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Misfits and Hooligans Interview: Veronika Krausas

26 Apr

The third in our series of interviews with artists leading up to the Misfits and Hooligans concert at Beyond Baroque on April 28, we talk to composer, producer, and Catalysis Projects Core Artist Veronika Krausas.

Can you tell us a bit about your work that’s being presented on the concert?

I’ve got two pieces on the program – one a little older and one a little newer.  Let’s say the older one is the hooligan work.  It’s my double bass trio called Gardens of Stone.    This piece was inspired by a poem by the Canadian writer André Alexis:

 out of silence, to another silence

 from sun and water, dry white salt.

time moves like that, crest to crest,

and our selves, yours and mine,

are what is left from sea …

 I had a series of works that used texts around stones by Alexis.  Some of them had the text read, some sung, and in this piece it’s simply the inspiration seed.  I wrote it after hearing the marvelous bassist Stefano Scodanibbio perform at Darmstadt.  I was enthralled with the range of sounds that he was able to achieve.   My work can be amplified but for Saturday’s concert it’ll be acoustic since it’s such a small space, the real estate is at a premium!

The second work – my misfit piece – is Jonas for solo harmonica.   The supreme master of the harmonica, Bill Barrett, asked me to write a solo work for him a few years ago.  It’s finally getting its première this weekend.  The structure of the piece is 8 phrases, each ending in exactly the same, definitive way.  Along with the piece is a great text and film by Quintan Ana Wikswo called The Anguillidae Eater.

The text is about the migration of eels to the Coronian Spit in Lithuania (which is one of my favorite places in the world) with a surreal twist.

Curonian spit - Lithuania

Here’s what Quintan says of the work:

The Anguilladae Eaters inhabits an obscure spot upon the earth – a tiny spit of land in the Baltic Sea where ancient and ferocious female deities are still known to roam. Over the centuries, their alchemical, cryptic seaside has been invaded by Vikings, Russians, Catholics, Nazis – each wanting to plunder, subdue and control this disconcertingly female ensorcelled slice of earth. Yet there are pilgrims, too – the Anguilladae eels journey ten long years from the Sargasso Sea in the Caribbean, just to mate in these icy, enchanted waters. And they’re not alone. All manner of travelers are drawn here, even today, where these deities remain with powers far stronger and more fierce with age. Travelers today find themselves unsettled: are the local women truly women? Or are they themselves the cryptic eel goddesses – immortals in mundane disguise? Were the eggs at breakfast enchanted? Taken not from chickens, but from the plundered nest of an eel queen, stalking high along the dunes?

The images in her film are of eggs and the sea and the sand and an eel rake!

eel rake

It goes perfectly with the harmonica music.  The piece is named after my grandfather Jonas, who loved harmonica and smoked eel and was Lithuanian.  He was probably more of a friendly hooligan that a misfit.  I still have his harmonica in my studio.

Do you consider yourself a hooligan or a misfit? Or both? Or neither?

 

I’m a misfit but really my goal is to be a hooligan … it’s one of those things that I’m working on.  The definition of hooligan really depends on which country you hail from because in the lands that enjoy soccer (aka as non-American football), a hooligan might have a slightly less savory connotation than a hooligan in my less aggressive-less violent-more mischievous-Edward Gorey-esque usage of the term.

 

Edward Gorey

Tell us about the most memorable oddball instrument you’ve ever encountered.

 

I’ve always been perplexed with the ondes martenot.  The effects of the instrument are fantastic in Messiaen’s music and in the hands of a great performer, like Cynthnia Millar, it’s exquisite, but the method of performing on it has always messed with my brain.

I remember once hearing a bagpipe in a closed room – that was memorable.

I remember once seeing and hearing someone play on an amplified toothbrush – that was oddball.

And of course, there are those moments where all of a sudden you forget how to spell was or for a split second something that is habitual becomes an unknown action.  Sometimes, very rarely actually, I’ll be sitting at the piano and I’ll see myself from the outside, as if an alien watching who has no idea what a piano is, and think, this is strange – sitting at a table and hitting it with my fingers!  I guess that’s more just oddball rather than an instrument really.

