Category Archives: About the artists

Live Music Project Means Community || Let’s Celebrate!

Giving Tuesday 2018 with Live Music Project

Dear Live Music Project Friends,

Our goal at Live Music Project is to connect people with live classical music in a way that strengthens community, celebrates listener agency, and amplifies the resources of local arts organizations. Which means, Live Music Project is about you, our community. We measure our success by seeing how many people interact with Live Music Project online. In the last year, more than 60,000 people visited livemusicproject.org to find events and learn more about our community. We also measure our success by how many tickets we give away each year with our Spontaneous Free Tickets program. In the 2017-2018 season, we distributed 800 tickets worth $20,000 to eager listeners – for free. We feel the most successful, though, when we see the smiles on your faces or hear about your positive experiences at classical music events across Seattle.

We have so much to be thankful for throughout the season. We are particularly grateful for how you give your time, energy, and resources to support this community. Volunteers make our world go ’round – in our most recent Fall event-a-thon, our volunteer Calendar Squad prepared more than 150 concerts for the coming season. Your support directly helps increase arts access, arts audiences, and arts community. If you would like to reaffirm your commitment to Live Music Project as a volunteer or with a donation, we would be thrilled.

Now, it’s time to have a little social media party!! Whether you are near or far, please join us in celebrating Giving Tuesday. Visit our Facebook or Instagram as we highlight our favorite aspect of Live Music Project: OUR COMMUNITY!

With gratitude,
Shaya

Finally, #GivingTuesday is so much more than one day in November. Year-round, our programs connect people with live classical music in a way that strengthens community, celebrates listener agency, and amplifies local arts resources. We hope you’ll support our efforts to maximize the reach of these artists and their beautiful, important work.

A Wayward Conversation with Steve Peters

The Chapel
The Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center, home to the Wayward Music Series. (LMP archive photo)

 

“My sense of responsibility is to the artists. My prime focus is making sure that artists have a good place to present their work in its best possible light; a good sound, good piano, good feeling in the room, nice acoustics. And it’s not going to break their bank to play there.”

This is Steve Peters – composer, phonographer, producer, mastermind behind the Wayward Music Series, and cheerleader to Seattle’s explorative music scene. Steve agreed to an interview with the Live Music Project last month, and WOW did I enjoy that! We met for lunch in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood, and ended up having an inspiring, sprawling conversation.

After I’d been to just a couple of shows at the Chapel Performance Space, I wanted to meet Steve and learn more about the Wayward series. It doesn’t take much exposure to understand the vitality and import that Wayward provides. The endless list of ensembles is a treasure of variety.

The Wayward Music Series is a branch of Nonsequitur, a nonprofit Steve founded with Jonathan Scheuer in 1989 in Sante Fe. When Steve moved to Seattle in 2004, he asked himself what Nonsequitur could contribute to Seattle that the city didn’t already have. He realized Seattle was missing a mid-size, sit-down-and-listen space where eclectic collections of people could play their experimental (or as Steve prefers, “explorative”) music.

“I don’t see my role as being about presenting music that I think is great,” Steve says. “I see my role as maintaining a situation where people can do their work.”

At the time, Steve suspected that high Seattle rents were preventing such a place from being sustainable; if Nonsequitur could pay that bill, maybe it would help the community thrive.

Today, Nonsequitur pays rent for 10 nights each month at the beautiful Chapel Performance Space in Wallingford. They curate and host one or two shows each month, and the remaining nights are freely available for artists or presenters to sign up and use – provided they are compatible with Wayward’s mission – generally on a first-come, first-served basis. The calendar is typically booked months in advance, year-round.

The series delivers on Steve’s vision of an affordable venue. If admission takes in more than $200, then the artist gives 20% back to Nonsequitur to help cover the rent; if the gate makes less than $200, then the artist keeps it all.

(That’s a deal! The rental fee to book the same space independently of the Wayward Music Series, if you are charging admission and are a not-for-profit, is $300 per evening.)

Steve Peters walks across the stage at the Chapel Performance Space. (LMP archive photo)
Steve Peters walks across the stage at the Chapel Performance Space. (LMP archive photo)

 

In addition to maintaining the Wayward Music Series, Steve is also a composer. When I ask him to describe his work, he says, after some pause, “…Long. And slow. And quiet.”

“I’m more of an idea composer than a note composer, and I’m interested in musicians who can do things that I can’t – and that I can’t conceive of – and see how they are going to surprise me,” he says. “Most of my work has to do with this blurry area between improvisation and composition. I’m interested in trying to devise situations in which I invite people to improvise.”

One such situation is a sound installation at the Fern Room of the Lincoln Park Conservatory in Chicago. First, Steve recorded room tone – a room’s unique resonance and harmonics – in the Fern Room. (Room tone is different from ambient noise like a banging radiator or a siren coming through an open window.)

