It is no secret that the new music community has found a vital home in New York City in recent years. The creative minds behind what is known as "contemporary classical music" are innumerable, and gaining prespective can be an overwhelming task for audiences.
Beginning on October 14, however, the SONiC Festival (Sounds of a New Century) ventures to make sense of the scene-particularly as it pertains to composers under the age of 40-with a 9-day festival in New York featuring a staggering 100-plus composers and more than 17 word premiere performances of newly commissioned works.
Part One -- I spoke with composer Oscar Bettison about his 65-minute opus O Death, excerpts of which will be performed on Wednesday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. by Ensemble Klang at Symphony Space. (This is SONiC Festival Interview #3.)
Daniel J. Kushner: So the inspiration for the piece is a folk song of the same name. Could you talk about striking a balance between directly quoting a piece and writing something that's more suggestive of the overall mood of the original work?
Oscar Bettison: I wanted to set this big immovable object in the middle of the piece -- it ended up being the fourth movement... in the song "O Death" the idea of the character pleading with the figure of death not to take him away so soon, it's not so different from certain things in the Requiem Mass, although in that sense people are asking for absolution or something like that. But still, the idea of a kind of pleading struck me as interesting. So then I started thinking about how this would work as a kind of loose Requiem structure... in fact, actually I think the structure of the piece is much more akin to a symphony than it is to a Requiem Mass, but that was my original intention.
There is more of a blues influence in that melody. I was really interested in the idea of things crossing over oceans, and of course that "O Death" melody and the "O Death" words started off as an English folk thing that was passed, obviously this was taken as immigrants came to the States, and the melody changed substantially.
DK: "Chorus No. 2" has a kind of muted, almost antiquated sound. It sounds as if it's coming from a phonograph. Is that effect a way of referencing the historical nature of the source material?
OB: One of my original ideas was to actually have samples of blues records, and that didn't work out in the end... I nixed the idea of having blues records playing, but in the sixth movement, there are these really loud sections, and they contrast with these really quiet sections. We recorded the loud sections deliberately kind of badly -- originally it was going to be like a handheld Dictaphone but we found a more elegant way of doing it -- and they get played back through the quiet sections as a kind of shimmer to the sound. That was definitely playing with the idea of the blues as a recorded genre. The blues and jazz were the first genres that exist purely on record.
DK: It strikes me that there is a definite focus on human frailty in this composition. When you think about it, pleading with death is an ultimately futile proposition. It sounds like those considerations were at the forefront of your mind in terms of thematic content.
OB: Death has been an everyday occurrence for humanity right up until fairly recently. But now this is a taboo; it's rarely discussed. It just strikes me as a strange thing in the modern world. That was also in the back of my mind -- this is something that is of course common to all humanity but in our modern industrial age is something we try and shy away from. And it seems to me to be very dishonest.
Part Two -- I recently sat down with choreographer Rebecca Stenn and composer/pianist Konrad Kaczmarek to discuss the premiere of their work Zone A, which they will perform at Joyce Soho as part of the 10 p.m., Wednesday, October 19 event "SONiC AfterHours: New Sounds, New Moves." From the outset of the collaboration, their interest in improvisation and happy abdication of autonomy led the two artists to deviate from the conventional dichotomy of "music first-choreography-second" in favor of simultaneous creation. (This is SONiC Festival Interview #4.)
Daniel J. Kushner: Because this is a pretty rare occurrence in that both of you are performing the work, the audience is going to get a rare look at the often unseen dynamic between the composer and the choreographer. How has this collaboration influenced your perceptions or attitudes about this relationship?
Rebecca Stenn: I've always worked with live music -- that's kind of what, in fact, my company is known for, in a way. And not just working with live music, but we've been interested in having musicians on stage, interacting with us physically, etc. So for me, that's integral. I really don't like performing to [canned music].
The feeling for me with that onstage collaboration -- especially in this case because Konrad and I are leaving fairly substantial sections in the piece improvised in a sense, so it's going to be different every night and it forces us to tune in to what the person is doing -- and I think it makes a very present live experience for the audience and for us. But I want the musician/composer onstage. That's been important to me all throughout my career.
Konrad Kaczmarek: Something that probably wouldn't have occurred to me until it came up by chance in one of our last workshops was thinking about your proximity to me, because I'm going to be at a grand piano, incorporating that in a dramatic way. That's a whole other element that we have -- physical proximity between the two of us -- so in a sense I become a kind of choreographed element to the performance.
RS: Totally. It's not a solo, it's a duet. That's how I think of it. If you weren't there, and we pressed play on a tape, it would be a completely different experience.
DK: What comes first? Is it a musical gesture? Is it a particular movement?
RS: It's a bit mysterious, isn't it?
KK: Things just kind of condense, things coalesce.
RS: In our first rehearsal, I started moving, he started playing. I was listening, he was watching. We started assigning names to ideas or feelings or sections. We have something called "Lop-sided Loop" and something about pointillism, we have "Intimate Delicate"--these are just quiet terms...that started to emerge from the feel created in that improvisation, and then we would say either, "Oh, I really like this, let's play on it again" or "That one fizzled--moving on..."
KK: That was one of the most interesting and rewarding things so far in this project. It's sort of like hearing my music through her ears.
DK: So it's like creating a language that both of you can understand.
For more information about the SONiC Festival, visit the official SONiC Festival website.
This article has been cross-posted at You're So Post-Post-Rock Right Now.