Composer Josh Trentadue discusses “ALL I WONDER,” 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.
“ALL I WONDER” is Track 02 on the album.
NATASHA NELSON: Would you begin by discussing “ALL I WONDER,” including your inspiration for the composition and its text setting?
JOSH TRENTADUE: Absolutely. I first heard about Sputter Box’s project Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box when they started posting about it and started reaching out to composers asking them to write music for them. I’ve been a fan of the ensemble for quite some time now. What I really like about them is how much they have thought outside the box in terms of interdisciplinary approaches, in terms of chamber music, in terms of creating art for their instrumentation on top of that. I wanted to write something for them for this project that would reflect that, even though given the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, that the approach to it was going to be different.
My inspiration for writing this really came as a spark. I woke up one morning and discovered that where I was living, it was pretty stormy outside and the weather was actually pretty bad. There was rain, there was a little bit of thunder and lightning, and just from that visual imagery alone that morning, the text basically wrote itself. I thought about all of the people who throughout this quarantine had been isolated, had been on their own through this pandemic living by themselves, and I thought about how each of us were all going through this in our own way, really. My approach to writing this was to write something that reflected that with the visual imagery of this weather, essentially, but leaving it open-ended with a question: to ask if there was the possibility that there was anyone else out there that was going through this, as well, who could relate to those circumstances.
What came first, the text or the melodic line?
JT: For me, the text came first: that visual imagery of the weather outside that one day gave me the idea for it. I wrote it all down, then did a little editing afterwards. What I tried to do with the music was find a way to be able to reflect that, as well.
Did the contour of the vocal line, specifically, come from imagery in the text or from the rhythm of the words in a very particular way?
JT: Yes—the rhythm of the words, definitely. I tried to write something that was going to fall in line with that, but I also wanted to write something with the contour that was going to add to the emotional despair of the piece. Something that was going to add to the loneliness, or that fear of being lonely.
Does “ALL I WONDER” include extended techniques?
JT: Yes, there are quite a few, mostly for bass clarinet and djembe. I asked Peter to play a couple of slaps on the djembe which create more of a punctual sound, as opposed to just playing the drum on its own. I also asked him to use a couple of techniques where it’s his fingers only, so that you get more of the overtones of the drum. He also made them really quiet, too. My idea for that was to create some texture that was going to add to the visual imagery of this weather that I described. And for Kathryn, for bass clarinet, I asked for similar things, too, to add to that imagery. For example, there are a couple places where she’s asked to blow air through her instrument at no pitch whatsoever; it’s just air, and with that I wanted to create the idea of this wind blowing through the storm.
Would you explain the effect of a timbral trill, written here in the score for bass clarinet?
JT: Sure. A timbral trill is essentially when an instrumentalist is asked to do a trill on a singular note, but all that they’re changing is the fingering for that note. For this piece, specifically, I asked Kathryn to do a trill on the exact same note, but the fingerings on it are different; she has a fingering and an alternate fingering that she goes back and forth between. That creates – in my mind, at least – a different sound or texture than, say, if you were to trill between two different notes.
Shifting focus for a moment to the vocal part, I’m curious to hear about your choice for notating the last lines of the text – “Hear me? Hear me?” – with x-noteheads in the score.
JT: For the text and with the repeat, I wanted to create an echo of the [penultimate] line, “Can you hear me?” With the notation, I asked Alina to not rely on pitch so much and lean more on a whisper, so that it can create for the listener this idea that there is an echo being lost in the wind.
I enjoy exploring the following question, as well, with regard to notation for text settings in vocal music: what idea inspired your choice to notate those final lines, indicated with x-noteheads, on that specific pitch (Eb4), versus elsewhere on the staff? Are the lines intended to be half-pitched in a way?
JT: I think the reason I chose this pitch was because I liked where it was in the register and I liked how it added to the rest of the other music going on. I think it gave more of a quality of a whisper or an echo for what I was looking for here, as opposed to higher in the range, or maybe even lower in the range.
