Maneuvering in the Classical Cloud

There’s an interesting Alex Ross article in this week’s on classical music’s migration to the cloud and what might be lost in the process. My transition to conducting off of a tablet has been part of a bigger digital-migration project this year, which has also involved transferring all of my CDs (liner notes included) to digital. With all of this finished, I’ve been enjoying the “gleaming, empty rooms” that Alex speaks of. Wide open space is a precious thing in a New York apartment, and the elimination of all those CDs racks has left our home feeling simpler and more open, with fewer dust-bunny havens, less clutter, and more wall space. Similarly to Alex, there are a few discs I’m too attached to to part with, such as the scratched-up-beyond-use recording of Tehillim that I ran out and bought after first hearing the piece in 1992. But for the most part, I’ve found that my attachment is to the music rather than the objects. And the music is actually much more accessible now than it was as discs on a shelf. I spend over a third of each year on the road, so I love being able to access music and liner notes from any country on any device. Search functionality means that I no longer have to pull my hair out trying to locate that one piece that I know I’ve got on some compilation album somewhere, or tracking down the disc that’s been misfiled among over a thousand others. And digital file sharing means no longer needing to track down or write off the disc I loaned to someone and then completely forgot about.

But I share Alex’s frustration with online music services being ill-suited for classical music. Few services have “composer” as well as “artist” fields. Google Music, which is where I do most of my listening, now has a “composer” field, but it’s not viewable from the mobile apps and isn’t searchable at all. And this far into the digital age, there really should be a better way of dealing with liner notes than manually scanning them in. I also share Alex’s concern about the impact of streaming services on independent artists. However, one needn’t retreat to the era of discs to deal with that: there’s a middle option here, which is to buy digital albums. There are many  options for this, some of which (such as Bandcamp) give artists a higher share of the sale price than album sales generally do.

A Google Music search for "John Luther Adams" gives you limited information on the recordings. The artist is either the performer or the composer but you cannot easily view both.

Despite these hangups, I’m enjoying life without all the “space-devouring, planet-harming plastic” that Alex speaks of. Though of course, listening to it all depends on all of my planet-harming metal, glass, and plastic gadgets. And heaven help me if the power goes out.

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Kate Moore:The Art of Levitation

Alarm Will Sound will premiere The Art of Levitation, a new work by Kate Moore at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall on April 27. Kate took the time to answer some questions about the piece:

Michael Clayville: The piece you wrote is for the “(post)folk concert” of David Lang’s collected stories series. Did the idea of “folk” or “story-telling” influence you as you wrote the piece?

Kate Moore: I definitely take Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales stance on story-telling – I love gathering collections of snippets of fact and fiction found along the way on a journey, hauling them all together, joining the dots and making up a new story where the most nonsense made up thing suddenly seems plausible and the brutal truth seems ridiculous. All my pieces have a story behind them. They all capture a moment in time, a journey or a memory. – it makes life more real for me. If not more real certainly more entertaining.

MC: Are there any overt elements of “folk” that you included?/Is there a story you are telling?

KM: The spark for the piece came about on a night-time road trip to Rotterdam Port for my birthday. It was a moment of serendipity. I was, at that moment, arranging Tuba Mirum from Mozart’s Requiem, a movement about the last judgement, when I realised I was the same age as Mozart at the time he wrote pieces for the Glass armonica. While driving through the port, surrounded on all sides by infernal oil refineries and power stations I saw that the shapes of the cables and insulators used to carry the electrical current were the same shapes as the crystal bowls in the armonica. Like an electric shock it suddenly occurred to me that it was Benjamin Franklin who both invented the armonica and gave the earliest demonstrations of electricity. I was mesmerised. I knew at that moment that the piece had to be about the armonica, the sound of the resonance of the glass and electric currents. The sound of the glasses morph into metal, strings, winds and brass pitted against 8 layers of electroacoustic pulses set at slightly different tempi to create static interference.

MC: You’ve said that your pieces “answer a question” or come from a “desire to understand something better.” Does The Art of Levitation fill one of those descriptions? If so, how?

KM: Well yes – with this piece I am delving further into currents, streams and wave patterns created by the conflict between human and mechanical time, exploring the sense of tempo and feeling of duration in relation to a definitive interval of time set by a mechanical device. Each member of the ensemble is playing a melody where the duration of each note in different parts is varied, creating clouds of harmony that seeps in and out of itself, making the melodic thread come to life through movement, depth and perspective.

MC: You’ve said that you do sketches (images?) during the process of planning the piece. Do you have any for this work? Could you send them along if so?!