Next, Steve made an alphabetical list of the Latin names of the fern species housed in the space, and divided it up among four singers. Working in a studio, their job was to vocalize each name, spoken or sung – and Steve’s control of their performance ended there. The singers recorded the words in isolation from one another, lending their own abilities and sensibilities to what would become a shared piece.

Finally, to pull together the disparate voices, Steve provided the room tone as a backdrop for each musician to sing with. He then edited the tracks together, each 5 to 30 seconds long, creating a cohesive soundscape. You can listen to Index Filicum on Steve’s Bandcamp page.

A rehearsal in the Chapel. (LMP archive photo)
A rehearsal in the Chapel. (LMP archive photo)

 

At the end of our interview, I ask Steve if there is anything else he would like to talk about. (I always end with this question, and almost always get a blank stare.) This time, after the blank stare and some additional silence, Steve finally offers:

“Well… there’s a lot of disconnect between the various publications in town, and radio, and the arts community in terms of what gets covered. What I want people in the media to understand is that if you want a local arts scene to thrive, you have to write about it. You have to talk about it.”

Steve says he wishes there were more arts criticism by people who engage with the work of art on its own terms. A review that says “I liked it” or “it was awful” falls short of being useful. The ideal review is honest and constructive; it talks about the work, what it set out to accomplish, and whether it has achieved that goal.

He raves about Omar Willey at The Seattle Star, who covers theatre and dance. “Omar is so good at understanding what the work is trying to achieve and then analyzing how it succeeds or comes up short, on those terms. That is a gift. That’s what a real critic is.”

Steve also points out that if artists want to tour or apply for grants, they need reviews that they can point to and say: This is what we do, and somebody else thought it was interesting. “There is no underestimating the importance of coverage in the local media of the local arts.”

The conversation turns to the types of music and venues that receive coverage, and I mention to Steve that I saw Eighth Blackbird last year. They were the greatest thing I’ve seen this century, but I have not heard them played on KEXP. KEXP is dedicated to new and sweeping varieties of music. Why couldn’t KEXP play one of Eighth Blackbird’s many albums?

“Why couldn’t KEXP invite them for an in-studio session?” Steve exclaimed. “KEXP is great at the live thing. I totally respect what they do with the live studio shows. But there could be so much more going on besides rock bands and pop music.”

Local media is in the perfect position to encourage listeners to expand their musical experiences.

The musical space Steve has created within the Chapel is a beautiful, accessible-to-me place, with a well-varied catalogue of ensembles. It occurs to me: this could be my go-to place. Talking to Steve, I realized we all fall into our little traps and then complain about being in ruts! Branching out – that’s good for the soul.

Steve is more than a talented artist; he is dedicated to his craft, his peers, and his community. That’s refreshing air to breathe over lunch.

You can learn more about the Wayward Music Series at waywardmusic.org and listen to more of Steve’s compositions at stevepeters.bandcamp.com.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.

LMP On the Road: Giving Tuesday

LMP executive director Shaya Lyon checks in with the cellos during an interview with Nathan Whittaker at his studio in West Seattle. (Photo: Bronson Foster)
LMP executive director Shaya Lyon checks in with the cellos during an interview with Nathan Whittaker at his studio in West Seattle. (Photo: Bronson Foster)

November 28, 2017 was Giving Tuesday – a global day of giving that was created to inspire people to collaborate to improve their local communities and give back in impactful ways to the causes they support.

Our Seattle arts community is incredible, and on Tuesday, we brought it a little closer to your doorstep – or your magical viewing device – as we visited a few of the many passionate, inspiring, and fun artists across Seattle.

That’s right. It’s the 2017 edition of LMP On The Road!

Continuing our tradition of showcasing local arts organizations on #GivingTuesday, we went behind the scenes to interview – live on Facebook – as many members of our Seattle classical community as we can fit in a calendar day. We heard from…

• The four delightful members of the Skyros Quartet, a professional teaching artist string quartet dedicated to inspiring communication through performing, educating, and composing:

• UW Modern Ensemble, as they prepared for their Dec. 5 concert, including Philip Glass’ Music in Similar Motion:

• UW Percussion Ensemble, who were rehearsing a theatrical version of John Cage’s recently-discovered radio play The City Wears a Slouch Hat, which will be paired at their concert on Dec. 1 with new works by University of Washington composition students:

• Lily Shababi, a third-year student currently studying composition and performance at Cornish College of the Arts:

Soprano Linda Tsatsanis, cellist Nathan Whittaker, and clarinetist Thomas Carroll, including an introduction to a very oddly-bent instrument that will be heard in concert on Dec. 2 & 3:

• The West Seattle Community Orchestras, an all-ages organization where students – who play for free – have started in beginning ensembles and worked their way up to the symphony. They’re rehearsing for their Dec. 5 concert:

The Esoterics, as they prepared “non-Christmas music sung in heavenly manner” for concerts on Dec. 1, 2 & 3. You’ll hear snippets of Paul John Rudoi’s Spheres of Influence, Andrea Clearfield’s Khandroma (in Tibetan), and “At Castle Wood” (text by Emily Brontë) from the song cycle To touch the sky, by Kevin Puts:

Michael Praetorius – wait, MICHAEL PRAETORIUS!!?!?!?? Well, ok, it was Seattle Pro Musica – singing one of his dazzling Medieval carols in rehearsal for their Winter Rose concerts on Dec. 9:

We hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know these artists, as we have.

Finally, #GivingTuesday is so much more than one day in November. Year-round, our programs connect people with live classical music in a way that strengthens community, celebrates listener agency, and amplifies local arts resources. We hope you’ll support our efforts to maximize the reach of these artists and their beautiful, important work.

Curiosity Visits the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute

“I am a mathematician and an engineer,” I explain. “I don’t know anything about conducting an orchestra. Uhm, so, what does a conductor do?”

Most of the time – not always, but generally – I can admit that I don’t know something, and proceed to ask the most basic of questions. If you admit you don’t know, you’re allowed.

“As a conductor, basically, your hands are a metronome,” says Anna Edwards, founder and music director of the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute, which took place last month on Whidbey Island. “The better you become at conducting, the more you emote musicality through your body. There are certain characteristics or emotions that an orchestra is trying to bring out of the music, and the conductor is the person to help with that. They convey the character of the music in a meaningful way to the musicians.”

This is the first year for the institute, which welcomed 14 students of varying experience – “fellows” and “associates” – from across the country.

I dropped by for a day of observation as the participants were preparing for a public concert, the culmination of their week-long workshop. Joining Anna on the faculty was Diane Wittry, Music Director and Conductor of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra.

A session of the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute. (Photo: Larry Heidel)
A session of the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute. (Photo: Larry Heidel)

The workshop is fast-paced. Within a few hours, I could perceive the challenges, learnings, and insights required to take up the baton. During a two-hour block, conductors were given 10-12 minute segments to practice.

During this time, Diane does not have a moment’s rest. She’s running back and forth behind the orchestra observing the conductor, writing notes, gesturing, shouting instructions, or halting a segment to give more personal coaching:

“You don’t need to look down at the score! If you’re looking down, you’re not engaging the orchestra.”

Or:

Diane: “That transition…”
Conductor: “That was terrible.”
Diane: “Well, no, that’s too strong a word. But we need to do it again.”

Diane: “That was better.”

Or:

“Don’t tell [the orchestra] what you’re going to do. Just do it!”

During a segment, conductors work on individual details; a 30-second slice might be used to hone a hand gesture, or a particular horn-to-string transition. The clock continues ticking throughout do-overs, spontaneous teaching moments, and random interruptions:

Diane: “How much time is left?”
Larry (time keeper): “Four ten.”
Diane: “What does that mean?”
Larry: “Four minutes, 3 seconds.”
Diane: “What?”
Larry: “Three minutes, 58 seconds. 57 seconds. 56 seconds.”

During one session, Diane stops the conductor and whispers in his ear. Whatever the gentleman did, the next attempt sounds better, richer, tighter. Diane then addresses the orchestra:

“I asked if he could change the sound of the orchestra with his hands. And he did! Did that feel different?”

(A quiet chorus of “yes” responds.)

Conducting is hungry work! (Photo: PNWCI)
Conducting is hungry work! (Photo: PNWCI)

I’m learning that conducting is about passionate gestures – strength and grace – to non-verbally emote one’s intent to the orchestra and to communicate the emotions of a piece to the audience.

“The conductor has to think about how you are going to start an ensemble, the correct character of the music, the correct tempo of the music, the correct style of the music, and then you have to think about where you want the music to go – what dynamics – if you want it louder or softer or if you want different energy coming from different parts of the ensemble,” Anna says to me later. “The conductor is the ears of the ensemble and is able to articulate, through their hands, through gestures, what has to be done [by the individual musicians].”

I conclude that conducting is akin to dancing, except backwards. When you dance to music, you are physically reacting to music that is being played – you react to what exists. When conducting music, the physical movements shape the music; a metronome, sure, but the conductor is giving the music life, emotion, and vitality, microseconds before it exists.

