Composer Isaac Mayhew discusses “what a time to be alive,” featured on Sputter Box’s debut album.
Sputter Box’s debut album, Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box, features more than 25 brand new miniatures, each scored for bass clarinet, voice, and djembe.
“what a time to be alive” is Track 25 on the album.
NATASHA NELSON: Thanks for joining me today for this interview about your composition “what a time to be alive,” written for Sputter Box. Is this miniature the second score you’ve written for the ensemble?
ISAAC MAYHEW: Yes. I got in touch with Sputter Box through the Millennium Composers Initiative which is a composers’ collective that sets up collaborative concerts. The president, Josh Trentadue, is another composer who participated in the “Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box” project. MCI has a number of composers, spread out all over the country. There are also a couple international members now.
The idea is for composers who are young, at the gaining-a-foothold stage of our careers, to help each other out. The main thing that the group does is put on collaborative concerts. One of those concerts was set up with Sputter Box. [The concert was postponed due to COVID.] This is my second time writing for the ensemble, and the first time I’ve heard them play my work.
How does the miniature written for the “Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box” project contrast from the first score you wrote for the ensemble?
IM: The first piece, “Hide and Seek (a colony of trees),” is much longer. It’s more structured around the vocal part. The piece incorporates a poem that a friend of mine who I work with here in the Twin Cities, Xander Gershberg, wrote. I structured the piece around that poem, whereas the miniature is much more centered around Kathryn playing clarinet. In “what a time to be alive,” the miniature for the “Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box” project, there’s just one little vocal line, which is the title of the piece. It comes in right at the end.
What inspired the miniature’s title?
IM: We’ve now been social distancing and locked down on various levels for two or three months, and so things have kind of begun to feel normalized. But essentially, while I was working with the text back when this piece was written, everything was super new. And so it’s one of those things: you can tell that we’re all living a historic path right now, which I guess I’ve personally never quite felt to the extent that I have in the last couple months.
Would you describe your inspiration for writing the score, and anything in particular you’d like to share about it?
IM: Sure. It’s a one-minute miniature. The piece came together super-fast. Sputter Box put out their call announcing “Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box,” and I remember reading the project’s details, thinking the whole project felt super-clever. I remember feeling really energized. I think that comes off a lot in the clarinet part, which is super hard.
I wrote the piece in a day. It’s a short, repetitive piece. The first third – or half – of it is basically solo bass clarinet. The idea is that it’s feeling its way into this leap-y, mixed-meter groove, that the other parts of the ensemble eventually join in. In terms of starting the piece, the process of composing the miniature was first coming up with that groove, then figuring how to fit in the percussion part, and then going back from there and developing into that section.
A piece that I really like in terms of inspiration is press release (1992), a solo bass clarinet piece by David Lang. The bass clarinet’s an instrument that has the ability to play extreme ranges and has very distinct timbres in each range. Writing in that style for me is really taking advantage of that. That’s something that I tend to gravitate towards when I write for the instrument.
What’s your primary instrument?
IM: My primary instrument is trumpet. I started composing formally when I was in sixth or seventh grade. Trumpet was my first introduction to reading Western music and being educated in that tradition.
What’s the instrumentation for “Hide and Seek (a colony of trees)”?
IM: For that one, it’s soprano, bass clarinet, and a pretty simple percussion setup, as well—mostly toms and some cymbals.
One of the things the poet, Xander, and I were talking about before either of us had started the process, was that we were interested in the idea of connecting two ideas which are super different from one another, and finding a through-line for them—but not necessarily connecting them. And so he went through the poem and deconstructed its language. The first section of this poem is about a boy hiding in a tree, listening to his parents fight. The words of the poem are – literally – deconstructed, and then reconstructed into a completely new section about a forest. It has a different tone. It’s very different also in subject.
Those two sections are really tenuously related, but literally, the language that is being used is the connective tissue. I tried to mirror that in the music and I felt like percussion-wise – for the second section, especially – the strength and power of a tree is an important feature that I wanted to pull out somehow. I thought drum-kit percussion would be a good way to evoke that.
