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An Alarming Document, Bibimbap, Vibraphone

from Tuesday, November13th of the year2012.

I’ve just had a somewhat epic trip. First London, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the wonderful orchestra Britten Sinfonia. Then to Iceland, for Airwaves, then to Amsterdam for two days “off” (more on this in a moment), and then to Eindhoven & Rotterdam for a percussion competition for which I wrote a concerto. While all this was happening, Hurricane Sandy tore up New York, and Obama was reëlected; it’s always a little unnerving to be away from America when things of major import are happening. There was a maybe 36 hour period during which I couldn’t get in touch with my boyfriend or, for that matter, anybody who lived in my neighborhood who was still there; eventually, downtown people crawled towards Koreatown, desperately searching for a cellphone charger and, one presumes, bibimbap, and contact was restored. We were luckier than a lot of people, and it feels inappropriate to complain, but we lost many months’ work of chicken stock and trotter gear! Everybody should donate and help out New Amsterdam Records, by the way, who suffered a really cataclysmic loss.

Right before I left, I received an alarming document. I’m going to talk about my own self for a minute here so fast forward if it’s boring. My publishers are slightly changing up the way in which my music is physically distributed, and as a result, I got handed, without any great ceremony, a six-page document on which is noted the titles, instrumentation, and length of basically everything I’ve ever written. It was shocking: I have written a lot of music, much of it long pieces for large ensembles. It gave me pause, because I haven’t really had a moment in maybe eighteen months to really survey what’s going on, and this list was a kind of zoomed out, powers-of-ten jolt to my system. My first feeling was one of total exhaustion; the closest analogy I can draw is to having just run for a long time — the actual tiredness arrives a little bit later, delayed, and sometimes is triggered by the sight of a mangled toenail or sweaty, dirty smudge on the forearm. The second wave of thoughts about this document was more alarming: is any of this music any good? I’d just been to see Tom Adès The Tempest at the Met, which I think is an extraordinarily wonderful and beautiful piece of work by a composer whom I admire greatly. You should all go. He has not written an enormous pile of music, and there’s a restraint and a focus to his music (by which I mean as a body of work rather than piece by piece, which, while focused, are wildly and deliciously unrestrained) that I have yet to discover in myself. I’ve basically been constantly writing something, if not two or three things, since 2001, with short, cheated pauses. The good news is that I went through everything, methodically, to make sure it was all actually okay, and it all actually is, I think. There is a piece for the New York Phil called Detailed Instructions which I somehow simultaneously under- and over-orchestrated which I need to revise before I let it out of the house again, and a triple concerto thing which has a really dumb and obvious structural problem I didn’t correct at the time because my passport was stolen and I missed two days of rehearsal and was generally stressed out and didn’t want to arrive two days late and be like, can we cut a hundred bars, thanks.

What’s kind of fun about this huge list of pieces is that I realized something I’ve done without actively realizing it: understanding that a piece of music does not need to contain the whole world in its embrace. I had a funny, tossed-aside conversation with Valgeir the other day when we were trying to figure out what to eat for dinner. I mentioned a loose desire to go to xy or ð kinda fancy place in Reykjavík, and he grimaced and said that he didn’t want to do anything so… and then he made a gesture with his hands, a sort of delineation of a sphere. What he was saying is that some restaurants feel the need to hit every taste bud from every dimension, to take the diner on a journey around the world and back, with snacks and dessert and pre-dessert and wine pairing and house-made compound butters. I think a lot of my music used to have this same obsession: even in an 8 minute piece I tried to make it hot, cold, slow, fast, bitter, sweet, sour & also provide a gluten-free option. This instinct was particularly strong in orchestra pieces, because one says to oneself, “when’s the next time you’re gonna get to play in a huge sandbox like this! You gotta write everything plus sizzle cymbals plus antiphonal flutes plus throw in that weird idea you had for brass even though it has nothing to do with anything!” Recently, though, with orchestra pieces like So Far So Good and particularly with the smaller pieces I’ve been writing for friends for specific functions (the Études for viola, or the various organ pieces for Jamie), I’ve completely abandoned these tasting menus in favor of a more focused, slightly obsessive, single-item vendor kind of situation, more like those women in Singapore who make only one dish but extremely well. No contrasting middle section! All of this kind of connected to my anxieties about these two operas I wrote in the last 3 years, both of which are much more specific than perhaps Really Ambitious First Operas should be. Two Boys, in particular, uses, deliberately, a limited toolbox to try to describe the banalities of suburban life, as well as the hyperkinetic world of the early internet. Similarly, Dark Sisters doesn’t use every trick in the book, and tries to keep the music very tightly connected to the six women and two men who occupy its universe.