Would you speak for a moment about M.O.T.I.F. (Music of the Introspective Fields)?
JT: So that is the name I’ve given for my self-published work, my self-publishing company. For me it means two things: the first being that music for me is always about introspection. That’s where it starts: how we feel inwardly, and then translating that to how we express it outwardly. And the second part of it being that a motif is basically a little musical identity or fragment that’s constantly repeated or reworked or developed over time throughout a piece. And motives are something that I continue to work with in my own music.
Is there anything more you’d like to share about this piece or this project?
JT: I think that about covers the piece in particular and the ideas that I had behind it, but I would like to mention, as well, that I’m very, very grateful to Kathyrn, Alina, and Peter for this opportunity to be able to keep creating music, especially with other people during this crisis and during this time that a lot of artists are really struggling right now.
Composer Daijana Wallace discusses “Through Distance,” 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.
“Through Distance” is Track 01 on the album.
NATASHA NELSON: Would you begin by talking a bit about your piece “Through Distance”?
DAIJANA WALLACE: I think I pride myself on being able to write for my friends, and so this project was really intuitive to come by. I knew Kathryn before – I had met her at Cortona Sessions in 2018 – and I’ve been following her work through this ensemble. I loved the work of Sputter Box, but we hadn’t previously been able to line anything up because of our various schedules.
I think in general, writing during the quarantine was very, very difficult. I was thinking about all the various projects popping up about collaborating via Zoom or Skype, but there were so many. It was nice to get to write something for friends in a project that I felt good about, amongst all the other ones to possibly choose from.
Are the Cortona Sessions geared toward contemporary classical performance?
DW: Yes. It’s Cortona Sessions for New Music, and what it’s about is giving composers and performers opportunities to work together, and to get mentored by composers and performers who perform a lot in that medium. For composers, it’s a chance to learn how to work with new people in a short amount of time. The first year I was there auditing, which was great. I observed a lot and learned so much. I attended again the next year and participated as a composer.
What’s your primary instrument?
DW: My primary instrument is cello.
What kinds of pieces do you often focus on writing, and for what instrumentation?Was this composition particularly new in any way?
DW: Not necessarily. I’ve written a lot of chamber works, which make up most of my catalogue, and I’ve written for voice before, but every voice is so different: yes, you have range—but what’s the sound? The singer’s tone? How does their voice operate? That’s always a challenge, but I just tried to keep it safe [laughs]. I’ve written for percussion in solo and chamber settings and for wind instruments, as well. I hadn’t written for clarinet yet, specifically, so it was great.
What was it like composing a minute-long piece? As a composer, how does one go about writing material to fit a specified duration?
DW: I think this is particularly difficult, because I like to think that I write short pieces—and when I say short pieces, I mean pieces that are about less than ten minutes long. So this was challenging to write something for just one minute. How much detail do you have to put in? Do you want it to be like a tiny rhapsody? Do you want it to have an A-B structure? The thought of form comes to mind, as well as musical complexity.
Not only is quantity of material a factor, but how much time does an ensemble have to rehearse it and put it together? For this project, Sputter Box asked that scores didn’t have a lot of syncopation and a lot of improv because of the medium that they were working with. I especially love adding improvisation elements in my scores, so the challenge there was to get away from that a bit. I’ve always wanted to try out songwriting, so I feel like this was a really fun moment for me.
Had you heard Sputter Box’s vocalist, Alina Tamborini, sing prior to writing this piece?
DW: Yes, Sputter Box posts various videos on Instagram and Twitter.
Right! I seem to have forgotten about the presence of the internet for a moment there.
DW: [laughs] I had listened to most of the “Sputter (SHIFTS THE) Box” miniatures before I had even decided to start the project, just to see what everybody else was writing, as well as what everyone else was doing for these wonderful musicians. So I had done a little bit of research, but it’s so different when you’re doing everything virtually, without getting to interact with a collaborator in person.
Would you describe the text for “Through Distance”?
