An interview with Artistic Director Jason Hardink on the highlights of the upcoming 2014-15 NOVA Chamber Music Season.
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.
Thanks to all who joined us on Sunday for NOVA's first Community Thank-You Concert!
We had a blast touring the beautiful grounds of Memory Grove and Memorial House. Picking up musical breadcrumbs along the way.
Special thanks to Utah Heritage Foundation and Executive Director Kirk Huffaker for co-hosting this fabulous event!
Check out this great review and other stunning photos from the Salt Lake Tribune's Cathy Reese Newton and photographer Trent Nelson:
Another audio interview with Utah composer Bruce Quaglia- here he discusses the collaboration between composers and performers when staging a world premiere. This segment includes clips from a rehearsal with pianist Jason Hardink and discussion on how to best realize certain aspects of the piano part to his new chamber concerto, L'Acqua Alta.
Bruce Quaglia composed his virtuoso solo piano piece Passaggio Scuro in 2005 in response to a commission from Jason Hardink. Click the link to hear a performance of the work in anticipation of Sunday's NOVA concert, an event which includes 3 works by Quaglia.
The music on this coming Sunday’s NOVA program unites works by Mozart with those of two very different Utah composers, Bruce Quaglia and Corbin Johnston. The juxtaposition of Mozart and Quaglia’s music is no accident. Quaglia’s Passaggio Scuro employs glittering virtuosity and allusions to dance rhythms of earlier classical styles, while Through the Dark Passage conveys a graceful lightness of texture. He writes music that one could interpret to be very much engaged with the classical tradition, and his own compositional lineage can be traced back to an American school fostered by Arnold Schoenberg’s teachings in the U.S. Johnston’s works, on the other hand, are the result of too many evenings spent performing in the smoky underground jazz scene of the East Coast during the 1980s. His short and decisive pieces are influenced by the cryptic lead sheets and hysterical improvisations of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Cecil Taylor.
Notes on the Quaglia pieces appeared in a previous post. What follows are remarks on the works by Mozart and Johnston for Sunday’s concert.
Mozart’s Serenade in E-flat K. 375 was among the first works he wrote as a new citizen of Vienna. During the summer of 1781 he was dismissed from his post at the court of Salzburg, a circumstance that freed him to pursue a career as a composer and pianist in the musical capitol of the world. The K. 375 Serenade represents Mozart’s earliest attempts to gain favor with the court of Emperor Joseph II. Originally conceived as a wind sextet, Mozart added 2 oboes during the summer of 1782, hoping that it would be performed by the 8-piece court band (it wasn’t). During the five years that separate Mozart’s Serenade in E-flat and the “Kegelstatt” Trio of 1786, Mozart married Constanze Weber and pursued an active career as a pianist/composer through a series of concerts designed to promote his piano concerti. The year 1786 marked a return to opera and a new collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Le nozze di Figaro was premiered in May, and before starting work on Don Giovanni, Mozart spent the summer writing chamber music. The unusual scoring of the “Kegelstatt” work leads one to assume that the intended performers included Mozart on viola and Anton Stadler, dedicatee of the clarinet concerto and quintet, on clarinet. This was not a work intended to garner publicity or money. It was rather an intimate creation meant to be enjoyed in the company of friends.
Corbin Johnston composed Viola and Piano: One Application in 2005 for Brant Bayless. Johnston describes the piece as “an improvisational structure, based on two theme groups and one sub group (Bridge) that delineate the form for improvisation.” The improvisations are incredibly frenetic, always with the intent that the original melodic motives should “disintegrate beyond recognition.”5.3 |2| blind date came with the following instructions from Johnston: “No rehearsal necessary. The notion behind this is that of a blind date. No one will have any idea of what their colleagues are going to be playing. So you’ll be hearing the other parts for the first time at the concert, while you are playing your part. Creating sort of an aural blind date. The improvised part is your reaction in the moment.”
- JH, 4.25.14