In addition to founding the conducting institute, Anna is Music Director of the Saratoga Orchestra, a professional orchestra on Whidbey Island that sponsors the institute. She hopes the institute will help extend the orchestra’s season into the summer, expand its audience into the tourist season, and become a summer destination in its own right.

The next session of the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute will take place July 30 – August 4, 2018, on Whidbey Island, Washington. Visit their website for details.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.

Learn to play the piano one note at a time

Neal Kosaly-Meyer: Gradus for Fux, Tesla and Milo the Wrestler
Saturday, August 19, 2017 at 8pm
Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center, Wallingford, Seattle

I heard ducks during Neal Kosaly-Meyer’s practice session for his upcoming show, Gradus for Fux, Tesla and Milo the Wrestler. His practice space doubles as the Maple Leaf home of Keith (Neal’s college buddy) and Karen (Neal’s sister). The residential neighborhood provides ambient noises of traffic, rustling of note paper (mine), airplanes above, voices in the next room, and – I’m pretty sure – ducks.

Neal has created a framework to play improvised piano pieces with a lot of silence, sparse notes, quick groupings and permutations of notes, and random ambient noises.

The enjoyment comes from the anticipation derived from silence, and then a sudden soft note or a single note played loudly. What’s next? Be patient. There could be one note, BAM, or 5 quick notes, BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM. It might be a mix BAM PING BAM BAM PING. There could be sustain, BAAAAAMMMMM. Somewhere in there, ambient noises might appear; fowl quacking out the window.

This forces me to listen to these notes in a new way. Be patient; wait for it. I hear notes for themselves, pure and clean, unencumbered by chords or progressions.

(Neal Kosaly-Meyer. Photo by Joe Mabel)
(Neal Kosaly-Meyer. Photo by Joe Mabel)

Neal mildly bristles at this notion of “unencumbered.” There is sometimes conflict between what the artist wants to convey, and what a particular audience member receives: that’s part of the magic. People create their own interpretations. That’s a beautiful aspect of art.

“My experience with it…” he drops off, thoughtfully… “I have to find my own way into this every time I play this,” Neal explains. “There’s a trust that there’s enough sound, enough song going on inside a note, to sustain, to make something that’s got as much feeling and as much mystery as what a ‘normal composer’ would get by taking a bunch of notes and stringing them together.”

The song comes as the piece progresses, but early on, that isn’t clear. This is the emotional part of experiencing Neal’s work, and it’s wonderful.

Neal relates that he often thinks of a scene in the Woody Allen movie Take the Money and Run, where he plays the cello in a marching band. Eventually Woody just sits down and plays, and lets the band keep marching on. And that’s Neal: he’s just playing as others do other things.

Neal explains that the project first presented itself to him as a sentence that popped into his head when he was a graduate student at UW around 1985: “Learn to play the piano one note at a time.”

Based on that sentence, Neal laid out the project: the first session, he studied the lowest A; then two sessions for the second A up plus one with both of the lowest As; then four sessions for the third A plus the combinations with the lower two; then eight sessions for the fourth A plus combinations with the lower three. And so on. It took about 13 years and, if you’re counting at home, 255 sessions to move through all the combinations of the A pitches.


Silence and patience
A gift opportunity
Listen: Notes and noise


This was taking too long. Neal modified his approach, sticking with the idea of slowly incorporating one new note and one new pitch. Neal has now worked through A, E, C#, and G. He’ll be moving on to B after the upcoming performance is complete.

This has been an idea, slow developing, for Neal to grab onto.

There are four types of music, Neal explains. “There’s the music where you listen to silence; there’s the music where you have one note that you bring into that silence; the third kind is when you bring two notes into the silence; the fourth is when you bring three or more notes into the silence.” In Neal’s mind, once you have more than two notes, it’s the same mental game, whether you’re playing with three notes or eight.

“For me, these performances are acts of dedication to a principle that there is enough music in a few pitches, or a pair of pitches, in a single pitch, or even in silence – that there is enough music to be heard, enough to sustain us and delight us and transport us. This is an act of faith, and that faith is tested each time, but it is a faith which has been strengthened each time [I perform Gradus] as well.”

Neal arranges a public performance of two hours divided into three “rungs” of 20, 40, and 60 minutes. One of the movements will be dedicated to a single pitch, a second to two pitches, and a third to three or more pitches. Tossing coins – a devotion to John Cage – determines the arrangement of those rungs and the notes and pitches to be utilized in each rung.

From there, improv and random ambient noises steal the show – like the ducks I heard. Geese? The fan belt on the neighbor’s car? Our ears improvise sometimes; here’s a chance to listen and enjoy the unexpected.

Neal Kosaly-Meyer will perform ‘Gradus’ on Saturday, August 19, 2017 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space in Wallingford, Seattle. Details here.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.