For “what a time to be alive” – the miniature – did you begin with its text, which we hear at the end of the piece, or did that come later?
IM: The title came first. My composing style generally tends to be stream-of-consciousness, and this is definitely another example of that. I started writing this bass clarinet line because it’s really effective and fun, and then pieced together the [rest]. I had just been working from home for my day job for the third day, or something like that. Where I live in the Twin Cities, in Minnesota, we were early on into people feeling the everyday effects of the pandemic, and what that would mean for normal life. In not including the vocal line for anything other than that last section right at the end, there’s a little bit of almost humor that I’m hoping to pull out through the piece: everything is getting started and all of a sudden it’s over. It’s one minute long and it really develops into itself: there’s four measures of that and all of a sudden, the piece is over. It’s supposed to become a little bit ridiculous. The times we’re living in are ridiculous, you know? In a more serious way than that, obviously.
When we think about how a composition’s text or musical content can take on new meanings in different contexts and at different times, how do you feel that might relate to this piece? Given this specific inspiration for the composition’s text, and how it’s integrated into the score in this way, do you feel that this text should always be interpreted in a very specific way as related to the times in which it was created (and to which it reacts)?
IM: That’s a great point. No. I think that if you were listening to this piece, maybe in another time period in the future, I think it’s clear from the context of how this piece came about, given the project that Sputter Box put together, that it’s about living through the COVID-19 pandemic. But, it could just be about living in a very uncomfortable time, you know? I don’t think it needs to be – and actually maybe I prefer that it not be – interpreted like that. I like the idea that any listener can transpose it onto their situation, regardless of what that is.
What’s another project you have in the works currently?
IM: As a trumpet player, I’ve put out a call of my own to have a bunch of local composers write trumpet miniatures. The title of the project is “Walking Songs.” A composer from the Twin Cities area submits a piece titled after the neighborhood or the area that they live in or have spent time in, especially during the lockdown. Once the pieces are completed, I’ll record them and release them in the same format that Sputter Box has been doing. The project on the whole is like a collage of the Twin Cities.
The project “Walking Songs” is now an album, a musically-inspired collection evoking the Twin Cities, each performed by Mayhew. The 13-track album of miniatures was released on November 6, and is available on Bandcamp.
Composers Ford Fourqurean and Erich Barganier discuss their new album.
Iris, a new EP released Feb. 4 on Off Latch Press, features four newly composed electroacoustic tracks – for varying combinations of electric guitar, clarinet, and violin – by Ford Fourqurean and Erich Barganier. “Like Horses” and “Grotesquerie No. 2,” composed by Barganier, alternate in order with Fourqurean’s “aperture” and “divergent roads.” The album features Fourqurean on clarinet and Barganier on electric guitar and violin.
Exploring an indie-classical sound – a description Barganier shared – the collection of new music cracks open the classical mold. Electronic processes are implemented to curve and distort acoustic fragments—they reflect, magnify, and pull apart their musical matter. The resulting sounds seep into the texture like light as the music unfolds. In this way, the album forms a kaleidoscope of textural and timbral shifts in the electronic processing of acoustic instrumentals.
Its bookending tracks – Barganier’s “Like Horses” and Fourqurean’s “divergent roads” – conclude somewhat similarly. “Like Horses,” in particular, resolves in a cluster of electronically-produced sound, which clouds – until it nearly submerses – the track’s clarinet and guitar parts. “Grotesquerie No. 2” and “aperture,” composed by Barganier and Fourqurean, respectively, also share similarities. Contrasting the fluid, shifting sounds of the first and fourth tracks, these two, instead, embrace the silent space surrounding an isolated guitar on “aperture,” and a clarinet, alone, in “Grotesquerie.” Whereas the second and third tracks puncture rhythmically, and punctuate in a conversational way, the opening track ripples. The concluding track expands.
One of multiple features that make this EP so distinct is how the compositions started out in score form. Barganier and Fourqurean each fused, in individual ways, Western classical notation with elements such as guitar tablature and video—giving space for plenty of improvisation, as well. Novel approaches to musical notation made the blueprint for what became the album’s raw recording material.