 

Misfits and Hooligans Interview: Tom Flaherty and Quintan Ana Wikswo

25 Apr

In the second in our series of interviews with artists leading up to the Misfits and Hooligans concert on April 28 at Beyond Baroque, we talk to interdisciplinary filmmaker/visual artist/writer  (and Catalysis Projects Core Artist) Quintan Ana Wikswo, and composer Tom Flaherty.

     

Can you tell us a bit about your work that’s being presented on the 28th?

TF: “Shepard’s Pi” a piece that explores weird sonic characteristics of the toy piano, whose lowest notes can sound higher than its highest notes. The live toy piano is accompanied by electronic transmogrifications of itself, and the player gets to dance with a funhouse mirror of his or her playing.

QW: I have two new pieces on the 28th – one is a collaboration with Veronika Krausas: her music JONAS with my poem cycle and 35mm film suite, called THE ANGUILLADAE EATERS. The second piece is my film projection APIMANIAS, which I created to go alongside Aron Kallay’s phenomenal toy piano performance of Tom Flaherty’s equally-phenomenal and intriguing SHEPARD’S PI.

film still, APIMANIAS by Quintan Ana Wikswo. 35mm film. 9 minutes. 2012.

TF: Named after cognitive psychologist Roger Shepard, a Shepard scale is an audio illusion in which a scale seems to rise endlessly, without getting higher. The constituent pitches consist of several simultaneous octaves, which fade out at the top of the scale and fade in at the bottom. Taken out of the moving context, the actual octave register of a note is ambiguous to the ear. A toy piano displays similar ambiguity: as the length of the sounding rods at lowest keys is too short to produce a true bass note, its overtones are louder than its fundamental pitch. Taken out of context the lowest F can sound more like its C overtone, an octave and a fifth higher. This ambiguity is part of the charm of the toy piano, and Shepard’s Pi enjoys playing with that charm, with lots of scales that seem not to get higher, sonorities whose octave register is ambiguous, and moments where the meter and tempo could be heard in several different ways.

Oh yes, pi. Just as pi = 3.14159265. . ., so too Shepard’s Pihas slightly more than three electronically produced sounds (all derived from the sound of the toy piano), sections, and tempi.

QW: When I first encountered Tom Flaherty’s “Shepard’s Pi,” the word “apimanias” began spiraling through my mind alongside the music. I find the musical work quite charming and endearing – it suggests an obsessive, insistent structural precision, a kind of auditory engineering that is similar to the unrelenting, exciting din of skyscraper construction – something rising, and yet never seeming to finish. Admirable, and inexorable, it’s the din of highly controlled creation. I immediately thought of bees. The preoccupying, intrusive, dominating and yet subtly complex sound of their wings spiraling in circles of flight – annoying, but breathtaking, and also quite gorgeous. As I read the score of Tom’s piece, the carefully nested progression of concentric octaves somehow echoed the precise mathematics bees use to build the structure of their hive. The Greek mathematician Archimedes approximated Pi by inscribing a hexagon into a circle: that is at the heart of bee geometry as well – their honeycomb is a mass of hexagonal wax cells that contain their larvae, honey and pollen. And dreams. The word Apimanias means “an excessive interest in bees.” And hidden within the word Apimanias is another word: pi.

While I was working on my B/ee-Movie, I became obsessed by the posture of the bees – their hunched backs bent down intently over their mathematical task. This ominous, slightly maniacal physical shape that suggests obsession and inexorable focus. During this time, I saw a video of Tom’s piece in performance and recognized an uncanny similarity between the bees and the toy piano player – both hump-backed and crouched, singlemindedly constructing geometry within a creation device…I suspect the honeycomb and the piano may serve the same function for two different species. Or perhaps, not so different species. I know pianists have very good posture, especially Aron.

film still, APIMANIAS by Quintan Ana Wikswo. 35mm film. 9 minutes. 2012.

Do you consider yourself a hooligan or a misfit? Or both? Or neither?

