from Tuesday, October25th of the year2016.
Beloveds. It’s been a minute since I’ve blogged about it, but now I’ve got something to blog about, so blog about it I shall. Over the last 18 months, I’ve been actively trying to be more assertive. I have a real difficulty standing up for myself personally and professionally, mainly because I’m so desperate to be loved (or similar) that I’ll basically do whatever and then be confused about why I’m doing something that I never wanted to do in the first place. Part of this also means that I’ll arbitrarily decide that over the course of a project that I can put my foot down about something only thrice, and that’s it. So sometimes I’ll get to day two of something and realize that I should have just been really upfront about my intentions from the beginning and that in reality, everybody responds positively to that. We live and we learn. I’ve been driven acutely crazy by an artist’s manager for the last 2 months and I finally stood up to his ass on the phone yesterday and while it felt great, I still felt like a little kid trying to fight an un-winnable fight. I’ve vowed to speak my mind more in times of Calmneƒƒe and not just when it gets stressful and I blurt everything out and feel awful afterwards.
Let me tell you a story.
I find doing press sometimes really frustrating. You have to do it, basically, because that’s how people know to come to the show, and it’s how we keep the Conversation™ about music afloat. My general philosophy has been to trust the press officers of the presenting organizations of whatever project I’m doing and just say yes to everything because it feels rude to not do that. Sometimes, around a big project or tour or show, there will be a little snow flurry of things to do — a bit of radio, a bit of phone interviews, a few things via email. Ideal world: it all gets consolidated and you knock it out like a video game, even if the radio is in a random place and the phone stuff is at weird times. Sometimes something great happens — you’ll get an interviewer who asks you a probing question you’ve never thought of before, that shines light on your work or your process or life in general in a fresh and surprising way. I was asked a few such questions by Debbie Millman this last year, I had a great interview with somebody in Ireland this year who made me rethink how I write programme notes, a few years ago somebody asked me such smart questions about Philip Glass’s Piano Études that we are still friends to this day (I literally just offered him the use of my hotel bathtub in London, long story). The thread that ties all these things together is not just research but genuine curiosity. It’s not about knowing every biographical detail about the subject, or every piece of trivia about the topic at hand (although it helps). It’s about knowing that you can treat the conversation as precisely that — a fluid, elegant dialogue, even if it’s over email.
Occasionally, you get an interview where you quickly realize that there is a really basic Message the writer is trying to get across — and indeed, oftentimes it’s just “you, the reader, should come to this show.” I’m fine with that — this is when Paper and Orchestra are in an (1) friendly cahoot and the paper asks the composer to say three things about the piece, two things about how nice it is to be in Orchestraville, one wacky detail, and is there anything else you’d like to add thank you so much see you on Friday. Other times, though, you get something like what I’m fixing to show you here. This is the Prove My Thesis interview. This is when the writer has in mind a Way that the world works (the implication being in this worldview that there is only one possible way) and that the interview subject is going to Confirm this Genius Idea in neat quotes. This is the work of That Guy from Class — remember him? Where it’s not like he didn’t read the book, because his eyes certainly passed over the pages, but it’s more like he took everything wrong out of the text, and then wants to get weird about “isn’t there no wrong answer in literature?” It reminds me of when you buy a cat a present and all the cat wants is the box.
I found myself in the presence of just such an interview the other day. I should preface this by saying that of course — of course! — this was one of those “I need the answers right away” interview requests, and the press agent is nice and a friend of a friend and I was like, okay great, I can hook you up, send the questions. So of course — of course! — Dude™ sends the questions like, a day later, because it’s Dude™, and I should have known right away we were in for a treat. I did the “Standing Up For Myself Email” to the press agent, which reads:
For future reference, if somebody’s like “i need them ASAP” and then doesn’t actually send them ASAP, I become inclined not to do them ASAP, as it were. I set aside time to deal with all this kind of stuff this morning, and am now about to go into a tech rehearsal for 14 hours, so, I don’t know what his deadline is… anyway, whatever.
She responded, indicating that actually he had “ASAP’d” her for a few other artists he was trying to get in touch with for the same article and had then taken his time to compose the questions. This should have been a red flag. I then later found out that he emailed all of us basically the same set of questions with a few tailored to our own bawdee of work. Fine. Meanwhile I said I would do this damn thing so I set aside the therapeutic hour of 5:45 AM to 6:30 AM to address this, got up, addressed myself to Miss Nespresso du Val, padded out to the table and fired up Chomper here, to discover a litany of some of the dumbest Prove My Thesis questions I’ve come across in a long-ass time. I present them to you here, with my replies, in full, with no edits made save a few tiny things in brackets. Some names changed to protect the innocent.
