Ensemble Dal Niente Brings Professor Bad Trip to Chicago

The impulse to merge the worlds of popular and art music proves alluring to many composers. However, there are numerous issues that arise including whether or not one can achieve aesthetic cohesion.

The music of Fausto Romitelli (1963 - 2004) navigates this problem in a compelling way. This is due in part to the intense physicality of his music. His use of electric guitars and effects pedals do not come off as a cheap nod to popular genres, but instead complement the aggressive and chaotic textures to which these instruments are applied.

The Ricordi web site provides the following quote from the composer:

"At the centre of my composing lies the idea of considering sound as a material into which one plunges in order to forge its physical and perceptive characteristics: grain, thickness, porosity, luminosity, density and elasticity. Hence it is sculpture of sound, instrumental synthesis, anamorphosis, transformation of the spectral morphology, and a constant drift towards unsustainable densities, distortions and interferences, thanks also to the assistance of electro-acoustic technologies. And increasing importance is given to the sonorities of non-academic derivation and to the sullied, violent sound of a prevalently metallic origin of certain rock and techno music."

For those in and around the Chicago area this week, you have the rare opportunity to experience a live performance of Romitelli's music. Ensemble Dal Niente will take on Professor Bad Trip (1998 - 2000) at 7:30 this Thursday at Mayne Stage in Rogers Park (pre-concert talk will take place at 6:30). Scored for a  mixed ensemble of winds, strings and percussion (including electric guitar and bass), Professor Bad Trip is a piece that is uncompromising in its technical demands. Speaking to the difficulty of the violin part in particular, Austin Wulliman, Dal Niente violinist, remarked, "As far as the individual challenges are concerned, Lesson One (the first movement) is basically a violinistic tour-de-force. It's highly virtuosic writing, but very cleverly laid out in almost all cases. He clearly laid out the chords on the fingerboard very carefully, although he seems to have very little regard or care about making string players navigate high positions constantly."

Technical difficulties, however, did not seem to overwhelm Wulliman's initial impression of the piece: "The number one reason Dal Niente programmed Professor Bad Trip is that each individual ensemble member that heard it was immediately carried away by and totally blown away by its sonic impact. We knew we had to play it as soon as possible."

I suspect that many people, regardless of musical tastes and allegiances, will likely be impressed by the visceral intensity and expressive force of Professor Bad Trip. For a preview, check out this clip of Ensemble intercontemporain performing Lesson II (electric cello cadenza at 3:35).

Performances Past and Future: Microscript, Stress Position, Inter


This Saturday, May 28th, Ensemble Dal Niente will premiere my latest work, Microscript for flute, oboe, soprano saxophone, violin, viola and cello. The concert will take place at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston, IL at 7:30pm. I am excited to once again work with Dal Niente, a group that combines uncompromising virtuosity with bold, provocative programming as evidenced by Saturday's concert which will include György Ligeti's Piano Concerto (with soloist Winston Choi), Morton Feldman's Vertical Thoughts 2, Louis Andriessen's Workers Union and Augusta Read Thomas's Rise Chanting (to be performed by The Spektral Quartet).

The title Microscript alludes to a series of texts or "microscripts" by the Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878 - 1956). On small pieces and scraps of paper, Walser composed entire stories, poems and, in one notable case, a novel (taking up only 24 pages!) using microscopic handwriting. For years following Walser's death, these texts were thought to be written in some sort of indecipherable code. However, scholars later discovered that the tiny markings (each letter between 1 and 2 millimeters high) are actually a very old form of German shorthand called Kurrent script. This shorthand dates back to Medieval times and remained in use up until the middle of the 20th century.

Walser's "microscripts" are not only fascinating in terms of the literal meanings conveyed, but are also quite striking from a purely visual standpoint. The Painters' Table Blog nicely articulates and elaborates upon this point:

"It’s easy to see why Robert Walser’s “Microscripts” are some of the most visually interesting pieces of 20th century writing. The tightly-packed miniature ‘Kurrent’ script used by Walser presages later developments in drawing – Brice Marden’s shell drawings immediately come to mind as do works by James Castle, Joesph Beuys, Cy Twombly and Henri Michaux.

More interesting than the microscripts’ visual connection with later developments in drawing, however, is the effect Walser’s method has on the resulting prose – namely an uncanny ability to evoke spatial and temporal movement akin to that in painting.

Like paintings, which can be experienced at once as a whole, Walser’s compressed prose (rarely more than a page or two) constructs full narratives than can be consumed rapidly – nearly ‘at a glance’ as it were. Their short length allows the reader to revisit the work in detail, focusing on sentences, phrases, or words as one might examine the painted passages or marks on a canvas."

