This might not apply to Timo’s piece, since it was written for another group, but were you able to work with the composers in a collaborative sense?
For Timo’s piece not at all, because that was commissioned for Third Coast. We are working with him now for this performance. But with Chris’s piece, we did spend a lot of time with him. He came over to the studio two or three times at various stages of progress through the piece. The first time, he just had some very small sketches – he had a kind of slowish movement and a fast movement. And we kind of played around… he did the normal thing where he goes into the studio, he looks at all the instruments that we have, and then we just start taking things off the shelves and trying the music that he’s written on various different things, to see what works. And then I think he came back a little bit later; that was the first time we also met with our singer [Elspeth Davis], and he had some actual text set and something more developed. I think some time in the middle he also went out to Chicago for a few days with Third Coast, where they did a similar sort of thing.
And then leading up to our first performances, which were right after the premiere performance by Third Coast, we met with him one more time. And that was great, because after the premiere he had a bunch of tiny, little things he wanted to change, so we fixed all of those. He’s a very hands-on kind of guy. He likes to be there in the room, tweaking the smallest little things. In his music, some of the hardest things about it are the transitions between the pieces. His multi-movement pieces are often attacca – you finish and go right into the next one – but he kind of writes out the way that you do that. Rather than ending the movement, writing “attacca,” and starting the next one, you’ll play the last note of a movement and then he’ll change the tempo marking to the tempo of the next movement, and then he’ll write out, like, three bars of rests, and then say, “Now begin the next movement.” He tries to really, really specify the amount of time you hold that silence or that moment. I remember we tweaked those things a lot; we would try all different kinds of bars of rests in between the different pieces until he found something that he liked.
You’ve anticipated my next question: What are some of the challenges specific to these two pieces?
Let me start with Chris’s piece. Chris’s music is so transparent. On a very practical level, there aren’t a lot of pitches; it’s very diatonic writing. So there’s simply no room for error – you can’t miss any notes, or anything like that. And the actual sounds that you’re making are often… they’re not always soft, but they’re often very beautiful sounds. So if you’re running around, changing sticks, going from instrument to instrument, and then you have to play this triangle note, it still needs to be this incredibly beautiful sound. So you have to figure out a way to get to the instrument that you’re supposed to play, and still have enough time to make a good sound on it.
That connects directly to something that I’ve always thought about percussion-ensemble music: It’s not just about interpretation, it’s not just about playing; it also involves a certain amount of architecture and a certain amount of choreography, just in getting from one instrument and one kind of surface to another smoothly. Mallet changes and things like that all have to factor into your working process.
Yeah, and I would say that in Chris’s piece, it’s not even that the set-ups are very big. Sometimes you have to just cover a bunch of square feet to get to where you’re going, but that’s not so much of a problem [here]. The problem is that he makes each player play a bunch of different instruments at the same time. For instance, in my part I’ll be playing vibraphone, but I also need to play bongos and tuned gongs. So at some moment, I have to hit all of those, either exactly at the same time or at basically the same time to kind of create a composite sound. I have to figure out a way to make a good sound on all three of those, but those three instruments each take a very different stick or mallet to make a good sound. Often I’m holding two vibraphone mallets and one triangle beater and one stick or whatever it happens to be, so that in that moment I can make a good sound.
You’re going to have to commission some equipment maker to invent the Cerrone Composite Rod.
And it’s hard, because Chris could go out to Chicago, work with Third Coast, and come to a perfect mallet solution with them. They probably have a slightly different mallet collection than we do, so we have to take the color, sound, or atmosphere that he’s trying to create, and then find a way to do our best with the stuff that we have.
Did you use recordings of Third Coast for reference?
No, we didn’t. When we were working on it, it was so soon after their premiere that I don’t think their recording was available. I think they have recently put a video out of the premiere, but I actually haven’t even seen it. I’ve played a lot of Chris’s music, and through all that work with him over many years, I think I have a good idea of the type of vibraphone sound that he’s often looking for. So that was also helpful. If I had not known Chris before, this would have been a lot more difficult.
Balancing with a singer must present a challenge in itself.
Oh, yeah. There’s one movement where we play a lot of drums, and she’s singing-slash-speaking over that. That one we amplify her for. The rest of them, Chris has written it skillfully enough that when we’re playing very loud, she’s also on a very high note or something like that, so that we’re not covering her. And for most of the piece, we’re doing things that are sort of gentle enough that we don’t cover her.
We love working with other instrumentalists and especially singers, because they really think about music in a very different way than we do. We’re percussionists, so we sort of tend toward a very vertical interpretation of things. We’re very interested in lining things up, and keeping the time very steady. And a singer is kind of on the other side of the spectrum: very horizontal, everything is about the line they’re creating. And it’s all keyed into their breath, as well. Where they have to breathe is both theatrical and also practical – they just have to breathe at certain points to make things happen. So we learn a lot about the direction of phrases and how to create a climax, or how to set up a whole piece, based on how she interprets the piece and the lines that she has. We learned a lot about the piece through working with her.
What were the challenges specific to Timo’s piece?
Timo’s piece is interesting. It’s like 22 minutes long, and the whole thing is based on Bach’s first Invention, the C major. [sings a familiar phrase] The whole thing is based on that, but he does crazy things with it. You play it at pitch, you play it in many different keys, in canon, all of that sort of stuff. But you also do lots of interesting things with playing the contour and rhythms of that piece on lots of unpitched instruments – either at tempo or extremely fast or extremely slow. There’ll be times you’re playing it at a quarter of the speed it’s supposed to go, on pieces of junk metal. And because you’ve already heard the melody of the piece in various forms, hopefully if we’re voicing it correctly you’re still hearing that melody happening even though we’re playing it on tin cans.
It’s also a dense piece; there’s a lot going on, and there’s a lot of different instruments. Everyone has a mallet instrument that they’re playing, but they also have lots of other unpitched sounds. So trying to figure out what is the important line to bring out – what is the actual Bach, and what he’s done with it at that moment – that’s definitely difficult.