Caroline Polachek and Choral Chameleon: Giving Useful Music a Voice

Up until now, the versatile singer, songwriter, and producer Caroline Polachek has been best known for her work as the singer for the popular, adventurous pop duo Chairlift. Now, as part of Polachek’s National Sawdust residency, her recent electronic project comes to life onstage February 23 and 24, with new vocals supplied by the adventurous vocal chamber ensemble Choral Chameleon.

Early Audition: Molly Joyce, Shapeshifter

Our friends at New Amsterdam Records have given us the opportunity to share a number of exclusive album previews in recent months. Today we’ve got something different to offer along with NewAm: our first video premiere, for the Molly Joyce composition Shapeshifter.

Variations: Amanda Monaco – As Serious As Your Life

When I turned 30, even though it was going to be expensive, I felt I ought to purchase health insurance. Having heard horror stories from older colleagues about scenarios in which they had found themselves, it seemed to be the right thing to do. I could only hope it was the biggest chunk of money I would ever “throw away.” Fifteen months after I had made that decision, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.

Performance Review: Kate Soper, Ipsa Dixit

Soper presents a variable treatise on art and its available meanings, one as clever and sly as it is erudite and provocative. But instantly, the musical conversation – and as often as not it’s exactly that, given Soper’s demands on her instrumental accomplices to verbalize, to engage in theatrics, to deliver lines outright – suggests some nuances she clearly intended, along with others she surely could not have foreseen entirely.

Performance Review: Robert Ashley, Dust

Let’s begin bold: There surely will be no student undertaking of an operatic or music-theater work more significant than the new production of Robert Ashley’s 1999 opera Dust that the College of Performing Arts at the New School unveiled on February 2 in the school’s Ernst C. Stiefel Concert Hall.

Early Audition: ACME, Thrive on Routine

Listen to an exclusive preview of a gorgeous John Luther Adams piece included on ‘Thrive on Routine,’ the forthcoming album by New York’s much admired ensemble ACME on the consistently impressive audiophile label Sono Luminus.

James Rhodes: Music Has Quite Literally Saved My Life

Music has infiltrated and influenced our lives as much as nature, literature, art, sport, religion, philosophy and television. It is the great unifier, the drug of choice for teenagers around the world. It provides solace, wisdom, hope and warmth and has done so for thousands of years. It is medicine for the soul. There are eighty-eight keys on a piano and within that, an entire universe. The unassailable fact is that music has, quite literally, saved my life and, I believe, the lives of countless others.

Conversation: Kinan Azmeh – Exiled by Travel Ban, Maintaining Optimism in Adversity

In the hours and days after President Donald J. Trump announced an executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States, including those with valid visas and residency permits, numerous stories circulated about soldiers, translators, teachers, scientists, and others who’d performed exceptional service on behalf of the U.S., yet suddenly couldn’t come back home. One such narrative that gained especially wide circulation, through an Associated Press article published on January 29, was that of Kinan Azmeh, a 40-year-old clarinetist and composer born in Damascus, Syria.

Performance Response: Prototype Festival 2017

Having completed its fifth year, the Prototype festival is a success. But in applauding a festival for its vision, we can also ponder uncomfortable questions, some of which might be unanswerable. What do we expect from a 21st-century opera? Does it have a cultural obligation to the representation of gender? What is its role in advocacy? Is it possible to be progressive and retrospective at the same time?

Conversation: Alan Gilbert – On Contemporary Music and Future Plans

Halfway through his final season, and with Contact! returning for two chamber-music concerts at National Sawdust, New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert talks at length about his association with new music as part of a broad mix of objectives he pursued, and offers glimpses of what his future might hold.

Conversation: David Smooke – Narrative Possibilities and Exploding Boundaries

One of my favorite things about composer David Smooke is how wide open his ears are. No matter how bizarre the music, he will want to check it out. His own music demonstrates this sort of receptivity in its colorful variety, dramatic textures and quirky spirit. The works on his debut portrait album, Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, range from brooding and creepy to funky and joyous, wrapped up a combination of thoughtful composition and spontaneous improvisations.

Performance Response: Yuka Honda, Revert to Sea

How vital is it to know the literary underpinnings of what’s essentially an abstract musical work? Does something fundamental get lost in translation, so to speak, when you hear such a work without knowing the literature that inspired it?

Conversation: Missy Mazzoli Meets Prototype

I feel like the artists that we have showcased, the voices are really singular. I think of trends as being “lets get on the bandwagon and do it this way,” and I just don’t think we’re attracted to artists like that. The trend, maybe, is that rules aren’t really required anymore.