TW: Definitely misfit. That used to be a requirement for admission to the Composer’s Union, though they may have relaxed their standards in recent years.
Perhaps hooligan, to my students.
film still, APIMANIAS by Quintan Ana Wikswo. 35mm film. 9 minutes. 2012.

film still, APIMANIAS by Quintan Ana Wikswo. 35mm film. 9 minutes. 2012.

QW: I am probably mostly like a bee: both a misfit and a hooligan. Currently, there is an astonishingly large, obnoxious and ungainly wood-boring bee attempting to drill through the wall of my studio. At first, I thought it was a lawnmower. All that trouble from just a little fellow. There is a punk quality to its uncaring response to being in the way, being noisy and obstreperous, and generally being just not much of a joy to have around…but it’s just being a bee. And honestly, there’s also something quite silly about them in their ridiculous fuzzy carapace and ungainly wings and their sentimental affection for overwrought flowers. Yet nevertheless, bees can kill people. Lots of people are terrified of all sorts of bees – perhaps because they’re also very unpredictable. One never knows if a bee will kill somebody – they’re just as likely to land on your fingertip and slurp up a bit of tasty sweat as to put one into the grave.

But getting back to your question – it’s just the bee’s nature to drill and buzz and annoy and terrify and make life happen, and pollinate, and cross-polinate, and create. They are the best sorts of misfits and hooligans.

As far as new music, I think that Saturday’s concert – and new music in general – won my heart a long time ago with its ability to be the bee…to cause shock and horror, discomfort, and make enemies without even trying – but also to be a bit silly and ungainly, and wobbly and fragile and peculiar. Invariably someone seems to walk out of a concert once they realize the violin in never going to sound like Debussy. They seem partly ashamed of themselves – as if they know they must be missing something – but also betrayed by their friend, the obedient violin. So much new music invariably horrifies unsuspecting audience members who want to expect the expected. And that’s really quite thrilling to be within.

film still, APIMANIAS by Quintan Ana Wikswo. 35mm film. 9 minutes. 2012.

Tell us about the most memorable oddball instrument you’ve ever encountered.

TF: There was a vegetable orchestra in Vienna a couple or years ago. That’s got to rank pretty high on the list. But clearly this question deserves greater thought.

QW: I grew up in the Cumberland Valley of Tennessee way out in the country, and my brother played dulcimer at Appalachian and mountain music jamborees. Jamborees are a glorious experience in making a lot of something from nothing. And for truly transcendent expression to come from the least likely situations, and equipment. I was probably about six years old and we were in some mountain hollow filled with hickory smoke and crickets and desolation, way out there in the Smokey Mountains.

Up on stage come these tiny blonde triplets in overalls, each holding a pair of spoons. Honestly, at first they made me really hungry. Everything in the south will make you hungry if you look at it the right way, but spoons just looked delicious. I kept thinking of what they were about to eat on that little rattletrap wood stage, and what it had to do with mountain music. Then it was just like a lightning storm descended into their little pink hands – flashes of bright white shining light and all sorts of glorious rhythm and vibration and clattering whirring cadence. They played a waltz. And a hoedown.

And a “fiddler’s choice” piece that probably belonged in a temple to some unknown displaced haint. They’d hit those spoons on the snaps and buckles of their little overalls. Just to get more range. I guess I’ve been waiting my whole life to hear something equally transcendent and shocking, but it hasn’t happened yet. Those girls really knew how to play their spoons.

film still, APIMANIAS by Quintan Ana Wikswo. 35mm film. 9 minutes. 2012.

Misfits and Hooligans Interview: Isaac Schankler

22 Apr

In the first in our series of interviews with artists leading up to Misfits and Hooligans concert on April 28, we talk to composer, accordionist, and Catalysis Projects Core Artist Isaac Schankler.

Isaac Schankler

Can you tell us a bit about your work that’s being presented on the concert?

