audience and the musicians. I think you feel a lot different towards what’s happening than if you just participate in the culture by buying the CD of the thing you read the review of because everyone told you it was the next big thing. I think it’s a very different and much healthier way to interact.