THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 086
Happy Friday to you all. Coming to you from my couch, with a purring cat by my side and Urgh! A Music War playing on the TV (right now it's my least favorite segment - the Surf Punks performance at the Whiskey).
If you follow me on Instagram, you're already heard this, so apologies for repeating this. But what minor name I made for myself as a writer here in Portland came via a blog I ran called Experimental Portland that covered, well, the experimental music community in Portland. One aspect of that site that readers appreciated most was a calendar of interesting experimental / new music performances happening in the area. I was reminded of how helpful that was when I posted a shot from the Fennesz performance at Holocene earlier this week and received multiple comments from folks who were unaware that the show was even happening. In tandem with my frustration at the lack of music coverage happening here, I decided to resurrect that concert calendar in the form of a Google doc. Bookmark that, use it, and let me know if there's shows I should include on it. I might expand it to include some editorial content, but that's for the future when I have more time and energy.
As always, do consider becoming a premium subscriber. $5 a month and you get an extra newsletter each week and get in the running for a monthly prize package of physical media. Support independent media, why doncha? Or at least go buy something on Bandcamp today.
More on the other side. Enjoy.
Stefania de Kenessey
Modern composers and artists have, over the past two decades, embraced the reality that computers, electronic instruments, and other technology are now an essential part of their creative tool kit. So it's a surprise to hear that Stefania de Kenessey, a composer and pianist who has been making music for the better part of the past three decades, was diving into the world of electronic instruments for the first time with her new album In Her Words (out next Friday via Neuma). But as she explained when I spoke to her on the phone earlier this week, it was a necessity to help keep her working during the pandemic and to find fresh ways stretch her skills as an artist.
It may have taken de Kenessey a while to get there, but her slipping into electronic realms does still fit in well with a career that has seen this Hungarian-born artist flying in the opposite direction of the prevailing winds of the new and classical music scenes in New York. Through her work with the International Alliance for Women in Music and The New Historia, she has helped bring attention to the work of female artists and composers who have lived in the long shadow of the white, male canon. And she helped launch the Derriere Guard Festival in 1997, an event that, as their mission statement explained, meant "to return to long-forgotten, long-abandoned ideas rooted in history and tradition," such as tonal, consonant music written before 1900, or work that adapted those forms for a contemporary aesthetic. That mission is also de Kenessey's own compositions, which are playful and boundary stretching but always entirely tuneful and listenable.
In Her Words follows that same line, but with an intent on the music being used for movement. The pieces on the album were written for Ariel Rivka Dance, a dance company that de Kenessey has worked with since 2018, and many of them presented through online performances. A key theme of this work is resilience in the face of pain and personal trials. The heart of the album is a series of pieces that use fragments of stories told by some of the dancers in the company speaking on some of the difficulties they've faced as performers and as women while de Kenessey threads simple melodic lines around them. Surrounding that section of the album are pieces that are a patchwork of influences; a colorful quilt of jazz, downtempo, rock, baroque, and Eastern European folk.
Your new album In Her Words is your first foray into electronic music. What made you want to start traveling down that road?
It was simply to expand my own horizons, which I'm hell bent on doing. The other reason was that all the equipment that's required to do electronic music — the synthesized sounds and the interfaces and the DAWs — have gotten so much better in the last 10 - 15 years than they were when I was younger. 20 years ago, it was cumbersome, and the sound quality was poor. None of that is true now. It 's easy, and you get really, really good product out of very inexpensive resources. So I would say technological innovation is a huge part of it. And then also COVID came along. I was getting a lot of work from Ariel Rivka Dance, and their motto, prior to COVID, was: Live Dance With Live Music. Then COVID hit, so I thought, "Okay, what's next?" And bless her soul, Ariel Grossman, the founder of Ariel Rivka Dance, said, "Look, we need to keep working, so it cannot be just live dance with live music. Let's keep working." So, we figured out ways to keep working, and one of them was to for me to write electronic scores for her. We even did "Lead Me Alone," which is on this CD, she actually choreographed it on Zoom for dancers who were in their own apartments. Everybody was on their Zoom cameras, and we somehow made it work. There was a Zoom premiere of a piece I wrote at my computer that she, from New Jersey, choreographed on to the other dancers. I don't even know where they were physically. Somehow it kind of worked. So part of it was necessitated by the separation of COVID forcing us onto platforms that we don't usually use for dance or for music. Some of that was good. Not all of it was good. There is something to be said for live dancing in a space, and for listening to music in a space. But it also makes you invent new techniques and try new sounds. If you treat these situations the right way, you can learn a lot from them and keep expanding your own horizons.
With this electronic instrumentation, are you using primarily software or is some hardware mixed in?