Alt-Jazz Poetry for a Casual Night Out

(The Daphnes. Photo by Stephen Schildbach)
(The Daphnes. Photo by Stephen Schildbach)

 

There’s a sense of wandering in Monica’s voice, as she describes The Daphnes’ style as a mix of music and poetry and singing.

“I studied poetry, that’s what my degree actually is in, and harp was my minor when I went to college… After I graduated, I was hanging out with all these jazz musicians; being a poet, I was really drawn to the Beats and the merging with jazz and improvisational playing and that seemed like something that I wanted do.”

Monica Schley, harpist, poet, and vocalist, writes and composes the material for The Daphnes. Julie Baldridge (violin) and Nate Omdal (bass) complete the trio for this unconventional group. For a Seattle-neighborhood dinner sort of evening, this is a talented trio with plenty to share over a glass of wine.

The Daphnes perform next on Friday, June 23, 2017 @ 7:00 pm at the Stone Way Cafe, Seattle. Details here.

From the Remnants of Horror

Music of Remembrance: Ceija
Sunday, May 21, 2017 @ 5:00 pm
Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, Seattle

Traveling through Zion National Park, I found myself strolling through a slot canyon. I was noticing the smoothly carved rock, cut and shaped by eons of rushing, flowing water. Climbing out of the slots, back up to the road, I noticed a very different rock formation: turbulent, violent waters had crushed against this wall. Continuously.

(Zion National Park. Photo by Kent Karnofski)
(Zion National Park. Photo by Kent Karnofski)

It occurred to me that water has this duplicity – smooth or turbulent, flowing or crushing, friend or foe. We, too, have this parallel with our fellow humans, our neighbors, our friends. Each of us wants to think that we can love and respect each other, live and flow together. But sometimes that doesn’t happen. The human turbulence becomes inhuman and horrific.

The water we can understand, watch, and marvel. The humans? Painful and not understandable. We fail to confront.

Seattle’s Music of Remembrance gives us a way to begin the confrontation, in a space where music, art, and community come together to address conflict and horror.

MOR has commissioned Mary Kouyoumdjian to compose an original piece. Mary has found meaning in meeting and studying people who have lived through genocides; it provides an understanding of her own family. Her grandparents, both maternal and paternal, lived through the Armenian genocide, eventually being displaced to Lebanon, where much of her family still lives.

Mary’s new piece, to open myself, to scream, celebrates the life of Austrian-Romani Ceija Stojka, born in 1933, who survived the Holocaust and internment at Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Bergen-Belsen. Ceija was a painter, artist, writer, and musician; she passed away in 2013.

I spoke with Mary about her work, about Ceija, and about being a first-generation Armenian-American.

Mary got to know Ceija through her artwork, books, and, later, documentaries that featured her.

“She was an incredibly joyous person, but then you see the burden of her experience weigh her down from time to time. Understandably. Getting to know people on that level where you start to understand how these events, which happened so long ago, still eat away at them every day… That’s how I connect to these people,” Mary tells me.

Still from an animation by Kevork Mourad.
Still from an animation by Kevork Mourad. (Photo courtesy of MOR)

Mary’s new work is a multimedia piece in 4 movements, each movement inspired by selected paintings of Ceija’s. Each movement features a pre-recorded audio track as a backdrop, on top of which a 5-person ensemble (clarinet, trumpet, violin, cello, and double bass) will play live. The audio playbacks are influenced by Mary’s observation that past events continue to impart sorrowful backdrops to survivors’ lives; they live in the present, but they are also always living in the past. In addition, a hand-painted, 25-minute, animated film by projection artist Kevork Mourad will be synced to the pre-recorded audio, adding a visual experience for the audience.

This is a heavy, emotional space to work in. I asked Mary: Does the work become a burden?

“It can be totally burdensome, and these are not easy topics to confront, but I think it’s good to confront them,” she says. “Given my own family’s history, I’m drawn to these topics, and every time I re-approach them, it gives me a bit more understanding about my own family history and what my family members have gone through… and why my community is where it is in our present day. Selfishly, I’m getting something from it, too.”

Emotionally and intellectually, the enormity of genocide triggers overwhelm. As we’re stymied on how to proceed, this phenomenon continues to occur throughout the world. Music of Remembrance, Ceija’s art, and Mary’s new work give us a way to begin to understand – and discuss – the horrors of genocide. Perhaps, by learning the stories of individual lives and sorrows, some humanity can be regained while opening the door to progress.

Music of Remembrance’s Ceija will take place on Sunday, May 21, 2017 @ 5:00 pm in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, Seattle. With Laura DeLuca (clarinet), Alexander White (trumpet), Mikhail Shmidt (violin), Walter Gray (cello), and Jonathan Green (double bass). Full details are here.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.

