A few moments with Amy Williams

Tonight we welcome Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams (the Bugallo-Williams Duo) to London to perform a concert of virtuosic and exciting music for four-hands piano at MeWe360.

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Amy Williams (left) and Helena Bugallo

In addition to being a fantastic pianist, Amy is a composer, and was one of my first composition teachers at Northwestern University.  It’s a pleasure to welcome her and Helena tonight, and Amy was kind enough to answer a few questions in advance of their performance:

Aaron Holloway-Nahum: Hi Amy!  We’re so excited to have you with us in London. You work internationally as a pianist and as a composer, how does your performance influence your own composition?

Amy Williams: Thanks for having me!  We’re excited to be playing in London on the Riot Ensemble series.  My performance influences my composition very directly—I think very much about the role of the performer, sometimes specifically (what would she or he want to play, what is his or her sound at the instrument), but also performative issues such as physicality and coordination. And I analyze pieces that I play very much from a composer/theorist’s perspective.  So it works both ways.

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A passage from one of the Nancarrow transcriptions

AHN: Amazingly, you and Helena will be performing four transcriptions of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano studies. Could you tell us a little bit about how you transcribed these really complex studies?  Have they gotten any easier to perform?

AW: We first discovered one arrangement that our teacher, pianist/composer Yvar Mikhashoff, had made in the late 80s for piano four-hands (which we will play on this concert).  And so we wondered if there might be more that was humanly possible.  We worked with composer Erik Ona, who looked through the scores (yes, there are scores!) of all 50 or so Studies for Player Piano.  He determined that there were about 10 that could be arranged for piano duet, without sacrificing notes, rhythmic relationships or tempo.  He arranged 3 of these for us and then we started arranging them ourselves.  

We currently have 13 arrangements, including one for two pianos and one for two-pianos/eight-hands.  Other musicians in the future might determine there to be more—but we are pretty ecstatic to have this much of Nancarrow’s incredible music to play live for audiences.  They are always difficult to play, since they were written for a machine, but they have certainly become easier over time and many, many repetitions.   

AHN: What advice do you have for composers looking to write for piano duo?

AW: Work with the pianists as closely as you can!  Especially with four-hands, think very hard about the physicality of the medium.  A chord in the middle of the piano feels very different to play when you are sitting way up at the top of the piano.  

AHN: What’s coming up for you next?

AW: We are recording our second volume of Stravinsky’s arrangements for piano duo—this will include Petrushka and Concertino (which we will play on the concert), as well as Agon and Scherzo a la Russe.  And our CD of the complete original works for piano duo of Gyorgy Kurtag (and some transcriptions) will come out in the next few months, also on Wergo.  

AHN: We can’t wait to hear it Amy!

A few moments with Jenna Lyle

The Riot Ensemble is gearing up for our upcoming Les Citations project, programmed in memory of Henri Dutilleux, with an array of premieres from around the world.  We’re hugely excited to be hosting Jenna Lyle for the premiere of her new piece, Falterer.  

Jenna is a composer, vocalist and performing artist from Carrollton, Georgia.  She’s currently pursuing a DMA at Northwestern University (my alma matter). She composes, performs, builds installations and plans concerts around Chicago.  On top of all that, she’s co-founder and co-administrator of one of the most exciting new labels around: Parlour Tapes+.

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Photograph by Caleb Chancey

We first ran into Jenna’s music during a listening session with the Artistic Board.  Specifically, we heard her piece Spoonbill on soundcloud, and knew immediately that we wanted to commission her for an upcoming project.

It’s been an absolute pleasure for me to prepare this new piece by Jenna.  In particular, she worked so hard to make sure we all knew exactly what she was after by collaborating with numerous musicians in the Chicago area to produce ‘how-to’ videos for the numerous extended techniques that come up in Falterer.  You’ll find these embedded below, though I have to prefix our interview with this, an extended vocal technique – performed by Jenna herself.  I’ve been completely unable to replicate this sound, and it strikes me as some sort of dark magic.

Aaron HN: Jenna, thanks so much for traveling so far to be with us for the world premiere of your new piece Falterer.  We commissioned this work in relation to Dutilleux’ Les Citations (‘Quotations’).  Did Dutilleux’s music effect or influence you as you wrote your own work?