A particularly strong focus on audio mixing and electronic processing forms a through line in Iris. As the composers explain, recording production and its transformation of each uniquely engraved score became an integral aspect of the music’s final form.
In this recent interview, Fourqurean and Barganier describe their collaboration on Iris, and their collaborative and independent approaches to electronics and composition heard on the EP. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Continue on to read the full conversation, below.
NATASHA NELSON: To start, would you each share a bit about yourselves for readers, and how you got started on your collaboration on this new EP?
ERICH BARGANIER: I met Ford at the Westben Performer-Composer Residency, in Canada. Typically, they invite about 20 composer-performers together to this artist residency where you go and write pieces together, and you perform your own work. This year, because of COVID, that didn’t happen. As a result, they decided to reformat what that residency was. They put everybody into groups, and everyone made these digital installation-performance videos. Ford and I were placed in a group together. I think Ford was actually one of the only people I knew by name a little bit out of the crowd, because I knew of his playing through Unheard-of//Ensemble. Never had met him before, though.
I really clicked with Ford, and after our project was over with the Westben residency, we thought this would be really cool to go and do on our terms in a smaller format, and with a lot more time. The residency was only three weeks long. We got together shortly after that, and we came up with the project. We thought it’d be really cool to write for each other and have more of a compositional end to it. That’s where the beginning of the EP came from. And, my own background: I’m a composer-performer. I do probably more composing than performing these days, so this was a nice chance to really get back into it.
And Erich, I read that you’re also a visual artist, is that right?
EB: Yeah—that’s one of the other things that Ford and I bonded over. We both were doing video work for this Westben project. In my case, I do a lot of datamoshing and glitch-based art, either in Audacity in still images, or corrupting video manually and reformatting it through a bunch of really old, random programs that probably shouldn’t be on the market anymore for consumers.
What’s glitch-based art?
EB: It’s a destructive form of art. There’s a bunch of different variations of it, but in the way that we exist right now, where everything is some kind of file, there are ways to go about distorting the data inside of it. But you don’t do it through code—you do it by putting it into places where it shouldn’t go, and then spitting it back out.
How about you, Ford? Do you focus on visual art, as well, in addition to music?
FORD FOURQUREAN: Professionally, I’m known as a clarinetist and I’ve been composing for years. At the start of the pandemic, when everything shut down, I was looking for ways to not feel creatively burned out and feel like I was actively trying to create something . . . produce something. I ended up diving into my composition and diving into working with video art.
I’ve been doing a lot of video art for my ensemble for a while, but outside of Unheard-of//Ensemble, I hadn’t really worked [on it] creatively. But there are all of these tutorials out there. I’ve been diving into tutorials on things like masking, how to overlay and collage images, and how to use different color effects, filters, and create different dynamic layers within certain bits of video. These are all things that I thought were really cool and I saw other people do pre-March 2020.
I probably would not have been able to come up with any of the work that I’ve been doing if I was sticking to the schedule, and the priorities, I had before the pandemic. Meeting Erich at Westben—this was a great opportunity. I come from the other side of this where I’m, mostly, working as a performer. This was a great opportunity for me to continue writing. And I haven’t actually had my own music put on an album before, so is a really cool experience for me.
That’s awesome! Since we’re on the topic of visual art, who created the album cover art for “Iris”?
FF: Both of us.
Let’s get into the EP’s music. Would you like to chat about the four individual tracks?
FF: I guess the easiest thing to do would be to talk about where we came from when we were composing for each other. We each wrote a duo, and we each wrote a solo. Maybe we can pick apart those two sides a little bit. Why don’t you go first, Erich?
EB: Yeah. I was going to say the same thing. We approached that from the angle of writing each other a solo piece, and then we were going to write a duo piece for both of us to play. The way that I first approached it was, I think I gave Ford some really heavy electronic tracks that weren’t very much fun, and they weren’t really working very well. So then we – at least from my end of things – had a talk about it. Ford was talking about it in relation to his tracks—he was saying “I want to use this to go try out some things and have fun with it.” I thought, “Why am I not doing that too? That should be the point of this.”