Set Free: Compositions for Guitar

The Guitar In My Life
Friday, April 21, 2017 @ 8:00 pm
The Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center, Seattle

In recent months, I’ve been consciously interested in finding the opposite of what I’m currently listening to – adamant to reach out, find something new. New-to-me. As I settle in to write this piece, I’m randomly listening to an album of Jack Kerouac reading his poems, with Steve Allen playing piano accompaniment.

It’s not about music; it’s about the jazzy aura of the Beat Generation: energy, sorrow, exuberance. Wonderment! It’s lyrical. Air and wind.

Kerouac becomes the perfect backdrop as I think about meeting guitarist, composer, and educator Tom Baker to chat about his upcoming show with the Wayward Music Series. “The Guitar In My Life” will feature highlights of Tom’s 25-year career playing guitar and composing new music. The show will include solo classical guitar, electric guitar, and works for guitar and soprano. I asked him what he thought the show was about.

“It’s a celebration of the guitar as an instrument,” he says, without hesitation.

There are certain expectations – rules and norms – that composers may feel compelled to follow when writing for a more traditional ensemble; for example, a string quartet. The guitar? There is no tradition to follow; there are no rules to follow or rules to break.

Tom muses, “It’s only been a concert instrument for about 100 years.” Without a legacy to draw from, a composer is free to innovate, experiment, find the new sound. What can a composer do with that space? “I think of non-traditional sounds and find a way to create those sounds with a guitar.”

Tom Baker with his fretless guitar. (Photo by Tim Summers)
Tom Baker with his fretless guitar. (Photo by Tim Summers)

I frequently wonder if instrumental music is meant to have themes. Would a person image spring or autumn whilst listening to Vivaldi, if they’d not been told, beforehand, the name of the concerti was The Four Seasons? Should the audience think of stories that a piece is about, or is a piece about sounds?

Tom is quick to tell me that for his music, “it’s about sounds.” He uses stories, poems, pieces of literature as motivation; he strives to create sounds that work with the imagery in his head, but the final piece has to stand alone.

Green Guitar, for example, is about a dream he had after buying a new guitar. In the dream, his favorite old guitar, and this new guitar, have a battle for supremacy. Great story! Close your eyes and imagine two guitars duking it out, showing off, playing secret chords and magic riffs; now imagine a composer writing that down. Very cool! However, “I always tell my students that it’s risky to expect an audience to have a certain reaction,” Tom instructs.

Here’s my recommendation: Just listen and enjoy. If the listener has guitar compositions in their repertory already, this should be a great show; Tom has been doing this for a long time, and has a well-respected catalogue, and a catalogue that he is notably excited about. And for the listener without guitar composition as part of their normal? It’s time to come out and give it a try; let it be your opposite experience.

Tom Baker & friends will perform on Friday, April 21, 2017 @ 8:00 pm at The Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle. Full details are here.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.

Listening in the Round: An Interview with Stuart Dempster

Seattle Modern Orchestra / Solaris Vocal Ensemble: Double Portrait
March 11, 2017
Chapel Performance Space
Interview with Stuart Dempster 7:30pm
Concert 8:00 pm

Stuart Dempster’s living room emits a sound: a softly insistent rhythmic noise that my ears, then eyes track to an electrical timer plugged into a corner outlet. Long on this planet, plastic yellowed, its bits charge around in circles, increment by increment, with steadfast metronomic regularity.

I bring my thoughts back to S.M.O.R.E.S., the topic of our discussion. Dempster, 80, is a composer and trombonist; he’s premiering a new work by that name with the Seattle Modern Orchestra on March 11. The program also includes works by his colleague, Robert Erickson, who would have turned 100 this year. Erickson was part of a group of composers he commissioned in his early career that also included Luciano Berio, Andrew Imbrie, Ernst Krenek, Pauline Oliveros, Robert Suderburg, and several others.

Stuart Dempster, February 2017.
Stuart Dempster, February 2017. (Photo by Shaya Lyon)

(Lest you think this commission or his performance of it is an unusual occurrence, I should mention that Dempster’s many recent performances include a collaboration with Wayne Horvitz at the Asian Art Museum; an 80th birthday concert with William O. Smith, who was turning 90; several events with and in memory of his longtime collaborator and dear friend Pauline Oliveros; Bull Roarchestra at the Henry Art Gallery with Ann Hamilton; and a UW Dance Department commission with UW alum and Broadway/Merce Cunningham veteran Holley Farmer. Just last month, he led SMO in a performance of his work Choral Riffs with the Solaris Vocal Ensemble, who will join SMO to perform S.M.O.R.E.S.)

Dempster’s voice is low and gentle. As I record our conversation, I worry that the ticking timer will overpower it, but they work well together.