Sure! Two of my compositions are being performed. Daniel Corral and I are playing Chocolate Phase for accordion duo and electronics, which is inspired by a song called “Chocolate Rain” by Tay Zonday. “Chocolate Rain” was an unexpected hit on YouTube in 2007 (I can’t believe it’s that long ago already). It’s a pretty strange song, very repetitive — the chorus and verse share the same melody — but also oddly compelling. The production of the synths and drums make it seem kind of goofy at first, but over time it begins to acquire this cumulative power of a litany or a recitation. And the words actually detail this pretty scathing picture of institutionalized racism.

Of course, the popularity of the song, or at least what people were saying about it, seemed to have little to do with any of this. It seemed to be more about the incongruity of Zonday’s deep voice and his nerdy appearance, or his odd mannerisms like moving away from the mic to breathe. I’m fascinated by this process. What does it mean when a musical artifact takes on a life of its own, and becomes appreciated for reasons completely outside the artist’s intention? Despite this disconnect, I find myself unable to let go of the idea of music as communication or expression. So I was curious to find out what might happen if I took musical material from the song and presented it in a different context.

Chocolate Phase takes the song’s main piano riff and runs it through a bunch of phase processes, where four versions of the riff gradually shift out of unison. It’s similar to what you’d find in Steve Reich’s early minimalist music (Piano Phase, Violin Phase).

It’s actually a great riff for that purpose; there’s a nice compound melody with multiple lines embedded in it, so when you phase shift it, all these things come tumbling out.

I guess in a way this was an attempt to render the musical material in a more “abstract” setting, more distanced from the specific qualities of the YouTube video. The irony is that of course it’s connected to a very specific musical tradition of late 60s minimalism. Zonday himself has a very idiosyncratic attitude toward musical traditions:

In many ways, I feel like a musical orphan. I’m not sure who my influences are. Growing up, I learned to hide the fact that I had any passion or enjoyment for music or life. Being ‘influenced’ to laugh or dance was always a sickness or pathology. It made my parents fearful that they were losing their kids. To this day, I’m not sure you could get me to admit that I was influenced by anything. It’s just beaten out of the way I think. Perhaps people call my music ‘unique’ because I don’t feel beholden to any influences.

I love Zonday’s heretical idea of a music without influences — take that, Western canon! — and the fact that he felt compelled to make music despite his restrictive upbringing. Chocolate Phase is really an homage to that attitude, and I hope it’s appreciated in that spirit.

The other piece, Mobile II (“Dear Mr. Edison”) for viola and electronics, is another kind of animal entirely. It uses two source recordings from the very early days of recording technology. The first is a speech given by composer Arthur Sullivan in October 1888, thanking Thomas Edison for his invention of the phonograph. One part of the speech stands out:

I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the results of this evening’s experiment — astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever.

It was only natural, then, for me to consider his speech itself as musical material. My approach here owes a debt to the music of Austrian composer Peter Ablinger (Voices and Piano).

The second recording is  an excerpt of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt performed in June 1888. Recorded from over 100 yards away and subject to over 100 years of decay, the chorus of 4000 voices is almost obscured by noise artifacts from the degradation of the wax cylinder. Often the technological medium itself seems to have its own musical agenda; the piece explores the wonder and terror conjured by that agenda. Alma Lisa Fernandez (of the Eclipse Quartet) is playing the viola part, and she’s doing some amazing things with it!

Do you consider yourself a hooligan or a misfit? Or both? Or neither?

I like the construction of the word “mis-fit” — taken literally it’s not even really an insult. It just means something that doesn’t quite gel with other things. Most of my pieces are probably misfits in some way. They don’t even fit with each other. Someone reminded me recently that “eclectic” can also be a compliment or an insult.

Tell us about the most memorable oddball instrument you’ve ever encountered.

From recent memory, I have to say I really appreciated the melodicas with foot-operated air pumps in the premiere of Oscar Bettison’s Livre de Sauvages by the LA Phil chamber players. As an accordionist I think about breath a lot, but the breathing of the accordion bellows is always kind of incorporeal — it happens outside your body. Bettison’s piece featured the most visceral aural depiction of the bellows that I can remember hearing, almost like the ragged breathing of some dying animal. In the best possible way!