Jenna Lyle: Although it would be SO META to use a quotation of Les Citations, I chose instead to be loosely influenced by the piece’s sectional structure and constantly shifting timbral language.  Les Citations feels kind of Concerto Grosso-esque, alternating between moments of extremely exposed and vulnerable solo writing and dense colorful ensemble blasts.  I let that inspire me as I drew focus toward a different performer in each section, weaving in and out of highly exposed soloistic blocks and blocks with varying tutti colors and textures.

AHN: You had considered some different titles for the piece as you were composing it, could you tell us a bit about the process of ‘naming’ a piece, and what ideas eventually led you to Falterer?

JL: Haha yes, I was considering the title THUNDERTURTLES for quite some time.  I worked a lot last year with vocalist and artist Lara Oppenheimer.  Her daughter Ursula’s favorite curse word is “thunderturtles,” I’m guessing because of the rich, cathartic phonemes.  I loved the idea of writing a piece that felt as warm, yet heavy and trudging and as capable of massive release as Ursula’s preferred expletive.  The more I lived with the piece, though, the more it became about the state of being just before an expletive escapes one’s mouth (presumably in a situation where dropping F-bombs would be considered taboo) – the often ridiculous effort that goes into maintaining composure under what feels like extreme duress – and the complex sensation of blissful release/possibly guilt-ridden suspension that coincides with faltering.  Hence, Falterer was the final title.  Whether or how the faltering and/or release actually happens in the piece though…I guess you’ll just have to come to the performances and find out (See what I did there? No spoilers from this composer. I’ve seen the movie trailers. I know how these things work.).

That, plus, multiple friends assured me that THUNDERTURTLES was better employed as a child’s curse word (wonderful child and wonderful curse word though they both are) than as the title for a serious piece of conceptual art.

AHN: Falterer is a very beautiful, graphic score with many extended techniques for all the players.  Composers are surrounded – both in everyday life and more and more in the repertoire – by sounds and noise.  How do these sounds influence you and get incorporated into your compositional work?

In my compositional work, sound is usually the result of a prescribed movement or type of body awareness.  In Falterer, I chose performance techniques that required a particular kind of body focus first and then refined the sound world after that.  I wanted to use inherently unstable materials that require extreme focus and slightly more work than feels intuitive to sustain (to embody the energy of composure under duress mentioned earlier).

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To isolate a few, the oboist depresses the keys for a multiphonic and underblows so that only one of the pitches sounds, the bassist performs a passage revolving around the intentional sounding of the instrument’s wolf tone, and the harpsichordist measures the pace at which she (Goska) lifts her fingers after depressing keys.  Techniques like these possess their own inherent sonic qualities, and I worked with timbral and energetic imitation as I orchestrated around them.

It also bears mentioning that the piece is intentionally relational – not that all ensemble music isn’t – in that I tried to build interpersonal dynamic layers into the piece as a form of development.  Those layers are manifested via improvisation, performer-to-performer proximity, instrument-sharing, and contrapuntal textures entirely dependent on the speed of a particular instrument’s vibrato or tone-beating.

AHN: In addition to being the world premiere of this piece, I think I’m correct in saying this will be the first UK performance of any of your work.  We live in such a globalized society, yet contemporary music is often a very local phenomenon. Could you tell us a little bit about the contemporary music scene where you live (Chicago) and what you’re looking forward to in working in England?

I feel really lucky to be a part of the new music community in Chicago.  It’s so stimulating.  Chicago as a city is such a big place that there seems to be room for everything, even though the new music scene is kind of small.  Regardless of what weird niche art form you dabble in, it’s highly likely you’ll find an audience.  I’ve felt extremely encouraged by the diverse art community in Chicago, and I’ve found myself emboldened to take risks with my work that I might not feel so safe taking were I part of a less varied scene.  New music in Chicago is also a pretty tight-knit community, and generally very supportive.  I feel like I’ve had the support of my peers and the space to ask really important questions of myself and my output, knowing that I’ll always receive some well-intentioned criticism.

