On programming the Jan 24 Nunc concert at National Sawdust


Next Sunday night, January 24 at 8:00, I’m playing a concert at National Sawdust with a group of musicians I put together with my non-profit organization Nunc. Bigger is not necessarily better – I like small concerts (small number of performers and listeners, intimate venue) too – but this is the largest number of artists I’ve assembled for an event with Nunc so far. When the opportunity came up to do a concert at National Sawdust, my first thought was that I wanted to do something festive. Fun, with a lot of people! Something that would gather people together to make music and and celebrate together a new space for enjoying art.

A few years ago when Nunc was officially incorporated as a non-profit, Jonathan Dawe wrote a short piece for voice + ensemble which I wasn’t able to program that year. When I mentioned it to him recently, he said he’d love to revise it and rewrite it for voice + string trio. Meanwhile, I’d been thinking about some workshops I gave on Iannis Xenakis’ piece for 12 string players, Aroura, with the Mannes Orchestra last year. I thought it would be great to perform it with my friends along with some students eager to dive into this music. I asked David Fulmer to conduct it and was intrigued to hear from him about his new work being premiered at the Gardner Museum in Boston – a string octet. I’ve known him and his music for a while, and thought to bring this piece to New York. The concert was coalescing into a program featuring a lot of stringed instruments…

Two summers ago, I met Argentine composer Diego Tedesco at the Composers Conference, where I was struck by his inventive orchestration and gestural language. For this Nunc concert I asked him to write a piece that featured the violin concertante-style with an unusual instrumentation that I concocted: oboe, bassoon, mandolin, harp and bass. Further highlighting the plucked-string element, I asked harpist June Han to perform a duo by Michael Jarrell with soprano Mary Mackenzie. And to complete the concert, I decided to perform Elliott Carter’s violin solo “Four Lauds”, which I learned last summer.

A couple things to note about this program:

One is that there are many notes in these pieces overall. I suppose I am known among some circles for playing music that is complex and difficult to play. I play and love a range of styles, and some are relatively spare, some are prevailingly calm, some are melodious, tonal or not. But I do like to embrace challenges, both physical and mental in terms of absorbing the information and making/conveying something meaningful from it.  Also, complexity is significant to me artistically. As someone with a diverse background, with ties to various cultural, musical and instrumental traditions as well as avant-garde, forward-looking interests, and living in an interconnected globalized era, I feel that complex music is an expression of a certain undeniable reality. Of course everywhere there is too much information, too much superfluity, too much pretension of sophistication. But I am always trying to find the clarity, the distillation and the illuminating “big picture” of a complex world. One may turn to music to provide an immediate directness or understandability that will comfort us, but sometimes art is meant to show a reality that you then have to strive to make sense or meaning out of. In any case, the world is large and I think there’s a purpose and emotional need for all kinds of art.

For this concert, it happened organically that the works I chose are all rather dense and active. It has interested me, though, to note the larger, more “simple” through-lines and structural elements that contribute to the pieces’ coherence and impact. The Fulmer, Tedesco and Xenakis pieces all involve exploration of unison or homophonic playing. David’s octet has florid gestures that often unfold in rhythmic or pitch unison, and the work is unified by what he calls a “tranquil harmonic fundamental”. Diego’s “Divertimento” involves numerous moments in which instruments combine on unisons, creating composite timbral and melodic effects. The Xenakis, while calling for some aleatoric and chaotic-sounding textures, is actually very blocky and sectional, with abrupt, clear-cut changes from one kind of sound to another. Jarrell’s duo “Eco III” is highly detailed in its expressive markings and instructions, but communicates great stillness and quietude. Dawe’s “Roventi”, though fractured and scrambled, utilizes the phraseology and harmonies of the Baroque in ways that provide familiar signposts. As for Elliott Carter’s “Four Lauds”, the four pieces feature his characteristic rhythmic mercuriality but also his typically long lines and sweeping, lyrical intervals, which tie together even the more ornate passages. The single-voiced texture of much of this solo piece also gives it a certain uncluttered focus.

Another thing about this program: the music is all by white male composers! Oh dear. I am a vocal advocate of supporting non-white and female artists and I often showcase their work, but I must say that tends just to occur in the process of my artistic working-out of ideas, and not because of a socio-political agenda. My first concerns as a curator are always musical. In the case of Sunday’s concert, it turned out that the composers are all white men. If that bothers anyone, do know that Nunc’s next concert, in April, includes two works each by two women composers and one by a Vietnamese man!

 I am delighted to be part of the opening season of National Sawdust, a vibrant, stylish venue for music, teeming with new ideas and creative artists. Hope you’ll come listen and check it out on January 24!

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