Elliott Carter (1908–2012): Legacy of a Centenarian

by Michael Schell

Photo by Philippe Gontier.

Today marks Elliott Carter’s 110th birthday, an anniversary that he came remarkably close to celebrating in person. The most long-lived of any major composer, Carter was also the one American most consistently deemed to exemplify the “monumental” aspirations of post-WW2 musical modernism associated with the likes of Boulez, Nono, Lutosławski, and Carter’s contemporary Messiaen.

In its craft—its dissonant harmonies, its constant probing of new musical horizons, and in the disconnect between the praise it received from professional musicians and the ambivalence it often faced from concert audiences—Carter’s music indeed seemed to epitomize contemporary music in the late 20th century. To be sure, its detractors included some informed voices such as critic John Rockwell and musicologist Richard Taruskin, and even a sympathetic writer like Wilfrid Mellers called it “difficult music for ideal listeners,” acknowledging its perhaps unwarranted reputation for dryness. Contributing to this perception is the kind of analysis that Carter’s highly abstract music tends to attract—either very subjective or very technical, in both cases offering little in the way of a guide to how one might actually listen to it. I’ll attempt to at least lower this last hurdle.

Carter began his career in the 1930s amid a political environment that encouraged composers to write accessible, neoclassical music. His earliest works were in the Americana style invented by Virgil Thomson and perfected by Aaron Copland (Holiday Overture from 1944 is a good example). But Carter never had more than modest success with these rather straightforward and nondescript pieces. So after the War, with political imperatives removed, domestic life secure (he married sculptor Helen Frost-Jones in 1939), family money providing financial independence, and with his stagnating career causing personal dissatisfaction, Carter began to experiment with a different, individualistic style of such complexity that he often doubted whether his new compositions would ever be performed, much less listened to approvingly.

Carter with Stravinsky in New York 1962.

The starting points for Carter’s new style were the chromaticism of Schoenberg and the irregular rhythms of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (whose New York premiere in 1924 had first inspired Carter to become a composer). The atonal counterpoint that had been developed in America by Ives, Ruggles, Crawford, and Copland (in his pre-populist years) demonstrated how these new techniques could be cultivated without relying on European models, suggesting a forward path that was free of neoclassical predictability and serialist dogma.

Carter’s big breakthrough was the formidable String Quartet No. 1 (1951), a massive exploration of rhythmic layering and transformation. At 40 minutes, it retains the grand multi-movement form and broad gestures of Romantic quartets. And being still made up (mostly) of melodies and chords, albeit astringent ones, it has become one of Carter’s most popular works and a manageable entry point for those that find his later music tough going.

That the Quartet reflects a new language and confidence is evident from its opening cello cadenza, which seems intent on dragging the Elgar Cello Concerto into the midst of the 20th century:

The tempo here is ♩=72 in 4/4 time. In bar 12, the second violin enters with steady pizzicato chords—like a metronome—spaced a dotted eighth note apart. The cello responds with a stream of quintuplets which, through some changes in time signature, turn into straight sixteenth notes. Then comes a notated ritardando where the sixteenth notes lengthen into dotted sixteenth notes and then dotted eighth notes:

At bar 22, this latter, slower pace is resignatured as quarter notes in 4/4 time. The second violin reenters, and although its “metronome” is ticking at the same rate as before, the cello’s time signature maneuvers have caused the underlying tempo to increase from ♩=72 to ♩=120, so the pizzicato chords are now separated by five sixteenth notes instead of three. This technique of using a common pulse to shift from one tempo to another is called metric modulation:

Soon the other two instruments enter, each with its own distinct rhythmic profile. The viola plays steady quarter-note triplets, while the first violin is in freer rhythm playing a soaring melody with mostly long notes (it’s this melody that approximates the role of a “first theme” in classical sonata form). Left alone, the three lower instruments’ note cycles would converge every 2½ bars, but at measure 27 the second violin starts to hiccup, while the cello drops out to quote Ives’ First Violin Sonata.

