In Studio: NOISE Ensemble Performs
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Photo by Rebecca Kumar / KPBS
San Diego's only chamber festival devoted to the music of our day begins this weekend and it's called Sound On. It's presented by San Diego New Music and the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library. The festival's resident ensemble known as NOISE joins us in studio.
DOUG MYRLAND (Guest Host): These Days in San Diego, I'm Doug Myrland. In their day, the music of Mozart, Beethoven and even Brahms was considered avant-garde and dissonant. San Diego's only chamber festival devoted to the music of our day begins this weekend and it's called soundON. It's presented by the San Diego New Music and Athenaeum Music & Arts Library. The festival's resident ensemble known as NOISE is with us in the studio. Hello, everybody.
NOISE: (general greetings)
MYRLAND: The members of the ensemble are: Christopher Adler on piano. Christopher?
CHRISTOPHER ADLER (NOISE Ensemble Member): Hello.
MYRLAND: Colin McAllister on guitar.
COLIN MCALLISTER (NOISE Ensemble Member): I'm here.
MYRLAND: Morris Palter on percussion.
MORRIS PALTER (NOISE Ensemble Member): Hello.
MARK MENZIES (NOISE Ensemble Member): Hey, there.
MYRLAND: And Lisa Cella on flute.
LISA CELLA (NOISE Ensemble Member): Hello.
MYRLAND: Well, the soundON Festival of modern music is taking place this weekend, June 18th through the 20th, at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library. The festival includes panels, workshops and performances, and this is the third year of the festival. So, Christopher, I do want to take a minute to ask, for those who haven’t been, what really happens at the festival?
ADLER: Well, on Thursday and Friday, we have open rehearsals during the day so people who would like to get a peek behind the curtain and see how new music is made, the performers will be working with the composers from 1:00 to 4:00 on both days. And that's really a nice opportunity to meet the composers in a very informal setting, see how we work as an ensemble, how we work with the composers and even how the pieces evolve, sometimes right up to the last minute. And then there are performances at 7:30 both nights with pre-concert talks.
MYRLAND: Now when we talk about classical music and we talk about modern music, sometimes it isn't really quite so modern and the composers we're talking about are definitely 21st century. I mean, I was lucky one time in a previous job to end up at a lunch and sit next to John Adams and that was one – that was a big thrill. And I – He's thought of as a very modern composer but in the sense of your ensemble and this festival, John Adams is real old school, right?
ADLER: Well, I wouldn't say old school. I think we're modern in the sense that every piece that we're performing this weekend is written by a composer who's alive today. Stylistically, it runs the gamut. I think there are pieces that are stylistically – have a longer heritage than others, others that are radically very new and experimental. But, in fact, that unusual sort of – the things that sound radically experimental, that's also a sixty, seventy year old tradition now at this point.
MYRLAND: Now we want to start with a performance, and the first thing you're going to perform is a piece called "Notebook." Can you tell us about it?
ADLER: Certainly. In the seventies, there was a real kind of convergence between free improvisation, contemporary music and improvisers. And there were a lot of composers who wrote pieces that were designed to get chamber musicians, who weren't normally trained as part of their academic training, to improvise, to play together in a very free and improvised way. This is one of those pieces. It was written in 1980 by Stuart Saunders Smith, and it gives each of the performers materials that we can use as the basis of a collaborative improvisation. So it's kind of like a modular piece.
MYRLAND: Good deal. Well, this is "Notebook," composed by Stuart Saunders Smith and performed by the NOISE ensemble.
(audio of performance of "Notebook")
MYRLAND: That's a piece called "Notebook," composed by Stuart Saunders Smith and performed by the NOISE ensemble. And I want to talk to Morris Palter for a second because you're playing the vibraphone.
MYRLAND: And I don't think I've ever heard a vibraphone in this studio before. I know we've had – probably have had them in here before but it's a very striking sound. I hope it's as striking on the radio as it is in person. Usually when you hear a vibraphone, when I've heard a vibraphone being played, I'm much farther away from it and the tonality's quite different being this close.
PALTER: Yeah, I mean, the vibraphone's an interesting instrument in the sense that it's laid out just like a piano keyboard but it's a much smaller range. It's only three octaves in length. And it's made of metal, which is unlike a xylophone, which is made of wood, or a marimba, which is also made of wood. And the great thing about a vibraphone, it has a pedal on it, a sustain pedal, so you can let notes ring and you can control their dampening, you can control the durations of notes. And so in this particular piece, I was also bowing the vibraphone with a violin bow so you get sort of these long sort of really nice resonant tones, and then striking it with mallets as well so it sort of gives you a lot of different options.
