Classical Music is Dead*

Phyllis Chen on Down the Rabbit-Hole, Toy Piano, and More

Posted in interview, music, photos, we like by Yoobin Whang on 04/11/2011

Toy Piano. What more needs to be said? The name itself exudes tremendous cuteness. Phyllis Chen’s piece, Down the Rabbit-Hole (yes! we love this title, too), inspired by Alice in Wonderland, is a multimedia work for toy pianos, music boxes, live-electronics, live and edited video, and amplified objects. Read on to find out more!

When did you fall in love with toy piano? What do you like in particular about the instrument?

I fell in love with the toy piano when I was 21. I saw it as a set piece in the basement of a puppet theatre in Chicago…I have always  thought of the toy piano as a found sound/ found instrument for that reason because it wasn’t introduced to me as a music-making device. I was completely charmed by its idiosyncratic nature and its elusive sound. It really is entirely different than a regular piano.

The inspiration for Down the Rabbit-Hole is Alice in Wonderland. Any reason you chose this, or a children’s tale in general?

I have been doing many split concerts on piano and toy piano, mostly because presenters have requested it. I have always found it challenging to switch back and forth between a piano and toy piano during performance; even the technique of playing is different! At some point while I was on stage, it occurred to me that what I was doing was probably the same kind of feeling Alice had growing and shrinking in wonderland. It seems like no matter how much change, I’m never quite the right size. It seem like the perfect place for me to create a piece.

What should we expect from Down the Rabbit Hole? Or rather, what should we not expect?

The piece is inspired by found sounds and objects from the novels. All of the musical material was somehow found from the objects themselves, including the pitch material that the toy piano plays. I really challenged myself to create a coherent piece with these found objects and fell in love with amplifying small imperfect sounds. The piece is very much an exploration of sounds. But there are no characters–so if you are expecting to see the White Rabbit running around, I’d suggest to see the Broadway production instead.

It seems interdisciplinary work is the zeitgeist in classical/new music these days. Why do you think that is? Do you think it’s just a trend?

Actually, I think interdisciplinary work has existed for a long time. The whole tradition of opera is interdisciplinary, for example. I do think there are new inventions in this form, mostly due to technology. What we had  to hire people for previously can now be operated by a computer. It opens up options of creativity tremendously. But in our work, Rob (video artist) and I are really focused on keeping things live. We aren’t as interested in the “auto-play” idea from computers. Instead, we are trying to figure out how to by making counterparts for one another in the visual-sound axis. Kind of like chamber music, but with another medium.

Do you still get to practice 8 hours a day?

God no. But I do work that much every day, but my work is no longer just practicing.

What piece of clothing should every musician have in their closet?

Black shoes and bright colors. I really think we should move away from the all-black look. period.

Any advice for young/green musicians?

Build community! You don’t have to know what you’re going to do, but surround yourself with people that could help you figure it out.

By Sugar Vendil and Yoobin Whang


Schwob on Mehr Licht, Cormac McCarthy, and More

Posted in interview, music by The Nouveau Classical Project on 03/10/2011

Once you hear the sublime and moving Mehr Licht you’ll definitely want to know more about the music and it’s composer, Danielle Schwob. Now you can read this first and enjoy the concert instead of digging your nose into your program! Which probably won’t happen anyway, given how engaging Schwob’s piece is. Anyhoo…

What was your source of inspiration when you wrote Mehr Licht?
The adage that served as the motto of my first school, “Mehr Licht” (German for “more light”), has always held personal significance for me.  As a young student, I was told that it meant that enlightenment could be reached through the pursuit of knowledge, and the idea has remained with me since.  My piece is intended to portray a journey from obscurity towards clarity, away from ignorance and towards the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.  The sound world itself, however, was inspired by two pieces of artwork: Cildo Meireles’ Missions/Missions (How To Build Cathedrals) and John Singer Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. Both pieces have a luminous quality to them, and, to me, seem united by a quiet, meditative tone that transcends their aesthetic differences: the former is a contemporary installation incorporating a pit of softly lit coins, black curtains and a ceiling of dangling bones, while the latter is a nineteenth century painting of two nightgown clad children carrying lanterns.  I chose the sound palette of Mehr Licht in an attempt to translate the visual elements of these artworks into music.

A lot of young composers in New York (perhaps elsewhere) seem to be torn between being defined as a ‘classical composer’ and writing music that sounds sort of like pop or electronic music, genres that have master artists in their own right. Has this been a struggle for you at all? Why or why not? If so, how do you deal?
I can’t say that it has been a struggle for me at all!  I write both concert pieces and songs, and so the issue of what box people might want to put me in has never really bothered me.  While obviously the two idioms are very different, I tend to approach them in similar ways and am sort of genre-blind while I’m actually writing.  I’m also getting to an interesting point creatively where I’m starting to hear my concert writing tendencies seep into my songwriting and vice versa, and discovering what can happen as my two worlds converge naturally is very interesting to me.  I’m much more excited to see what sort of music this can yield than I am about worrying which camp I belong to.

