Working with Composers
Frank J. Oteri: How many members of the group are active composers?
Claire Chase: There are a lot of people that are performer-composer-improvisors. I think some of the lines are blurring in a very positive and very interesting way. Peter, would you consider yourself a composer?
Peter Evans: Sure.
CC: We have several people in the group who fit that description. But, in terms of composers who went to school for composition, Du Yun and Huang Ruo are the founding composers who are members of the group. Other than the two of them, one of our other pianists, Will McDaniel, is also becoming a composer later in his musical development. And we’ve got a couple of other budding composers. But in terms of the group’s relationship to young composers, Du Yun and Huang Ruo are the only official composers that are on the roundtable. And we also work with a rotating group of young composers. Every two years we choose between five and ten to be nurtured by the group, and to collaborate with the group. And we launch them as much as we can in ICE’s programming for two years. And then we do a search for the next crop.
FJO: So how do you find the composers? You’ve done over 200 pieces, 200 premieres, by composers in 15 countries. How do you find the music? Do the composers come to you? Do you search them out?
David Schotzko: The answer to all that is “Yes.” I’m the “program director” and most of what that means is spending a lot of time trying to get familiar with as many names from all over the world as possible in the hopes that when we’re looking for a hole to fill out a program, something will click. And we randomly get scores in the mail, some of which have been very good. Then the third way is every two years we’ve done an official call for scores. We’re a five-year old organization, so we’ve done it twice. The first time we basically just put an ad up on our website; it was like throwing out a huge net and seeing what happened. And I think we got nearly 200.
CC: We got 190 the first year.
DS: Stuff just started pouring in from all over the world.
CC: Some of the most astonishing work by young composers that we’ve ever been in contact with just came to our doorstep. Some of the composers that we selected for that first call are going to end up being life-long collaborators with ICE. We discovered some people that were just totally amazing.
DS: Also perfect with us personally. They just fit with the group very well and we liked spending time with them. A good friend is a Japanese composer who lives in London named Dai Fujikura. He’s gotten to be both a regular collaborator and a very good friend of all of us. (I’m thinking mostly of people outside of the country to live with the international portion of the name.) There’s a woman in her early 30s in Vienna who is Russian-Bulgarian. Her name is Alexandra Karastoyanova. She’s a fantastic pianist-composer of very understated, lovely music. She’s writing a violin concerto for David.
David Bowlin: I’m very excited that Alexandra, whom we met in this call for scores in 2004, just finished writing me a concerto for violin and string orchestra, which I’m going to be doing in Weill with the Bulgarian Virtuosi. I just was e-mailed the intro. She scanned it page by page.
DS: She still writes things by hand, so whenever she e-mails us scores, she sends the pages one e-mail at a time. When I got the marimba piece that she wrote for me, I had forty e-mails with one jpeg attached to each one; it’s adorable.
CC: We could go on forever with anecdotes about these young composers. But many of them are older than we are. That program, which is what we call the 21st Century Young Composers Project is—at least for me—the most important thing that ICE does as an ensemble. I think it’s the most meaningful for the musicians, too, because we’re building relationships, and we’re collaborating on creating new work.
FJO: What happens if somebody you commissioned writes something and you all just absolutely hate it?
CC: Has it happened? Has it happened guys?
DB: Yes. It has happened. It has happened. Sometimes the composer’s maybe doing an experiment and we communicate that to them. Oftentimes they know that this was an experiment for them. And sometimes we won’t program it on a particular concert that it may not fit in.
CC: Ultimately what it comes down to is that we’ve been in some difficult situations. Just the fact that we’ve premiered hundreds of works, you can’t have hundreds of gems. And you can’t have hundreds of fantastic perfect performances, either. But we as a group and as individuals can shed our opinions about the music. Our job is to place the piece really well and to play it lovingly and to give ourselves over to it. And that’s a really rewarding process when the piece is amazing, especially when you’re the first one who’s bringing that piece to life. It’s a less rewarding process when you’re not crazy about the music, but it comes with the territory and I think we all just try to deal with that graciously when it happens.
FJO: From time to time you’ve also done classics of contemporary music. I was blown away by a performance you did of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King. But that’s a piece that’s already had quite an illustrious history. What would make you do something like that?
DS: We liked it.
CC: That’s basically what it comes down to.
Joshua Rubin: Having such a diverse group of members with all kinds of different musical careers, you really come up with some repertoire from brainstorming.
DS: Our cellist Kivie had wanted to play that piece since we were still at Oberlin.
CC: I think I got an e-mail about once a week from Kivie saying, “Hey, when are we going to program Eight Songs for a Mad King?” Then eventually we had an excuse for it. We had the right venue and we were like, “OK, let’s program this piece.” And now it’s become sort of a staple of our repertoire.