Variations: David First – How to Profit During the End of the World

Presenting something meaningful and beautiful that has enough immediacy to address and express peoples’ hopes, fears, anxieties, etc, is always a good thing. It’s nothing less than a measured, subversive counterbalance to the outside world’s sinister forces. Does it do much to change things on a grand scale? Probably not. But as I said to a fellow musician the other day, shoemakers make shoes. We do what we do.

Performance Response: Ariodante Workshop at National Sawdust

I am on my way to see a workshop of a “new performing edition” of Handel’s four-hour opera Ariodante, the vision of director R. B. Schlather and musical director Geoffrey McDonald. I am nervous and slightly cynical about what “new” means to an opera composed in 1734, and how contemporary rhetoric keeps sending the message that opera is dead and everyone needs to bring it back to life. Am I going to another post-modern memorial service?

Variations: Olivia Giovetti – Ways of Listening

“No why. Just here.” I first came across the Cage quote shortly before I started meditating, a practice that I’d adopted initially out of the need to give myself some space from my work in the music industry. When I started practicing at MNDFL, a Greenwich Village studio that offers classes based around different branches of mindfulness, an offering of sound-based practice seemed counterintuitive to someone whose livelihood depended on sound.

Another Brooklyn: Reflections on Race, Response, and Reconcilation

When Jacqueline Woodson, a writer of beautiful and arresting works, agreed to host and curate a National Sawdust+ program – quickly tapping her “dream team” Toshi Reagon and Carl Hancock Rux to join her – I knew we were in for a powerful evening. But I had no idea it would prove so provocative an experience, eliciting reactions from the audience that ranged from deep sadness to tremendous inspiration on that cold December night.

Conversation: Wadada Leo Smith and Vijay Iyer

A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, released on ECM in March 2016, is the rare improvisational piece with a title that clues the listener into its inner workings. In this series of journeying duets, pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith seek out and magnify aspects of cosmic rhythm, one phrase (and, often, one patient single note) at a time.

Variations: Ellen McSweeney – Getting Our Own House in Order

Particularly for those of us who deeply care about the fate of the world, being an artist can feel like a retreat, a cop-out, a failure to “really help.” An accomplished musician friend of mine said: “I’ve been spending a lot of time asking myself: why the hell am I doing this?” As musicians, we may ask ourselves that question constantly. We’re often forced to defend—whether to others, or to ourselves—the decision to devote our lives to art.

Attacca Quartet and Caroline Shaw: Getting to Know You

The Attacca Quartet, soon to launch its new “Recently Added” concert series with a program devoted to music by Caroline Shaw, chats with Shaw about her development and process.

Variations: Christopher Cerrone on Understanding and Empathy Through Poetry

As far back as I can remember, music has always been my means of navigating the world. But words have always been a second and equal love. In the past month, I’ve turned extensively to words I love after a baffling election.

Conversation: Tim Berne – Playing with David Torn, Working with ECM

Seasoned saxophonist, composer and bandleader Tim Berne talked about his long creative partnership with guitarist David Torn and his burgeoning relationship with ECM Records, under whose banner Sun of Goldfinger (featuring Berne and Torn) plays National Sawdust Dec. 3.

Album review: Leo Svirsky, Heights in Depths

Composer and instrumentalist Leo Svirsky’s impressively tricky to get a handle on. His latest album, Heights in Depths, a tightly focused study in minimalism (in the original sense) for solo accordion, mixes confrontational intensity with contemplative calm.

Variations: Lucy Caplan on Music in Moments of Crisis

Since the cataclysmic election earlier this month, I have struggled, at times, to find comfort or inspiration in music. With increasing apprehension, I wonder how music can make a difference going forward. We are on the brink of catastrophe. What can artists do with music in this moment, and how do we discern its limits?

Variations: So Percussion – Taking aim at guns in America

Making art in response to unspeakable acts is difficult – at least it has been for us. The first problem that is so easy to stumble over is “what do we say?” But we realized that the first question for an artist could also be: “what do we make?”

Meredith Monk: Art, spirituality, and bonds that endure

“These years, I feel that part of my time left on earth is to be working in my art on something that you contemplate, that you’re not ever going to find the answer to” – Meredith Monk talks about her new album, On Behalf of Nature, in advance of a concert at National Sawdust in November.