Iceland Airwaves was next level busy this year. We all played two shows, and some of us more, and we were all playing with each other, so there was a real sense of communal chaos. Sunday night was the Sigur Rós show, which is very video intensive and expensive-looking. Beautiful music, beautiful video content, and a great performance, and I was kind of pleased to see that they had a mortifying video error, of the sort where like, the windows logo shows up on the screen and you see frantic mouse-gestures and bizarre ghost windows, and I thought, “if this happens to them, at the top of their game and using the best people they can take on the road, we are all equally doomed.” So that was refreshing. Then Monday I flew to Amsterdam, and awkwardly navigated my way to a hotel, and went to see the Grizzly Bear show at the Paradiso. They, too, are enjoying a certain stride; they’ve graduated from Spaces of a Certain Size to Spaces of a Larger Size, and their show, accordingly, has taken on a sort of professionally zhooshed art-direction that doesn’t — as it so often can — seem forced but rather arrives out of the tunnel of the music. It’s gorgeous and everybody should go see it when it comes to a town near u; Edward & Daniel are singing in a kind of full-throated way that gives the songs a sensuality that is precisely why a live show should complement an album. Then the next day, the Bon Iver show, at what seemed like a twelve thousand person venue with twelve thousand enthusiastic dutch teenagers there? You guys, have you seen this show? They’re doing a thing with amps that I think is kind of genius and which I haven’t, in my limited experience, encountered before: all the amps for guitars and violins and their attendant effects pedals are in isolation in flight cases behind the stage, which means that they can be more subtly mic’d, and therefore, the aggregate of the sound is a lot more under control of the mixer. It is a triumphant thing, I think, just on a technical level, but it also makes the songs seem more housed than exploded, which I think is quite the right note to strike in a show in a room that large. You could park a 747 in there. Also I thought I was changing money into smaller bills but accidentally bought €50 of drinks tokens and in benevolent confusion (or perhaps confused benevolence) left them behind a trash can stage right in an envelope, so if you’re passing through the Heineken Music Hall soon, see if they’re still there and buy yourselves a wijn on me.

Okay right, so then after that I went to Eindhoven and the next night saw Efterklang with their funny and gorgeous orchestra show, a version of which I had seen in a state of deep jetlag in Australia last year; it was much nicer to hear it (and Missy’s delicious arrangements) in a neo-gothic church at a normal time of night. Then! The next night in the same church, Teitur & Tróndur’s Everyday Songs project for the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble, a consortium of woodwinds, which consists of an orchestral prelude, five short songs about going through the motions of the day, and a postlude. One hour, perfection! So happy, and did you know how good bass clarinets sound in churches? I want David Lang to write a piece for bass clarinet and pipe organ.

The moral of the story is that I had a very long week of listening to live music every night which was before I began the process of supervising this double concerto I wrote for Colin Currie and the finalists of the Tromp percussion competition. Basically, all these people had to learn my piece, and then the finalists, of which there were three, played it in a concert with Colin, and then the winner played it one more time the same night in a different Dutch city? It sounds weird, I know, but that’s literally what just happened. This means that I heard three different people play this thing like nine times in two days, which is, while not unpleasant, a kind of insane thing to have happen.

Percussionists are so great, by the way. My first instrumental obsession was percussion music, before I fell into the Viola-Cloaca, and I befriended (and even lived with, for a time) as many percussionists as would listen to my ranting. What’s great about percussionists as a breed of creature is that they have to be patient musicians, waiting hours to play one triangle note, but also craftspeople, choosing precisely the right mallet for that one note, and precisely the right instrument, held at precisely the right angle; it reminds me of some obscure trade or specialty: the leatherworker with his awl, the farrier with his rasp, the glockenspieler with his featherweight Dragonfly mallets for use in La Mer only. In writing this double concerto, I tried to provide opportunities for this specialist’s sensibility as well as a more MacGyver thing wherein the players have to construct a nine-layered instrument out of scrap metal and broken cymbals: the choices of hardware are like musical decisions made in extremely slow motion. There’s another passage where I knew each player would have to figure out some kind of trick to simultaneously play the vibraphone and a triangle; it’s physically possible but it requires a little bit of Sheep-Wolf-Cabbage logic to figure out precisely where each stick needs to go, and unlike that old parable, there are many correct solutions to avoid getting eaten.

So basically all I need to do now is write a few more small things in December, and get ready for Advent. I’ma go hard this year, deeply wailing etc., which I think is always the right move in the solemn seasons.


  • Yes god! David Lang bass clarinet/ pipe organ. I would lurve that so much!

    Also, you should eventually write a book.

  • Went to The Wigmore Hall to hear ‘My Days’ wonderful, contemplative piece. Any plans to record it so we can hear it again?

    [J — yes, and thanks!]

  • Book: YES! Waiting deeply for the advent wailing >bated breath<

  • No one has a more curious or capacious mind, and that book will be in demand! Cannot wait.

  • Have you ever thought in having a silence weekend?

  • The tendency you mention, to try and include everything and pine nut dressing in a piece, is not, I think, uncommon. As you say, with orchestral pieces it can be an almost crushing desire to want to stick all the best ideas into one tasty work.

    I still have this issue, and I am not sure it ever goes away really. Maybe it just becomes easier to control with time. David Lang, who most certainly should write a bass clarinet-organ duo work, seems to manage to always explore musical ideas with just the right amount of obsession and inspiration. Never too many ideas and never too few.

    Having followed your music for some time though, I don’t think this tendency has ever undermined anything you’ve written. The result has never been “potpourri” music.

    P.S. A few years ago (2007, 2008 maybe) I had the pleasure of attending the premiere of a piece you wrote for the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW series, Step Team. I’ve been wondering if a recording will appear ever since. Possible?

    [Hi Zach – there is, in fact, a recording of Step Team on this album, and thanks for your kind words!!!]

  • Nico, your involvement in Andrew Solomon’s latest book (, y’all) got me to take notice of it, and I’m reading the book and it is excellent, so thank you for that. Also I saw somewhere that you are recording Peter Pears things and I’m seriously looking forward to hearing it. !