No, I'm just using Logic. All of it is just Logic. And the thing about Logic is, first of all, it's easy to use, which is very, very helpful because I'm really a pianist and not a MIDI person. But it's also got thousands of sounds in it. It's a huge library of sonorities and effects that I haven't even come to the bottom of. The only drawback is they have all sorts of funky names like... I can't even think of them now, but they have really, really funny names. So you've got to figure out what the funny name actually means in terms of the sound of the music. But it's a very rich and very deep library of sounds. There's tons to play with. Absolutely tons. It's like a kid in a sandbox. You just get to play.
What was the learning curve like for you using Logic and developing this music? I imagine there were some bumps in the road along the way.
There were some bumps, but luckily I didn't hit many big bumps. So I can't really complain about that. One of the nice things about working with a choreographer is that the music serves choreography, it serves the dance. So very often, Ariel would come back to me and say, "This is too long," or "Could we do this here?" Or, "I love this section. Could you make it longer?" So editing, going back and tinkering and editing and refining became part of the process from the start. That was very, very helpful. Because, you know, when I'm asked to, say, write a piano trio that's going to be premiered at Carnegie Hall, everybody presumes that I know what I'm doing. The trio knows what it's doing. I give them the score, they rehearse it, and it goes up. There's not that back and forth, that collaborative band forth saying, "Hey, this part... Do you think it works or is the transition too long?" Or, "Should we try this for the piano instead of that?" There's none of that in the acoustic music world. I think, in the electronic music world, it's partly because it's less beholden to the genius model of composition, which still survives in the classical world. Partly also it's because music for dance comes in that order; it's for the dance. It has to serve the dance. So that was very freeing and has been very helpful because I can try this and I can try that and I can send Ariel a second version and say, "Hey, what do you think about trying it like this instead? Oops, I didn't like that sound effect. Let me fix it. Is this better?" There's a lot of back and forth that was a fun way to learn my craft.
Composing for dance and having that give and take has to be such a fascinating process. You're making adjustments to the music based on their movements and vice versa.
It is fascinating and it's a lot of fun. It's ego boosting because you always get to give them new material, but it's also ego deflating because they're always asking for new material. I love it. I actually adore doing it.
The press notes for this album also speaks to the influence of folk songs from Bulgaria and Hungary, which I hear in a track like "Unorthodox" from the new album. What can you tell me about how those impacted you? Were those sounds somewhat unavoidable growing up?
Well, that's an interesting question. I grew up in in Budapest. I didn't come to this country till I was 10. And my mother was Bulgarian. So I have those two heritages in my head or my soul or whatever you want to call it. What makes those heritages interesting or particularly relevant is that the musical scales that they use, by and large, are modal rather than tonal. They're not major and minor. And if you listen to a lot of African music, a lot of Caribbean music and a lot of non-Western musics, they're also modal. Moreover, all blues and blues-derived idioms like rock are also basically modal. So I never know if I'm borrowing from my Hungarian background or my love of rock and roll or this or that. I always call it the garbage can of my mind. The huge variety of influences all sort of jostling side by side but they have some commonalities. For "Unorthodox," I actually did listen to some klezmer. Ariel originally asked me to write a klezmer piece and I said, "I don't do klezmer. If you want klezmer, there's lots of klezmer music out there." But then I listened to it and there was something attractive about it — about the downbeat, the heaviness of it, which I thought match the theme of the piece, which is about women trying to escape. But then I also fiddled with it so it does harmonically things that klezmer music never does. It goes to a flat seven and all sorts of things that are not genuine for the tradition of klezmer music. But I think it speaks to my tradition or to my influences, and also the subject matter of the dance.
I know a little bit about your background, but how did your interest in music evolve from simply enjoying listening to it to wanting to play music and compose?
Honestly, I started hearing music in my head when I was three years old that I hadn't heard anywhere else. I did not come from a musical family and my parents did not like the idea of me going into music. My mom was a doctor, my father was an economist. There were surely better ways to earn a living! But by the time I was six, I insisted that they let me audition for specialized music school. So I always heard music in my head that was not the music that I've been hearing. Not Chopin, not Bartok, not the Beatles. Something else. I can't tell you what it was that I was hearing when I was three, but it was there. So I always say music chose me. I didn't really choose music.
It sounds like your parents were at least accepting of your interest in making music as a career. Did they become fans of your work at some point?
Yes, they loved my music. But you know, there was a piece of them that always thought, "This is still not a secure or very remunerated way to earn a living." They accepted it, and they love the music, and they accepted my lifestyle, but with with with some reservations.
You moved here to the States when you were 10, but did you, and do you still, feel some connection to your home country?
No, I don't. I do not. Honestly, I do not. No.
As for the melodies in "Unorthodox," are those being borrowed from any particular traditional folk songs?
No. There's no literal borrowing or literal adaptation. If there is, it's unconscious. So if I'm stealing, I'm stealing without knowing. I wouldn't have any qualms about stealing. But, no I'm not, as far as I know.