I want to also say this, and this is important: I’m sure this dude is actually a really nice guy and I wish him no ill which is why I’m not putting his name on this. H9 the sin and love the sinner. I just want to have a conversation, amongst friends, about how fucking impossible it is to talk about one’s own music (or anybody else’s music) in this kind of environment where you’re working in somebody else’s crazy intellectual ecosystem. I don’t read a lot of writing about music, so interview questions are, for me, a good weather report about the way people are talking about what’s up. For me, my first port of call with other people’s music is usually the music itself, live, or on recording and with the score if that’s a thing; I know that this is a luxury and that many listeners first hear about music in print or online, and usually as a result of the good efforts of Dude to champion the music he likes. So I am not, in any way, trying to set Dude on fire. I’m sure if we had been in the same room, it would have been different, and from the sounds of it, he actually probably likes a lot of the same music I like, and perhaps even my own music. It’s just one of those “I got up at five o’clock in the morning to answer these ASAP questions and I wish you had had two genuine questions rather than half of an idea and I wish you had asked questions based on curiosity not on some insane set of presumptions.”
MAIN PROBLEM: you have not asked a single question about notes and rhythms, just about like, perception of scenes that don’t exist? But we will address that, and various problems, as they arise in this enfilade of horrors.
First things first: a number of people with whom I have spoken over the past five years – and who are associated with the scene variously known as ‘new classical’, ‘post-classical’ and ‘neo-classical’ – are uncomfortable with the terms. Do you see them as applicable, and why (or why not)? Is the term ‘classical’ even relevant? Are there terms – whether applied to the music or not – that you find more acceptable? Given that I am being encouraged to put you all under the same roof, what would be the most satisfying term I could use?
I’ve never heard any of these terms before. Read this. — who is encouraging you to use them? [NOTE FROM NICO: really do read this. It’s got the Thing I Think About That Thing in it.]
You may have answered this above, but… Is it appropriate to suggest that artists as diverse as yourself, Nils Frahm, Johann Johannsson, Hauschka and Tim Hecker are part of a similar ‘movement’, or does that seem as suitable as grouping Britney Spears, Foo Fighters and Nick Cave together? What, if anything, do you think you all have in common?
Tim Hecker is involved now? I mean… look, taxonomies work in a lot of different ways. You can organise things however you want, really, but it’s definitely never (v important) the job of the composer or artist to do this, because then you’re writing to your bio, rather than writing music. Every second a composer spends thinking about this is a second she should have been using to write music. That having been said, sure, I’ll buy it, but I’d also say that I have a lot in common with composers like Andrew Norman, Missy Mazzoli, Sean Shepherd inasmuch as we all write large orchestra music, firmly rooted in the classical ‘concert’ music tradition. You could also, if you wanted, say I have a lot in common with Tom Adès because we both derive musical material from the past — in his case, the ecstatic harmonic motion in Couperin, and in my case, Tallis and Byrd. You could say I have everything to do with Timo Andres because we are both over six feet tall and love capers. The point of all the record stories dying — thank GOD, by the way — is that we don’t have to have these physical taxonomies anymore where you go into the special porn room to buy classical music.
Do you see yourself and those mentioned above (and others often grouped with them) as your contemporaries? Do you relate to, or admire, any of these artists in particular? Are there others about whom you hold strong opinions whom you’d like me to consider, or wish to champion?
You’ve worked with a diverse range of musicians who aren’t necessarily associated with this ‘scene’, including Rufus Wanwright, Sufjan Stevens and Antony & The Johnsons. Do you find that there’s a tightly knit community surrounding this music, and is it as unusual as outsiders think for musicians working with, for instance, rock music, to want to experiment in other fields?
I don’t understand the question and you misspelled Rufus’s last name. I’ve never worked with any of the people you talked about above (Haushka et al) so I’m not sure which tightly knit community you’re referencing? Also “outsiders think?” Who are these outsiders? You? Which fields? This whole question is word salad.
Some people consider ‘new classical’ music to be loftier and more intellectual than ‘rock’ music. Is this a patronising view, and do you think that the attitude is changing?
When you write “some people,” what on earth do you mean. Citation?