It’s an appropriate homage since Carter’s polymetric scheme here is almost an exact lift from the ending of Ives’ Second String Quartet, wherein the cello, viola and second violin each have the same rhythmic values as in Carter’s passage (aligning every 2½ bars in 4/4 time), with the first violin quoting Westminster Chimes in a freer rhythm.

These two techniques—metric modulation and rhythmic layering—became Carter’s signature traits for the rest of his career.

Besides Ives, two key influences on Carter’s Quartet are Ruth Crawford’s own String Quartet (1931) with its often highly independent lines, and Conlon Nancarrow’s polymetric player piano studies (familiar to Carter through their scores, which at that time was the only way to encounter them without travelling to Nancarrow’s Mexico City studio). Carter was one of the first to grasp the importance of Nancarrow’s work, decades before it become more widely known through recordings.

Much more can be, and has been, said about Carter’s First String Quartet, but not more concisely than the composer himself in his listener’s notes, which are characteristically cogent, articulate, and uninhibited in their use of literary analogies (in college Carter actually majored in literature before switching to music).

Like Schoenberg, Carter sought to organize his new musical language in a more systematic way. And by the time of his String Quartet No. 2 (1959), he had developed a novel technique to differentiate the instruments in an ensemble texture while allowing his counterpoint and rhythms to flow organically without any literal repetition of material.

The opening of the piece demonstrates this “new way.” As in the First Quartet, each instrument has a distinct rhythmic profile, including a reprise of the second violin’s “pizzicato metronome.” But gone are the broad, expressive melodies, replaced by a more fragmentary texture. This music is pure movement, rhythm, and contour, built from contrasts between stasis and activity, or convergence and divergence. It’s a middle ground between traditional melody-and-chord music and the sonorism of Ligeti and Penderecki, where individual parts are completely submerged into a composite texture.

To further establish their individual character, each instrument is assigned its own repertory of intervals. All parts are allowed to use major and minor seconds, and octaves are avoided. But as shown in the score excerpt, the first violin’s material is otherwise dominated by minor thirds, the second violin major thirds, the viola tritones, and the cello perfect fourths. It’s like a play where one character speaks only nouns, another only verbs, and so forth.

Carter found that this approach allowed him to write complex contrapuntal music without the arbitrary requirements of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique or the notoriously foursquare rhythms of much mid-century serial music. It also helped formalize the distinct character of his lines and chords, which tend to give parity to all the intervals inside an octave (in the above example, any interval can be extracted from the basic repertory allotted to the four instruments, using transposition and inversion as required). This interval parity is a big reason why Carter’s atonal music sounds different than that of Berg (who often emphasizes stacks of consonant intervals) or Varèse and Ustvolskaya (who set up collisions between stacks of similar dissonant intervals).

In an extended allegro toward the end of the Quartet, the instruments start to merge their identities, leading to a polyrhythmic climax with rapid simultaneous notes sounding at a ratio of 3:4:5:7. After this, the proceedings disintegrate, the second violin returning to its characteristic steady pizzicatos, which get the last word.

Although the technique of assigned intervals is Carter’s innovation, the broader notion of personifying each instrument as an idealized character goes back to, again, Ives’ Second String Quartet, which Ives imagined as four friends who “converse, discuss, argue [over politics], fight, shake hands, shut up—then [in the final movement] walk up the mountain side to view the firmament.”

Carter went on to compose three more string quartets (1971, 1986, and 1995) spaced out as further landmarks to his compositional career. Together with the first two, they comprise the most important body of work in this medium since Bartók. The String Quartet No. 5, coming as it did from an 86-year-old, seemed valedictory upon its unveiling. But Carter then proceeded to write his only opera, What Next?, at age 90, and continued with an astonishing stream of productivity throughout his 90s and into his 100s.