Variations: Donnacha Dennehy, Politics, and a Crusading Opera

Some people, mainly critics, get very protective of genres. They want an “opera” to have the same type of structure as all the operas they love from the past. I don’t. In fact, I believe if you have trouble categorizing, you may be on to something. It means that you’re experimenting with the form, that you’re allowing content to drive a new approach to form.

Variations: Jenny Q. Chai – Discovering a Mission in Artistic Activism

The beauty of making music is that it means so many personal and important things to so many. So then, having spent almost my entire conscious life learning about music, what is my motivation for making it?

Laraaji: Ambient music, laughter, and the infinite present moment

Laraaji, the New Age musician and meditation guide who gained worldwide recognition after recording with Brian Eno, talks about his artistic and spiritual paths, the therapeutic power of laughter, and music of the eternal now.

Conversation: Joshua Winstead of Metric on MMXX

Metric bassist and singer-songwriter Joshua Winstead recently released his debut solo album, MMXX; now, in advance of bringing his new music to National Sawdust, he fielded questions from friends in Metric, Bear in Heaven, Broken Social Scene, and Death From Above 1979.

Variations: Bringing It All Back Home

After an on-campus epiphany sent her back to school, Bonnie Wright has cultivated worldwide networks of community through bringing her far-flung musical discoveries home to San Diego.

Conversation: David T. Little and Royce Vavrek on Dog Days

Hailed by audiences and the press during its premiere run in 2012, the opera Dog Days – created by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek – has enjoyed widespread success unusual for contemporary opera. During a recent interview, Little and Vavrek looked back on their creative partnership, the premiere staging, and lessons learned along the way.

Conversation: TJ Armand and Carl Paiva on Sama: An American Requiem

Inaugurating Beginning Stages, a first-time venture for National Sawdust that emphasizes some of the earliest steps in the development of a musical-theater work, TJ Armand and Carl Paiva took part in a week-long residency in September. With another concert reading coming up, they checked in with a progress report.

Variations: A community of enduring connections

It is the most amazing thing to have people write music just for you. It feels like an honor and a privilege. But it is truly something special to have your close friends write for you, because of course in the best scenarios those pieces end up being aural representations of the friendship you have with that person.

Conversation: Brandon Stosuy on writing about music for children

As editor in chief of The Creative Independent, Brandon Stosuy is helping to enable artists and innovators to share advice and anecdotes concerning their creative processes. Partisans of outstanding music journalism and cognoscenti of aural extremes have known and relied upon Stosuy for years. In October, Stosuy added a new line to his burgeoning C.V. with his first children’s book, Music Is….

Performance Response: National Sawdust Opening Night 2016

The one who deals with sound creates spaces from different relationships between resonances, echoes, and physical proprieties of supposed materials, storytelling, emotional illusionism, metaphoric design or poetic forms, dealing not only with the exterior/acoustic aspects of the space being developed, but also designing sound in the roots of the story itself, the inner space.

Performance Response: National Sawdust Opening Night 2016

The evening began dreamy. A field of suspended small stones surrounded Sophia Brous as she first lay recumbent, then rose to bring the lullabies to life. The stones were cosmic, asteroids or debris from outer space; or they were oceanic, the pebbles of a beach. The music was a journey as well.

Performance Review: Donnacha Dennehy, The Hunger

Political theater is a challenging balancing act, one that requires a creative team to tread a thin line stretched precariously high. How audacious a creator must be, then, to attempt a feat so risky in the opera house, where comparatively little precedent exists for successful activist art.

Performance Review: Missy Mazzoli, Breaking the Waves

The director Lars von Trier hasn’t shied away from operatic ambition, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek produced a realization as daring and devastating as its morally complicated source.

Conversation: Paola Prestini & Steve Smith

Back when Paola Prestini was brainstorming what National Sawdust could be and do, she voiced the conviction that journalism and criticism are fundamental to the artistic ecosystem. Now, as our new journalistic initiative takes its first steps out into the world, we want to share the thinking behind this unconventional pursuit.

Performance Review: David Lang, the loser

If you’ve followed the career of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang for any significant amount of time, you might…umm…worry just a bit about a seeming preoccupation with cruelty that extends from early works up to his newest.

Variations: Critics, composers, and performers

When people talk about the musical world, or part of it, as a “community,” the presumption is that they are speaking mainly of composers, performers and listeners. How critics fit into this community has long been a fraught question from just about every point of view.

Conversation: Augusta Read Thomas & Doyle Armbrust

Something peculiar has been incubating here in Chicago for decades now, something that doesn’t look or sound quite like any other new music community. And it is, at long last, getting top billing.