DW: Since we’re talking often about social-distancing, I wanted to think about the idea of distance, but not in the way that everybody was thinking about it in the current moment. The easiest thing to draw inspiration from was being in a [long-distance] relationship with my boyfriend, and thinking about that in retrospect, since we’re spending a lot of time together now. The text addresses distance, but not the distance that we’re all facing right now.
For other vocal compositions you’ve written, did you set your own texts for those, as well?
DW: I’ve worked with a poet named Julien Evans. I set their text for a song for string quartet and voice. Julien’s poetry really spoke to me in this way that they write. It’s almost difficult to want to be writing my own text – and think about writing my own text – when they just produce such amazing, wonderful work. But for a project like this, it’s so short and so small, you know? Usually poems take up a lot of time, spatially.
DW: When I think of text-setting for art songs, even if they’re short art songs, they range from about two minutes, onward. Working with text like that, you really want to dedicate a lot of time and energy into it. For this project, it was easier to write my own. For other projects, I’m definitely looking for texts from other poets, or from snippets of Tweets, or something I see on the internet.
When writing “Through Distance,” what part of the texture came first: the text and vocal melody, or the bass clarinet and percussion parts?
DW: I sang through the vocal line multiple times to figure out how the text was going to flow, and how it was going to sound, so that came first for sure. What came next, [through] singing it over again, was how to evoke this R&B vibe, given the instruments that were available for me to write for.
What elements did you write into the score to evoke that in particular?
DW: That’s a great question, thanks—I think it’s the constant pulse with Peter in the percussion. When I think about music, it’s always through – there’s always this thing about – feeling. The way that I felt this R&B Ballad could come together was [demonstrates rhythmic figure] and also, the sound of it. I wanted to make sure that it sounded good, to also supplement that feeling.
Would you describe your approach to crafting the vocal melody within the instrumental texture created by the clarinet and percussion parts in the score?
DW: When I was constructing this piece, the vocal part came first and the percussion part came after that to establish this rhythm, this groove. Then, the clarinet came in to reinforce harmony and add background textures. That was the last part in the composition process.
I think the voice and percussion are at the forefront of this work—and it makes sense. It’s like a pop song, almost, just for instruments. That was the order of operations: the vocal line, then percussion, and then the clarinet to add harmony, as well as texture.
Does the composition include extended techniques?
DW: I think the only thing that I have in there are some wind noises for bass clarinet, but nothing super crazy [laughs].
Did writing for a digital medium, versus for live performance, influence your compositional approach to the piece? Were there any surprising elements in hearing the finished recording for the first time?
DW: Yes. I think what I was surprised about was to hear it all come together. I’m not sure what editing software the ensemble used, but everything sounded like one collective unit. And even though I had heard the other videos before, and they sounded great, [it’s unique] when it’s your project and it’s your baby.
Would you like “Through Distance” to be performed live once we have access to concert halls again, or is the composition’s creation for a digital medium, specifically, essential to the work?
DW: It’s so different to think about pieces being performed – and written to be performed – in a virtual medium, as opposed to pieces being written to be performed in a physical medium. I think that if this were to be possible in a physical medium, I would love to expand more on it if given the time, because it’s just one-minute long. If it were expanded into a collection of miniatures or into a full song, I feel like for me, it would be more fulfilling in a physical medium. But I wouldn’t be opposed to having more interpretations of this virtually. I think that would be really awesome.
Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about today?
DW: I’m really appreciative that I got this chance to work with such incredibly talented and dedicated musicians. That’s one thing I love about composing: I have one part, but the performers make everything about composing possible. I just have to thank them one more time.
Sputter Box members Peter White, Kathryn Vetter, and Alina Tamborini discuss their debut album.
Sputter Box (from left to right): Percussionist Peter White, clarinetist Kathryn Vetter, and soprano Alina Tamborini.