It is this invitation to examine each work in a highly focused manner that ultimately interests me. The piece I wrote for Dal Niente is not intended to provide any sort of literal connectivity to Walser's stories or his idiosyncratic script. I am not attempting to musically depict one of his plot lines, set his text or develop some sort of musical shorthand in order to fit an entire piece onto a scrap or two of paper.

Rather, I want to create a similar sense of focus and intensity. I want the listener to gain a heightened awareness of the sonic detailing and I seek to do this in part by limiting certain parameters in order to emphasize others. Microscript begins with nearly two minutes of a single pitch. This seemingly static handling of pitch serves to elevate one's sense of articulation, which in this case - with constant changes in string assignments, bow contact points, articulations, etc. -  is quite diverse. It is my hope that the physicality of the sound is as apparent as that of Walser's writing and I furthermore wish to grant the listener the freedom to linger over and carefully examine various gestures and textures.

Again, I'm very much looking forward to working with Dal Niente and I hope to see you at the performance.


Below are recordings from two recent performances of my works. On April 23rd, Jonathan Katz performed Stress Position for solo amplified piano at Northwestern University's Lutkin Hall. On April 24th, The Talea Ensemble performed Inter for flute, bass clarinet, violin and cello at The Roger Smith Hotel in NYC. I want to thank Jonathan and Talea for their generous support and their beautiful playing.

Zorn and Feldman at The NYC Opera: How Do You Stage Abstraction?

The piece takes its name from a drawing by Antonin Artaud created during his last days in the asylum at Rodez...I describe it as a monodrama because it is scored for only one singer...there is no text, no plot, and no stage directions predetermined whatsoever...the drama is contained in the music and the title...the visual interpretation of it is left up to the imagination and creativity of the director, stage designer, and singer to decide...it is my hope that the stage presentation somehow draws inspiration from the spirit of Artaud, his art, philosophy, and writings...but from there on the possibilities are wide open...

-John Zorn on his monodrama, La machine de l'être

Watching John Zorn's La machine de l'être and Morton Feldman's Neither at The New York City Opera left me wondering how one goes about staging works that are so highly abstract? Both "monodramas" seem inclined toward a dramatic setting, especially given that each incorporates an extremely virtuosic solo soprano part. But the complete lack of text in the Zorn and the elusive quality of Beckett's words in the Feldman, offer little in the way of direction. Who do you put on stage? What will the performers do?

In the case of La machine de l'être, the following occurs:

Two manequin-like figures, male and female, both dressed in dark suits, stand silently at the lip of the stage as the audience takes their seats. The house lights dim and the curtain rises revealing a large group of people wearing black burkas standing perfectly still against a dark background. The suit-clad figures who had previously stood at the front of the stage now quizzically walk around and eventually remove the burkas from two people, exposing a man in a bright red suit and a woman (the solo soprano) in a black dress. All of this occurs before a single note is played.

When the music finally begins, two large screens, both in the shape of cartoon thought bubbles, emerge from beneath the stage and hover above the burka people. Adaptations of Artaud's drawings are projected onto the screens. Another person is deburka-ed, this time it is a woman wearing what appears to be a very short, white night gown. Odd choreography ensues including burka people executing movements that bizarrely resemble voguing. Eventually the man in the red suit, along with one of the thought bubbles, disappears into the rafters. The other thought bubble bursts into flame. Fin.

Some of the visual elements (the thought bubble screens in particular) are clearly taken from the Artaud drawing of the same name. That said, much of the staging, regardless of relevance to Artaud, comes off as campy in a way that distracts from Zorn's score. It seems odd to incorporate such overtly political imagery into a wordless piece. One is automatically compelled to search for specific meanings and context. And yet, at the risk of cattiness, I must nonetheless confess that the the depth of inquiry here could be summed up in the following manner: Q. What's under the burka? A. People.

Zorn's statement that "the drama is contained in the music and the title" would seem to call for a staging that, at the very least, finds a way to both complement and elevate the overall sonic intensity. The notion of severely limiting the interaction between composer and choreographer/director is not new (i.e. Cage/Cunningham). Regardless, it is a very dangerous scenario that can easily go awry as evidenced here.

Thankfully the production of Feldman's Neither was devoid of political imagery. Before discussing the staging, I must say that this is some of the most stunning music I've ever heard. An entire orchestration class could be taught using nothing but this score. Unlike the Zorn, where I found myself distracted by the staging, Feldman's music continuously drew me in and had me staring into the orchestra pit throughout. With the noted exception of soprano Cyndia Sieden's mesmerizing performance (worth the price of admission alone), the visual happenings on stage almost seemed unnecessary.

