Listen to interviews about our October NOVA concert- with violist Julie Edwards and Artistic Director Jason Hardink.
NOVA is presenting works by Utah composer Michael Hicks on October 26th: his string quartet, Strategy of Looms, along with the second performance of his new work for two violins/three hands, Diode, written for Alexander and Aubrey Woods. We recently conducted the following interview with this most gifted and articulate of Utah composers.
NOVA: Before asking you about the specifics of Diode and Strategy of Looms, I have a few rather broad questions to pose. I loved Jeremy Grimshaw’s article that recently appeared on NewMusicBox entitled “Mormon Music After the 'Mormon Moment'.” The article made reference to your book on the history of music in Mormon culture. Having an intimate knowledge of these traditions (or do you see it as a lack of tradition and emphasis on individual artistic revelation?), how do you feel your music represents a reflection of LDS culture, both today and from an historian’s perspective?
MH: I titled that book, my first, Mormonism and Music rather than the reverse because I see it as a history of Mormonism with music as the lens. Mormonism is neither its sponsoring church, nor that church's doctrines, nor its political positions, but an esoteric and eclectic body of thought, with concomitant ways of life, patterns of conduct, and philosophical stances.
I have the distinct advantage of being "culturally disadvantaged" as a Mormon: I joined when I was 17 and had come through other faiths and traditions, all of which are part of the me that is now (first-generation) Mormon. What drew me to Mormonism was chiefly Joseph Smith, not as church-maker but as creed-buster, radical, visionary, enigma. I saw (and see) him as something of a religious street-tough, a rough-and-ready would-be intellectual who liked to duel with establishment types. He had his distinct breed of hubris, of course--it comes with the territory of both charisma and religio-political authority. Still, I'm less drawn to the corporate side of late-twentieth-century Mormondom--although, to be fair, I make my living there, because the institution knows, as I do, that I have much to give to the culture of that hoped-for "Zion" of which Mormonism habitually speaks. Indeed, when I was confirmed a member of the church, the elder who did so blessed me "to leave your mark on the cultural history of this church." And I've tried so hard to have that mark be a kind of watermark of authenticity.
How does my music reflect rather than help to shape LDS culture? Mostly in that it attempts to be what Charles Amirkhanian calls (in an utterly different context!) "revelationary": mysterious, seductive, a little spikey, devout, and, I must say, deeply personal, introspective. In its essence, very Mormon, if I may say so, though not necessarily in the way the church currently promotes itself.
NOVA: I must admit that when programming this concert, I intuited an undercurrent of spiritual and religious inspiration underlying the artistic expression of the three composers represented. Bach’s relationship with the Lutheran church is well known. Mendelssohn too wore his Christianity on his sleeve, particularly with works like the “Reformation” Symphony and the Saint Paul oratorio. In placing your music among this tradition, have I misfired, or do you see yourself as a part of it (specificities of belief and doctrine aside)?
MH: In fact I only see myself in that larger, longer line of spiritual questing and communal energy. I have no acutely parochial interest other than maybe to invoke Mormon language in some titles and descriptions (and classes at BYU, of course!). But, again, given my own journey, which did not begin in Mormonism but found in Mormonism an apt and welcome amalgamation of so much I'd felt and pursued, I don't have a core "Mormon" identity. I wasn't born one, wasn't raised as one, but will die one, yet always insisting that I--to quote Jimi Hendrix--"let my freak flag fly." My core identity, in other words is (a) American (with all that implies, including an undercurrent of rebellion) and (b) Protestant (with "protest" as the root).
NOVA: I ask the above question knowing that our concert consists largely of what one would call “secular” music. There was no distinction for a religious composer like Olivier Messiaen. He wrote very little liturgical music, but he considered every work in his output to be an expression of his Catholicism. Is there a way to describe the sound world of Diode and Strategy of Looms in relationship to your spiritual beliefs, or is such a question counterproductive?
MH: First, no question is counterproductive, because, if nothing else, any question leads on to better questions, which is what humans were built and installed on this earth for. Second, I'll embrace the potential analogy to Messiaen for two reasons: he had more faith than in Catholicism, including in the "truth" and relentless evanescence of the natural world; and he developed a personal harmonic and gestural language precisely perched between perplexity and plain-spokenness. And I'm all about that these days.
NOVA: Your string quartet Strategy of Looms is a breathtaking and mesmerizing work- I am captivated by its inventiveness and the ease with which your language suites the idiom of the quartet. Have you written other works for string quartet? I am curious whether the naturalness I sense in the writing came easy to you.
MH: Thank you so much for that sentiment. I can't really say how I settled on those particular negotiations with the instruments, which I still find satisfying. The piece goes back twenty-three years and what and how I was feeling and acting then is hard to recapture. But I had written a string quartet sixteen years before Strategy of Looms and so had to deal with basic issues of the medium then (I was eighteen). And I've written other pieces with strings in the meantime, including a devilishly tough piece for violin and piano in 1983.
Any idiomatic success, though, may derive from one fact: I grew up playing the guitar and it was my main instrument in college. So from boyhood I've acquired a decent feel for fingers, strings, and wooden necks.
