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Western Herald – Roundtable Discussion: KLOrk and Birds on a Wire
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Roundtable Discussion: KLOrk and Birds on a Wire

Auxiliary musicians assist KLOrk last Wednesday evening in Dalton Center's Recital Hall (photo by John Campbell)

John Campbell
A&E Reporter

The Bullock Performance Institute’s Live and Interactive! series concluded last Wednesday evening with performances from KLOrk (the Kalamazoo Laptop Orchestra, directed by David Loberg Code) and Birds on a Wire, directed by David Colson.

The show featured four songs, two of which have only been performed once before and two of which had their debut on Wednesday.  All four songs, written by different composers, were composed before 2009.

KLOrk began the night by debuting “Justice Partial,” a piece composed by Dan Trueman in 2012. A teacher at Princeton University, Trueman co-founded the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk), which he also directs.

The quartet of Laura Tribby (soprano vocals), Ruth Daley (clarinet), Ahmed Anzaldua (piano) and Skye Hookham (percussion) would continue the show by performing “Songs of Loss,” composed by Western Michigan University professor Lisa Renee Coons in 2009.  It was only the second time it had ever been performed, and the first time it was performed in America.

The rest of Birds on a Wire then joined in to debut “Aggravated Avians,” penned by WMU professor John C. Griffin in 2012, before being joined by computer operator Christopher Biggs to perform “The Widening Gyre,” composed in 2011 by Indiana University professor John Gibson.  The piece was performed for the second time ever.

The Western Herald caught up with Trueman, Coons, Griffin and Gibson after the show.

Western Herald (WH): Mr. Trueman, how did you get involved with creating music on laptops?

Dan Trueman: Oh, well that predates the laptop orchestra by probably a decade. Actually, it comes from my interest in instruments and fiddles, different kinds of fiddles, and the way the varying designs of these instruments inspire different kinds of music. So for me, the laptop was another way of trying to build instruments that I found provocative, that kind of inspired compositional ideas and by making music together.

WH: What do you think the future holds for laptop orchestras?

Trueman: Just better and better, and actually, kind of ironically, I think the future of the laptop orchestra will probably involve no laptops. The laptops will go away and we’ll have computers embedded in this and that. We won’t even notice the computation anymore. It’ll just sort of disappear into the ether. That’s my prognosis.

John C. Griffin: There’ll be chips in our head.

Trueman: That’s right. It’ll all be in there.

WH: Why do you think it’s important for people to hear new compositions?

Griffin: Just to know that composition is a living art form. It’s not just stuck in the past. It continues to develop and to grow as technology develops and culture develops.

John Gibson: Your director Colson had it right, like in music, we’re especially conservative about this and we are really obsessed with the idea of a museum for pieces of music and it’s really important to kind of break out of that and see what everybody’s doing right now, because it’s kind of unusual. Back when Beethoven was writing, that was new music, and everybody was listening to that, or at least some people were, and now we put it into a museum.

Lisa Renee Coons: And I think the opportunities to have that experience with sound, that transformation, something really special and unique, I think that does come from contemporary art. I think that’s something of the times. I think you’re not going to find that in the classical piece that you know and you’ve heard 50 times over. That’s got to come from something new.

WH: What was it like to either debut these songs or have them played a second time?

Trueman: Very exciting, actually. I mean I didn’t quite know how it was going to go because we’ve never tried anything quite as wacky as this before and it was just thrilling for me, actually, to see them just throw themselves into it and not only survive, but really do a terrific job, so I had a great time.

Griffin: Yeah, for me it’s a combination of anticipation and excitement. You hope it goes well. I was pretty confident it would and it definitely did. We pulled it off very well. Yeah, it was this combination of this intense feeling and a very exciting feeling and a very elated feeling. It’s a strange combination of qualities.

