Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Interviews with Young People #4: Claire Chase

The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) has been making a splash in the new music circles of Chicago and New York City. An ensemble comprised of a disproportionately large number of young people, ICE programs music by living composers of all career levels, some shamefully under-established and some shamelessly over-established (and doubly tenured). Recently, ICE performed a two-set marathon concert in New York City called “New Voices from Around the World,” focusing on so-called emerging composers. On October 27, ICE will respond to non-composer artist Alexandra Loewe's exhibition at the Flatfile Galleries in Chicago. On October 29, the ensemble will present a concert as part of New Music Chicago’s Sonic Impact Festival at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Rather than travel to Chicago or New York City to see ICE’s October concerts, I thought I’d spend a few moments on the phone with the Artistic Director and flutist of ICE, Claire Chase. The following is a fair and balanced transcription of our conversation:
Prof. McJeebie: These October concerts feature music by the winners of ICE's 21st Century Young Composers Project competition. I find that young people are naturally competitive and sometimes very aggressive. What do you think these 21st-century composers are trying to prove?
Claire Chase: I should clarify and mention that it's not really a competition - at least, we don't like to think of it that way. We just put a call out there, get a bunch of material in response. This year we received well over three hundred submissions from young composers in thirty-one different countries. We pick music that interests us. We also hang on to, on average, about forty scores that aren't picked for the project, but that we really like and want to have in our library for other programming purposes.
As far as the competitiveness goes, I know what you mean, Professor. However, here at ICE we do our best to make it friendly and collegial and mutually supportive. There isn't a particular style or aesthetic niche that the composers we pick fall into. In fact, this year the six composers chosen could not be more different from each other. There's everything from pop-influenced music to neo-complexity to electronic music to serialism and back again. So we try to encourage them to be non-judgmental and open-eared about things. For the most part, I think this works. The ones who misbehave are locked up in a room and forced to listen to Satie.
Prof. McJeebie: ICE has taken up residence in both Chicago and New York City. How would you compare the new-music scenes in Chicago and New York City?
Claire Chase: They're very different cities, and we really like the challenges that come with these differences. In Chicago, we had to build an audience from the ground up; it took a lot of work on the grassroots level, but the plus side is that we now have a very loyal family, of sorts, and they're down to hear anything. There isn't this sense of an uptown/downtown division, and in general we can program extremely experimental stuff in Chi-town and get a consistent audience. We can also program things in very unusual spaces, and people will venture out to hear us.
This is harder to do in New York, probably because New Yorkers know what they want; they know where they like to go; they know how they want to spend the little free time they have. We run around like rats in this city, because we have to. Chicago is more laid back, more slowly paced. I can call up a bunch of friends and say hey, let's have a beer right now, and it will happen spontaneously. My closest friends in New York generally schedule a beer three weeks in advance. It's just a different pace. I think that the two audiences and the two "scenes" follow suit.
In New York, there's already such an established new-music audience; all you really have to do is put a couple listings out there and you'll get an audience in this city. We are trying, however, to do what we did in Chicago with grassroots marketing so that we can build a younger audience, and an audience full of people who aren't necessarily new-music types. We don't think you have to be an expert in the kind of music we play in order to enjoy it. And we don't even think that you have to enjoy everything that you hear.
Prof. McJeebie: As a Professor, I've found that the more expertise I acquire, the less I enjoy what I hear. I'm especially impatient when I find myself in an audience in which the new-music establishment is not represented. Aren't you worried that the established new-music audience won't get along with "people who aren't necessarily new music types?"
Claire Chase: No, not really. People need each other. In New York more than anywhere because we're all so hysterical about our space, and because there's simply so little of it. I think we really need each other, and I think we're all capable of getting along.