Some of Carter’s most frequently-performed works come from this period: miniatures like Shard, so named because it is “broken off” from the guitar part of a longer piece, Caténaires, a moto perpetuo that channels Chopin by way of Crawford, and Tintinnabulation, where Carter, aged 99, writes for the first time for percussion ensemble. But while other composers that remained productive into their old age (e.g., Stravinsky) wrote music that was more compressed and severe than before (perhaps driven by declines in stamina, hearing, eyesight, or even pencil-grasping capabilities), Carter’s last compositions actually got lighter and more florid, but no less ambitious.

We know this in part thanks to a marvelous album from Ondine, Carter: Late Works, which was released last year and features pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Incredibly, one of the first impressions it makes is how youthful the music sounds. Dialogues II, a brief piece for piano and orchestra, seems the work of a composer aged 31, not 101. As a demonstration of geriatric dash and verve, it’s rivalled only by Verdi’s Falstaff, or perhaps by Eubie Blake.

The single-movement piano concerto Interventions dates from 2007. The multiple simultaneous tempos deployed over its final 1½ minutes (strings, winds and piano all distinct) demonstrate Carter’s retained fluency, and the work also shows how much his orchestration had improved over the years—compare its colorful clarity to the 1969 Concerto for Orchestra, which is beset by balance issues and congested, heterostatic textures.

Instances for chamber orchestra was premiered in Seattle in February 2013 (just three months after Carter’s death) by its co-commissioner Seattle Symphony under its dedicatee Ludovic Morlot. Both Morlot’s Seattle recording and the Ondine recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the late Oliver Knussen reveal why Carter’s music benefits from modern multi-tracked digital recordings that eliminate extraneous noises, and separate and clarify the complex polyphony.

Soundings, written in 2005 for Daniel Barenboim to conduct from the piano, is another beneficiary of modern recording technology. It begins with a piano cadenza followed by several concertino sections culminating in a brittle passage for high strings and piccolos, a string chorale reminiscent of Ives’ Central Park in the Dark, and a long tuba solo (a rarity in Carter). The ensuing orchestral tutti is interrupted by a final piano cadenza centered on the notes B♭ and D (which spell out Barenboim’s initials in German). Two Controversies and a Conversation (2011) is yet another late work for piano and orchestra. Its prominent marimba tremolos almost make it sound, dare I say, postminimalist.

The album concludes with Epigrams, twelve pithy bagatelles for piano trio that date from Carter’s final year. As a composition teacher, he was known to advise students to write the loudest part of a piece first (“then you’ll know where you’re going”), and appropriately enough, the first of these Epigrams was composed after all the others, making it Carter’s absolute last completed work. Also fittingly, though the common definition of epigram is simply “a short satirical statement,” the word has its origins in the snarky epitaphs often inscribed on ancient Greek tombstones, something that the venerable composer—and bearer of a B.A. in Literature—would have undoubtedly known.

Carter with Cage, Frank Scheffers, and Jan Wolff in Amsterdam, 1988. Photo via Co Broerse.

Carter doesn’t particularly fit the American Maverick stereotype. He had a conventional music education, studying at Harvard with Walter Piston, then in Paris with Nadia Boulanger (whose other American pupils ranged from Copland to Philip Glass). He ended up as the superstar of the so-called Uptown composers (though he lived in Greenwich Village), and at various times held teaching positions at Columbia, Yale, and Juilliard. He wrote fully notated music for conventional acoustic instruments with no forays into microtonal, electronic, improvised, or aleatoric music. His mature compositions have nothing in them of Partch’s homemade instruments, Sun Ra’s pseudomythology, Ives’ quotations of “people’s music,” or Cage’s I Ching coins.

But if Carter wasn’t an American maverick, he was still an American original. Like Ives and Nancarrow, he developed a unique and highly influential musical language without relying on an existing system. And by focusing his innovations in the sphere of rhythm, he upheld that parameter’s tendency to be the 20th century’s most reliable indicator of musical Americanness. Though Carter studied some West African music traditions, he exhibited little direct interest in the American vernacular musics that evolved from them.