Up to this point, everything I was working on through 2020 was really serious music. Not that this isn’t serious, but there’s whimsy in this where there isn’t in some of my other pieces. So from my end of things, I wanted to explore that end. And, I like writing for people—so learning what Ford likes, what Ford doesn’t like, and what kind of fits within that was a big guide as to where I went with these pieces.
One of the things that I wanted to try out – which is something I think I gravitated specifically toward, working with Ford – was trying to do something in an indie-classical style. That’s not something I would normally write, but it’s something that Ford is really good at. The idea behind the first track, “Like Horses,” was: What if you had a NOW Ensemble track, but it’s now lo-fi and folk-inspired—and weird?
The solo clarinet piece, “Grotesquerie No. 2,” is a piece inspired by working with Ford in the beginning of this. I’m writing a series called Grotesqueries based in a notational style where it’s very gestural but there are no noteheads. This is one of the first pieces in the series. It’s very improvisatory. There are contours of notes, there are dynamics, but none of the notes are specified—there’s a heavy amount of improv that happens.
On the whole, I really wanted a way to showcase Ford in that one, despite the element of composition. I wanted [it to be] a way to show off [his playing] without it being a typical, flourishing clarinet solo, where you have a bunch of runs and fast [passages]—something that would fit what I felt would really work for his style of playing.
From there, having that idea of these short, bagatelle-style pieces, is what these are based on—but they’re done in a very weird way. I’m dubbing them “Grotesqueries.” So this is, again, kind of in that same style: this is not necessarily “serious” music, but it’s still art music.
Are all four compositions on the EP notated uniquely?
EB: More or less, yeah.
And I take it this is the second piece in the Grotesqueries series?
EB: It’s the first one that’s been completed. I’m still working on the piano [selection]. There are two other ones coming out after this. There’s one that’s going to be for piano and vocals. There’s one that’s going to be for electric guitar.
Is the series primarily intended to be recorded?
EB: No—Ford has access to a device called a MUGIC, which is a gestural controller for his clarinet. The really nice thing about this particular piece, which I really like, is that the MUGIC clips onto the bell of the clarinet—then, based on where it exists in space, it actually does procedural actions and sends the data into (in this case) Ableton. The electronics that you hear in there are replicable in a live performance. Based on how Ford will move in these environments, he’ll be able to make it sound like that, too. These will all be able to work in a recording environment, or in a live environment.
FF: In terms of the way they’re notated and the way they’re laid out, they’re all meant to be performed live in some form. I’m not going to be able to one-to-one recreate what this sounds like ever again, really, unless I use the automations that I built in, in making a recorded mix of it. But the thing about the MUGIC is, it’s sort of like your own little chamber partner.
This was originally developed by violinist Mari Kimura. She worked with Earcomm and a bunch of other people in developing this hardware—this little Dorito-sized chip. It’s really flexible. It’s usable on Max/MSP or Ableton.
Speaking of “Grotesquerie No. 2,” is that multiphonics I hear on the recording?
Are there other extended techniques we can listen for, too?
EB: I think that was everything. Although, I’m really glad the multiphonics came out. I really like to have moments in pieces where it’s like, “What is that thing? Is it electronic or is it non-electronic?” So I’m really glad that it came through.
I’m also interested to hear about both your approaches to pitch or tuning to this album, with regard to either composition or performance. That’s a really cool aspect of the music.
EB: One thing I did think about – right when Ford was talking about the MUGIC – is that one thing that also united us together in this project was the use of electronics. I think that inspired us to work together, even at Westben.
FF: The difference – and this is something that Erich is hitting on – that’s more of a general theme of the album, too, is we’re all using these different perspectives and ways of looking at the same effects and electronics. I use Ableton, Erich uses ProTools and a wide variety of other softwares—but we’re all coming into the same types of effects – like these pitch-shifting effects, these vocoder-like effects, a lot of delays, a lot of dealing with ambience and reverb – in ways that work together.