Gibson: Well I guess both of us have heard our pieces twice now and that’s always pretty strange because at least I tend to kind of get attached to the first performance because I’ve got a recording of it, and that’s the version of the piece I know and then when I hear a different version of it, it kind of surprises me because there are all these things in it that I didn’t hear before and that was true tonight. There were a lot of really great things that they were pulling out of the music that weren’t there in the version I was kind of used to hearing and that’s kind of shocking at first, but it’s actually really good, exhilarating, for a composer to hear that because it means that there’s a lot going on in music that can be interpreted pretty differently by other people, so that’s one reason why we’re doing this.

Coons: I agree completely. That’s hard and exciting to see a new iteration. My piece I wrote really in 2008, so I have this strange experience of being back in that space where I wrote it which was sort of surreal.

Trueman: Yeah, I suppose with the second performance, there’s even more time that’s passed since you wrote the piece and so for us it seems like a long time ago. We’re already on to other things.

Gibson: It often seems like some other person.

Trueman: That’s right, so there’s a little bit of time travel there.

Griffin: This piece is ancient.

Trueman: Even this piece, which I wrote less than a year ago, I’ve already done all these other things and ‘Oh yeah, that’s where I was a year ago.’

WH: What’s it like to explore these new sounds?

Coons: For me, it’s an experience of being present each time. None of these sounds are ever the same. The space changes. The performer changes. I change. So if I stay engaged, it’s a chance to have a new experience with tambour and shape and texture.

Trueman: I’m not particularly interested in new sounds. That’s the famous Milton Babbitt quote. ‘Nothing gets older more quickly than a new sound.’ I’m kind of more interested in new ways of making music together and sometimes that results in sounds that are not necessarily so familiar and we’re working with laptops, so we’re very limited by what the laptops can do and so sometimes there are new sounds that sort of emerge just by virtue of the fact that there’s only so many things that that instrument can do.

Griffin: I thought the laptop could make any sound.

Trueman: Yeah, see that’s the big myth.  It’s just not true. Actually, I find if I get too attached to the new sounds, I probably will not be so excited about that piece in a couple years, come the second time we do it.

Gibson: Of course I didn’t use any electronics, but to take these familiar instruments that we all know and try and find new ways to combine them and find some new ways they can be used, that’s always exciting as well. That’s what it’s all about, really.

WH: Who are your musical influences?

Griffin: I can do that. Some of them would be really obvious, though, but that’s ok. Stravinsky.

Trueman: Yeah, Stravinsky.

Gibson: For all of us, I think.

Griffin: Portishead.

Trueman: Really?

Griffin: Yes. Portishead.

Trueman: God, I remember Portishead back when, yeah. Actually, I was going to say Radiohead. That’s different.

Griffin: No.

Trueman: No, really?

Griffin: I hate that guy.

Trueman: Really? Oh, you don’t like the whining? Oh, I love Radiohead. Portishead is such a depressing band.

Griffin: Yeah, so depressing.

Coons: I like depressing.

Trueman: So we have Stravinsky and Portishead so far. And Radiohead. Talking Heads. We can get Talking Heads in there.  They all have to be ‘heads.’

Griffin: Those are my only two influences.

Trueman: Well I could give a very long list of fiddlers from around the world. I’ve spent a lot of time learning their tunes that have sort of become part of how I make music. That list would be too long and very few people would know those names.

Gibson: I guess Bela Bartok’s always been an influence, the Hungarian composer. William Bolcom, who used to teach at the University of Michigan. I like his work. I guess film composer Jerry Goldsmith has always been a huge influence in many ways in atonal and an tonal both.

Trueman: Lisa, you’re not saying anything. You’re avoiding this question.

Coons: Yeah, I really am. I’m totally embarrassed. I love Ligeti’s textures. I have a sweet spot for Ligeti. I really like metal. Right now, I’ve been listening to Meshuggah.

Trueman: How long do you listen to it for, though?

Coons: Right, you get exhausted, but short bursts are just intense.

Trueman: That’s kind of a slippery slope. I think it’s like short bursts otherwise.

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