DS: It came down to Peter being like, “OK, I’m going to learn it.”
CC: We have two singers in the group and one of them, this tenor, had been saying, “Well, I think I could do it in a couple of years. I got to work on some things.” Then one day, he said, “I’m ready.” He had it memorized at the first rehearsal. And he’s really created a new version of that role. We’re pretty proud of him.
FJO: How many of the 200 pieces you’ve premiered are still actively in your repertoire? And what does it mean to be actively in your repertoire?
CC: I think it means that we play it at least three or four times. Right? Is that a fair assessment?
DS: We’re still at a point where we’re just beginning to plan our programs. We’re just beginning to be in a position to plan our concert seasons farther in advance. We’ve just crossed some threshold as an ensemble, as an organization, where planning ahead is something we can do. We’ve only recently reached the point where we really are able to say we have a repertoire that we repeat on a regular basis.
CC: We did the Berio Sequenzas over two years ago. We did that concert and we’ve played them I don’t know how many times: individual Sequenzas and Sequenzas in combination. The Davidovsky program we’ve done so much, and we’re now recording a couple of those pieces.
JR: Many of the young composers we’ve brought back from the first year. And I think now we have a new set of pieces from this year’s competition that we’ll be repeating.
CC: And Huang Ruo’s music. The thing is that the group is so big. And also I think that an A.D.D. characteristic is very much across the board in this: We get bored doing the same thing more than a few times. ICE could never be the sort of group that decided, “O.K., we’ve got these six pieces this year. We’re going to get management and tour them in 100 different cities.” I don’t think that anybody in this group would be happy doing that. Part of why we’re in new music in the first place is to generate the material, and to generate a lot of it, to put tons of new repertoire out there. Some of it will stick; some of it won’t. But I like the idea that we’re constantly in the process of creating and bringing into existence new works and programs. Maybe four of five of them a season really stick, and they’ll end up being things that we play for a very long time. But a lot of it is one or two performances and then that’s enough for us.
DB: Sometimes it’s a question of logistics. Sometimes there’s amazing work that we do only once because maybe it’s not portable, maybe there’s two percussionists, or something like that.
CC: Or the rental fee. Unfortunately money does play a role in some of our programming decisions.
DS: I would love to do Ondrej Adamek’s piece [Strange Night in Daylight] again.
DB: This is a piece by a young composer that we did in 2004. It’s a fantastic piece, but huge forces are required. It’s not very portable. In order to do that piece, there’s a huge amount of effort that would need to go into the preparation, not to mention money. Sometimes great pieces that are also portable tend to be the ones that we do more.
FJO: In terms of portability, we haven’t really even touched the whole question of recordings. You have your first recording out now. That’s a way of disseminating pieces that maybe you’re only able to do once. You could get a recording out there and then everyone could potentially hear a piece you did that requires 20 players and electronics. Is that an avenue that you’re going to be exploring more now that you finally have a disc out?
CC: We’ve got one out finally, and we’ve got two more coming out this year, one on Bridge [Records] and one on Focus Recordings, which is a small independent label run by our guitarist. We’re hoping to put out two or three a year, and we’re also hoping to do a lot more podcast work, having individual tracks available on our website that people can download and that can be disseminated easily and cost-effectively.
FJO: Since you mentioned CDs, I guess that means you all still believe in the future of CDs.
CC: I don’t know. I think I’d give it another three or four years.
JR: I don’t know about CDs, but certainly we still like the idea of getting a nice recording of a piece that we really love and being able to distribute it somehow. Not necessarily on CD. Even our new disc that’s on Naxos, the distribution is such that you can buy it as tracks on iTunes, or other ways electronically; so people looking to download this music have it available.
CC: The material copy itself is becoming less and less important.
DB: But I don’t think that the process of recording a piece of music is going to change.
DS: Even if they just end up being a group of tracks, I still organize these recording projects in my head and call them CDs.
DB: I think it would be also cool to do podcasts of live concerts on the Internet, a hybrid live recording.
CC: We have a huge discography and we don’t know where we’re going to put all of it yet. We don’t know what is really going to be useable. We make a point of recording things even though we don’t have a known way of distributing them. We don’t have a label or we don’t have a broadcast or podcast set up. But we’re doing something we think needs to be documented. We record it when it’s hot and it sits on the hard drive, and then someday hopefully we’ll find a place for it to go.
FJO: Does every composer always get a recording of their music?
CC: Even if it’s just a live performance. We think that’s the least that we can do for composers who have written music for us.
FJO: So you never say “You can’t have this recording or you can’t play this for anybody,” which has been a big problem for composers who write for orchestra.
CC: No, I think we embody the antithesis of that mentality. We want the music to get out there. This is a niche market. There aren’t enough people listening to this stuff in the first place for us to be greedy.
DS: There’s no such thing as competition in this.