KM: Yes but it’s top secret. (actually it’s because I’m on the road and my sketches stayed at home)

MC: You have a very diverse background (Australia, The Netherlands and time spent in the US), what is your take on music globally? Do you see divisions or similarities between the places you spend time? Does that influence your compositions?

KM: I thrive on places where everyone can be their own person and reach their full potential in their own way. I have never understood why a whole bunch of people would want to be the same and stay in one place generation after generation. Diversity is what makes the everyday rich, beautiful and unexpected. I like to belong to everywhere and nowhere simultaneously.

MC: When you listen to music what do you find yourself listening to? What gets you most excited about a composer or performer?

KM: Musica Humana and Musica Mundana

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Kaki King:Other Education

Kaki King will join Alarm Will Sound on stage at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall on April 27 to premiere her new work Other Education, written specially for the occasion. Kaki took the time to answer some questions about the piece:

Michael Clayville: The piece you wrote is for the (post)folk concert of David Lang’s collected stories series. How did the idea of “folk” or “story-telling” influence you as you wrote the piece?

Kaki King: When David invited me to compose this piece we discussed the role of the guitar as a folk instrument and one that has been used to accompany many many stories.  I wrote three different tunes that would normally have been played on guitar with no accompaniment, but each had its own pace and feel.  They are all in the same guitar tuning and are in the same key, but each has a very different feel.  The timbre and the limitations of the guitar are what link them together. 

MC: Are there any overt elements of “folk” that you included?/Is there a story you are telling?

KK: Not really, I didn’t think that it would be necessary to make the ‘folk’ or any kind of narrative very obvious.  But since I was starting out with an acoustic steel string guitar I think it could be argued that the piece was firmly rooted in folk before a single note was written.

MC: Did you have a particular inspiration or message for Other Education?

KK: Honestly it was a very personal message for me.  I haven’t written a note on a staff since college, and even then I only took a handful of music classes.  There are huge gaps in my musical education–canyons of missing information really–and I took this incredible opportunity to try and fill a few of these in.  So, in this way, the process of writing by itself was all the inspiration I needed.  ’Other Education’ is a reference to the fact that learning to compose for this many instruments in this way was an education for me in itself.

MC: How did you choose to incorporate the guitar in this piece? Does it function as a soloist?

KK: This piece really functions as a guitar concerto.  Writing the parts for guitar was quick and easy since that’s been my area of expertise for my entire career, and I was keeping with that ‘folk’ concept and centering the music around the guitar.  In the future I’d love to be able to incorporate guitar into an ensemble in a different way.

MC: I noticed your post on twitter of your sketch for part of the piece:

Can you talk about your writing process for this piece?

KK: I transcribed what I had written on guitar onto a score so I could print it out and write ideas around it.  I borrowed magic markers from the two year old that lives next door and went to town on the score.  Musical ideas come much faster than I can transcribe them, so I used colors and markings to get the ideas in my head down so I could remember what they were before I turned them into exact notes and rhythms.

MC: Do you use your guitar when you compose?

KK: Yes, always.  I’ve never written anything not on the guitar.  I wrote a lot of the Alarm Will Sound parts on the guitar first and transcribed them.

MC: “blarrraah,” “blrrr?” :-)

KK: I think those were ideas for brass.  Trombones are always making ‘blarrraah’ sounds when they get over stimulated.

MC: Is this your first experience writing for a large ensemble? (Other than “more instruments”) how was it different than writing for smaller groups?

KK: As preparation for this I wrote a two part piece for the string quartet ETHEL.  Through this piece I realized how much my transcribing skill level lagged behind my actual musical ideas.  But by then I was busy learning how to express a harmonic for a violin and what the range of a bass clarinet was, so it was a lot of information to process in a short amount of time.  I did my best but I really see this as just the first step in a long learning process.

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Conducting Digitally

Last year, on my way out the door to JFK and a gig in Dublin, I thumbed through the D section of my bookcase of scores looking for my score to Donnacha Dennehy’s Grá agus Bás. But it wasn’t there. I tore apart the whole bookcase thinking it might have been misfiled or gotten wedged in somewhere, but to no avail. The score was gone and along with it years of precious and irreplaceable markings: rehearsal decisions and changes, things Donnacha had said about the music, notes on the text and its sources. Records from years of work with the composer and the ensemble were now gone. This was stuff that couldn’t be replaced easily if at all.

That episode got me thinking about the advantages of dealing with scores digitally: marking and conducting off of a tablet, with scores and markings safely backed up in the cloud. I’d already been moving my CDs, books, and pictures to digital and the cloud and had found lots of benefits; doing the same with my scores seemed like it could make my conducting life better in lots of ways:

Access. Any version of any score in my library could be available on any device at any time. I spent over a third of last year on the road, so that’s a big plus.