Music-making is intimate.  I’ve experienced richness in my own creative process when my collaborators and I have had time to develop a trusting artistic relationship with each other.  It’s an important thing when you’re building something from the ground up, and it takes time.  Of course it’s not so difficult when you find yourself surrounded by amazing artists you see practically every weekend.  If I collaborate with someone in Chicago, I pretty much know what I’m getting into, as do they, and we’re probably friends.  I think that’s what you mean when you reference contemporary music as a “local phenomenon,” and you’re totally right, Aaron.  Local collaborations are really great in the way I’ve described, and they provide a chance to move beyond a score and into complex dynamics of experience.  But non-local collaborations where I have the opportunity to build new relationships and dive into vulnerable music-making situations are thrilling!  Scary, but thrilling.  I’ve been so honored by the trust you and Riot have afforded me with this project, and I’m excited to see how we work together.  I honestly know very little about how the scene in England FEELS, but I’ve been really inspired by a lot of the music I’ve heard by composers from London and Manchester and Huddersfield and Jonathan Harvey once patted me on the shoulder and said “that was lovely.”  Sooooo, I’m thinking it’s gonna be great.

AHN: We think so too!  We’re so pleased with your piece and excited to perform it.  I’m always interested in composers that also spend a lot of time performing.  You’re obviously an active performer as a Soprano.  How does your own performance influence your work as a composer, and visa-versa?

JL: Naturally, my ideas about performer experience are heavily influenced by my life as a performing artist.  I love the feeling when I realize that a piece I’ve been preparing (to perform) is something I’ve internalized, when I can layer my physical and emotional experience of the material into my performance (it’s just the tiniest bit indulgent).  As an improviser that happens more often, since experience and embodiment are what drive my sonic decisions.  And it isn’t simply that it’s a nice feeling – I find the concept of “response” in a performance much more compelling than “execution.”  The energy of response has the potential to build communal experience and eliminate the pretense of correctness or attractiveness as a barrier. It calls for immediacy and translates quickly to others.

So I often craft situations where performers are asked to respond, either to the experience of what they’re playing or to what they hear from other players (with more emphasis on their own perception than, say, the notated hocket section of a Madrigal).  My hope is that it brings about a very human and even “accessible” result.  By “accessible,” (that most controversial of terms), I don’t necessarily mean “pleasing to listen to,” but something along the lines of “possible to physically identify with.”  That kind of shared or recognizable physical sensation, I find, can also be the result of corporeally-focused materials–those reminiscent of sounds the body makes or sensations one experiences.  In the case of the voice, identifiable material is a given.  Everyone has a voice.  Everyone breathes.  Everyone drifts into vocal fry from time to time, intentionally or not (just listen to Noam Chomsky talk for a while).  When writing for instruments, I’ll aim to detach the instrumental sound from anything transcendent or otherworldly or pristine and find materials that either elicit or occur as the result of recognizable physical sensations (the shuddering of the breath into a wind instrument, the brittle quivering of a stick cry on a metal percussion instrument, grunting overpressure on strings, etc.).

The goal is to create a collective consciousness of body between the performers, audience, headphone-listeners, whoever – all those experiencing the piece.  And the challenge in using materials of this nature, in writing for both voice and instruments, is to employ materials that are corporeal in nature without resorting to mimesis. To generate an actual experience of something – with other people – beyond the parroting of the familiar.

AHN: Thanks for that Jenna. It’s very interesting – and will be very helpful to us as we prepare your piece!  Just as we go, tell us what other projects are you working on at the moment/in 2014?

JL: Over the past year, I have become absolutely addicted to writing music for Jesse Langen.  I know a lot of people who have the same problem.  We’re thinking of starting a group where we all talk about it together.  Before I kick the habit though, I’m writing a trio for Jesse, pianist Mabel Kwan, and soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw.  They are three of the most inspiring performers I know, and I’ve been really lucky to work with them as duos (recording Jesse and Mabel performing Alexander Hunter’s music for a Parlour Tapes+ Release and making an installation piece for Jesse and Carrie last Winter), and writing a piece for the three of them is going to be quite literally a dream-come true.  I literally had a dream about it one time.  The piece will be on a concert whose curatorial direction they have very trustingly put in my hands, and my best idea right now involves pillows on the floor and video projections on the ceiling.

I’m also currently involved in a large-scale devised work, 3 Singers, whose creative team and cast are amazing to work with (read more about them here).  3 Singers is a piece of dance, opera, theater, performance art…a little bit of ornithology here and there…  I’m one of, as the title suggests, three singers who are also dancers who are also actors who also operate sewing machines as triggers for live processing.  We’ve been generating material since July of 2013, and we’ll premiere the work in Cleveland this Fall.

Other than that, I’m writing a dissertation and a large scale voice/movement/video piece for myself, so it should be a great year!