What qualities do you seek in a performer?
I look for performers who are interesting, focused artists with a strong sense of self, artistic integrity and an honest stage presence.  Obviously professionalism, technique, musicianship and interpretative abilities are very important too, but I think the difference between a good performer and a great performer has more to do with who the person is than how they move their hands (or vocal chords) or how glossy their résumé is.  I believe that interesting people make interesting music.  I also think that a performer’s basic motivation for playing is extremely important.  There seems to be so much emphasis in the music world on winning accolades, getting ahead and looking impressive on paper that I sometimes wonder where artistry factors into the equation.  I like to work with grounded performers who are in the music world for the right reason: to make art, not just a name for themselves.

Which composers do you look to the most for inspiration, or which composers have had the most significant impact on how you think about/write music?
This changes so frequently that it’s difficult to say!  A few years ago, when we did the last interview, you asked me a similar question and my thoughts on the subject were very different.  At that point, since I was in the middle of my undergrad degree and had concert music tunnel vision, I think I mentioned Reich, Pärt, Dello Joio, Stravinsky and Partch.  I’m still very much inspired by these people, however at the moment I’m not listening to them as religiously as I used to.  Since I’m currently in songwriter/performer mode and am finishing my debut EP, Overloaded, I’ve been listening to a lot more popular music.  Top of the list are Radiohead and Björk, followed by Pink Floyd, The Smiths, Tori Amos and Elliott Smith. I think these people are true creative geniuses, and deserve as much recognition as the best artists in the concert world.

Music Recommendations?
How about a book recommendation instead?  The last thing that I read and was completely entranced by was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  I enjoyed it much more than a lot of things that I’ve read recently (or listened to, for that matter) and would definitely recommend it.

Hear Mehr Licht tonight at Amped/Electrified!

Laced Noise

Posted in interview, music by The Nouveau Classical Project on 03/08/2011

Here’s an interview with Izzi Ramkissoon on his Asperity of Lace. Above is the electronic track, just to tease you! Sounds freaking crazy right?! That’s what we thought too…we were like, how the fuck are we gonna do this?! But Izzi helped us along, and this music transformed from an unknown abyss into a landscape of expressive freedom for the performers. Sugar Vendil will be on piano and Isabel Kim on clarinet. And Izzi will be in front of his laptop, setting off the track and a video that will respond to Isabel’s sound.

What was your source of inspiration when you wrote The Asperity of Lace?
The inspiration for The Asperity of Lace came from the news stories about the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.  The motivation for the piece came from wanting to open a musical dialog about the situation and natural disasters in general.

A lot of young composers in New York (perhaps elsewhere) seem to be torn between being defined as a ‘classical composer’ and writing music that sounds sort of like pop or electronic music, genres that have master artists in their own right. Has this been a struggle for you at all? Why or why not? If so, how do you deal?
Not really.  I don’t define myself as a “classical” composer.  One can possibly think of what I do as “organizing sound”, “sound composition”, or producing expressive musical content with electronics and acoustic instruments. Furthermore, I have my own expectations.  If I bring any type of influence into my music it is because I have respect for the craft.  I try not to underestimate my audience with water down versions of music that doesn’t genuinely come from myself.  I believe it is my responsibility to give audiences the kind of music that comes out of my own experiences and hopefully it has some relation within the context of their own lives.

What qualities do you seek in a performer?
I run a series of workshops with my large ensemble called the Electric Eel Multimedia Ensemble.  In these workshops I discuss my approach to modern electro acoustic performance.  I expect various skills from my performers ranging from classical reading to jazz improvisation, process and philosophy to performing with electronics.  I tend to pull from a mixed background of skills because I studied and experienced many distinct approaches to music.  I hope that one day performers can have all of these musical skills under one umbrella.

Which composers do you look to the most for inspiration, or which composers have had the most significant impact on how you think about/write music?
Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Alvin Curran, Morton Subotnick, Earl Brown, Ludwig van Beethoven, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Atari Teenage Riot, Squarepusher, Bjork, Kraftwerk, etc..

Music Recommendations?
Massive Attack (Heligoland), DJ Udachi, Merzbow, Penderecki: String Quartet No. 1, Xenakis Concrete PH, Gil Scott-Heron (I’m new here), and Olivier Messiaen.

Insight via IM

Posted in interview, music by The Nouveau Classical Project on 03/07/2011

Instant Messaging for Instant Insight. An interview with Ryan Manchester about Ananta, (briefly), and what’s next.

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