Nevertheless, it’s not a stretch to hear this lively passage in Carter’s transitional Piano Sonata (1945–6) and imagine a Bud Powell ballad solo shorn of its accompanying steady beat. It’s this way of thinking about microrhythm—internalizing the African-American inventions that informed both the flexible swing beat and rubato of jazz and the syncopations of ragtime and related dance musics—that distinguishes much American composed music from its European counterparts (even those influenced by the rhythmic complexity of Eastern European folk music).

Carter with his student Frederic Rzewski in Berlin, 1965.

The stereotype of Carter’s music is that it matched his personality: technically fluent but emotionally guarded. And by most accounts, Carter was consistently lucid and forthcoming on musical (and literary) matters, but notoriously reticent on most other topics. One would-be biographer abandoned a book project when Carter, during interviews about his personal life, displayed all the misdirection of an old magician protecting his secrets. Even his authorized biographer, David Schiff, conceded that “Carter usually gave the impression of existing only from the neck up.”

Those that met Carter as an older man—an established composer confident and articulate in his public engagements, usually with Helen (long his de facto manager) nearby—are often surprised to learn that he had been a chain-smoking stutterer well into his 40s. Neither Piston nor Boulanger seemed to regard this son of an affluent lace importer as any kind of star student, and as noted previously his early music was less popular with the public and less admired by colleagues than that of friends like Aaron Copland. Throughout this time, Carter left little indication of strong political, religious or ethical convictions. One is tempted to contemplate the apparent years of self-doubt, the coupling of trust fund privilege with career and personal insecurities, as a backdrop to his decision to forgo writing intentionally communicative music in favor of music that held personal meaning but little apparent audience appeal.

Carter with Copland and Bernstein.

Then came the surprising results of this inward turn—the gradual but sharp rise in prestige, performances, recordings, and commissions from the 1950s onward. After years of trying to fit in personally and professionally, Carter ultimately attained approbation and self-fulfillment through his most challenging and honest works. It’s in this light that his commitment to absolute artistic integrity—to writing “difficult music for ideal listeners”—ought to be judged.

Paul Griffiths, who wrote the libretto to What Next?, compares Carter’s historical position to Bach’s, the culmination and apogee of a period of craft and complexity. Taruskin, more cynically, positions him atop a prestige machine driven by academics, patrons and professional musicians, a model of artistic autonomy whose death throes are already upon us. Both metaphors imply the supplanting of the old paradigm by a younger and more popular simplicity (that of Haydn and Mozart in Bach’s case, that of postminimalism and various hybrids of art and commercial music in Carter’s).

But the judgment of “technically fluent but emotionally guarded” music was also levelled at Bach shortly after his death, only to be overruled by the improved familiarity and understanding of passing time and repeated hearings. And whether Carter turns out to be the end of a particular line of compositional high-mindedness or a waypoint in a still-thriving artistic tradition will not change his music’s essential truthfulness, or its ability to communicate deeply with those listeners patient enough to master it.

Phil Kline’s ‘Unsilent Night’ Rings Twice this Season in Puget Sound

by Maggie Molloy

Whether you’re the world’s biggest Santa-fan, a grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge, or even just an avant-garde enthusiast looking to expand your holiday music horizons, Phil Kline’s got just the carol for you—and you’ve got two chances to experience it this year in the Puget Sound region.

Kline’s Unsilent Night is a contemporary twist on holiday caroling that is celebrated annually around the globe. But don’t worry, there’s no singing involved. In true 21st century fashion, all you have to do is download an app.

This nontraditional holiday carol is an electronic composition written specifically for outdoor performance in December. Audience members each download one of four tracks of music which, when played together, comprise the ethereal Unsilent Night.

Countless participants meet up with boomboxes, speakers, or any other type of portable amplifiers and each hit “play” at the same time. Then they walk through the city streets creating an ambient, aleatoric sound sculpture that is unlike any Christmas carol you have ever heard.


Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night takes place in Seattle this Friday, Dec. 14 starting at 6pm at Cornish College of the Arts’ Kerry Hall. Click here for more information.

The Tacoma rendition is Friday, Dec. 21 starting at 6:30pm at Mason United Methodist Church. Click here for more information.

Duo Noire: Revolution Classical Style Now

by Dacia Clay

Christopher Mallett (left) and Thomas Flippin (right). Photo by John Rogers.

Duo Noire is made up of two dudes—Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett—but their new album is made up entirely of female composers’ music.

As the story goes, way back in 2015, before the #MeToo movement, Thomas’s wife, Rev. Vicki Flippin brought his attention to issues she was having at work. Around that same time, a major classical guitar society came out with their season announcement—and not a single woman on the program.

“I could not believe it,” Flippin said. “I guess you could say that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was just like, I can’t believe it’s 2015, Obama’s been elected, and someone green-lighted them playing this season of all men playing all male music.”

That’s when the idea for Duo Noire’s latest album, Night Triptych, was born. Not only did Flippin and Mallett, the first African-American guitarists to graduate from the Yale School of Music, commission works by exclusively women for their new album—they also made sure to include women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Hear the rest of the album’s story, and the story of how the two former SoCal punk rock guitarists came to do what they do today.

New Music Magic: Our Top Concert Picks for December

Frequency performs Dec. 9 at the Royal Room.

by Maggie Molloy

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Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

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Keep an eye out for our flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. If you’d like to be included on this list, please submit your event to the Live Music Project at least six weeks prior to the event and tag it with “new music.”

 

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: marimba duos, MIDI accordions, Japanese koto, and modular synths.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

UW Modern Music Ensemble: Webern, Cage, & Neuwirth
In Greek mythology, the satyr Marsyas was a great musician who challenged Apollo to a musical duel—and was flayed alive when he lost. The dramatic tale is the inspiration behind Olga Neuwirth’s Marsyas II, which is performed here by the UW Modern Music Ensemble alongside works by Webern, Cage, Feldman, and Penderecki.
Wed, 12/5, 7:30pm, UW Brechemin Auditorium | FREE

The Esoterics: ADŌRŌ
Seattle’s contemporary choral group performs a concert of works examining the solace, spirituality, and silent prayers present in nature. A song cycle by Joseph Gregorio sets John Gould Fletcher’s “secular humanist” prayers to music, while Mason Bates’ Observer in the Magellanic Cloud is based on an ancient Maori entreaty to the night sky for a fruitful harvest. Ethereal works by Eric Banks, Donald Skirvin, Christina Whitten Thomas, and Karin Rehnqvist complete the program.
Fri, 12/7, 8pm, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church (Seattle) | $15-$22
Sat, 12/8, 8pm, Holy Rosary Catholic Church (West Seattle) | $15-$22
Sun, 12/9, 3pm, St. John’s Episcopal Church (Olympia) | $15-$22

Sno-King Community Chorale: Holiday Magic
Setting an English translation of a Norwegian medieval folk poem, Ola Gjeilo’s Dreamweaver tells the musical tale of a man who falls asleep on Christmas Eve and sleeps until the twelfth day of Christmas. When he wakes, he rides to church to tell the congregation of his dreams and his journey through the afterlife.
Sat, 12/8, 3pm & 7pm, Nordic Museum | $15-$22

Frequency at the Royal Room
This dream string trio of Michael Jinsoo Lim, Melia Watras, and Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir lend their bows to music by Bloch, Klein, Kodály, and Watras in the relaxed, laid-back atmosphere of the Royal Room.
Sun, 12/9, 5:30pm, The Royal Room | $15

Phil Kline’s ‘Unsilent Night’
In this contemporary twist on holiday caroling, audience members each download one of four tracks of music which, when played together, comprise Phil Kline’s ethereal Unsilent Night. Participants meet up with boomboxes and speakers and each hit “play” at the same time—then walk through the streets of Tacoma creating an ambient, aleatoric sound sculpture.
Fri, 12/14, 6pm, Cornish College of the Arts’ Kerry Hall | FREE
Fri, 12/21, 6:30pm, Mason United Methodist Church (Tacoma) | FREE

