Q&A: Apollonio Maiello

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.

“D – A – N” (2020), composed by Maiello for flute, clarinet, and alto saxophone, and recorded by a single performer. Daniel Roncari plays all three instrumental parts, heard here.

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 really like the sound of this paper scraping on the drum . . . 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?'”

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.

>>rooms<<, composed by Maiello for mixed jazz ensemble and electronics. Recorded at Theaterhaus Stuttgart.

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

Q&A: Samuel R. Mutter

Composer Samuel R. Mutter discusses “The Spice Cabinet,” featured on Sputter Box’s debut album.

Samuel R. Mutter. Photo: Sarah Mutter.

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 Spice Cabinet” is Track 27 on the album.

NATASHA NELSON: For how long have you been composing?

SAMUEL MUTTER: Probably about three or four years now.

Is there a style or instrumentation that you particularly enjoy writing for?

SM: I really like writing for as many different instrumentations as I possibly can. If I had to pick one instrumentation to write for, it would probably be string quartet. In terms of style, mainly contemporary classical, but I like to mix in folk influence, and sometimes some jazz.

Was “Spice Cabinet” your first composition for Sputter Box’s specific instrumentation?

SM: Yes. I’d written for bass clarinet before, but I hadn’t really written much for voice, and never for djembe, so that was a cool experience.

Was there anything surprising or unexpected about that process?

SM: It was interesting how for this piece, I had trouble at first coming up with ideas, because it was such [an atypical] instrumentation to work with. I couldn’t necessarily find the right inspiration for it, so I sat down at the piano like I normally would do; I improvised and played around with melodies and harmonies to see what I could come up with. Eventually, I started coming up with some material that I thought [could work]. I think that with most pieces, you have the feeling and the emotion you’re going for before you sit down to write it. For this one, I had to find that as I was writing it, and that influenced the lyrics a lot.

The lyrics actually came up after I wrote most of the melody for the soprano voice. I was snacking on some sort of spicy chip while writing, and I thought, “It’s a one-minute piece . . . Why not make it about spices?” And so I went over to my mother’s spice cabinet, opened it up, and looked at the different things and pulled some names that I thought would fit well with the rhythm of the singing. It basically came from that.

Have you written for voice before, and is this the first time you’ve written text for a composition?

SM: I’ve started writing some various jazz-inspired type tunes for a friend of mine who’s a singer, but because of the pandemic never really got to finish those. This was really the first time that I had a completed work for voice. I’ve played around with writing text for a piece, but this is the first complete text that I’ve written.

What instrument (or instruments) do you play?

SM: I play piano and trumpet.

After sending the score to Sputter Box, was the ensemble’s finished recording the first time you heard the composition in full?

SM: Pretty much. I was using Finale – a music notation software – to write it, so I was able to hear the MIDI sounds, but it’s really not the same because there were some extended techniques that I added that you just can’t get from the MIDI sounds. The first time really hearing the full thing was from Sputter Box playing it.

That leads me to this next question: What kinds of extended techniques did you include in the score for “Spice Cabinet”?

SM: For bass clarinet I added slap-tonguing, which creates a percussive effect while also sounding whatever sonority is written. For djembe, I didn’t really [include] any extended techniques; I was just playing around with how to notate it well to go with the different types of drumming that Peter could do. For voice, I added a version of slap-tonguing for voice, in which [the singer] would click her tongue as she sang a certain sonority. Then there was another point in which I had the singer do vibrato by using her hand and cupping it over her mouth.

And one last question: Did a specific idea inspire the decision to add those particular extended techniques? Are they included to primarily help fashion the timbral quality of the piece?

SM: I think it was mainly for the timbral quality, particularly with the beginning part, which is where most of the extended techniques are used. It was creating this atmosphere of mysteriousness – “What’s going to happen?” – especially because there were no lyrics to go with the beginning. [The opening] is mainly vowel sounds for the voice. You’re not really sure what this is going to be about, and then it kicks into high gear a few measures later.


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

Q&A: Joseph Bohigian

Composer Joseph Bohigian discusses “Pokr Khazer,” featured on Sputter Box’s debut album.