MYRLAND: Does the composition specify the use of the bow? Or is that something that you add as an improvisational note?
PALTER: It's something that I added as an improvisational aspect. There's -- You know, when I see long tones, I can hit it and let it sustain but then the dynamic goes down after you hit it so by bowing it, I can maintain a steady dynamic and control the dynamic level with the bow unlike if I just strike it. It's going to decay as it would naturally do.
MYRLAND: Okay, well, I want to move on to some more music but first, Christopher, I want to ask you a question about composers and how they submit their scores to the soundON festival.
ADLER: Certainly. We do a international call for scores every year that goes out through different nationally based composer organizations and we simply ask composers to send music for just about any instrumental configuration that suits the instruments we have available. Colin, do you remember how many scores we got this past year?
MCALLISTER: Probably had a hundred or so.
MCALLISTER: And Chris and I have a great time getting together in my office with some coffee and going through and playing God, as it were, deciding which scores we're interested in.
MYRLAND: Now you play the guitar.
MYRLAND: And Christopher plays the piano. Do you actually play parts of the score so you can hear them as you're judging? Or do you just do it by reading the music and…?
ADLER: We may. Sometimes we'll each take scores home and just look through them, play through them a little bit. But, generally, the first round of how we look at things is listening to the recordings and looking at the scores to get an idea of whether the pieces will fit our ensemble and fit sort of the esthetic interests of the ensemble and of the festival.
MYRLAND: And do you have to check to see that the recording actually matches the score?
ADLER: Well, yeah, sometimes. Sometimes they send a…
PALTER: Sometimes they might send several pieces on a CD and…
ADLER: Sometimes they'll be midi recordings which are really poor representations of what the piece might actually sound like.
MYRLAND: Now you have a winning piece that you're going to perform, one of the ones that you chose and it's called "Trio." You want to tell us something about it before you do it?
ADLER: Sure. Actually, this year we've selected three winners that'll be on the festival and the composers of all three pieces have come from Ohio, Wisconsin, and New York, respectively, to join us for the festival. Jeff Herriott from Wisconsin wrote this piece called "Trio," which is just a very delicate, serene sort of austere piece. He doesn't provide any particular metaphorical associations that go with it so I think it's open for the listener to take it as they like. It's for prepared piano. I've inserted some rubber erasers into your piano while you were talking to Morris. Vibraphone, violin and an electronic part which our illustrious cellist will actually perform on his cello.
FRANKLIN COX (NOISE Ensemble Member): Quite convincingly.
MYRLAND: Good deal. Well, let's hear it. It's called…
PALTER: You're going to take those erasers out when you leave, right?
MYRLAND: It's called "Trio."
(audio of performance of "Trio")
MYRLAND: That piece is called "Trio." It was composed by Jeff Herriott and performed by Christopher Adler on piano. And also Morris Palter played vibraphone and Mark on violin. Did I say that?
MYRLAND: I do want to – I want to talk to Franklin Cox on cello to ask you about – seems like what you're playing in that last composition is quite different than the cello parts that I've heard in other compositions. How do you approach using your instrument in a very new kind of way?
COX: Well, the interesting thing about the cello is it's got a tremendous range and it's – not only from very low to very high but also a tremendous range of sounds it can create, from the beautiful sound that everyone know the cello for to really ugly sounds, electronic type of sounds. And a lot of what I tend to focus on is that range of sounds that doesn't usually get explored for the cello.
MYRLAND: I mean, if I had been listening on the radio, I would have suspected strongly that that was an electronic instrument not an acoustical cello. I hope you think that's a compliment.
COX: Oh, thank you. And the cello can do just a huge range of sounds. That's what I find exciting about playing the instrument and playing new music.
MYRLAND: I have a friend who's a cello player and she always books an extra seat on the airplane for her cello. Do you do that?
COX: Yes, I do. It's the only safe way to fly with that instrument.
MYRLAND: It's a burden that people with smaller instruments don't have to bear.
MYRLAND: Well, you have written a piece that will be performed at the festival and it's called "Recoil." And I'm told that you've made it so complicated that only you can perform it.