Furthermore, there was a time when the idea of a ‘rock’ musician working within these realms was considered slightly laughable. I think, for instance, of the insults levelled in the past – by some people – at people like Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, and back in the 1970s it would have been seen as the height of prog rock indulgence. Why do you think audiences are more willing to take this seriously?
Which realm!?!?! I literally have no idea what you’re talking about. Elvis Costello!?
Instrumental, classically influenced music emerging through the independent scene (and indeed major labels) isn’t exactly a new thing. I think, for instance, of Mute working with Balanescu Quartet and Holger Czukay, or plenty of Nonesuch’s releases. Is the volume of music being released now any different to years past, or do you feel – as others do – that it’s not just a matter of a spotlight being put on it and that in fact there’s far more being released than ever?
Ugh, I find your questions increasingly frustrating. What spotlight are you talking about? I feel like you are operating under a set of premises or assumptions that are unprovable and are based on your perception of other people’s (or the press’s, more probably) perceptions of the attention given to a made up group of artists. THAT HAVING BEEN SAID I will throw you a bone to say that this isn’t new. CF Philip Glass & Ravi Shankar, the Mute/Balanescu thing is a good example, Nyman + McAlmont — it’s 6 in the morning so I can’t really think of more but… you know.
I believe that you were classically trained (as music journalists like to put it!). How did you come to work as a composer? When did you start writing music like this? Were you brought up on pop and rock, or was ‘classical’ music always your foremost interest? Have they both always been vital to your musical existence, and do you still listen to other kinds of music?
I was classically trained; I went to Juilliard for 5 years, I have a masters’ degree in the classical composition. I was brought up as a chorister, here, read this: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2007/apr/27/classicalmusicandopera1, — the backbone of everything I do is renaissance choral music. From there, I learned the piano, and from there, realised I was a lousy enough pianist that I had to start writing my own things.
You’re unusual within this ‘movement’ in that you tend to compose music for others, whether it be Metropolitan Opera, St Pauls Cathedral, The Library Of Congress etc. This is, in a sense, a far more old fashioned approach to composition. Do you find it frustrating that you hand over your music to others to perform, or does this in fact free you up to focus more on writing?
I can’t with you and this movement shit again. It’s so lazy and it makes me want to throw the laptop across the room. You could shine a light through my work and hit all the things you talked about above and never hit anything that I imagine you think is part of this ‘movement.’ I don’t think what I’m doing is unusual; I’m just doing the things I’m good at, with some stretching at the margins. I don’t like the idea that you’ve created this artificial ‘scene’ and then put me as the family crayzee cousin, always writin’ wacky music for the Lord’s House!
I’m struck, I have to say, by the breadth of your work. Does the fact that so much of your music is commissioned mean that you are limited in any way by the approach of those who’ve invited you to work with them, or does it in fact allow you to work in milieu that would otherwise be impossible? And is it accurate to say that you are approached, or do you also approach others?
Good question. I would say that most of my music is commissioned. I find the restrictions of a commission to be very very helpful. A lot of times a commission is really open ended (“write 20 minutes for orchestra”) but other times it’s really specific (“We’re doing a concert where all the texts are about sleep, or sleeping, and you have five minutes.”) I like these restrictions. I’ve been very, very lucky inasmuch as I haven’t had to approach others in this way, although there are sort of dream projects where I do try to shop it around a bit. My viola concerto is a good example of this. I imagine you have a recording of it seeing as how you got here via Bedroom Community /[publicist] She can send it to you if you haven’t. That is a combo platter — a piece I’ve wanted to write since 2001, but also something that four different orchestras co-commissioned. After six months writing that, when the phone rings and Joanna Newsom wants a string and oboe arrangement, there is nothing more delicious because it’s a similar muscle but doing something for somebody else — it’s like going over somebody else’s house and cooking and being useful and friendly.
Why do you think that there’s been such a surge of interest from music fans in instrumental music that rejects traditional rock music structures (verse / chorus / verse etc) and arrangements (guitar, bass, drums etc) in favour of more ambitious melodic narratives and more traditional instrumentation (pianos, strings, brass etc). I’ve wondered, for instance, if it’s due to the need for people to find a refuge away from the ubiquitous sound of ‘pop’ music? Or away from the chaotic political and social times in which we live, and which confront us, thanks partly to social media, in a far more aggressive manner than before (refugees, gun crime, the American elections, Syria etc)?