Joseph Bohigian. Photo: Raffi Paul.

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

Pokr Khazer” is Track 22 on the album.

NATASHA NELSON: Would you begin by talking a bit about the miniature “Pokr Khazer,” written for Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box, and the composition’s title?

JOSEPH BOHIGIAN: So “Pokr Khazer” is actually one of a few pieces that I wrote here in Yerevan, Armenia, using this idea. It’s graphic notation. I originally wrote a solo string-instrument piece using this kind of notation, then made another version for Sputter Box—and actually made a third version for a different duo.

I’m using these neumes called khaz. It’s an ancient Armenian music notation, about a thousand years old. That’s the text that Alina is singing [on the recording], too: different parts of that word. Armenian has its own alphabet, which I’ve been transcribing into IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet)—the top line [of the text for the vocal part] is written in Armenian letters; the bottom line is IPA.

The title – “Pokr Khazer” – means little khaz-es. “Khazer” is just the plural of “khaz.” “Pokr” is small, or little. Nobody really knows exactly what all of the symbols mean anymore. That knowledge was lost, so I’m thinking of it as reinterpreting the symbols through graphic notation. The performers choose gesturally how to interpret each of the symbols. Each system is fifteen seconds, so they move through it together.

In the score, there are four lines that represent the general range or register of the instrument. And then, especially in this version, I left a lot about timbre and technique to the players.

“. . . I’m thinking of it as reinterpreting the symbols through graphic notation. The performers choose gesturally how to interpret each of the symbols. Each system is fifteen seconds, so they move through it together.”

Is the score meant to be interpreted linearly, both in terms of its fifteen-second blocks, and the way in which the notated symbols are arranged vertically for the three parts?

JB: Yes—if two players have symbols on top of each other, they should be playing them at the same time. They don’t need to have a timer going to know that it’s exactly fifteen seconds; it’s just a general guideline.

In this version of the piece, did you specify any extended techniques, or did the performers include any in their interpretation?

JB: No. Because I know the performers, I just said coordinate among yourselves some similar techniques, whereas when I was writing it for people I didn’t know as well, I specified a little bit more. There’s a key in the notes to how to read the score.

Pictured above: An excerpt from the opening of the score for “Pokr Khazer,” composed by Joseph Bohigian. The staves include notation for voice, bass clarinet, and djembe, respectively.

I was also interested in hearing about another piece you wrote, entitled +-+-+-+-++++-+-+-+-+-+-+-+–+- (or Plus-Minus), which Sputter Box performed live in 2019.  Was that composition initially scored for voice, clarinet, and percussion?

JB: Plus-Minus is for open instrumentation.

In what instrumentation was it originally performed?

JB: Violin, clarinet, and I think vibraphone.

Do you often focus on a specific style, or specific instrumentations, in your compositions?

JB: Recently, I’ve been narrowing down a few different things: one being indeterminacy, which you’re going to see in this piece and the other piece Sputter Box played (Plus-Minus). [I’ve been] trying to find different forms of controlled indeterminacy, where I’m looking for a certain texture and the best way to achieve that is through indeterminacy, and not trying to be so specific. And, as an extension of that, doing some work with graphic scores.

That has crossed over with the other thing I’ve been doing a lot of recently, which is live electronic music. I play with the technology-focused group Ensemble Decipher, and I’ve written a couple pieces for them. One used a graphic score.

So those have been a couple directions. And then, since I’ve been here, also exploring Armenian music and how I might incorporate that into my own music, because I don’t want to just write something that sounds like a folk song. I want it to sound like me. I’m Armenian and I grew up with Armenian music, and learning more here, [I’ve been] trying to see a way that works for me to incorporate that.

That’s what I’ve actually been working on with my dissertation piece, which I’ve been writing since I came here. I’m setting an Armenian text that I assembled from some different folk songs. I’ve been studying different kinds of Armenian music and seeing which elements I want to use in mine. And that’s how I got into the khaz [notation], because I was doing research and I read a couple books and articles about khazer. I was doing a lot of research on it for this and the solo string piece that I was writing, which is why I wanted to make a couple additional versions. I actually ended up getting a tattoo of one of the khaz symbols—so I spent a lot of time doing that research on it, for the tattoo and for the piece [laughs].

