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+.

JennaLyle

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!

A few moments with Jose Manuel Serrano

José Manuel Serrano - Foto colorThe 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 Argentinian composer Jose Manuel Serrano for the premiere of his new work Cenizas de un Madrigal Triste (read on for the translation).

I first met Jose in France last summer, and his music immediately struck me as incredibly powerful, concise and passionate.  It’s a pleasure to have been able to commission himand to ask him a few questions about his work in general.  As with all the composers in this project, Jose will be with us at both Les Citations concerts so look for him if you’ve got any further questions on what he says here!

Aaron HN: Jose, thanks so much for travelling so far from Argentina to be with us! We’re hugely excited to give the World Premiere of Cenizas de un madrigal triste (“Ashes of a sad madrigal”). The word Cenizas (“ashes”) appears in a number of your titles, does it have a special meaning to you?

Jose Manuel Serrano: Is a great pleasure for me to be here, for first time in UK also, to attend the concerts and to work with The Riot Ensemble. Thanks a lot for this commission and opportunity.

The word ashes, is a very evocative word for me. First of all, because of the immediate association with something that “remains” but which is “incomplete” or almost dead. In some way, the idea of ‘ashes’ is linked with the concepts of memory and past, because we automatically think back to the original object, which now is only ashes.

Another connection to this word word is through the poet Omar Khayyám.  He worked in Rubaiyat, where he believed that all the things of this world – even all the sand of the deserts or a wine’s glass- were created with the ashes of the dead, and are still a part of life.

Concretely, I’ve used this word in some titles when I wanted to make some reference to other music (like Ars Nova and Ars subtilior). This is the case with this piece, where “Madrigal Triste” (Sad Madrigal) is a small reference to Baudelaire’ Les Fleurs du mal.

AHN: We specifically commissioned this piece to go with Henri Dutilleux’s Les Citations. Did Dutilleux’s music effect you as you were composing this piece?

JMS: Before I began to write this piece I was thinking about the occasion of the concert (an homage, for Dutilleux). I thought about lots of different approaches, such as:

  • “Should I use some materials or ideas from Les Citations by Dutilleux as a reference or evocation?”
  • “Or maybe from other pieces by Dutilleux?”
  • “Maybe I can use some of the same quotations, or from the same composers, that Dutilleux used in this piece (Jehan Alain-Clémet Janequin and Britten)”
Cenizas de un madrigal triste - Ref

The opening page of Cenizas de un Madrigal Triste

I finally landed on two things: one, that the best I could do – to connect Dutilleux’s ideas with my own ideas – would be to write a piece based on quotations from music I like and which are part of me.  A bit like making my own selection of “citations”, sort of repeating something that Dutilleux made at the beginning of the compositional process.  Second, I decided I will use some instrumental ideas from “Les Citations” which I also has used in some of my pieces: Working on instrumental ideas like modal melodies in artificial harmonics in the contrabass, chords in tremolos and ppp (with soft mallets) in the marimba, resonances in tam-tam, dense chords in the harpsichord, and so on.

And with this I should create a continuity between new materials and seven quotations I took from Mozart (Piano Concerto No.23, Mov. II), Josquin des Prez (Mille Regretz), Berlioz (Requiem), Nicola Vicentino (Laura, che ‘l verde lauro), Schubert (Ihr bild) and others.

This piece could be titled as “Les Citations” too, but it’s my personal version, with some references to instrumental ideas that can make us remember the piece of Dutilleux.

AHN: Even though you are a young composer, your music has struck me from the first time I heard it as having a very strong, unique and distinctive voice. Do you think you have a ‘personal style’ of composing? Could you describe your own style to us?

JMS: That is always a hard question for me, and I think for many people too. It’s hard to view our own work from inside, though even from outside there are also some things which can’t be seen completely. I want to be critic with my own work and ideas all the time (I always fear I am doing less of this as I get older) and I find problems all the time during the composition process.  This is one reason I write slowly and review the same bars eternally. I can recognise musical influences in my pieces in different points or concepts many times. That is a normal feeling for me.

Recently, very strangely to me, many people have started saying to me that my music sounds very personal; that it has some individual voice. Maybe! I hope so!  The influences I find are many and when I put them all together their origins vanish, or they work differently enough that they are creating a new thing. I don’t know. But as I said before, it’s still hard, very hard, for me, to find myself in my music. I still find that many sounds that comes from here or there. And if there is something which I recognise as “my”, the fear of “repetition” makes me feel that I work on the same ideas in many of my pieces. I mean, any time that I find something “recognisable” of myself, I don’t feel well using it many times (but it’s also not so easy to find new things).

