Tag Archives: music

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!


15 Mar

by Veronika Krausas

One of the things that always fascinates me is comparing music to food! This weekend I lectured at Disney Hall for the LA Phil’s concert that included the delightfully poetic 5 Elements by contemporary composer Qigang Chen, Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto, and Richard Strauss’ symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben. It was a fantastic concert, conducted by Edo De Waart, the Dutch conductor who is currently Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the Music Director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

The reason I bring up the idea of comparing music with food or, more specifically, beverages, is that a few years ago I picked up an interesting book “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” by Tom Standage.

Since the LA Phil’s concert spanned three different musical stylistic periods I wonder if these works can somehow be explained in terms of Standage’s ‘liquid’ classification system?

In his book Standage traces the history of the world through beverages: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola. He starts with the rise of farming, when surplus grain was saved and sometimes fermented into beer. Then, was the time of the Greeks who took grapes and made wine. Next, Arabic scientists experimented with distillation and produced spirits, the ideal transportable drink for long voyages of exploration. The next liquid that spread from Arabia to Europe was coffee, for the Age of Reason. The British industrial revolution followed, with tea being in the foreground. And, finally, the rise of American capitalism is mirrored in the history of Coca-Cola, one of the 20th century’s most mass-produced global commodities!

Although the Age of Reason started in the 17th century, its spirit of rational inquiry spread into the mainstream of Western thought over the next two centuries, culminating in the movement called the Enlightenment. It was at this time that coffee houses had established themselves as the political, social, and philosophical hubs of society. Standage called the coffee houses “the internet cafes” of their time – not only centers for commerce but intellectual thought! Coffee, as we all very much appreciate, gives sharpness and clarity of thought. Versus drinking wine or beer, which was common at that time, because it was safer than the often unsanitary water. This is the time of Beethoven, a known daily coffee drinker. Could we look at Beethoven as the COFFEE composer? Someone whose great sharpness and clarity forged new ideas from old?

While Beethoven’s piano concerto formally stays within a very classical tradition, he has some very careful and sneaky harmonic interconnections with the key areas in his piece that certainly required great clarity of thought. Also, his position was avant-garde for his time in that he deliberately wrote difficult music, requiring greater intellect and sharpness on the part of both performers and listeners.

Strauss would be associated with tea. At first this seems a little strange, he was from Germany after all and who in Germany (land of beer and Jägermeister) drinks tea? But if we think about the idea of expansion it may make a little more sense. From the mid 18th century, England was expanding its sphere and colonization was the norm. Tea, initially imported from China, spread throughout England and the world and became the most widely consumed beverage on Earth after water. Standage writes that the “story of tea is the story of imperialism, industrialization, and world domination.” So, in this arena of imperialism and world domination we have Strauss – both he and his music are HUGE – huge personality, huge pieces, huge forces, and huge orchestrations. Ein Heldenleben is epic, a 50-minute tone poem. It’s like a big pot of black tea that gets steeped for 50 minutes to really let all the tannins and flavors get everywhere. Also, when we consider this work autobiographic, then Strauss, the hero, is the imperial power, striving for musical domination! After all, he was not only a composer but also a conductor. So I’ll make him the TEA Composer.

This brings us the 20th century’s beverage that had its beginning in Leeds in 1767. Joseph Priestly, an English clergyman and scientist, became fascinated with the carbon dioxide gas that bubbled from the fermentation vats. At that time it was called “FIXED AIR”. This was the birth of our carbonated drinks. The rise of Coke or sodas corresponds with the huge industrialization, commercialization, and globalization of the 20th century. Sometimes a little pessimistically, we associate mediocrity with art or music that has those kinds of terms attached.

However, this globalization phenomena is the cross-fertilization of cultures and aesthetics to a degree that hasn’t existed in history before. The upside is that our ‘soda’ generation has allowed for the wonderful possibility of stylistic plurality (a term I’m borrowing from Leonard Meyer, the music theorist). The perfect example is 5 Elements by Chen! I realize he’s Chinese and you may ask why not make him the TEA guy, but his work so beautifully combines Chinese aesthetics and sounds with a Western musical harmonic world. His music is about stylistic plurality (a term I’m borrowing from musical theorist Leonard Meyer). We hear an eastern-sounding melody, Messiaen-like chords, washes of sound that evoke Debussy, gestures of notes that remind us of Ligeti, swelling ‘western orchestral strings, at times very traditional harmonies and, at other times, it’s something that’s much more adventurous even delightfully crunchy.

I’d like to use that lovely 18th-century term for carbonated water – FIXED AIR – and say that Chen’s 20th-century piece is the FIXED AIR, the soda that bubbles through our ears, while Beethoven’s concerto is a good strong cup of coffee, and Strauss’s tone poem is the finishing tea, perhaps Earl Grey (is that the most royal tea and domineering tea)? Next I’ll figure out the beer, wine and spirits!


PS:  I just ordered Standage’s new book from 2009, “Edible History of Humanity” … can’t wait to start comparing music and food!!!!