Led to Sea & Betsy Olson Band
Drawing from classical, pop, and experimental music worlds, violinist and singer Alex Guy weaves together her own unique brand of chamber pop under the alias Led to Sea. Her trio splits the evening with the blues-based rockers of the Betsy Olson band.
Sat, 12/15, 8pm, The Royal Room | $10-$12

Neal Kosaly-Meyer: Finnegans Wake, Part I, Chapter 5
Though most might consider James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake a work of literature, Seattle-based pianist and avant-gardist Neal Kosaly-Meyer hears music in the words. He’s dedicating 17 years to learning and performing (by memory) each chapter of the sprawling work—one chapter per year. This year is Chapter 5, performed as always with props, costume, sound and lighting design, and acute musical detail.
Sat, 12/15, 8pm, Good Shepherd Center | $5-$15

Electronic Blankets for Winter Solstice
Pacific Northwest sound and visual artists christen the winter solstice with an experimental electronic music showcase featuring borscht soup, auditory hallucinations, planetary chasms, warm drones, glitch portals, and distant raves.
Fri, 12/21, 7pm, Good Shepherd Center | $5-$15

New Series One & Matrio
With influences ranging from Olivier Messiaen to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Matrio creates set-long experiences that explore the space between sound and noise, music and silence. They’re joined by New Series One, a group exploring the roots of jazz and folk music.
Sat, 12/27, 8pm, Good Shepherd Center | $5-$15

VIDEO PREMIERE: ‘Fields’ by Anna Thorvaldsdottir ft. ICE

by Maggie Molloy

Anna Thorvaldsdottir finds inspiration in nature—her music is its own ecosystem, the nuanced textures shared, traded, and transformed among individual instruments over the course of her works.

You won’t hear any birds chirping or water splashing in this sonic ecosystem, but you will hear the full subtleties of timbre, the complex interplay of voices, the way the music expands and contracts, breathing and humming and vibrating like the earth.

That notion of seismic balance is at the heart of Thorvaldsdottir’s newest album AEQUA, a constellation of chamber works (plus one solo piano piece) that explore shimmering nuances of sound. Her delicately textured compositions are brought to life by the International Contemporary Ensemble with conductor Steven Schick.

We are thrilled to premiere the video for the album’s closing track Fields, featuring a mixture of footage taken by Sono Luminus CEO Collin Rae and Thorvaldsdottir’s husband Hrafn Asgeirsson, woven together and edited by Allison Noah.


Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s AEQUA is out now on Sono Luminus. Click here to learn more and purchase the album.

Drumming Up New Music with Michael Compitello

by Michael Compitello

Michael Compitello. Photo by Matt Dine.

I’m a musician whose mission is to advocate for the efficacy of contemporary music in contemporary society. Whether with my cello/percussion duo New Morse Code, as a soloist, at Avaloch Farm Music Institute (where I am Assistant Director), or as Assistant Professor of Percussion at the University of Kansas, my goal is to build community through and around the arts.

Commissioning and incubating new works from dynamic composers is at the core of my work. I work collaboratively with composers whose music I admire and whose friendship I value. Typically, we brainstorm ideas together and workshop material in the process of being composed, allowing me to have more of a creative voice in new works than I might otherwise.

To that end, I’m excited to announce Unsnared Drum, a new project dedicated to pushing the limit of what’s possible with the snare drum. Over the next year, four of my favorite composers—Nina C. Young, Hannah Lash, Tonia Ko, and Amy Beth Kirsten—will collaborate with me on new works for snare drum solo with or without electronics or video.  These four composers will expand the expressive potential of this underutilized instrument through dramatic, sensitive, creative, and multimedia solos.  In the process, we will change the way that people think about, listen to, perform, and practice the snare drum.