The pieces on here called "In Her Words" are very powerful. Was it an easy thing to get the dancers to open up about these personal parts of their lives?
It actually was not particularly difficult, in part because they trusted both Ariel and me. It was a relationship that we had already established. We had worked together before on several other pieces, so they both knew the kind of music and the kind of choreography that that was going to be accompanying their thoughts. And I think they also knew me personally, and Ariel, personally, and knew that we would protect them — that if they were willing to make themselves vulnerable, they would be protected in their vulnerability, in opening up.
It had to help knowing that their words were going to be broken up and fragmented throughout. That you weren't going to leave very specific details that could leave them feeling at risk in some way.
It wasn't meant to be a confessional piece. It was just meant to explore the vulnerabilities and the pain that we all experience that is just difficult to put into words. And, you know, the difficulty of putting it into words is reflected in these pieces. Because the words express some of it, but not all of it, and the rest is expressed through the music and through the dance.
That tracks because somehow the lack of detail adds to the power of their words. There's a universality to it. It feels much bigger than just one person's story.
Everybody is located in their own biographies, but they do transcend their particular bodies or their particular histories. The kinds of issues they were raising are the kinds of pain and loneliness that we all know as individuals. It is very individual and very particular but it's also, at the same time, universal. I'm sure you've been depressed and lonely in ways that are very similar to ways that I've been depressed and lonely even though we've never met. So there's always a kind of universality, which I think good art can find. That's the goal at least.
You've been working as a composer for many year now. Have your feelings changed about your earlier work? Do you have any interest in circling back and revising things, or are you happy to leave them be?
I think I'm happy to let them be. They were who I was at that time. I come out of a tradition, which is very learned, if that's the right adjective for it, and I was very much concerned, especially as a woman composer, to find my footing and to be on an equal standing with my past. And with all those the dead, white European guys and the other guys who are around me. So a lot of [my] music is very accomplished. There's a kind of earnestness to it, and a working on technique, which I find both admirable and very useful in some ways. I would never do that now because all that's behind me. I know I can do that. I know I can write a counterpoint. For my senior thesis at Yale, I did an eight voice fugato that also worked in stretto. That's really hard to do. Now, it's not a goal that would be of any interest to me whatsoever. In part because I know I could do it. So I taught myself a lot by writing music that I regarded as very accomplished, but is, in some sense, derivative because it is looking more to the past in order to get those techniques under my belt. Now, I'm much, much more relaxed about it and looking more to find as much of my own individual voice as I can, and to reach as many people as I can with that voice. I'm actually getting lots and lots of interest in my early music right now. In part because this contemporary aesthetic culture is more forgiving and more interested in a variety of musical styles. That kind of neoclassical style that I was engaged in is now okay whereas 30 years ago, it was deemed to be crazy. So I'm getting performances of older pieces, but I wouldn't tinker with them. I think they're well done for what they are.
Another aspect of your work has been to put a spotlight on women composers who might otherwise have been forgotten. Do you feel that there's been a sea change with respect to women composers? Even here in my hometown, the Oregon Symphony announced a new season and, at every performance, there's a piece by a female composer.
Oh, absolutely, I think there's a sea change. And it's about time. The idea that women can and should be part of the conversation. Now that you say it out loud it seems so silly that I even have to say that. But it wasn't always the case. It certainly was not the case 25 years ago. So, yes, there's a sea change, and it's all for the better and I'm very, very happy about it. And, in my own small way, I've tried to contribute to that. I hope I have.
How would you characterize the state of the new music and classical community in New York right now?
It's a difficult question to answer, because it's just really coming back to life. COVID really, really killed everything for quite a while. It was very, very depressing. I'm going to Zankel Hall tonight for the first time since COVID hit. Everything got closed down and a lot of the money disappeared. People disappeared. The last couple of years have been devastating actually for music. It's a performing art and the performing arts are really, really hard hit. I think museums and galleries a little bit less so. So it's just coming back to life now, and I think exalting in the variety that's out there. I think one of the nicest things that's happened in the last 15 - 20 years is that there's a recognition that it's healthy to have a variety of musical styles side-by-side. It does not need to be simply minimalist or downtown. It does not need to be simply uptown and twelve-tone. It does not need to be this or that. People are much, much more tolerant, and eager to embrace and to encounter new kinds of musics. The sense of having to have a musical orthodoxy or an ideological stance is, I think, evaporated. Not completely, but it's largely kind of being pushed aside, and I love that.
That must be nice to see considering how much you pushed against that kind of orthodoxy with your Derriere Guard Festival, which definitely ruffled some feathers.