MYRLAND: Is that really true?
COX: I've shown it to a lot of cellists for the last 20 years and, so far, nobody's wanted to go through all the effort it takes to learn the piece. It includes things like – it's written for twelfth tones.
COX: That means between (audio demonstration) a half-tone, that's usually the smallest tone we have in west – well, in modern western music. (audio demonstration) So you have actually six micro-tones in between every half step.
MYRLAND: And your composition includes every one of them, right?
COX: Most of them, yeah.
MYRLAND: Well, let's hear an excerpt from "Recoil," if you would indulge us.
COX: Okay. This is from the very beginning of the piece. Maybe I could describe it very, very briefly.
COX: What it is, is it's almost like a voice that's singing, and I'll play it without any of the extra stuff. This is just the melody you could take. (audio demonstration) So it's like this sort of sinuous melody but on top of it are all sorts of things that the right hand, the bow is doing to change the quality. And you could almost imagine like if you were singing, you know, (audio demonstration) then suddenly your throat gets tight (audio demonstration), and then it gets loose…(audio demonstration)…and airy. So all these changes to the quality are happening to that melody, and as the piece goes on those things sort of take over. And by the end of the piece, the melody is trapped and you hear nothing but noise and hitting and everything. So the very beginning of the piece, I'll play that same melody with all of the extra things and I think you can hear how it's being sort of disturbed.
(Audio of excerpt from "Recoil")
MYRLAND: Now I happen to think that's lovely but I know a lot of folks who would say there's quite a lot of disturbance there.
MYRLAND: What is it that appeals to those of us who like that kind of disturbance? What's lovely to you about the disturbance?
COX: Well, I – I could put it this way, we usually hear the cello and what we hear is a very warm, beautiful voice. It's kind of like an ideal – I often compare it to a tenor. When we hear – when we buy a ticket to hear a tenor, we want to hear beautiful sounds, and the same thing with the cello. We want to hear a beautiful tone, and that's a wonderful type of music but most of the world's music is not that lovely in the conventional sense. Much of the world's music has a very sort of – for instance, a lot of Arabic music has a very tight vocal quality that's very expressive. And what I like about this range of sounds is the expression in it because, you know, the beautiful tone that we associate with a cello is one expression but I think there's a whole range of expressions that are in vocal quality in the noisier side that I'm attracted to anyway.
MYRLAND: Well, I want to ask you one more question and then we need to move on. Are you sometimes a little frustrated that other people aren't performing this piece. I mean, when you wrote it and it's complicated and it's sort of very personal. Do you hope that more people will take on the challenge?
COX: People will take on what they want to take on so, you know, at a certain point, you have to come to terms with that. And you always hope that lots of people will play your pieces but if it doesn't happen then you're – you have to accept that and just wait.
MYRLAND: We're speaking with members of the musical ensemble NOISE. And Christopher Adler, I want to move back to you. One of the other composers whose work people are going to hear at the festival is Christopher Burns, and I wondered if you could take a minute to just tell us a little about him.
ADLER: Certainly. Christopher Burns is actually a composer we've worked with for many, many years. We knew him when he was in graduate school at Stanford University; now he's a professor in Wisconsin. And he's – I think he's a composer that every one of us has worked with on multiple pieces, solo pieces, duo pieces, large ensemble pieces, so he's really a charming fellow. His music actually is closely related to Frank's piece "Recoil" in the sense that there are – there tend to be multiple musical ideas going on and, in a way, interfering with one another as they go along. So the music has these kind of tangible, recognizable elements to them but they're constantly being distorted or interrupted by something else.
MYRLAND: Now you're going to be recording some of this music to CD right after you leave here, right?
ADLER: As a matter of fact, a number of the pieces that we're performing on the festival, we will record next week for a CD featuring the music of Stuart Saunders Smith, and another CD featuring the music of Christopher Burns.
MYRLAND: Well, we'll look forward to that, and we do want to move on and have another performance. And my producer tells me that we do have time for the longer version of this if you were thinking – I understand maybe there were two versions. But, anyway, we want to hear this piece called "Tangle." It's composed by Christopher Burns and performed by NOISE.
ADLER: They're discussing right now how to make a little bit longer version. This is a piece for flute and cello. While they're looking at this, I just definitely want to put in a plug for the festival and say that our steadfast partner in this for our entire existence has been the La Jolla Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, and it's a really fabulous place to come down and hear a concert and interact there, a wonderful place. And their website is ljathenaeum.org.