I mean, it's not that big of a deal to have a row of seats at a concert that goes something like this: a Professor sitting next to a carpenter sitting next to a gallery owner sitting next to a kid with pink hair sitting next to an elderly lady who goes to the opera sitting next to a member of "the established new-music audience." With a good show, a good conversation, and a relaxed vibe, the not-so-miraculous situation in which people from different walks of life can share something small and meaningful can emerge quite effortlessly. It happens in other situations all the time - at the movies, in the subway, at a bar, in a bookstore. Why not at a concert? This is also why we like to keep our concerts free or very low-cost, because we find that we get much, much more interesting audiences. Who wants to drop twenty bucks to hear a bunch of freaky bleep-blop music, anyway? What would happen if it cost twenty bucks to take a book of modern literature out of the library? No one would ever read anything. Ever! Unless they were in school. Look at the world of contemporary music. It's still pretty embedded in the academic institution.
Prof. McJeebie: Yes, well… I like to think so.
Claire Chase: I'm not sure how I get so side-tracked, Professor, with all this populist idealism. The answer to your question about co-habitation at concerts is really just this: we should all avoid shitting in the swimming pool. Especially the new music swimming pool, 'cause it's real small.
Prof. McJeebie: I would venture to say that the new-music establishment is constantly changing. It’s in a constant state of flux due to the lack of tenured Professors.
Claire Chase: The scene in Chicago has certainly changed in the past five years. There are dozens of new groups, many interesting new concert series, and a great deal of new momentum for contemporary music that didn't exist before. I also believe that New York is changing, too, even though there's such a history of contemporary music here already. There are so many kick-ass, young, innovative new-music groups sprouting up everywhere in the city. I'm optimistic that we are actually in the beginning of a major movement in this country, and that in our lifetimes we are going to find the kind of institutional support for new-music ensembles that Europe has had for the past two decades. It's time. The climate is ripe. There are so many talented young people who are willing to give up their lives for this and make it happen.
Prof. McJeebie: Many people have suggested that Rochester, NY, is the happy median between Chicago and New York City. Have you thought about setting up shop in Rochester?
Claire Chase: ICE is hoping to position ourselves in three locations, ultimately. Chicago, San Francisco and New York. Right now the two chapters, Midwest and East Coast ICE, are enough for us. But we're aiming for 2008-09 to launch West Coast ICE.
Prof. McJeebie: The October concerts are subtitled "New Voices from Around the World," and ICE is indeed performing music by a wide variety of foreigners. Which country do you think has the best music?
Claire Chase: Until we've gotten submissions from every country in the world, it's impossible to say. But if I had to say which country is most exciting to me in terms of the young composers that we've worked with, I would say that just about everything that's come out of kids in Mexico has blown my mind. There are so many phenomenally gifted young people studying and working in Mexico right now. ICE goes down to the conservatory in Morelia a couple times a year to give concerts and master classes and work with student composers, and we are always completely floored by what even the most beginning level comp students are able to do. Currently there's virtually no way of getting this music heard and performed outside of Mexico, so ICE is trying to raise money right now to get some exchange programs started.
Prof. McJeebie: Every time I go to the Mexican restaurant in Rochester, Plato Para Comer, I am subjected to Mexican music for Mariachi band. Aside from the food, I’m not particularly interested in Mexican culture.
Claire Chase: [silence]
Prof. McJeebie: As you know, many composers are interested in writing a piece of music that will challenge the ensemble and really push the players beyond their physical and intellectual capacities. In order to give hopeful young composers out there an idea of where ICE's threshold lies, can you tell us what was the most difficult piece ICE has ever played and why?
Claire Chase: Oh, golly. I have no idea. I'd have to ask the guys. I think, in terms of technical difficulty, that Lindberg's "Linea D'Ombra" was the hardest thing we've ever had to do. About a hundred hours of rehearsal went into it before we could even start to feel comfortable. Apart from the sheer technical difficulty of the playing required, we also didn't have a score (it was currently out of print) so we had to figure out the incredibly intricate rhythmic exchanges with only the parts as a guide, which felt kind of like herding cats.
As far as our threshold goes, I don't know that we have one. We're pretty willing to try anything...
Prof. McJeebie: Your open-mindedness is commendably juvenile. As you know, many composers and Professors like me have taken to having our compositions performed via MIDI realizations, which are always correct. What can ICE do that a MIDI realization cannot?
Claire Chase: Sweat! ICE can sweat. MIDI can't. I think that's the difference.
For more about ICE, visit www.iceorg.org