Yep, I did my feather-ruffling phase. But I though it was important. Back in 1998, when I had my first Derriere Guard Festival, it was almost impossible to get a really tonal piece performed. Or commissioned, goodness knows. I didn't want to transform the entire music scene, but I thought it was important to have one door open to that kind of music. Not just to all the other kinds. That had to be done and that had to be said at that point. Now, those doors are open. My metaphor for that now is that there are 20 doors that are open, whereas when I was younger, there were like, three. And you had to walk through one of those three doors, and if you didn't want to, you were stuck.
What comes next for you? Anything on the horizon that you can speak to?
I have a couple of projects on the horizon, I guess. The one that I'll talk about is a series of 19 miniatures for piano called Microvids. The idea was to create a Bartok, Mikrokosmos-style book for beginner piano students of all ages. The Bartok takes me back to my childhood. It's pretty dense and difficult stuff for most contemporary ears. The version I wrote is much more American and contemporary and user friendly, if that's the right term for it. Pianist Donna Weng Friedman has just recorded them. I wrote some couplets to preface them and we're looking for a young American Black poet to write a preface for it. Then, when the whole thing is ready, we'll submit it to the Grammys and see if we can get some traction out of that.
[FILM] Gagarine (2020, dir. Fanny Liatard & Jérémy Trouilh)
The tower blocks and low cost housing options sitting on the outskirts of Paris are often seen by those in the middle and upper classes of French society as alien civilizations, or, at the very least, worlds to be conquered as they continue an outward sprawl of businesses and glossy apartment complexes built in the name of "urban renewal." What is of little concern is the people who reside in these crumbling, ill-kept buildings and have built their own communities around them. One such building, named after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, is the central location of this affecting and humble film from Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh. Building off of their 2015 short, the directors focus on Youri, a brilliant young man played by Alséni Bathily who spends his days hoping for the return of his mother and helping to fix some of the copious problems within the Gagarine complex to spare it from demolition. His efforts are, unfortunately for naught, and the order is given to tear it down. But as the rest of the residents scatter, Youri chooses to stay, building an elaborate fortress in the form of a 2001-type space station to protect himself against the waves of so-called progress. As the filmmakers make plain, in better circumstances Youri's talent for design and technology would have landed him a job at a science lab or on the crew of interplanetary mission. But as he's a Black man with no means who consorts with a troublemaking Gypsy girl (Lyna Khoudri, last seen in a motorcycle helmet in The French Dispatch), his brilliance remains hidden away under the constant threat of being crushed by the powers that be. (in select theaters)
[ALBUM] Alabaster DePlume: GOLD (International Anthem)
The artist known as Alabaster DePlume (born Gus Fairbairn) has made a firm stand against virtuosity, insisting on access to the musical arts for anyone who dare try. It's what made his debut album To Cy and Dune so fascinating, as he built it from the experience of working with two young people with mental disabilities. The idea was to play with the same carefree joy and freedom. While I applaud the intent, the music that has come out of these exercises has never struck me as anything more than slight and self-congratulatory. GOLD, Fairbairn's sprawling new album, continues that thread by pulling in various lineups of musicians, giving them a small amount of time to learn a new track and then recording their attempts to play it. The different versions were then collaged together into something like songs. A fine concept, but one that has resulted in clambering, aimless jazz-pop with a chorus of backing vocalists and Fairbairn's quavering sax playing and crooning slipping into the mix throughout. Close corollaries might be the work of Half Japanese or Robert Wyatt, but somehow sounding even whiter than those two artists. That comes out most strongly in Fairbairn's lyrics, which are made up of adages about how precious we all are and how, in spite of our differences, we all part of one big community. Fine sentiments that will surely be a balm to many listeners, but bear no real weight within the waking nightmare of the past six years or so. [Bandcamp]
[MUSIC] Cinthie: DJ-Kicks (!K7)
Berlin-based Cinthie has been using her voice in a full-throated advocacy of dance music's transformative power for at least two decades since she first began producing records as Vinyl Princess. Since then, she's opened record stores, started labels, and spent her dwindling free time spinning at clubs and festivals around the world. Her invitation to participate in the long-running DJ-Kicks series is, then, long overdue. Cinthie threw herself fully into this project, using this set as both a historical lesson by working in classic house bangers like "Y'all Stole Them Dances" from the late Paul Johnson and as a spotlight for a growing global posse of female producers and artists like Spain's Lis Sarroca and Brits Amy Dabbs and Anna Wall. A 70-minute bliss-inducing float downstream with an emphasis on tickling synth lines and a trembling bass undercurrents. [Bandcamp]
Thanks for reading, friends. Some have called my writing pretentious. Many more have called it thoughtful. Whatever your feelings, I appreciate you paying any amount of attention to my work. Back again on Monday for the premium subscribers and next Friday for all y'all. As always: Do no harm. Take no shit.
Artwork for this edition is by Maya Dunietz whose exhibition Root of Two opens at the Bemis Center in Omaha, Nebraska on May 7.