MYRLAND: And it's this weekend.
ADLER: It's this weekend. It starts tomorrow, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.
MYRLAND: Okay, everybody's looking ready to do "Tangle."
(audio of excerpt from "Tangle")
MYRLAND: That's "Tangle," composed by Christopher Burns, performed by Franklin Cox on cello and Lisa Cella on flute. Many of you, I understand, teach new music at universities around the country as well as perform. And I want to throw out for general discussion the idea that this must be kind of hard to teach. You know, once you go beyond – it's almost like teaching jazz, is that right? Or is that fair? Somebody want to agree or disagree with that?
MENZIES: Well, I think teaching new music always comes down to the human connection that you can make to either the source of inspiration, which is sometimes meeting the composer, or at least have an understanding of the intention behind it. That may be related, perhaps, to the concepts of jazz, in which case the cultural background of – where one is, as it were, taking one's jazz style from is very important. I know that my jazz colleagues talk a lot about that. But in this case, situating, understanding how a piece works, you know, we have all these incredibly detailed scores often but they don't give a tenth of the information that meeting the composer and understanding their intent creates. And universities are wonderful meeting places where one can arrange for that to sort of be the meeting place of ideas, and I think that makes that job easier when we're involved in that teaching.
MYRLAND: That's Mark Menzies, who's – we've heard on violin. And, Lisa Cella, I want to turn to you for just a moment. Your part, as playing a wind instrument, is the only wind instrument in this entire ensemble. Is that a heavy burden to bear?
CELLA: No. I rather like it.
MYRLAND: And I'm struck by the comfort that you seem to feel with one another. I mean, you're in here, you're in a very strange place to all of you, you only get a chance to play just a few pieces, it's kind of hurry up radio kind of stuff, but you all seem very comfortable together. But you haven't really been playing – some of you are relatively new to this ensemble, right?
CELLA: Well, I think Frank is our newest member to the ensemble but our history with Frank is quite long. I've been playing with Frank for over eight years elsewhere. And with the rest of the guys, we've been playing together for maybe…
ADLER: Eleven years.
CELLA: …eleven or twelve years.
MYRLAND: So how long did it take you to really feel confident? Or are you there yet?
MCALLISTER: I think it took – after about ten years, we stopped being angry at each other and so now we've just sort of reached a passive time of happiness.
MYRLAND: That's Colin McAllister on the guitar. When you perform at this festival this weekend and the audience walks out of the hall afterwards, Christopher, what do you hope that they take with them as a feeling or a memory, as a sense memory?
ADLER: Well, I hope what they do when they walk out of the hall is join us at the reception. After each concert, we have a reception because we want to talk to the audience. We want the composers to meet the audience. And one of the things that's great about the Athenaeum is it really is a – it provides a very comfortable venue where we can hang out and talk, both during the day and in the evening after the concerts. So I like – I want people to come away feeling like they've had a rich musical experience, not necessarily one that provided them with the reflection of their expectations but something that they didn't know was possible in music.
MYRLAND: And when one goes to a new music festival and meets a musician afterward, what's the very nicest thing that somebody can say?
MENZIES: Well, there's a few things one trembles when you hear. One of them is, oh, that was very interesting. One is tempted to say, and exactly what didn't you like?
COX: Now the most wonderful thing is when you get the sense that someone's whole perspectives have been opened up, that they've never heard anything quite like that and they're really excited by that. That's always thrilling for us, I think.
MYRLAND: Well, I certainly am sure you'll get lots of those kind of comments. I want to thank you all for coming in. I know it's quite a production to come here and set up and do this, and it goes by very quickly but I really appreciate it and I know our audience really appreciates it. And I want to make sure that everybody remembers that the festival is called soundON. It takes place at the Athenaeum in La Jolla. It's at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, June 18th through 20th. It includes panels, workshops, performances, receptions. And I also want to name, once again, all the members of the NOISE ensemble: They've been Lisa Cella on flute, Mark Menzies on violin, Franklin Cox on cello, Morris Palter on the percussion, Colin McAllister on guitar, and Christopher Adler on piano. Thank you all for being here…
NOISE: (general thank yous)
MYRLAND: …and thank you all for listening to These Days. I'm Doug Myrland for These Days in San Diego.
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