It’s four different ways of looking at a lot of these same techniques. I think it gives each of these pieces a different character, but by the end of the album, you start to hear it as a coherent unit. In some ways, I feel like there’s the argument to be made that they’re distinct pieces, obviously, but I do think that as a listening experience, it ties together because of the techniques—maybe not the thematic material. You know?
Yes—in fact, that touches on another question I had, which was: Are the four tracks that make up the album tied together by any particular unifying – or contrasting – elements? So that’s really interesting to hear.We’ve talked about “Grotesquerie No. 2” and “Like Horses.” How about “aperture” and “divergent roads”?
FF: Those two pieces are two very different styles of composing, and two very different notations. “aperture” was the first piece I started writing, in the fall. Originally I think it was a slightly different piece before I got the first samples and revisions from Erich.
I started out with this sort of pop-y, Reich counterpoint-esque piece. I really like the effect of this really short articulation on guitar, and I thought, “Whoa—this is a really cool, punchy sound.” But after working with Erich and layering out these samples in Ableton, I found some really interesting chiptune synths that I felt worked really well with the guitar improv that Erich was doing towards the end. I asked Erich to revise the type of timbre he was working on and re-record.
The piece has two pages of notated samples and cells to work from. There were about four different layers of recomposing the piece from beginning to end that changed the tone and the timbre from something that was originally a light and fun listen, to something that I think is a bit more . . . I don’t know—Erich help me out here, I’m trying to think of the word for my own music [laughs].
EB: That’s actually really funny, because when I first started working on it, it sounded like it was in a form where it was cell-based and there was a lot of editing it around—it was a lot more carefree. It’s so funny how that flipped. At first I had these really heavy pieces, and you hadn’t started the duo yet. We were working on the solo and it was a lot more upbeat—and then it totally flipped on itself. So It’s really funny how it worked out. I never really realized that.
I think “positive”? Is that the word? It used to be more positive, and now it’s a bit more realistic.
FF: That’s a good way to put it. It’s not a programmatic piece, whatsoever. It sort of exists on its own. I’ve been trying to come up with a video for it forever, but I can’t think of what I would want to do with it—whereas, “divergent roads” started as five or six different chunks of video material that I put together. I actually made the video before writing any of the music down.
I went on two trips during the pandemic to visit national parks, [including] a trip to the middle of Maine, to Acadia, during the summer. After being stuck in Brooklyn for the past nine months-plus, these moments of going somewhere were freeing. But at the same time, there’s a difficulty in enjoying the trip and where you’re at because of the fact that you’re still locked down in the middle of a pandemic. This is not a pandemic piece, but I thought there’s something really beautiful about this experience of going forward and getting to be at a place where you are in the open air.
The way I composed it was I came up with multiple layered videos. The score is overlaid on top of the video. I played off of this and then sent it to Erich in video form.
Did you record the clarinet part after putting together the visual elements in the score?
FF: Yeah. It went: visuals, clarinet part, and electronics somewhere in between those two things. Then, I sent it over to Erich with the final layered score. Erich recorded back for me and I took different elements of the takes he sent to me and layered them in, and then processed them.
So, there’s literally no way to replicate this once again. But the beauty of it is, we have the automations in Ableton, so you could play this live and it would be a completely different experience, but you’d get the same effects, the same sound world, and the same overall experience. And for me, I want to be able to bring projections into the concert hall whenever I’m playing this. I think it’s also really cool working with the MUGIC. Even if you’re not manipulating sounds, you can manipulate video. Hopefully in the future I can incorporate more visual processing through the MUGIC, when I can go back and start revising more and more of my solo works.
That’s so cool. Would you briefly explain how the score’s material is intended to be interpreted through the information that’s included visually?
FF: It’s very loose. It gives you different pitches to move between at different points, starting with slower, longer material. Eventually you start getting more melodic material peering in, but it’s really up to the performer. Erich is comfortable working completely on the fly and is a very good improviser, so I knew I could trust him to get the sorts of sounds that I wanted to pull out.
