Q&A: Isaac Mayhew

Composer Isaac Mayhew discusses “what a time to be alive,” featured on Sputter Box’s debut album.

Isaac Mayhew. Photo: Nina Sultan.

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.

“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.

The above interview took place on May 31, 2020. For more music by Isaac Mayhew, visit isaacmayhewcomposition.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: 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