Safety. All of my scores and their markings could be safely stored in the cloud (with local backups too).

Flexibility. What I need to look at in a score changes from one gig to another and over the years I may spend with a piece. Marking up a physical score is a fairly permanent act, but digital markings can easily be erased and redone and can exist in infinite different versions. And what happens when a score is revised? While a hard-copy score has to be marked again from scratch, PDF annotations can easily be copied from one version to another.

Collaboration. It’s frequently helpful for players to see how I mark up my scores, and there are sometimes things I need to do in marking up a score that are algorithmic enough that I could outsource them to an assistant. All of this would be difficult with hard copy scores but is easily done with digital ones.

Simplicity and minimalism. No more hassles with printing and binding; no more shelves and piles of scores gathering dust and getting ragged with time.

So I began to look seriously at conducting off a tablet. Of course, many musicians perform off tablets, but conducting brings particular challenges for both hardware and software. The main hardware challenge is size: the iPads and Android tablets that I see musicians performing off of are too small for me to conduct full scores from. The main software challenge is page-turning reliability and speed: most PDF reading apps I tested on most devices were either too slow or not reliable enough in responding to page turns. Scores generally involve much more frequent page turns than players’ parts, and without bars of rest. The software has to be able to keep up: even a brief lag in page turning could be disastrous. (In an early trial of conducting off of a tablet, the software I used lagged a full six bars behind in turning pages in a performance of Nancarrow’s ferocious Study 3A; it was terrifying.)

I spent a long time searching for a setup that would meet all of these needs with as few missteps along the way: backstage with Crash Ensemble players just before walking on stage, I was demonstrating to a player how you adjust the screen brightness on a device I was trying and accidentally turned the screen completely off and couldn’t turn it back on. Someone had to throw a paper score at me as we walked on stage. But I finally found a setup that works really well:

HARDWARE: 

Sony Vaio Flip 15. This is my laptop, but it’s perfect for marking scores: the screen can fold back on the keyboard, turning the laptop into a (thick) tablet, and you can write on the screen with a stylus, which is infinitely better for marking up scores than a finger. The 15″ screen is a little small for actually conducting off of, but it’s fantastic for marking scores. I also keep it close on hand for performances in case something goes wrong with the larger-screened device I principally use for conducting…

Dell XPS 20. This is my “conducting tablet,” the device I actually conduct off of. It’s got a big 18.4″ screen which is a great size for scores, though still small enough to (barely) slide into my backpack. Without stylus support, it’s not as good for marking as the laptop, but I can make markings with a finger in rehearsals and then clean them up later on another device if I want to. I’ve been careful to keep the conducting tablet free from any software besides the app I use for conducting: I want to minimize the chances of anything unexpected happening in performance.

Nexus 7. It’s often useful to be able to look at scores on a small device that I can keep in a pocket and pull out anywhere. The Nexus 7 is perfect for that. With a 7 inch screen and no stylus, it’s not great for marking and would be terrible to conduct off of, but it’s ideal for light score study on the subway or a plane. It’s like those old “pocket scores” from days of yore.

SOFTWARE:

Drawboard PDF. This is the app I use for marking and conducting scores. It’s got the best annotation tools I’ve found in the Windows Store, and works wonderfully with the pen. It’s also got super smooth, reliable page turning, which is critical for performance. Drawboard is developing and improving at an extraordinary pace, and its staff has been amazingly responsive in dealing with bugs I’ve caught and features I’ve suggested. I’m very grateful to them.

Google Drive (along with FolderSync on Android). This is what keeps all of the scores in sync between all of my devices. I’ve a “current repertoire” folder which is automatically synced via Google Drive between all my devices. It’s lovely to be able to mark a score on, say, my Nexus 7 and have the markings automatically show up on the conducting tablet when next I turn it on.

I’ve been using this setup for a few months now and really loving it. I’m gradually replacing all of my physical scores with PDFs, which is also making my apartment neater and less dusty; and it’s great to have more and more music available on these devices. I’m particularly appreciating the experience of content divorced from form: in the old days, having a big score of a piece for the podium and a small one for the pocket meant buying two scores (which would never have the same markings); with this setup, I can work with the same PDF (with the same markings) out on any device of any size.

There are still issues, though. The biggest frustration is publishers: most are very reluctant to share PDFs of scores. Of course, one can always scan scores and make PDFs that way, but the software-generated vector PDFs that publishers have of any recent scores are higher quality files that are smaller and take less processing power. But few publishers are comfortable sharing them. I hope that this will gradually change as the demand for digital versions of music increases.