As we work together, we will post video and audio of our explorations, written reflections of our work together, and all sorts of snare drum-related miscellany which you can follow on my website, Instagram, and Facebook. Thanks to Vic Firth, each of the composers will have an assortment of sticks, mallets, and other implements with which to experiment as they write. I’m also grateful for the support of Pearl Drums, whose drums the composers will be exploring over the next year.  

Amy Kirsten: Screenplay

Last July, Amy Kirsten and I began working on her portion of Unsnared Drum at Avaloch Farm Music Institute. Amy and I have known one another since our days at the Peabody Conservatory, and I’ve loved he work since she drafted me to play percussion in the first performance of her Ophelia Forever.  She’s a composer, director, singer, writer, visual artist (and a lot more) who highlights the theater present in music performance. Whether it’s a piece for concert programs or a fully staged production, Amy’s music is gripping, full of melodic invention, otherworldly sounds, and hypnotic rhythms. (Do yourself a favor and check out Columbine’s Paradise TheaterQuixoteand Savior.

Amy Kirsten. Photo by Gennadi Novash.

 Amy is also Co-Founder and Co-Managing Director of HOWL, a collaborative arts ensemble which Amy calls “equal parts storefront theatre, opera company, and grotesque chamber ensemble.” Bringing together artists from across disciplines, HOWL builds integrative, innovative, and unclassifiable new works that defy expectations of genre and medium alike.

HOWL is representative of Amy’s creative process, and a big part of why I wanted to work with her again.  How better to create a boundary-pushing work for a fairly type-cast percussion instrument than by going big?  At the same time, Amy’s process matches very well my collaborative ideal.  She develops most of her new work through workshop sessions which generate and refine ideas and structures.  As a result, her music draws upon the unique skills of the performers with whom she works and turns her interpreters into advocates.

Our Work

Amy’s overarching goal for our time together was to create a mockup of a piece as a feasibility test and proof of concept.  Her initial idea for Screenplay features a single live performer flanked by two life-sized pre-recorded video versions of himself, creating a trio for snare drums.

Amy had two inspirations for our work together.  First, she was taken by the virtuosic interaction between live performer and video in Michel van der Aa’s Blank Out. In van der Aa’s opera, the typical roles of pre-recorded video and live performers are inverted. A single live performer is (spoiler alert) the memory of a child’s deceased mother, and the part of the now-adult child is played by a pre-recorded singer displayed on a 3D screen.  The piece has some wonderful tricks—performers handing objects between the video screen and the stage, and a wrenching trio between the mother and two digital doppelgängers.  Amy was taken with the way in which van der Aa makes the digital images indispensable to the narrative.  In Screenplay, she wants to highlight the intimacy of musical interaction by giving me chamber music to play with myself.

Amy was also inspired by the capability of percussive sound to surprise and shock us. Near the end of each movement in David Lang’s the so-called laws of nature, Lang introduces a shocking new timbre, made more surprising by these unexpected sounds’ synchronicity between players. Similarly, in Thierry de Mey’s Silence Must Be!, a silent introduction is shattered by the introduction of sound miraculously synced with the gestures of the performer. In Screenplay, Amy wants to experiment with synchronizing sound with gesture, and how surprising gestures can inflect the structure of a piece.

Experimenting and Cultivating

With these ideas in mind we devoted our first session to improvisation as a way to explore as many surprising and unique sounds as we could.  For us, this meant exploring techniques and sounds which strayed as far from drumsticks striking a head as possible. Amy is a phenomenal singer, and in our improvising, we looked for ways to make the drum breathe, sigh, and shape a phrase as vocally as possible.