That said, the set for the Feldman was certainly striking. The stage walls reminded me of the silver, reflective material used on fire-retardant suits. Mirrored boxes on wires were raised and lowered at various points throughout. The overall vibe leaned toward the surreal, as though entering the champagne room of a nightclub with lights swirling around a cluster of catatonic-looking people. James Holt on Twitter (@myearsareopen) appropriately likened it to a David Lynch film.

All in all I found the lighting to be the most effective staging element. One moment that truly stood out featured a flickering strobe beautifully integrated with syncopated wood block strikes bouncing back and forth around the orchestra. More problematic was the choreography. In addition to the solo soprano, a group of dancers moved about the stage (at times a bit noisily) throughout. Similar to the Zorn there were hand gestures that that seemed straight out of 80s pop culture, perhaps not voguing, but far too close. Other moments were more reminiscent of Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach choreography. I was particularly bothered by the way in which one by one the dancers exited the stage as the piece came to a close. Feldman's music is essentially without beginning or end. It is more akin to a cloud formation that floats into your consciousness and slowly moves on to parts unknown. To choreographically signal the end seems wrong.

Criticisms aside, it is indeed difficult to maintain visual engagement for 50 minutes. Part of the genius of Feldman is his ability to create textures that may seem static or repetitive, but upon closer listening are constantly shifting. This puts a clear onus on the director to find a visual correlation, a setting that is equally subtle and varied. I don't know that the New York City Opera's production succeeded from this standpoint, but unlike the Zorn, the avoidance of extramusical, political themes kept the focus where it should be, on Feldman's music. Perhaps the best staging would be total darkness.

Note: The New York City Opera's Monodramas production also features Schoeberg's Erwartung. I chose to focus on the Zorn and Feldman given that the former is receiving its world stage premiere while the Feldman is being staged in the U.S. for the first time.

Space, Time and the Concert Experience

There are some pieces that demand a live performance. While recordings provide a glimpse into a work, the shortcomings of the recorded medium are often akin to the problems that arise when looking at paintings in a book - interaction is limited and physical scale is distorted.

This fact was made quite clear by all four of the Tully Scope Festival concerts I attended over the past two weeks. Previously I had only heard recordings of Xenakis' Pléïades and Persephassa. Les Percussions de Strasbourg's performance of these works last Saturday made me realize how much I had been missing. To hear the sound literally move around you in multiple directions, as in Persephassa, is an unforgettable experience. Only the most optimized surround sound configuration could come close to approximating the effect at home. And even then, it would be nearly impossible to replicate the extreme dynamic spectrum between brutally loud and hyper soft. Pléïades offers less in terms of sound moving around the listener, but nonetheless fills the space in stunning ways such as the in the opening of the "Metals" movement when all six percussionists play the six-xen, an instrument Xenakis himself designed. The richness of the overtones produced by this instrument is simply beyond description, especially in the superbly resonant Alice Tully Hall.

Les Percussions de Strasbourg also performed Gérard Grisey's Le noir de l'étoile. Like Persephassa, this piece distributes the six percussionists around the audience and takes full advantage of the spatial possibilities. Le noir de l'étoile features what is undoubtedly one of the most moving endings I've ever encountered. A large crotale-like disc mounted on a swivel is placed at the center of the stage. One of the performers strikes it once, causing it to ring and spin like the pulsars that inspired the piece. In the case of this particular performance, the metal disc was beautifully illuminated in such a way that as it spun, light rotated around the room like a mirror ball. Both the visual elegance and sheer drama of the moment could only be experienced live.

In a very different yet related manner, The International Contemporary Ensemble's (ICE) performance of Morton Feldman's For Samuel Beckett reminded me of how listening to Feldman's late works in a concert setting enlivens one's sense of space and time. Whereas Xenakis overpowers the hall and listener with ritualistic intensity, Feldman deftly projects a seemingly endless array of subtly-voiced sonorities. But the flatness of his sound world, defined by a complete denial of dynamic and formal development, is all the more intense when sitting amongst others with no possibility of pressing the stop button on a stereo. One has a choice, either submit to the flatness and allow the sound to engulf you, or become highly enraged. Both reactions seemed to coexist during ICE's performance. As the final notes of the piece drifted into silence, one woman audibly intoned, "Thank God!" (Quick aside: Who attends a concert of late Feldman, Webern and Xenakis without having some clue as to what's in store?) 

In the end, I am struck by how exhilarating and challenging these works continue to be despite the decades that have elapsed since each was written. Persephassa dates back to 1969! One could undoubtedly attribute this in part to the overall technical prowess of Xenakis, Grisey and Feldman. But I believe that the ultimate power resides in their collective understanding of how sound disperses into space and furthermore how space and time coalesce into scale. As in visual art, scale is critical to the interaction between a work and the audience. When we transfer these interactions to recordings and books, something very different, and often less dramatic, emerges.