Erich, would you describe some of the specific ways in which you interpreted the material?
EB: It was a back and forth for at least a few revisions. At first, I was responding to the video on an electric guitar. Afterward, it was decided it would sound better on a violin. I got the pitch material and tried it a few different ways. There are no directions like sul tasto or sul ponticello written into it, and there are some moments that were explicitly stated: these need to be more legato-sounding, these need to be played more with texture here, for example. I had a lot of room to move around and interpret that. I sent over two or three different takes, and sent over one more afterward where I played a lot more legato.
I like the production of the final version a lot because it is not typical of art music in North America. It’s not like you play and record what’s on the page. It’s closer to pop music production, where you take the best from every single session, you put it together, and you make a great product from that. And it feels a lot more alive because of that. So I really enjoyed the way that Ford composed it by piecing it together In the mixing stage. I think that’s why that piece really works.
And Ford, what is it that interests you most about using video projection as a starting point in composition?
FF: I’ve always been someone who needs to have a very strong outside visual reference. Some people rely on poetry, some people rely on synesthesia or colors. For me, I’ve been lucky enough to see some really incredible things and capture them on film. And being able to translate that and produce sound out of that is really easy. I can think of what the texture and the sound world would be, or at least what I would want that to be. It’s a great starting point. From there, I can dive into more and more layers.
One interesting thing that I’ve been talking about in my composition lessons with Nirmali [Fenn] this year is this idea of the skin of sounds. Sound has a temperature to it, right? There’s this feeling of hot and cold—this sort of sensitivity to textures. And what makes a sound cold or hot? What gives it this density? Why would you describe a sound as warm? And that’s the skin of it. That’s something that I’ve been trying to figure out in my own works: how do I create these temperatures?
Did the mixing and production aspects of creating the EP’s recordings come in early on in the composition process?
EB: I think one thing that’s unique to this project, at least from my angle, is that these tracks only came together in the mixing process. It seems like a lot of the ways that these came together was I gave Ford the tracks that I recorded and he put them together in the mixing. In the same way, in the first track, Ford gave me about two different takes, and I reprocessed them through this device called a Kaossillator to go and recreate that. In the mix, it actually became the real piece. The only thing that has a traditional kind of score that you would expect is the Grotesquerie piece. Everything else was created in the mix. So that was actually a very integral part to this EP, I think.
Very cool. How about the EP’s name?
FF: Well, we go through these different ways of looking at things, right? Each track is our own perspective on this, so I figured “Iris” is this flexible lens.
One more musical aspect I was interested in hearing more about is the electronics that conclude the ends of Tracks 1 and 4. It sounds as though the instrumental playing morphs, and electronic sound takes over in some way.
EB: One reason that worked was because of the nature of the improv that went into this. The mixing stage was the final say with how the composition went. I think that does inspire the way that I would interpret this if we were to play this live at some point.
FF: For the last track, I used this mixture of processed synth sounds. I dive into this recorded white-noise, sort of static-y, texture. I don’t know if it’s super, super audible, but at certain moments you start to hear little bits of a heartbeat. Towards the end there, it’s this idea of fading away and fading into static. And for me, letting us die out and letting the static, light, and the visual element of that take over, was important for me.
Is there anything more you’d like to share?
FF: One thing I want to highlight is just how weird and how fun this entire process has been. Sometimes I feel like we try to intellectualize these projects and everything has to be some form of high art, right? But some of the greatest collaborations – and some of the greatest work going on right now – is by people who are operating outside of high art spheres, or who have not been given the privilege of being in high art spheres. Collaborations, for me at least, started out as something that I felt like I had to do to get through the pandemic, but now they have turned into something more enjoyable where I get to work with people that I would not have otherwise.