NOVA: One of the moments in Strategy of Looms that I find particularly arresting and haunting is the last note of the piece, a high C in the violin that appears and persists as the other parts unravel and dissipate underneath it. Does this moment have special significance to you? I’m not fishing for programmatic descriptors- I simply find that note to possess a hallucinatory, revelatory quality, one that seems in line with the aesthetic stance you have proposed previously in this conversation.
MH: Thank you again. As for the pitch itself: back then I often ended pieces with C, feeling that that's where we always start in music theory and, given no implicit hierarchical structure to define resolution in my own pitch palette, C seems a good place to end. (I have a little of an older tradition of Affektenlehre in me, too, which accords to C a kind of purity, even transcendence.) But as for the very long, seemingly oblivious sustaining of that note while the other instruments hold forth, I wanted the piece to literally flatline at its end. I hear a sense of, I'll say, "hospitalian" resolution there, in which a soul has migrated and only relics remain.
NOVA: Tell us the story behind Diode. What was the piece like before it became a work for 2 violins/3 hands? Did the subtraction of a bow arm, which one would be tempted to regard as a compositional handicap of sorts, serve as a galvanizing element or a barrier in the creative process?
MH: Planning a duo for Alex and Aubrey, I had toyed with different kinds of microtonality--inherent in every non-fretted string performance--but found that approach too cumbersome. I didn't want to put burdens on the players (e.g., to learn a new tuning system) and I wanted the piece to flow for me personally. Spontaneity over constructivism. So I started by writing some fairly ferocious tremolo licks, all fortissimo, a real bravado fanfare. Soon, inertia set in: what could I say next that felt fresh? That is, what was I announcing with those fanfares?
Then Alex had his accident, from which I went to gloom, then epiphany. His temporary disability, instead of becoming the de facto death of the project, became exactly the kind of constraint I needed to feel energized. How does one proceed not just when one is impaired, but when one's partner is not? How to bridge the imbalance, to compromise and mutually adapt? This seemed not only like the sort of invitation to creativity one hopes for in a work of art, but also a lot like the tantalizing (apparent) dysfunction that most of life's relationships invite one to confront and even embrace.
Suddenly the piece felt like it was about something. And then it got onto the page very quickly.
NOVA’s October 26th concert features music by Bach, Mendelssohn, and Michael Hicks. A composer, performer, scholar, and poet, Mr. Hicks has received countless accolades for his compositions and has been teaching at BYU since 1985. Hicks is the author of four books: Mormonism and Music: A History (1989), Sixties Rock: Garage, Psychedelic, and Other Satisfactions (1999), Henry Cowell, Bohemian (2002), and Christian Wolff (2012, co-authored with Christian Asplund), all published by University of Illinois Press. He is currently authoring a fifth book, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A Biography (forthcoming 2015). His historical and analytical articles have appeared in books such as the Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World and the forthcoming Oxford Handbook to Mormonism as well as journals that include American Music, Journal of Aesthetic Education, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Musical Quarterly, and Perspectives of New Music.
NOVA will be presenting his string quartet, Strategy of Looms, along with the second performance of his new work for two violins/three hands, Diode. Below are program notes by the composer along with video footage of a performance of Diode earlier this month- Alexander and Aubrey Woods performing in Madsen Recital Hall at BYU on October 9, 2014.
Strategy of Looms (1991)
In this piece I approached the string quartet as a kind of loom by which different kinds of “weaves” might be created in the changing relationships of its voices. The title of the piece alludes partly to my personal “strategy” of assembling different kinds of weaves into a single large form. The title also refers to what one might call the “loom strategy” of Penelope: in order to repel her would-be suitors (while Odysseus was adventuring), she wove all day then unraveled her weaving at night so as to make it seem her task was never done. I think the piece exudes some of Penelope’s passion as she ruminated on her beloved’s absence.
In electronics a diode is a device that allows current to move through it in one direction far more easily than in the other. When I was writing an earlier duo for Alex and Aubrey Woods to perform together, an injury briefly prevented Alex from using his right arm to play. So I wrote a new piece, in which one player uses only his left hand while the other uses both. The two players, both with hints of electrical current in their gestures, negotiate different plausible ways of playing together until they finally compromise in a tentative unity.
Jason Hardink discusses the selection of repertoire on our February 9, 2014 NOVA concert.
This is the seventh season NOVA is collaborating with the Fry Street Quartet, the string quartet in residence for the Caine College of the Arts at Utah State University. The FSQ has given stellar performances on a wide variety of repertoire, and we thought it was high time to devote an entire NOVA program to one of the finest ensembles in the state of Utah.
The link below takes you to an interview with Artistic Director Jason Hardink, who discusses the importance of NOVA's relationship with the FSQ as well as the fantastic selection of repertoire chosen for Sunday's program.
Sunday’s NOVA concert features music by composers who were enchanted by different idioms found in folk music. Michael Ellison and Antonín Dvořák were deliberate in their use of folk models. Melodies and textures that evoke Czech, American, and Turkish folk music play a central role in the respective musical identity of each composer, and they both wrote (write) extensively about the importance of their musical source material.