And while conducting off tablet is safer in many ways, it’s almost certainly more prone to catastrophe on any particular gig than working off of paper scores: a PC crash is probably more likely than music falling off a stand or out of a binder and harder to recover from.

But the plusses seem to far outweigh the minuses. Last week, I realized that I’d forgotten to download a score that I was about to conduct a rehearsal of. But it just took a few taps in to have the score downloaded and ready to conduct with all of my markings. That was a whole lot easier and a whole lot less stress than what I had to deal with with Donnacha’s lost score next year. I’m hoping that will be the last marked score that I ever lose.

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Alarm Will Sound Discusses Steve Reich

In preparation for our visit to the Community Music School, and for a workshop designed for beginning and early intermediate students on the characteristics of Steve Reich’s music, I polled my colleagues in Alarm Will Sound. They were asked to share some their earliest memories of his music and of course, their favorite pieces. Here’s what they had to say:

Courtney Orlando: violin, voice, accordion

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
I have two favorites:  Tehillim (for voices and mixed instruments) and Sextet (for percussion and keyboards).  Each is a multi-movement work, and the contrast between the movements is what makes these pieces so interesting to me.  They go from being incredibly joyous to extremely subdued in seconds.  It’s very striking!

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
Again, I have a few favorites:  Music for 18 Musicians is really fantastic in its variation and breadth, and Triple Quartet is so energetic and fun.  However, I think my favorite overall is Daniel Variations.  The subject matter is the execution of the journalist Daniel Pearl.  It’s beautiful and heartbreaking to listen to, and so moving to play.

What was your first experience with his music?
The first pieces of his that I heard were his early tape piece, Coming Out, and his string quartet, Different Trains, which also has a pre-recorded component.  The first piece I played was The Desert Music, which was also the first piece I recorded (with AWS).

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
Even though I’m a violinist, I would ask him why he writes such difficult cello parts.  He writes in a very high register for the cello, and I’ve heard numerous cellists comment (read “complain”) about it.  I’m guessing he just wants that specific timbre, which is a very unique timbre – quite nasal and piercing.  It would be different than simply writing those parts for viola, which would sound much more mellow and nondescript.

Do you have any stories to share?
My favorite Steve story is from my very first performance of Tehillim, at which he was running the sound board.  At a certain point in the piece, the strings were playing long tones – nothing really all that interesting.  But for some reason, Steve decided to turn me WAY up in the mix – I was MUCH louder than everything else that was going on.  I thought he must have made a mistake, but when I looked up at him, he gave me two thumbs up.  He obviously really wanted to hear that specific line right then.


Caleb Burhans: violin, viola, voice, guitar, composition

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
I think my favorite piece is probably Music for 18 Musicians. it’s such an important piece and it also motivates me to enjoy life or just clean my apartment.

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
That’s a tough one since I feel like a lot of his vibe exists in all of his pieces. I’d have to say either Tehillim or Music for 18 Musicians. I’ve played and sung both, respectively, many times and it continues to be the most uplifting musical experience I’ve ever had.

What was your first experience with his music?
I was 13 when I first heard The Desert Music. I didn’t like it and honestly, didn’t give it much a chance. it wasn’t until I was 17 when I first heard Tehillim and was totally hooked. it’s also the first piece of his I ever had the privilege of playing as well as the first recording I ever did. when the hallelujah comes in at the end of the last movement, for me, it’s the most transcendent moment in music and it gives me goosebumps every time.

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
What’s up with the baseball cap? (I’ve known him for 14 years and have never once seen him without his black baseball cap)

Do you have any stories to share?
Steve doesn’t use a ton of dynamics in his music. one thing he’s said a number of times is that, in his music mf doesn’t mean mezzo forte. it means matter of fact. I like that a lot and feel that it sums up Steve’s vibe quite nicely.


Stefen Freund: cello, composition

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Hearing Piano Phase live.

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
Radio Rewrite

What was your first experience with his music?
I remember listening to the Desert Music on a cross-country road trip once. That was a really bad idea because it put me to sleep.

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
What was it like to be downtown on 9/11?


Christa Robinson: oboes

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Electric Counterpoint

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
Three Genesis Settings from the Cave, especially the 2nd movement, Birth of Isaac

What was your first experience with his music?
The album with Pat Metheny playing Electric Counterpoint, and Kronos Quartet playing Different Trains was constantly being play by someone or another on my dorm floor during my freshman year at Eastman.  I couldn’t help but be interested in hearing more.  I grew quickly to LOVE it!

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
What is your favorite piece to listen to?