S.M.O.R.E.S., or “Seattle Modern Orchestra Resonating Enthusiastic Solaris,” was commissioned by SMO and Solaris Vocal Ensemble. The orchestration calls for mixed ensemble, voices, and audience – yes, audience – and seating is in the round, with the audience and Dempster at the center and the performers surrounding them.

Like other pieces Dempster has written recently, S.M.O.R.E.S. pairs structure with improvisation. Both the audience and the performers will have a score and a part to play. Dempster himself will play the trombone as a conductor-leader, and the performers will follow his lead.

“I move around in a circle, giving information to different people,” says Dempster. “I give them information by what I play, and then I give instructions for them to stop, or to do something else. There is the danger that I ‘abandon’ players if I get involved with one section… If I play something else, or if I abandon a player, they have the option to change what they’re doing – for example, choosing a different register, or a different pitch.”

S.M.O.R.E.S. can be played for any length of time; this performance will run for about 12-15 minutes. Beyond that, Dempster says, “I do it in real time – so I can’t really tell you what’s going to happen.”

SMO and Solaris will prepare for the unpredictable in rehearsal, and each time they go through the piece, it will yield a different result. As for the audience, you’ll be humming! (Dempster’s advice: Don’t be timid.)

Joining S.M.O.R.E.S. on the program is a similarly structured piece, Milanda Embracing, written in 1993-94 and named for the child who greeted Dempster and his fellow artists with open arms at a studio at the start of a residency.

Milanda Embracing also involves audience participation. It is more complex than S.M.O.R.E.S., and – unusually – the audience will have a score of its own. (No music-reading skills are required.)

It also differs from S.M.O.R.E.S. in that it’s not led by Dempster. Performers read the instructions, which include directives like “Send sounds across space.”

From the score of 'Milanda Embracing.'
From the score of ‘Milanda Embracing.’

“There’s no piece there, actually,” he says. “If you look at the score, there’s no piece. It’s what you should think in playing a piece, and through that, you can make a piece. It’s what I call the original minimalist piece – because there’s nothing there, among all this verbiage. But most of it is stuff people should be thinking about when they’re playing Haydn, or playing whatever.”

Dempster reassures that he’ll preface the performance with an explanation of the score and the piece itself, but that the players need the audience to join in.

“I have found that the kind of sounds that I make will be influenced by the kind of sounds that the audience makes, or thoughts that an audience has,” he wrote in 1994. “There is a beautiful feedback loop here.”

Also on the program are Erickson’s The Idea of Order at Key West, Pacific Sirens, and General Speech for solo trombone, commissioned by Dempster and written in the late 1960s by his colleague, Robert Erickson.

General Speech is performed with costume (an abstraction of a military costume) and lighting (for pomp and circumstance), and is designed to mimic the sounds of a military speech – specifically, General MacArthur’s “Duty, Honor, Country” farewell speech of 1962.

“MacArthur always seemed to be about nine feet tall,” says Dempster. “He had a huge presence in WWII, and certainly in Japan after the war. Erickson heard a recording of him speaking, and he was intrigued. We got together and decided to try this speech. I figured out a way to sort of say ‘Duty, Honor, Country’ on the trombone, and that’s how it got started.”

It was a 300-hour-long, side-by-side process. Dempster would start playing sounds, and Erickson would work on the score.

“First he’d say, ‘Play the words of the speech.’ After trying this, and then that, I would finally get it figured out. That would take 20 minutes, that one little phrase. Then he would ask – ‘What are you doing?’ – ‘I dunno…’ and we’d have to go back all over it again, trying to figure it out.”

After hours of working through it, they had a score that made some sense. (For a sneak preview, check out the video below.)

The sound of a speaking trombone is not only eerie, but unique to that instrument.

“Erickson – and others too – used to say trombone pieces were mostly piano pieces masquerading as trombone pieces, but when you start using the larger sound palate of the trombone, that’s a different thing,” says Dempster. “It’s idiomatic to the trombone to have all those vowels available. You don’t have that on harp, you don’t have it on piano, you don’t have it on much of anything.”

Dempster is a careful listener; he tunes in to everything from a passing garbage truck to the resonance of a specific corner of the Chapel space in the Good Shepherd Center, where this concert will take place.

“The building has a lot of sounds to offer. I was doing a piece one time – it was the centenary of the building in 2007. It was a Saturday afternoon, and there was a leaf blower outside. When it came my turn to play, Steve [Peters] started to close up the window. I said, no, no, open it! Of course it stopped fairly quickly once I started playing. And oh, the heating! It’s not as noisy as some classic new York heaters that just pound and crash and bang. The Chapel radiator is a little too polite (he laughs) – just one clunk once in a while. I like that. I always enjoy it when that happens.”