EB: And in addition to that, the amount of support that has been added to that entire sentiment is kind of a movement, more or less. The label that we’re releasing this on – Off Latch – their entire ethos is that D.I.Y. dedication to letting artists who might not have a platform find a place to go and host their art—whether it’s in the form of an album release, or written short stories, long essays, et cetera. I think it’s really, really incredible that we get to go and also contribute to that community through this project, as well. It’s something that I hope it will continue long after the pandemic’s over. It’s so democratizing and it’s a very unique place to be that I think is, like Ford said, very under-recognized.
Composer Apollonio Maiello discusses “Sing Swan!” featured on Sputter Box’s debut album.
Sputter Box’s debut album, Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box, features more than 25 brand new miniatures, each scored for bass clarinet, voice, and djembe.
“Sing Swan!” is Track 15 on the album.
NATASHA NELSON: Would you first talk a bit about your piece “Sing Swan!” and your choice for its text? What was your inspiration for the composition, and why did you choose the poetry featured in the score?
APOLLONIO MAIELLO: So first of all, it was my first time working with a text which is not my own. I feel like poets oftentimes deal with similar issues as composers: it’s basically composition with words, in a way. We deal with internal rhythm, even how [text] sounds, phonetically speaking. So it always seemed really hard to me to take someone else’s text, who I don’t know personally, and then put it into music.
However, for some reason when I read that text – I have dozens of poetry books by Rose Ausländer, so I was basically reading through all of them – that one really spoke to me. Rose Ausländer, who is the poet in this case, wrote most of her poetry in German. She grew up in a German-speaking society, in the Bukovina, which is now basically the region between Ukraine and Romania. Most of her poetry’s in German, and then there’s also a large part of her work which is in English because she used to work in New York, and she lived there for a good amount of her life.
I guess it’s one of those things that are always a little hard to really point at: the one thing that made me feel like that was the right text to choose. But there was something in the internal rhythm of the text which made me realize that this seemed to be a good text to start working with by composing for voice. And then there’s also something oddly romantic about that text, which I could see somehow putting into music.
Is the poem as set here a translation from German by Ausländer, or did she originally write this particular poem in English?
AM: That’s an original text. It’s written in English.
Have you written your own texts or other vocal music previously?
AM: I haven’t written any other vocal music, but I do write texts as another form of expression. I’ve just finished a piece two days ago for an orchestra in Belarus. It’s an orchestral piece, but the musicians in the orchestra have to whisper a text at some point—that’s a text written by me. It’s easier to put that into music because I already know how it’s sort of supposed to navigate, and what the internal rhythm is—the flow of the text just feels more natural to put that into music.
Oddly enough, this was the first time I had worked with a singer before—it’s odd because my dad is a singer, my sister is a singer, and it just feels very unnatural to me for some reason, although I’m constantly surrounded by singers. My mother is a recorder player. We’re all musicians in the family.
Oh, wow! What was your process for setting the text in “Sing Swan!” in terms of writing for those three instruments (djembe, bass clarinet, and voice)? Do you often work by immediately notating, or at a piano? Do you approach one line first?
AM: I try out different things every time, but I do tend to write on the piano, or to at least start sketching there. Then I usually record myself or notate the staff immediately. I move fairly quickly to a notation system and elaborate the sketches a little more. Then I usually get back to the piano and start improvising and sketching it out.
Now with the text in “Sing Swan!,” I improvised imagining each phrase as a melody, but I also tried to find chords and colors that appealed to me, and then figured out why they appealed to me, and how a melodic line could navigate in that color. That’s gradually how I approached it: to find the right notes at the right time, basically.
I saw an interesting note in the preface to your score for Sputter Box, indicating the use of paper with the djembe, which, of course, you can see and hear in the video recording. Would you describe your inspiration for that choice?
AM: The basic, simple answer would be that I really like the sound of this paper scraping on the drum. But my main idea was to find another way to work with a djembe. I had never worked with one before, and I’m sure it might take a little while for me to work with a djembe again just because it’s not frequently used in Western music.
I think I saw another composer [add that effect] – it might have been Hans Abrahamsen in Schnee, which is a marvelous piece of music – and I really like that sound because it’s a very objective sound. It doesn’t really say too much, but it creates a beautiful atmosphere without implementing one emotion. And I really liked that.
