Q&A: Michael Genese

Composer Michael Genese discusses “The way we look,” featured on Sputter Box’s debut album.

Michael Genese. Photo: Nikita Smirnov.

Sputter Box’s debut album, Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box, features more than 25 brand new miniatures, each scored for bass clarinet, voice, and djembe.

The way we look” is Track 05 on the album.

NATASHA NELSON: Would you begin by talking a bit about your composition for Sputter Box? Was this the first time writing for the ensemble’s instrumentation?

MICHAEL GENESE: Absolutely. This is the first time I’ve written for Sputter Box. The piece is called “The way we look.” I wanted to find a piece of poetry that would say a lot with a little bit of text, since the pieces were supposed to be a minute or less. I wanted something that was short, but still said something worth saying.

I chose this excerpt from a poem by Richard Siken about the way we look at people: the way we interpret how someone looks, and how our looking at them might influence how they look.

It was really wonderful to write for Sputter Box. It’s an instrumentation that can be really sort of barren in a way: there’s no keyboard instrument, it’s all very exposed, and as a string player-slash-vocalist, it’s almost hard to latch onto some of the textures—but it’s so unique and wonderful. They’re such a great group.

Does “The way we look” include extended techniques?

MG: Yes, there are a few. The clarinet gets most of them. There are some key clicks, air sounds, and some timbral trills, for which Kathryn basically has to play the same note two different ways and toggle back and forth between them.

Were any aspects of the compositional process for this piece, and in writing for this instrumentation’s particular timbral combination, surprising or unexpected?

MG: Getting the instruments to interact with each other in a way that was genuine and organic – especially writing for a group that’s [collaborating remotely], with three instruments that are so different timbrally – I thought the standard formula for writing music and counterpoint would get me farther than it did. I really had to be very mindful of how these lines could interact with each other, and how they could interact with each other specifically when the three of them weren’t together in the same room.

I listened to a couple recordings on your website. I loved what I heard! One of the pieces I listened to was Bird Mansion, as well as Je me suis embarquée—I was really interested to see that title because I know the art song setting by Fauré and it’s a personal favorite. Would you like to discuss either of those pieces?

MG: Yeah, it’s funny—actually, this morning I was working on Bird Mansion. I’ve been taking this mixing and mastering class, and I’m revisiting the mixes on my [recorded works]. Bird Mansion has actually been the trickiest, given the thick electronics part, and mastering every single source and component in the piece.

Listen to Bird Mansion, performed by JACK Quartet.

Bird Mansion was about the last apartment I had before I moved to New York. What I really like to do with my electronics pieces is preserve sound space, including things that we might take for granted. For example: the birds that live near the apartment we’re at that might actually not be anywhere near where we go afterwards, the way the microwave sounded while it was running—those kinds of really small things that paint an aural picture of a place.

I loved that apartment so much and I was so excited to come here [to New York], but I didn’t want to forget how the place sounded. That’s still one of my favorite pieces that I’ve written. It’s really near and dear to me. I’m so glad you listened!

Would you also discuss Voices 21C? Did you co-found the organization?

MG: I am what we call a founding member. We started up in 2016. We were sort of birthed as this choir that was supposed to take part in a project that our conductor had, and none of us wanted to disband, so the people that founded it grew this non-profit organization. We’re Boston-based. A lot of our folks are from all over. We’re a social justice choir that uses our concert programs to tell narrative stories about current social justice issues. So we collaborate with a bunch of people, we work with children’s choirs wherever we go, we perform at choral conferences, and discuss what choral music could be. It’s an organization on the front lines of questioning what choral music is and how it serves people.

Do you have any projects coming up that you’d like to share?*

MG: Yes, let’s see—next month [in June 2020] there is a digital music festival being hosted by ChamberQUEER. I’ve written a piece with a text by Phillip B. Williams for ChamberQUEER that’s premiering at some point this summer, which is really great. That’s been a really exciting project—it’s been really great to work with them.

*This interview took place on May 31. Genese’s composition What is meant, scored for soprano, baritone, and two violoncellos, premiered on June 24, 2020.
Listen to the recording here:

Listen to more music by Michael Genese at www.michaelgenese.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

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