Of S.M.O.R.E.S., Dempster reiterates: Just listen! Listen to the performers, the sounds of the room, the surround. Resist the temptation to turn around, or even to turn your head around. Get used to people being behind you. If you do turn, he says, “turn really slowly so that you can change how the piece sounds by what you do in the audience.”

As our conversation winds down, I ask Dempster about the ticking timer. He laughs.

“Oh, that thing! That’s from the Sixties. I keep thinking I’m going to replace it. I probably said that 20 years ago, too.”

His tone sobers.

“You’re sitting here, and suddenly the power goes out. The refrigerator’s off, the heater’s off, and that thing is off. You do have this magnificent quiet. But – it’s been sounding like that for a very long time. In an odd way, it doesn’t bother me… it’s in there with all the other stuff I listen to.”

Come hear Stuart Dempster perform with Seattle Modern Orchestra and Solaris Vocal Ensemble on March 11, 2017. Concert begins at 8pm; arrive at 7:30 for a moderated chat with the composer. Tickets/more info here.

2000 Moving Parts: Crafting Sounds

Sound of Late: 2000 Moving Parts
Saturday, March 11, 2017 @ 8:00 pm
Flutter Studios, Seattle

Somewhere in my home, amongst the heaps of scrap paper I have around, there is a To Do list, now several years old, scrawled upon a notepad; a bunch of checked off items, except one: “Buy a Harp.”

I don’t play, but as objets d’art, harps are remarkable pillars of craftsmanship: the wood, the strings and hardware, the assemblage. The visual anticipation of soothing sounds draws me to their constructed beauty. After the frame warps from strings’ tensions, as certainly a harp frame will do, people sell them off. I want one.

As I prepared for this interview, I kept saying to myself, “Each of us must have our own harp story.” So, I asked harpist Jennifer Ellis, “What drew you to the harp?”

(Photo credit: Jason Paige and Bonnie Lyn Paige)

The Secret Garden was one of my favorite books as a kid, and when the movie came out, my mom took me. There is this beautiful little harp solo in the score, and so I started poking my mom, ‘What instrument makes that sound? I want to play the instrument that makes that sound.'”

Years later, Jennifer joins us in Seattle. On Saturday, March 11, 2017 – together with Sarah Pyle on the flute and Andrew Stiefel playing viola – we’ll be listening to the collaborative trio Sound of Late.

The harp has some 2000 moving parts, inspiring the name of the show. I asked Jennifer to help me count to 2000. “A lot of where the moving parts come in is through the system we have to get flats and sharps.” There are 7 foot pedals; one pedal connects all of the “C” strings, one connects all of the “D” strings, one all of the “E” strings, etc.

When you move a foot pedal, it triggers a spring, which triggers a rod, which triggers the linkage, which triggers the discs, and the discs (2 per string) engage the string, fretting it like a guitar string. One disc raises the note a half step from flat to natural, and the second disc raises the note another half step to sharp. Jennifer manipulates these discs to develop sounds that most harpists try to mute.


That impetus to take things apart to understand them and put them back together is a wonderful one in our world.


I listened to some preview materials prior to the interview. There’s the identifiable harp strings providing sounds, but there’s other stuff; blurts and bits and twongs (I literally heard a “twong”); extra reverberations that help to fill spaces. John Cale would be proud.

I suggested to Jennifer: “The way you’re manipulating the harp, it adds texture and sounds, and it sounds like you’re accompanying yourself.”

I wasn’t far off. “Yeah! Yeah, that’s a fair thing to say!”

Many orchestral instruments play only one note at a time. The harp is played with both hands, 4 fingers each (the pinky finger is too short), so you can play eight notes at once. It’s a very rich instrument to play solo, but, says Jennifer, “it’s really fun to get the opportunity to expand and collaborate with others and play chamber music. Sound of Late is the best of both worlds, because you get to hear the harp solo and then you get to hear the harp with other instruments.”

In her work with the harp, Jennifer enjoys a sense of discovery; take something apart and you feel more connected with it, like something has been revealed to you. “That impetus to take things apart to understand them and put them back together is a wonderful one in our world. I hope people leave with a little glimmer of that feeling and are interested in applying it elsewhere in their lives.”

After the show, Jennifer will invite guests onto the stage to see the harp up close and ask questions.

“I hope this concert helps lift the veil and make the harp feel accessible and dynamic, interesting, and intriguing,” Jennifer added.

It’s your chance to see this beautiful object up close, and understand how it makes beautiful sounds, and develop a harp obsession of your own…

Sound of Late will perform on Saturday, March 11, 2017 @ 8:00 pm at Flutter Studios in Seattle. Full details are here.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.