Now, this I’ll buy, maybe. I don’t know if we need to get Syria involved. I also don’t know that this surge you reference is something that exists in what I like to call Reality. I think a lot of people — thinking, for instance, of my parents, who are in their early 70’s — took a big detour from listening to pop music qua pop music and settled in Joni Mitchell world. That kind of songwriting — with chapters, rather than traditional verse/chorus structures, has been around forever! And didn’t die either — think about Joanna Newsom, think about longform Björk of late, think about Sun Kil Moon etc… Think about the folk tradition, think about really anything. I’m not sure that the world is organised into “Britney” and “Not Britney.” I think a lot of people grew up listening to jazz and have never stopped. I think a lot of people just have more access to the music that their peers are making. Also: one week ago I literally flew to Las Vegas and saw the Britney Spears residency show.
To employ significant numbers of musicians is obviously a costly endeavour. Has the fact that instrumental music is more acceptable to big, funded venues – such as London’s Barbican or Royal Festival Hall – made it easier to work in these realms? Have the actions of such venues – inviting more bands to perform within them at events such as the UK’s Meltdown – helped bring an audience to ‘new classical’ music by broadening their horizons and making it seem less intimidating to attend shows that seem more ‘serious’?
Now, this might be an opportunity for you to do some Serious Journalism™. Ring up the Barbican’s PR office and ask them to set up an interview with you and the classical music programmer Chris Sharp, and with the “other” music programmer Bryn Ormrod. They will know the answer to this as it relates to money, numbers, and the raw data. Time, money, and space are complicated things, but unless u, as an artist, are totally self-producing, it is sage, I think, to take advantage of the wild luxury of the fact that somebody else is buying dinner. Also, the relationship between ensembles (which is to say, orchestras) and the halls who present them is a financially complicated one — but again, for me, as a creator of the notes on the page and occasionally a performer, I don’t rea-a-a-a-lly have to worry about it. Maybe that’s a bit grand, or naïve, but that’s all I got. But seriously call them. I’d actually be interested to know what they say.
Do you think the ‘greying’ of the music-buying audience – who, in past generations, would have shifted over to buying classical music and abandoned rock – has also ensured that so many people are interested in ‘new classical’ without investigating more long term, traditional established composers like Beethoven and Bach, to whom they would once have turned? Perhaps it provides them with an opportunity to enjoy more complex music without apparently ‘giving up’ on their musical roots?
I just don’t know. I’m probably the worst person to ask about this. When I go all up into the concert hall, I see young people. I still actually disagree with most of the assumptions in the question, if I’m parsing the grammar correctly.
Music like yours has increasingly found itself working alongside other disciplines, notably film and dance. (I’m thinking in particular of OSTs like Nils Frahm’s Victoria, Johann Johannsson’s and Max Richter’s regular soundtrack work etc.) Has this helped you find a wider audience? Is the success of other artists in these realms in any way responsible for a general crossover? Does it alter the manner in which you compose? And is it important for you that such music is also able to stand on its own, or do you see the two disciplines, when they are interlinked in this way, as inseparable?
Good question. Yes. All of this is a good thing. Music for use, as it were, has value. If your friend asks you to write a piece for a ballet, or a film, do it. It’s so great. See above about open-ended commissions — this is the opposite of that, where you get instant feedback from your collaborators, and the music is only successful if it works in the context of the overall collaboration. I wish more people did it. Learning to work quickly and collaboratively has helped me with everything I do, from making dinner to writing concert music to everything!!!
There seems to be a canon of influences named by musicians from this ‘movement’: Arvo Pæart, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Penguin Café Orchestra, Kronos Quartet, Harold Budd, Erik Satie, Gorecki etc. Do they play a big role in your work? What do you think they share in common? Are there others that you feel are important to mention? How did you come to be familiar with them, and was it hard to find a way to integrate the inspiration they offered into your work?
Lord have mercy.
One artist with whom I have been talking has said that a decade ago he felt his contemporaries exhibited a “strong individual language” which has since become synonymous with “soft piano music and compositions that I can’t identify with”. Certainly, it sometimes seems as though nowadays I am sent ‘new classical’ music on an almost daily basis, and I would be lying if I said it all excites me. Some seems to be derivative and comparatively unimaginative – often, for instance, with a heavy emphasis on arpeggios – as though the very fact that the artists are simply rejecting traditional structures and arrangements is enough to justify its existence. Do you feel that the growth of interest in the music has led to a ‘blanding’ of the scene, and is there a danger that this will eventually lead to a dead end? And is there a danger that the ‘novelty’ this offers to those otherwise interested in rock and pop is in danger of fading?
