THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 101
It sure feels like there are more bad days than good anymore. To the point that I wonder if this newsletter is worth the time and trouble when I could be expending my energy elsewhere. And wondering if anyone is even reading this when there's far more important shit to worry about. To be honest, I worry about all of the above all the time, but it feels far more acute now. I had such plans for this edition too, like a bunch of reviews and some other fun things. The wind has been taken right out of my sails.
If you feel that this newsletter helps in some small way, and want to support it, the premium subscription option is there. $5 a month. For the foreseeable future, I will be handing that money over to the National Network of Abortion Funds. They need it far more than I do.
Some housekeeping stuff. Would like to congratulate Stephen E. for winning the prize package of some physical media chosen by me to help celebrate the 100th edition of this newsletter. I'll be in touch soon to gather some more information and get your mailing address. If you'd care to read some work I have done, you can check out my final two pieces for Oregon Arts Watch - a preview of tonight's record release show for Lindsay Clark and a feature on local boogie metal band Freebase Hyperspace. (I'm putting on pause on contributing to them to concentrate on the Big Project™.) Over at Willamette Week, I helped with their annual Best New Bands issue with a small feature on Dim Wit.
Now that that's out of the way, on to the bulk of the newsletter - a slightly awkward email interview with two amazing modern composers. Read on.
Julie Herndon and Davor Vincze
For the 2021 edition of Zagreb Music Biennale, an annual celebration of new music based in Croatia, artistic director Margareta Ferek Petrić and team behind the event had to make many adjustments to the program to account for COVID restrictions in the country. Performances were streamed online or held in open air spaces that allowed for plenty of social distancing. And the festival encouraged the composers they commissioned to think in terms of how to present their work safely and imaginatively. To that end, Petrić curated new pieces from composers Julie Herndon and Davor Vincze that were as cinematic as they were musical. The pair each wrote a short opera for the Decoder Ensemble that, with the help of Henrich Horwitz, was turned into a short film. Both Herndon's At This Time and Vincze's XinSheng are fascinating works that blend acoustic instrumentation with electronics and voices to tell stories, respectively, about the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and a relationship fracturing amid a dystopic future. The visuals that Horwitz cooked up for each one are appropriately abstract, evoking the feelings and spirit of the music rather than a literal representation of what is being sung by Jessica Aszodi and Nina Guo. (Audio of the operas was released via Infrequent Seams on April 29. The digital version comes with a download of Horwitz's films.) While this project was the first time either Herndon or Vincze worked in this medium, the audiovisual opera feels entirely appropriate for the pair. Both have produced graphic scores that are as rewarding to look at as they are to hear performed, have created installation pieces, and understand how the staging of a piece can add elements of drama and humor to the music.
So far as I can tell, this is the first time either of you have written an opera. Though you've clearly made work for vocalists before, did you have to make adjustments to how you wrote to fit the format?
JH: This was my first opera. I really love vocal writing, so it was a lot of fun to explore storytelling in a larger format.
DBV: The fact that the pandemic made us gear towards a fixed media (video) and not live performance, actually made staging much easier, as we were able to record music separately from visuals and use various real-life locations instead of having to create these in a theatrical setting.
Did you already have visual ideas in mind for your operas or did you leave that side of things in the hands of Heinrich Horwitz?
DBV: In successful collaborations like this, usually all parties come with general ideas that resonate mutually. For example, I envisioned an elegant bottled product containing the XinSheng fluid, but had no clue how to execute that. Heinrich quickly found an amazing solution - a pink bottle containing gelatinous fluid. She stirred the bottle, filmed the bubbles going up with a close shot - and puff - some magic happened.
JH: I exchanged a lot of visual imagery with Heinrich. For example, I knew the first scene needed to focus on Alice’s hands. I sent them pictures and some staging. They suggested things to try to take that imagery further and had a clear image for how the piece could be structured visually.
How much did the visuals affect the way you wrote these works - if they did at all?
JH: I had the visuals in mind through the whole process. While I didn’t know what the video would look like, I kept an image of who was on-stage and where. That is how I always write—the visual and theatrical components are part of my process.
DBV: The score had to be done months before we went into details about the visuals. Nevertheless, thinking about the scenic aspect gave clarity on how to structure the musical form.
Julie - what can you tell me about your choice of subject matter: the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas? Were they both figures you have been interested in for some time now? And if so, what drew you to their work?
JH: I started reading Gertrude Stein on the recommendation of Erik Ulman and Brian Ferneyhough. I wrote a piece, Singularity (No Use in a Centre), for vocalist/cellist Helen Newby using text from Tender Buttons in 2019. Stein’s writing feels incredibly musical. When I read the opening passage of Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, it deeply spoke to me. The act of writing the autobiography of someone you love is such a conflicting act!—and the words themselves are so simple. I played with the material as a solo piece, and when I got permission to use the text, I was really excited to expand it into something bigger.
Was part of your interest in exploring their lives and writing in sound to do with the ongoing discussions happening right now around identity? That seemed to be a key section of the opera.
JH: My primary interest in this text was as a love story. The fact that Gertrude and Alice were an openly lesbian couple at a time when I can imagine it was very hard to be so makes their story even more important to tell. Love stories between women are under-represented in opera (and many other places), and it’s important to me to amplify those stories in musical settings.
What can you tell me about the use of the multiple voices on "No Writing"? What was behind the decision to include the different accents in that section?
JH: This movement is about the creative block. When I’m unable to write (music or words), it’s often because I feel conflicted or foggy about what needs to happen. The multiple voices circling around are the reverb-chamber effect of not being able to think clearly creatively. The players spoke in their own voices. I did not give them instructions on any kind of affect.
Davor - where did the concept for your opera come from?
DBV: The concept was born ten years ago, but it was only when Aleksandar Hut Kono offered his creative eye as librettist that the narrative was completed. I mostly had half-formed and muddled ideas about the internal relationships between the characters, their manipulations of each other, and the kind of archetypes I wanted to present, but it was Aleks who moulded things into a coherent and intriguing story that reverberates many present-day issues.
I hear the influence of film noir in the opening segment of the work. Is that something you were pulling from as you wrote this?
DBV: As I mentioned earlier, in good collaborations you tend to share the atmosphere with your partners. Although I love film noir, I never explicitly discussed it with Heinrich, but I think they understood implicitly, listening to the music and reading the lyrics, that the evocative imagery of something like film noir would tie up loose ends and place the work in a coherent context.
What comes next for you both?
DBV: The opera just got awarded the Composition Prize of the City of Stuttgart last month, so it will get performed again in February next year as part of the Eclat Festival. This summer I am a resident at the Experimentalstudio in Freiburg and after that I tour with my new piece for No Borders Orchestra. In the autumn I will start a new chapter as a Fellow in Composition and Performance at Emory University (Atlanta).
JH: I’m in Zurich now working with with ox&öl on Extensions, a sound theater piece about a man who receives cochlear implants. When I get back to the US, I am starting a new position as Assistant Professor of Music Technology and Composition at Cal Poly, writing choral music for the Peninsula Women’s Chorus as their composer in residence, and releasing an album of music for Kukuruz piano quartet with Innova Records, Breathing – Remembering – Dissolving.
That's about it for this time. Thank you for reading, and supporting, and being great people in general. We need each other right now, so don't hesitation to reach out if you need an ear to bend or some support.
Next time will be one of three things I have cooking. So long as the world doesn't fall apart between now and then. As always: Do no harm. Take no shit.
Artwork for this edition is from Gustavo Ramos Rivera's exhibition on display at the Stewart Gallery in Boise, Idaho through July 23.