Interdisciplinary art ensemble Sputter Box regularly defies expectation. The trio’s repertoire ranges from theatrical to quietly nuanced for an uncommon combination of instruments: solo voice, clarinet, and percussion. Sputter Box’s members – Alina Tamborini (soprano), Kathryn Vetter (clarinet), and Peter White (percussion) – regularly commission new works that illuminate the multifaceted aesthetic possibilities of their combined sounds. This summer, the group released their debut album entitled Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box, featuring more than 25 brand new compositions.
As shelter-in-place orders were announced last spring – and access to rehearsal and performance spaces paused – Sputter Box continued to explore opportunities to create within newly imposed paramaters. The ensemble sent out a call to composers for new, minute-long works, to be scored for voice, bass clarinet, and djembe, and recorded remotely. The resulting collection of stylish and thought-provoking miniatures, featured on the debut album, highlights Sputter Box’s characteristic creativity and edgy interpretive style.
In May, I sat down with Tamborini, Vetter, and White – remotely, via Zoom – to discuss digital collaboration, the ongoing development of Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box, and the unique process of creating chamber music together, while miles apart.
Continue on below to read the conversation, and then drop everything to take a listen.
NATASHA NELSON: Would you first talk a bit about your recording project Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box?
Kathryn Vetter: Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box is a project that we started pretty much right when the shelter-in-place order came about. We sent out a call to composers to write us a one-minute composition that we could record separately from our own homes and then post on our social media pages. I think 36 composers contacted us, initially, intending to write.
Have you worked previously with the composers who have written for this project?
PETER WHITE: It’s a mix, right?
ALINA TAMBORINI: Yes.
PW: Mostly not, though.
KV: Yeah, mostly composers who haven’t written for us before and whose music we haven’t played before. I would say it’s kind of a split between people we know and people we don’t know.
Have you found the styles of the compositions submitted so far to be very different from one another?
AT: The styles for all but a handful are very much contemporary classical music. “New music-y.” There are some that sound like straight-up art song, which is different from what we’ve done.
We have two submissions that are written in more popular styles. One of those pieces, called “Through Distance” by Daijana Wallace, is marked “Like an R&B Ballad” and that was really cool. It’s about how distance affects people. I like the R&B Ballad because it’s so different from what we normally do. Another one, called “Happy Tune” by Niles Loughlin, was pretty pop-y, so that was fun to do. It sounded like a really fun jingle.
KV: Most of the composers have written their own words, too. Some texts have been taken from poems, but I would say the majority have been written by the composers.
AT: There are a handful of pieces with lyrics that are very relevant to right now.
PW: A good number, yeah.
AT: Brendan Sweeney wrote a PSA (Public Service Announcement) about washing your hands following the CDC guidelines. He asked for visual components to accompany the vocal part in the video recording and I thought that was cool. Another composer wrote about a personal experience during COVID.
KV: Some are hard to tell, too: some could be about [the current moment], or about someone’s feelings now, but in a more abstract way. And some are very obviously about now, such as the PSA about washing your hands. It’s definitely a variety, I think.
In what languages have the texts been written?
AT: There was one in French. Other than that, they’ve all been in English.
Did the call for scores include any specific requests apart from the indicated instrumentation?
PW: Definitely. I specified the six kinds of sound possibilities of the djembe. There are more, but I had to limit it for this. It can be a good compositional exercise to limit your parameters a little bit, and it gives the composers a chance to write for a drum you don’t hear very often in a classical percussion setting, you know? So I gave them the six sounds; they added finger rolls, for example, here and there.
Would you describe those six sound qualities?
PW: They’re a mix between muted sounds, open sounds, and slaps. You have your muted bass, you have your open bass, slap bass—that sounds like bass guitar terminology, so I’ll say bass slap. Then going up: you have an open high sound, and then a closed slap sound, and an open slap sound. That’s the sound lineup.
What specifications were composers given for bass clarinet?
KV: I limited range a little bit so that they wouldn’t write so high—most of my limitations were to avoid disturbing my neighbors too much. I encouraged them to keep [their writing] in the lower range, especially because bass clarinet is kind of the bass voice in the ensemble, especially when we just have djembe.