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Inspired by a Country Singer

First I should apologize for my extended absence from the blogosphere. I have been busy pontificating in my TANDY recording studio. My inspiration came from an unlikely source – the new four-album set from country-music star Vince Gill. Dr. Gill (He has an honorary doctorate from Oklahoma State University.) has wondered why his skills as a country-music composer are underappreciated by the general public. I can relate to his situation.

For many years I have struggled to get the public interested in modern computer compositions, not just as a general category of music, but with a focus on my own music in particular. As the TANDY Professor of Electronic Music at the Hotel Cadillac, I can attest that my compositions comprise the majority of the canon of historically accurate electronic music performances. Yet the average Joe (or Jane) is not interested in an education in academic electronic music.

Rather than attempt to gradually seduce the general public with one country song at a time, Dr. Gill’s four-album set commands listeners to spend almost three hours indulging his compositions. I have chosen to adopt a similar strategy of preemptive bombardment. For the last two weeks, I have been recording over six hours of my own personal canon. From my early works, “Punch Card Sonata” and “Synthetic Oscillations,” to my most recent opus, “Dialogue for Computer and Tape,” I have assembled a six-album set entitled TANDY Transcendence which will be released in limited edition in accordance with my teaching schedule.

Stay tuned for details.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Haile the Improvising Robot

Leave it to the students at M.I.T. and other “technical” colleges to consider only the lowest common denominator of music composition. The latest scientific attempt to invalidate actual, live composers has resulted in “Haile,” a robot developed by students at Georgia Tech. Haile allegedly plays a drum and improvises with live musicians. An improvising robot! What will those Tod Machovers come up with next?

As you may have noticed in previous posts, I disapprove of composers who believe that the purpose of writing music is to “communicate” with audiences. We wouldn’t tell a Professor of Mathematics to alter his equations to make them more “accessible,” so why should we expect that from a composer? And yet, I find myself recoiling at the idea of a musical “robot” with no human qualities whatsoever. Then it occurred to me: the distinction is one of Artificial Intelligence versus Actual Intelligence.

My TANDY computers never question my judgment when I tell them what to do. Unlike Haile, a TANDY is not programmed to think it's smarter than a human. That's why I work so well with TANDYs. They can be controlled and contained, but there’s no telling what an improvising robot will do! Haile might transform a Stockhausen masterpiece into a men’s drumming circle at a hippie commune. It might decide that Elliott Carter’s metric modulations are nothing but “free jazz.” It might confuse Sprechstimme with the ramblings of “librettist” Robert Ashley. Haile may be smart, but it’s not so intelligent.

Now, I am not opposed to technical innovation. Just the other day, I went down to Radio Shack to have a new memory chip installed in my TANDY Dynomighticon computer. But I’ll be damned if I don’t speak out against this childish attempt to insult the intelligence of Actual composers by creating an Artificial one.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Mysterious Package

I received this item in the mail today from an anonymous sender. I am afraid to use it because it may contain an octatonic or homophonic virus. If you are the sender of this item, please identify yourself and let me know what is on the disk.

Interviews with Young People #3: Molly Sheridan

For a young person, Molly Sheridan has made quite a mark as an arbiter of good taste in the contemporary classical canon. She is the managing editor of NewMusicBox, and her writings have appeared in NewMusicBox, New York Press, Time Out New York, Time Out Chicago, SYMPHONY magazine, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette among others. Sheridan attended the Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University, earning a degree in journalism with a specialization in violin performance and French. She has also studied the esraj and Tibetan rug weaving in Nepal. The following is a transcription of a recent phone conversation I had with Sheridan:

Prof. McJeebie: I remember back in 1996, you hosted a radio show entitled Music for Tape. I sent you some of my music, but you must not have received it. If you were allowed to curate a festival of music for tape today, which composers would you program?

Molly Sheridan: When I was 12, I was ignorant of the illegality of taping pop tunes off of the radio and broadcasting these compilations during slumber parties. In high school and college, the mix tape was a popular wooing technique employed by some of my boyfriends. I still have a huge box of said contraband, as do many of my friends, and I think it would be interesting to dig around in those treasure chests and see what composers might do with that sort of nostalgia.

Prof. McJeebie: So at these slumber parties, is that where you became interested in telling other people what music they should listen to?

Molly Sheridan: No, but it is where I developed an interest in studding my jeans with rhinestones.