Sure? I mean, there’s more bad music in the world than good music, but I don’t feel the need to extrapolate some kind of grandpa-ass world view about it. Tell your artist friend to spend less time having thoughts about what other people are doing and get back to the manuscript paper. She sound mean and jealous.
Do you consider yourself to be an ‘indie artist’? Does such music sit comfortably under this (admittedly huge and nowadays rather vague) umbrella? Is it possible to consider oneself as indie once one has experienced success on the scale that you have? Why do you think independent labels are signing music outside the realms of what is normally considered ‘indie’ music?
Rock ‘n’ roll has, since punk at the very least, prided itself on breaking conventions, with untrained musicians applauded for refusing to conform to tradition. Do you think these possibilities have now been exhausted?
See blog link above
Do you think your music is attracting people that wouldn’t normally listen to anything but ‘popular’ music simply because of the record label on which it appears?
Well, I hope it isn’t that simple. I think you’re not giving listeners the benefit of the doubt about what they listen to. They’re like “ooh, label I like! Ooh, boring piano music with arpeggios. Welp, must be good!” HOWEVER. I would like to think that the label system of organising music would draw the ear not just to my music but the other way around. For instance, Bedroom Community has been incredibly good about this. People who know my music from, for instance, the choral music universe suddenly have a path through to Sam Amidon’s music, or Ben Frost’s. This can only be a good thing, and yes, it does take a label, I think, to at least uphold a formal structure for this to happen. I find myself doing this too — for instance, your boyfriend Nils is on Erased Tapes; through his music I’ve found other artists on that label I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise — and by access I mean that I don’t spend a lot of time fishing around for new things, about which I feel bad! So the label shortcut can sometimes be useful. But this relates to my big disagreement about a lot of these questions, which is that People who listen to music aren’t like, moths drawn to flame, the flame being soft piano arpeggios. People, as far as I can tell, trust their friends, talk to each other, and still are ready to be surprised. I think that all artists need to be evangelists for not just their own music but for the music they love. A lot of the music *I* love sounds very little like my own, but still you will find me on the street corner with a tin foil hat talmbout “listen to more Takemitsu.”
At a time when it’s getting harder and harder to make money from making music, and artists are being advised to tour in order to make money, isn’t it a tremendous gamble to record something that requires a significant number of musicians to perform it on the road?
Yes. But it’s so worth it.
Popular music’s appeal has often been based upon the performer as much as the music, but your music can be performed by anyone who can read sheet music, just as classical music was in the past (albeit with instrumentation that was perhaps not available in the past). Does the idea of your music being performed by others appeal to you, and is that a goal when you’re writing?
Yes! This is a good question. This is one of the great mysteries and funz of the classical tradition. What happens is that your music starts to mean different things to different people. Having music in the fingers of strangers is a beautiful and strange feeling. Nothing makes me happier to think that people I don’t know have spent hours, days, weeks, learning my music. Particularly because so much of my music starts as music for friends — cf all my work with Nadia Sirota — when suddenly a violist pops up in Finland playing those pieces, it feels like a small miracle and a beautiful, unexpected connection.
Do you think that there will come a time when the traditional divisions between the classical and popular music worlds will no longer exist?
Jesus take the wheel.
Given that popular music emerged as a reaction to the staid world of classical music, and that liking classical music has for many years been ‘uncool’, do you think that ‘classical’ music is the new rock ‘n’ roll, in that it represents a rejection of contemporary musical trends? Can you imagine kids trying to annoy their parents by playing your records in years to come?
Baby girl, I’ma stop you right now about your origin theory of popular music! Is that literally what you think!?!?!?!? Are you English? I think you’re probably English. I would take a second and rethink how this works vis à vis everything. Think: African Diaspora. Think: folk traditions — even in the +44! I’m going to pretend you didn’t ask this but I would not encourage you to ask other people this same thing in this way because they are going to think that you are Touched.
Is there anything else you would like to add (assuming you’re not already exhausted!)?
Yes. It’s a dude called Will Robin who has written an entire thesis about this idea of “indie classical” music. Apparently he has my name in his mouth; I haven’t read it because I’d rather write music. BUT a link to his thesis is attached, and I’d recommend that you read it as it touches on a lot of things you’ve asked. I’m sorry to be so tart with thee but this feels like a weird combination of answering things I always have to answer but also that I’m on the wrong train in which I’ve just spent a million years talking about everything about music except for the actual music herself. I feel like you’ve engaged in a lot of un-interrogated thought about these peripheral matters and I’d love to see what you divine from Will Robin’s thesis.