In her stage drama Quixote, Amy asks a percussion quartet to activate tuning forks by striking them against soft rubber objects (a free weight with neoprene covering) then touch the two prongs against a drum, piece of paper, altos tin, or any other sound-making object. The resulting buzz is haunting: full of pitch, but ghastly.  We explored this technique on the snare drum, playing with upward glissandi created when the prongs are dragged along the edge of the drumhead, creating morse code rhythms across the drum’s head and shell, and touching the prongs to egg carton foam to generate a muted beep.  But the most stunning effect was when we touched the vibrating prongs to the snare wires themselves for a shimmering sound.  We then turned the drum over and used two more tuning forks as shims to lift the snares away from the drumhead. By touching the vibrating prongs to the snare wires, we produced a resonant, shimmering, gong-like tone.

Codifying, Refining, Recording

Our next steps were to categorize the sounds with which we improvised, refine them, and record them.  After our wide-ranging improvisations, Amy and I recorded a series of videos in which I improvised with an individual technique with the intention of layering the results into the two video screens stationed on either side of the live performer.  In the end, our sound categories ranged from tuning forks on drumheads to slowly scraping the snares of an overturned drum.

Inspired by the tight rhythmic connection between visual gesture and sonic result in works like Silence Must Be! and Aphasia, we recorded my lips and hands performing a series of improvised gestures.  While Amy edited our “technique improvisations,” I took the silent films of my hands and mouth and worked to assign snare drum sounds to each gesture.  In the afternoon, we recorded each of these sounds and synced them with the video, creating a set of videos with foley sounds.

By the end of our short time together, Amy had a strong sense that Screenplay was viable, and that the snare drum could sustain sonic and dramatic interest.  While our mockups were crude, we left feeling inspired.

To Video and Beyond

Since last summer, Amy and I have remained in communication about Screenplay’s raison d’etre. Amy has become more and more preoccupied with the video’s purpose. What will separate this piece from a work for three live performers? Can the video be an artistic partner in the piece?  Could it highlight elements of the live performance while making its own artistic statement?  Amy’s ideas seemed to require more than a competent videographer.  We had questions about what was possible, what kinds of approaches could be most effective in live settings.  We needed another collaborator.

I immediately thought of Hannah Wasileski, a projection designer and video artist whose work I adore. Hannah designs projections for theater, opera, and concert performances. What I love about her work is the way in which her images intuitively highlight interesting parts of the music while making their own artistic statement.  I met Hannah at the Yale Cabaret, where she designed and filmed projections for a show I was part of which retold the Orpheus myth.  Since then New Morse Code commissioned a video from Hannah for Robert Honstein’s Unwind, where the slowly moving patterns highlight the gradual unwinding of the patterns in the piece.


So that brings us to where we are now: as Amy and I continue crafting the shapes and sounds of “Screenplay,” we have started working with Hannah to integrate a video component that will bring my digital chamber partners to life.

Our collaboration has resulted in an expansion of the snare drum’s sonic and dramatic potential through intuitive dramatic gestures—exactly what I dreamed for Unsnared Drum.  I cannot wait to share the results!

Musical Chairs: Kerry O’Brien on Classical KING FM

by Maggie Molloy

Kerry O’Brien is a new music expert. Not only is she a percussionist specializing in experimental works—she’s also a musicologist, journalist, and educator.

She’s written about everything from the sonic meditations of Pauline Oliveros to the swinging pendulum of Philip Glass, and her writings have appeared in publications ranging from The New Yorker to The New York Times, NewMusicBox, and The Chicago Reader. She also serves as the Research Director of the Nief-Norf Summer Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, and has presented her work at music conferences around the country.

Kerry has played a big role in shaping the local Seattle new music scene as well. She currently serves on the music faculty at Cornish College of the Arts, and you may know her as one of the masterminds behind NUMUS Northwest (named after the 1970s new music periodical Numus West).

This Friday, Nov. 16 at 7pm PT, she’s the special guest on Classical KING FM’s Musical Chairs with Mike Brooks. Tune in to hear her share a handful of her favorite recordings and musical memories from across her career.

Tune in at 98.1 FM, listen through our free mobile app, or click here to stream the interview online from anywhere in the world!