About if I can describe my music…I can say that in the last years I was very interested in worlds which can be found between textures like chorals, paraphonies, monodies and heterophony, working with the ambiguity, duality and clear meanings in between of them. Let’s say: all the possibilities of meaning between the vertical and horizontal dimensions. With some slow and far melodical/textural/timbrical ideas which can have some references to music from the past. I like to expose the materials with some fragility, almost naked, to produce some tension, but that don’t means that the materials don’t have different natures and that they will be very restricted, or that there will be not big changes and strong contrast during the piece. I want to work with something synthetic, but not simple, which includes all the character I want or need without a forced and stylised elaboration, or a superficial refinement. A material that is exactly the one I need. (But that is really hard to find any time and needs lot of time), And if the material is apparently complex or apparently simple, I will just let it be.

AHN: Well we’re hugely excited to be giving this premiere of your work, Jose.  It’s wonderful to bring in composers from around the world, and to hear what you are doing.  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 (Argentina) and what you’re looking forward to in working in England?

Until this year, none of my pieces was performed in UK. And fortunately last year I had this great news of this commission and concerts in May, and last month I knew that an Italian Dúo, for cello and piano, also performed a piece in London last February. I am very happy for these performances.

The musical world in Argentina is very diverse and has changed a lot in the last years. Around 10 years ago there was almost no stable ensembles of contemporary music, a few concerts per year, and only one annual big International Festival in Buenos Aires each November.  Now, speaking only about Buenos Aires, there are maybe 10 stable ensembles, with around 7 annual concert series of contemporary music, when sometimes in strange days in November you can have like 5 concerts in a day of contemporary music.  Things have changed a lot. The most strange thing: there is a good public, many times full, in any concert, especially young people, who are very enthusiastic.

I can say that there is a big phenomenon of contemporary music now in Argentina. Many young players create new ensembles each year or play as freelance for these annual concert series. And there are many young composers too. But the other face of this is the instrumental level. There are many great players from Argentina, many of them who are playing in Europe in famous ensembles and orchestras, and many of them living in Argentina too, but I still feel the absence of a real high level or professional instrumental ensemble or orchestra for contemporary music. Normally, making a generalisation of course, the instrumental level in the concerts of contemporary music is medium or not good. If you want, one can attend good concerts for solo instruments, duos or trios of marvellous musicians but I still hope that in the next years some good large ensembles will be created calling the best players.

I feel like it’s mandatory for me to travel to Europe and outside of Argentina, for infinite reasons. To see and experiment different cultures, sound, flavourings, food, etc, and to feel that the time and history are “real” in any corner, and that the same things can happen again and again in abstract with different forms crossing the centuries. I can say millions of things why I love to travel, like all the people, but of course one of the main reason is that for me, as a musician, Europe represents a great level of performance for my music.  There is more possibility to attend good concerts from early to contemporary music, and the possibility of meeting new good friends and future colleagues which have the same musical needs. And more important, that even when I love Argentina, it’s nice to take some good air from the quotidian life from time to time!

These are the things I am looking forward to do and find in UK too, and I am sure I will! I am very excited to work with the Riot Ensemble in the rehearsals, and to meet all your players and to attend the concerts. And of course to know more about UK’s culture during this days in, as you said, my first trip here, where many things are new for me.

AHN: Fantastic Jose.  Just before we finish, what other projects dos you have coming up in 2014?

JMS: From the beginning of 2014 until now I had some performances in Italy with a cello piece, in Germany with a string trio which was performed two times by the Ensemble Aventure (Freiburg), and the same string trio – which was selected at the ECCE Ensemble Call for Scores 2014 – was performed twice in USA. After the concerts in London and Cambridge of the next week, I will have a performance in Lulea (Sweeden) at the “New Directions Festival”, where I am very happy to can go too during this trip. After this I will return to Buenos Aires, to come back at my job in the University of La Plata, and am preparing a Festival of contemporary, classical and early music in the town where I grew up: Choele Choel. I need to finish a new piece for soprano, piano, contrabass, percussion and prerecorded instruments too, which will be premiere in Buenos Aires around August, and I also need to finish two pieces before end of the year. I have a lot of work to do, fortunately.

AHN: We can’t wait to hear all the music Jose!