I felt like it also fit the text because at one point it’s about breath—it’s about breathing. One could see that sort of movement on the djembe with the piece of paper as a – I’m always hesitant to say imitation – but it sounds like a human, continuous breath. It felt right to use that in this piece. It’s a very subtle sound, but it seemed to work perfectly.
I was really interested to see on your website that you had written a piece for theorbo, viola da gamba, and soprano recorder. Did you write that piece in an early style?
AM: This was for an early music festival in Italy. I had never written for a theorbo before. To answer your question, no. It’s not written in an early music style. I am very interested in composing for early music instruments, or Baroque instruments. Also, in the Netherlands there’s a huge early music scene, so I have access to that, as well.
I try to be as non-idiomatic as possible—to approach it in the way that comes most natural to me, without thinking too much of what has been written for that instrumentation before.
Did your ideas or process for writing for early instruments in that case differ from your approach to writing for modern instruments, such as in this case, for a contemporary classical ensemble?
AM: I think the answer is no because in the end, there’s so much history for those instruments that you can revisit and study. Maybe there’s a temptation to sort of look at it in a different way than, let’s say, more [frequently] used classical instruments. An instrument is an instrument, and it doesn’t really matter when it was created first, or if it’s 200 years old, or 300 years old. I just try to approach it pure and simple. So I guess the answer is no.
In a totally different vein, I saw on your website that you’ve also composed a piece for toy pianos! I was interested to hear more.
AM: Yeah, sure! That’s for a great piano quartet from the Netherlands—Horizonkwartet. Those are supposed to be toy pianos; now, because of the pandemic, they’ve had to practice on whatever they could find. I think they’re practicing it on two pianos and two sort of MIDI-keyboards—something like that. But it’s supposed to be four toy pianos.
I always wanted to write something for toy piano, and then I thought, “Well . . . I have the option of writing for four toy pianos, so why not do that?”
Wow! What interested you most about writing for toy piano? Was it the timbre?
AM: Yes. There’s something really beautifully naïve about the sound of a toy piano. It’s never really cute, you play with what you get. And I like the percussiveness of the toy piano, as well.
Interesting!Are there any particular combinations of instruments you tend to write for most frequently?
AM: There are instrumentations that I don’t tend to write for. For instance, although I’m a pianist, I’ve never written a piece for piano, because as a pianist, I do a lot of improvised music. It’s really hard for me to find a reason to notate something on piano just because the approach for me is more of that of an improviser. But other than that, I’m open to whatever instrumentation is available.
I’m composing a piece right now for two friends in Australia for viola and double bass, which is interesting. There’s not a lot of repertoire for a duo like that.
Did the goal of composing this work (“Sing Swan!”) specifically for a digital medium change anything in your approach?
AM: In this case, yes. There were things I had to consider—for instance, that [the musicians] couldn’t be in the same room. That’s the biggest thing, I’d say. I didn’t want to do a lot of things where they had to be together, so they could just record it on their own. I also figured to not focus too much on specific sound qualities, just because I didn’t know which mics they’d use, and how the room was going to be where they recorded. And then, figuring out how to convey a musical idea in one minute. So, those were just things I had to consider.
Does the score for “Sing Swan!” incorporate extended techniques, apart from the indication for the percussionist to use a sheet of paper on the djembe?
AM: Not really. In the end of the song, it says “Voice almost breaking.” I liked [that indication] because it helps fading out in a way. The last two words are “Sing Swan,” so it’s almost as if, then, something should actually happen . . . . . . Let’s say the swan could start to sing, after the human voice breaks. I liked this feeling of constant expectation, you know? I always imagined it as a gateway for something else to happen.
This interview took place in June 2020. For more music by Apollonio Maiello, visit apolloniomaiello.com.
This article is part of a series, featuring interviews with 16 composers whose work is featured on Sputter Box’s debut album. Read the feature article here!
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. #ShelterInSound