For more thoughts on the effects of anti-development in Feldman and others, check out this blog post by Jeffrey Gavett at Ekmeles.com. Below is a video of Grisey's Tempus Ex Machina, a piece that begins the larger Le noir de l'étoile.

Review: Talea Ensemble Premieres Hans Abrahamsen's Schnee

The American premiere of Hans Abrahamsen's Schnee (Snow) for 9 players was performed by the Talea Ensemble on Friday, January 21st at the Scandinavia House in New York City. An hour in length, Schnee begins with extremely delicate, grainy, pulsating squeaks that are steadily and methodically articulated by individual string instruments. Over top of this eery ground, a gentle piano melody whispers from the highest register, a place where the noise of the hammers is nearly as present as pitch. The combination is austere and utterly stunning.

These sparse, noise-infused gestures would not seem to be the typical building blocks for canonic writing. And yet, Schnee is comprised of five pairs of canons occasionally interrupted by three brief Intermezzi. The second of each canonic pair is essentially an alternate version of the first. The changes are most notable in the orchestration. The squeaking string sound that begins the piece (canon 1a) is transfered to hissing pieces of paper rubbed against wood in 1b. The bouncing, off-kilter rhythmic interplay between breathy winds and stopped piano (stopped with mailing envelopes) in canon 2a is augmented in 2b when the same material is played by the entire ensemble including a wonderful stereophonic back and forth between the two pianos. 

When interviewed during the concert, Abrahamsen (pictured at left) said that he wanted the two versions of each canon to come together in the ear of the listener forming a sort of third dimension. This proves effective given that the canons are very well-defined in terms of tempo and texture and thus it is easy to hold the first canon in one's memory while taking in the second. The result is reminiscent of how Luciano Berio transformed some of his Sequenzas for solo instruments into Chemins for solo instrument and ensemble. A larger counterpoint emerges between past and present, the old version and the new.

Another interesting element to Schnee involves proportion. Each pair of canons becomes progressively shorter in duration. Thus, canons 1a and 1b clock in at 9 minutes apiece while 5a and 5b are only a minute each. As a listener, the generous time assigned to the first two pairs of canons seems extreme initially. This approach, however, allows for "space" to move around. To put it another way, Abrahamsen (like Morton Feldman) puts the listener into a state where every sonic detail can be grasped without the risk of becoming lost. This is important at the outset when scraping strings and rustling paper barely bleed into audibility. In the Talea Ensemble's performance, such quietude was exacerbated by the dry acoustic space at the Scandinavia House, a direct contrast to Ensemble Recherche's highly resonant recording of Schnee. While I generally favor a resonant setting, the dryness forced me to draw nearer and listen with even greater intensity, an effect that felt true to the musical material.

In manipulating the listener's sense of proximity to the sound, Abrahamsen creates a spacial interplay that is far more powerful live than on a recording. Also unique to the live experience is the hyper-focused atmosphere that enhances the unusual temporal and proportional qualities mentioned above.

Friday's concert began with two works by another Danish composer, Bent Sørensen. I often feel sorry for composers whose smaller pieces are programmed alongside another's magnum opus. However, Sørensen's The Deserted Churchyards and Funeral Procession (both for mixed chamber ensemble) were compelling on their own and set up the Abrahamsen rather nicely. Performed back to back without pause, these works reveal the composer's gift for creating striking timbral combinations (I must give credit to any composer who can subtly and beautifully incorporate slide whistle into a piece). Like Abrahamsen, Sørensen often manipulates material by redistributing it to different parts of the ensemble, setting up interesting points of comparison. He also shares an affinity for skirting the edges of audibility.

The Talea Ensemble deserves high praise for their outstanding musicianship which was deftly displayed in the Sørensen and Abrahamsen.  Both composers require each player to generate a vast array of sounds (detuned strings, running fingers up and down the piano without actually depressing the keys, executing whistle tones on the flute, dipping percussion in water) and at times require the partial deconstruction of an instrument (as when Abrahamsen has the clarinetist remove the mouthpiece and slam the palm against the open-ended tube) or augmentation (stopping piano strings with mailing envelopes). This is certainly not unusual for contemporary art music, but to execute the sounds well and to furthermore maintain one's focus for such long stretches of time reveals uncommon endurance and versatility.

Talea also must be credited for presenting important works that all too often go unnoticed in the U.S. Schnee was completed in 2008, recorded in late 2009 and was not performed in America until last week. I am hopeful that Talea's stellar performance will serve to broaden domestic interest in these two very important composers.