How cool!

JB: When I was doing my volunteering here, I was working at the Komitas Museum. Komitas was an early-twentieth century Armenian composer and he was also an ethnomusicologist, so he did a lot of research into Armenian music. He actually did a lot of research on the khaz notation, as well, so a lot of information about it comes from him. But apparently he said he was close to figuring out exactly how it worked, but then a lot of his research was lost or destroyed during the genocide, so we don’t exactly know a lot of what he knew.

So [Komitas’s work] sort of was the basis of Armenian music theory. I was studying his music and the folk songs that he collected, and I ended up making a text. What I was doing there was mostly translating folk song lyrics from Armenian into English, and I was noticing a lot of patterns of topics that would come up in the different songs, so I took fragments of lyrics from different songs about similar things, and assembled a new text. That’s what I’m setting in the piece.

Is it a pastiche, in a way?

JB: I tried to assemble it in a way that it makes sense as a new, complete text. The title is The Water Has Found its Crack.

What’s the instrumentation?

JB: It’s for three sopranos, percussion, and violin, viola, and cello.

As a composer, what’s it like hearing, for the first time, a performance or recording of a work of your own that incorporates graphic notation or open instrumentation, or explores indeterminacy in some way? For a work that is very open with regard to interpretive possibilities, is the experience hearing it played (or sung) for the first time ever surprising? Is it different every time?

JB: It depends on the piece. I try to write it in a way so that it’s not going to be completely different every time. To me, it should still sound like the same piece. And in the pieces that I’ve written, there are different levels of openness.

This is one of the most open that I’ve written. But, for example, in this version for Sputter Box I wasn’t too specific with the different techniques, but in the original one that I wrote, I had a friend of mine who’s a violinist play through it, and it sounded pretty much like what I was thinking. In that way, I feel like if you work with a performer a little bit, you can get the ideas across in a way that it’ll be consistently the same piece.

Pictured above: Closing system of the score for “Pokr Khazer.”

That’s so interesting! What draws you to this more open approach to composition and performance?

JB: I guess for me it’s partially an experiment in seeing what works and what doesn’t—partially because it’s just something different than what I was doing before. With this piece, specifically, I was really interested in these neumes and seeing how I could incorporate them into a piece, even though I didn’t really know what they meant musically in their original context.

The original khaz notation is symbols above a text. If you search khaz notation online, you can see it has the text, and then the symbols are above the text—even in the original version, they’re not too specific. It’s aiding an oral tradition. That kind of goes along with this not being super specific in the notation in my version, as well.

“Because it’s a graphic score, I was thinking initially very visually in terms of the aesthetic layout of the piece. Even if the listener’s not going to be seeing it, because of the nature of the score, I think it’s important for me to inspire something in the performers by the way it looks.”

It’s wonderful to learn about khaz notation, and the ways you’ve explored it here in this composition. Is there anything that we haven’t discussed today that you’d like to add?

JB: Well—I didn’t really talk about the text that much, but there’s not that much there because it’s all [parts of] one word. But I like that idea of exploring the sounds of that word by breaking it up into its components and parts. I’ve been studying Armenian this whole time, so I’ve been really interested in the sounds of the language itself.

Is there a particular inspiration behind the mood of the piece or the way the text is shaped in the score?

JB: Yes. Because it’s a graphic score, I was thinking initially very visually in terms of the aesthetic layout of the piece. Even if the listener’s not going to be seeing it, because of the nature of the score, I think it’s important for me to inspire something in the performers by the way it looks. So I’m thinking more spatially about events, as if they were physically in front of me. And then, thinking in terms of varying the texture between one person playing, two people playing, all of them playing, nobody playing—to get some variety there. That’s, I think, one of the most prominent aspects of a piece like this.


The above interview took place in June 2020. For more music by Joseph Bohigian, visit josephbohigian.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