Haydn’s use of Hungarian folk elements in is music is well known. His “Gypsy” Piano Trio, written a year before his opus 76 no. 1 string quartet, is perhaps the most famous example. Otherwise we tend not to think of Haydn as a folklorist. It is worth pointing out that Haydn came of age as a composer at the same moment as the Classical style. When he began composing in the 1740s and 50s, there was no accepted, definitive style as such. Taste was rapidly shifting away from Baroque and Rococo ideals; the dynamic changes that were occurring during Haydn’s youth could perhaps account for the dynamism of his own genius. His own personal, musical style never evolved into a static “style” at any point during his career. His music always avoids the formulaic and strives towards newness and surprise.
Haydn entered his first maturity as a composer just when Classicism was doing the same; in a certain sense, Haydn’s career and the classical style are synonymous. The musical scene in Vienna at that moment (1750s) represented a mélange of styles and aesthetics. Modern audiences (and musicians) tend to think of Haydn’s music as an abstract entity, beautiful and essentially pure of influence; the reality is far more interesting.
Recent research has begun to explore the idea that the major composers of the high Classic era were influenced by vernacular styles more than previously supposed. Of particular note are the writings of Dr. Catherine Mayes of the University of Utah. She has presented her research on exoticism and national styles in music at numerous national and international conferences on subjects such as "Cultural Associations of Turkish and Hungarian-Gypsy Styles in the Late Eighteenth Century and Their Compositional Implications," "Eastern European National Music as Concept and Commodity at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century," and "Reconsidering an Early Exoticism: Viennese Adaptations of Hungarian-Gypsy Music around 1800.”
In the end, Haydn’s music was chosen to complement Ellison and Dvořák on Sunday’s concert simply as a way to introduce this concept to chamber music enthusiasts. Haydn’s music mirrors the melting pot of influences he was exposed to in Vienna; this includes serious art music and vernacular styles. One could make the case that specific moments in Haydn’s opus 76, no. 1 quartet evoke or are drawn from folk sources. For example, the opening melody (after the opening three chords) has a shape and lilt reminiscent of the opening melody of Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony, a tune scholars have traced to a Croatian folk song. But for the most part, such theorizing is merely conjectural and subjective since much of the would-be source material for 18th century composers was never recorded or written down. Instead, this introduction serves merely to point out the possibility that Haydn’s intended audience of the 18th century probably heard his works much as we hear Ellison, a kaleidoscopic blend of references to familiar styles of music.
Franz Joseph Haydn’s career paralleled the rise of of the “Classical Style,” a term assigned to a period of music known for beautiful elegance and graceful proportions. A sense of propriety governed this body of music, largely written for the courtly pleasures of the aristocracy. While these ideals may be operative in the music of Haydn, a wider view is necessary when examining the music of a complex artist who sought constantly to defy expectation.
Haydn came of age in the 1750s as the aftershocks of Baroque music were giving way to a number of different trends in music. Two of the most notable examples of opposing styles thriving during this time were found in the music of Bach’s sons: C. P. E. Bach, who wrote expressive, subjective music vs. that of a more Italianate flavor, J. C. Bach and the stile galante.
But citing these two examples represents a gross oversimplification of the musical life in Europe during this time of rapid stylistic change. Vienna, Haydn’s stomping grounds as a student and his home from age 8-29, offered a rich tapestry of musical experience. Italian opera dominated the dramatic landscape, while a more dignified and antiquated approach suited the wealth of music composed for the liturgy. The north German school offered idiosyncratic, introverted music as opposed to the new drama found in the concert music at the court of Mannheim. The symphony, string quartet, keyboard sonata (and the piano itself) were only just taking on the forms we now recognize as Haydn was writing his first serious works in his twenties.
It might be possible to look at later examples of musical classicism and try to distill patterns and trends into a theory that one could label the “Classical Style.” But for Haydn, whose music was born out of a melting pot of styles, such distillation is often difficult. In addition, Haydn followed a unique path as he spent 1761-90 quite isolated from the rest of the musical establishment at the Esterházy estate. As a court composer suddenly devoid of interaction with current trends in music, he came to view composition in this setting as a place to take risks and push the envelope. The creation of music as Haydn saw it was a fluid, evolving process. For fear of becoming artistically stagnant, he “had to become original” (his words).
So while Haydn uses techniques, genres, and forms that we can often neatly categorize with hindsight, we can still hear his music as he intended it; each new work a grand experiment of expressive possibilities that steps beyond the bounds of convention in a singular way. The Fry Street Quartet performs Haydn’s Quartet in G Major, opus 76, no. 1 this coming Sunday on NOVA. It is a thrill for our series to have access to collaboration with a Utah string quartet at this level of artistic excellence. You can be sure that all the drama of Haydn’s poetic sensibilities, elegance, off-beat sense of humor, and rustic charm will be illuminated by a dynamic and breathtaking reading by the FSQ.