I specifically indicated what extended techniques they could use. I limited multiphonics and quarter tones. I think three composers have emailed me asking if they could use multiphonics, and some have used quarter tones. I always say yes because they promise to limit them. I just didn’t want to get 36 pieces of just multiphonics. There are just so many things that take extra time and we knew this was going to be a quick project.
Has the vocal writing in these compositions differed from that of other pieces you’ve sung, Alina?
AT: Compared to my opera life, absolutely! They fit the mold of what we’ve been doing nicely and they’ve been challenging but accessible. I limited range for the vocal part, too, just to avoid singing much higher than C above the staff on my little microphone. I bought a new mic, so that was nice.
I always indicate in our calls for scores that I can do Sprechstimme and Sprechgesang, and no one’s ever done that for Sputter Box. But someone did some! I thought Wow, that’s cool.—I’ve never actually had the opportunity to do that outside of Pierrot Lunaire.
There weren’t too many extended techniques. They’ve all included traditional techniques, but written in a contemporary style. I will also say we asked composers to try to avoid extended periods of improvisation. We do improv together, and we’ve done a lot of improv together. Improvising over one another, though – where one person records a part, then the next person, then the next – could have been really challenging, especially if we had a bunch of improvisation pieces. We did get one piece with a graphic score. Graphic scores aren’t necessarily intimidating, but—
KV: When you’re recording separately—
AT: —I was really nervous. But we had a Zoom call and talked about it, and it turned out really cool!
Which piece was that?
AT: Joey Bohigian’s! It turned out really well, and it was successful even in these alternate styles of recording.
KV: In general, we asked the composers to keep in mind that we are recording these separately, so maybe it’s best to limit extreme hocketing. Rhythmic challenges that might not be a challenge in person suddenly become very difficult. And what I’ve found, actually, to be the most difficult is when I’m recording along with someone who has lots of rests. It’s actually better when they write all three of us, all the time.
That’s a perfect segue to the next question: What has it been like collaborating while you’re not in the same room together? Unless you are in the same room together . . .
KV: We are not. [laughs] We are not violating any social distancing rules.
PW: [laughs] We’ve been relying on metronomes and making [click tracks], if necessary. Most of the pieces have been in time, for the most part. There have only been a few fermatas here and there that we’ve needed to troubleshoot.
KV: Or tempo changes.
PW: Or tempo changes! Yes, which I have to actually make a click for, obviously.
AT: Doing a ritardando as a group [from different locations] . . . it was challenging. We take those things so for granted.
PW: Oh, yeah. I could program that, but I think that’s too much trouble. And it defeats the point, doesn’t it?
Would you describe in some more detail the process of recording separately and then putting it all together?
KV: Peter or I usually record first because we often have the most rhythmic, and the fullest, parts. Usually Alina’s not singing the whole time.
The first person records while listening to a metronome or a click track. Then, the second person records while listening to the first person’s recording, so we have to have a count-off. I think I recorded one with Peter’s part and a click track, too, because [of the number of] rests.
KV (continued): After the second person records over the first person, the separate files get sent to me. I put them together, send them to the third person, which is usually Alina. Then she records, sends me her file, I edit them all together, and make it look pretty.
AT: I think a lot of times it’s the more challenging ones that I’ve recorded at least 20 takes of, and then we put it together and it sounds so cool! Then I think, “This is great! This is a bop.”
There is a piece by Josh Trentadue, called “ALL I WONDER,” and I remember recording it separately, [thinking] “This is a challenge to put together,” and it sounds awesome—it’s so cool. I’m excited to play that one again. Josh is co-founder of MCI (Millennium Composers Initiative) and the organization’s composer spokesperson spearheading a collaborative project for us, which we’ll still do later once we can have audiences again, of course.
Has any common thread emerged, or has anything surprising come up, in the process of recording these pieces in this unique, tiered way?
PW: I’m actually surprised by just how much chamber music skills are still required despite [recording separately]. You think you’ll just plug in with your track and do your thing and it’ll be fine, but if someone’s off a little bit and they’re recording the first take, then everyone else adjusts, and then it kind of keeps unfolding that way.