Prof. McJeebie: Did anyone ever tell you what music you should listen to?

Molly Sheridan: I began studying the violin when I was seven, and I was 18 before I realized I was allowed to have my own opinions about the music I was hearing. And if they didn't play it on NPR or at the Lilith Fair, I probably hadn't heard it. My friend Michael Crogan was something of an audiophile, and the summer before I left for college he valiantly attempted to school me in what I'd missed while locked up in my practice room. It was a revelation.

Prof. McJeebie: In 1998, you wrote a negative review of my cassette tape album TANDY Etudes. If I remember correctly, which I do, you referred to my music as "deliberately confounding and elaborately mundane." Do you ever feel guilty when you write a bad review?

Molly Sheridan: I grew up Catholic in an Italian and Irish community in the Midwest, so you can say I'm something of an expert when it comes to shouldering guilt. But no, I don't feel remorseful about writing bad reviews as long as I feel I've understood my reactions to a disc, positive and negative, and clearly communicated them to my readers. But since my space is very limited, I tend to only negatively review discs if talking about what I view as its shortcomings contributes to the larger conversation about music.

Prof. McJeebie: Do you ever think that you might be just plain wrong?

Molly Sheridan: I have had second thoughts about some of the reviews I’ve written. I don't work under the delusion that I am infallibly "right." In particular, I wrote negatively about a recording of a piece I knew it took the composer decades to compose. That was hard for me personally, but not for the recording—it went on to win a Grammy that year. But what's the adage about the only bad publicity being no publicity? If you want to talk about guilt in reviewing, let's look at the shelf over my desk filled with CDs I haven't written about yet. Sometimes, when it's late and I've had too much coffee, I think I see them making moves to throw themselves off the rack in a desperate plea for attention.

Prof. McJeebie: Are you allowed to vote for the Grammy Awards? How can I get myself nominated for Best Composition?

Molly Sheridan: I am not a member of the National Academy of the Recording Arts and Sciences, nor do I know anyone who is a voting member whom I could impersonate or blackmail. I was once invited to the Grammy Awards press conference, however. The journalists who attended were bribed with large chocolate bars decorated with gold leaf gramophones. This was really small potatoes, though, since I hear that the swag bags given to the celebrity attendees at the actual ceremony included automobiles. But I might have that wrong.
Prof. McJeebie: You mention the problem of space limitation. Have you ever thought about starting your own blog, like I've done with Classical Pontifications? Blogs allow more space in which you can communicate and justify your bias.

Molly Sheridan: Personal blogs lack copy editors and firm deadlines, two things I can't function without. Some colleagues and I do take turns contributing to a blog over at NewMusicBox, however. They let me sit in the big chair and drive every Friday. My one regret is that the professional nature of the publication prevents me from posting pictures of my pet goldfish, Elizabeth. And she is very cute.

Prof. McJeebie: In 1999, you attended one of my invitation-only faculty recitals at the Hotel Cadillac. I remember you seemed to be taking notes and reading throughout the concert. How do you pay attention to the music while taking notes?

Molly Sheridan: Writing while listening makes sure my thoughts are focused on what I'm hearing, not on fantasies involving that new guy in accounting. Also, I'm a compulsive doodler, as were many of our country's presidents. When you're teaching, don't you feel the students taking notes are paying the most attention?

Prof. McJeebie: Not if they're just doodling! Ordinarily I ask the questions, not answer them. However, I will make an exception with the hope that you will publish a review of my CD in return. As you've read in one of my many Pontifications, I do not think that students make for good reviewers. I would hope that a critic who is writing for professional music publications does not consider herself a student. On the other hand, you still need to obtain a graduate degree, is that right? Do you think that taking notes helps you even when you're NOT enrolled in a degree-granting program?

Molly Sheridan: Without note taking, millions of people would forget to buy milk and toilet paper every day! There are so many centuries and continents of music to cover, I suspect I'll die a music student. There's no degree requirement to getting a job as a reviewer, though editors do tend to appreciate it when you own a calendar and a pen and have demonstrated an aptitude for using both. Scotch drinking and cigar smoking used to also be required, but those rules have been relaxed at the insistence of the Surgeon General.