Bill Kalinkos: clarinets, saxophones

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Tehillim

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich
Music for 18 Musicians

What was your first experience with his music
I think it was playing Clapping Music when I was in middle school.


Elisabeth Stimpert: clarinets, saxophones

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Tehillim

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
That’s a toss-up between Tehillim and Music for 18.  But I also have a great affection for Clapping Music, which I teach to my first-semester aural skills students every year.  It’s so much fun to see the light-bulbs go on over their heads as they figure out how to navigate the groove of that piece.

What was your first experience with his music?
My first memorable experience with Reich was performing Music for 18 at Eastman with Ossia.  By the end of the concert, it was really music for 17 1/2, because one of the cellists got sick and wandered off stage and collapsed.  That was one of the first times I had played large-scale chamber music where the players were responsible for cues and communication without a conductor and it kind of blew my mind.

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
What’s under that baseball hat, anyway?


Michael Parker Harley: bassoon, voice, keyboards

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Music for 18 Musicians.  It’s such a big, beautiful piece and creates a really special world of sound all its own.

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
I enjoyed Tehillim very much — especially because it’s maybe his only piece that uses bassoon!

What was your first experience with his music?
I first heard one of his early pieces that uses phasing – I think “It’s Gonna Rain” — in school, studying contemporary music, and remember thinking it was really weird!  though I liked the idea of it — he recorded a preacher on the sidewalk outside and then used that tape running at different speeds against itself.

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
Who is the living composer you most admire, and why?


Michael Clayville: trombone

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Music for 18 Musicians

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
City Life, it’s the only piece of his I’ve been able to play!  He doesn’t have very many brass parts unfortunately.

What was your first experience with his music?
My first experience with his music didn’t really involve hearing his music… it was the concert he gave at Eastman (around 1999?), the audience was so big that it stretched out into the main hall of the school. It was nearly impossible to even get into the school with the huge crowd. The amount of people there made me interested in his music and got me listening.

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
Why don’t you write more brass parts? ;-)


Jason Price: trumpet

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Definitely Electric Counterpoint with Pat Metheny. I put that on all the time and I’m a big fan from back in the day when I worshiped Pat Metheney! Maybe Different Trains as a second.

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
Only Music for Large Ensembles involves my instrument, so that would have to be it!

What was your first experience with his music?
Different Trains came out when I was a freshman in college and I was totally obsessed with it! It completely spoke to me! Still gets to me.

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
I would ask him what his interest in paired instrumentation is. As a twin I’d ask him what his interest in paired instruments is – I’m interested in pairs of things.


Chris Thompson: percussion

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Electric Counterpoint

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
City Life, especially the first movement.

What was your first experience with his music?
Six Marimbas, in percussion ensemble my sophomore year of college. We were totally perplexed, and playing it probably at about half tempo. I had never done anything like it. In my curiosity to figure out who this guy was, I went to Tower Records and bought the Steve Reich CD with the coolest looking cover, which happened to be the iconic Kronos Quartet/Pat Methany recording of Different Trains and Electric Counterpoint. I’ve listened to that record hundreds of times.

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
It would probably be something boring about New York real estate in the 60s and 70s

Do you have any stories to share?
Steve is super iconic in our world and we are naturally pretty nervous every time we get to work with him directly. One time just before he was scheduled to show up, we happened to be having a pathetically bad rehearsal of the piece of his we were all least prepared for. The focus sucked, stupid mistakes were happening everywhere, stuff was falling apart, it was really tense. So when Steve walked in earlier than expected, it was like the entire ensemble held its breath: we were pretty sure it was about to be a bloodbath.  Yet somehow the sudden pressure caused us to completely turn it around, and we white-knuckled our way through a full run of the piece and managed to make all work. Steve seemed happy. It felt like a miracle.  From that day on, we’ve had a life-sized cardboard cutout of Steve in front of us at every rehearsal.


Alan Pierson: artistic director, conductor

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Tehillim

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
Tehillim!

What was your first experience with his music?
Tehillim! It was played for me by a teacher at a summer program at Northwestern the summer after my senior year in high school.

Do you have any stories to share
I love that, while composing Tehillim, he recorded himself singing all the vocal parts. I so want to hear it.

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Memorizing “Intégrales”

On February 20th, Alarm Will Sound and Dance Heginbotham presented “Twinned” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As part of the performance Alarm Will Sound performed Intégrales by Edgard Varèse while moving around the Engelhardt Court in the American Wing of the museum. To be able to pull off playing and moving AWS members devised some ingenious ways to memorize their parts. Here’s a gallery of showing some of the notation systems and ways of carrying it around they developed:

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