AT: So accurate.
KV: That’s like the one that I recorded with your part, Peter, and the click track. There was a part that you didn’t line up with the click track, so I just cut it out and followed you, because it didn’t matter if we were exactly with the click track. That’s not the point of it.
PW: The click becomes irrelevant.
KV: Right. So it’s mostly chamber music, but with a very set leader of the piece.
Sputter Box, pictured with an installation by Project Group GREEM, currently on view at the Charles B. Wang Center Theatre Gallery in Stony Brook, New York.
The installation is featured in an exhibition entitled “The Studio: Through a Surrealistic Lens,” curated by Jinyoung Jin.
AT: Most of the time I just record with Kathryn and Peter’s recordings in my ear. There are a few pieces where I’ll also have the video up, because I’m so used to being able to hear them and see them breathe and move in certain ways. And even though they may not necessarily be thinking about that when they record – you don’t need these grand gestures of pickups and cues – they naturally both do so, anyway, because it’s ingrained in them, having done so much chamber music. So subconsciously, they’re still giving [those cues], and for the ones that are more challenging, I’m able to then look [at the videos] and pick up on what they’re doing, which is really nice.
PW: And I’m able to read you when you don’t even move!
AT: I know!
KV: There was one piece that ended in a fermata. Alina, did you record that one first? She gives no visual cut-off [for the fermata] and then Peter recorded second. I put them together and thought, “Oh wow, that’s exactly together!”
AT: [laughs] This is fun. Also, Natasha, we haven’t—
KV: We haven’t debriefed.
AT: Yeah, we haven’t talked about this together yet.
KV: Yeah, so this is fun.
Oh, wow! I’m glad to hear that. Do you foresee performing these miniatures live eventually?
PW & AT: Yes.
Prior to this recording project, was “Sputter (SHIFTS THE) Box” – the concert program performed at Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn – the ensemble’s most recent performance with a live audience?
PW: It was, yeah.
Visually that venue was really awesome. Different, very cool.
KV: I liked that venue a lot. I think it was the coolest venue we had played in as Sputter Box.
PW: Yeah, that’s accurate.
AT: The lights were changing behind us with the music. That was pretty cool.
AT: More saloon-like.
KV: Yeah, it’s more casual, too. Musically, I think that performance was pretty on par with what we do. We had the Ekimovsky (Verse for the End of the Century), which is one of our standard pieces—it’s one of the pieces that was actually written for our [ensemble’s instrumentation]. We had Bethany Younge’s piece, Doublespeak, which has become one of our favorites. We ended with the Aperghis (Sept crimes de l’Amour), which was the first piece we ever played.
Was the concert different in any way from what you’d done before?
PW: It was just extreme.
KV: Peter’s mostly talking logistics.
PW: I am. It was unique in that way.
KV: It was really stressful to set up; we didn’t really have enough time to load in. But there was a moment once everyone was set—Peter, you looked up at us to see if we were ready, because you start Ekimovsky. All three of us took this collective breath before we started. And it was like, “Okay. Here we are, we’re going to be fine. This is what we do. This is what we’re good at – – We’ve done the setup, we’ve done the stressful part. Now we get to play the music. . . . And that was really cool. That one moment really sticks with me.”
Sputter Box recently added a brand new bonus track, “PmuD II” by Yoshiaki Onishi, to the album in October. This summer, the trio was featured as the 2020 Ensemble Fellow for the Cortona Sessions for New Music.
Recent recordings by the ensemble include Cassie Wieland’s “Go together” and a rendition of “I will.” by composer Beau Kenyon. Sputter Box’s recordings are available to download or stream on Bandcamp.
Listen to Cassie Wieland’s “Go together,” here:
This is the first article in a Q&A series featuring Sputter Box’s debut album. Stay tuned for interviews with composers whose work is featured on the album. The interviews in this series have been edited for length and clarity. #ShelterInSound