Three Words for 2014: Chicago Musicians Reflect and Aspire in the New Year

2014 sparkler

1. Alex Temple
2. Kyle Vegter
3. Amanda deBoer Bartlett
4. Anthony Cheung
5. Nina Dante
6. Ryan Muncy
7. Renee Baker

ALEX TEMPLE: COMPOSER

Alex Temple

Alex Temple

1. What was your biggest musical challenge of 2013?

Probably a piece called Switch: A Science-Fiction Micro-Opera, which I wrote for Cadillac Moon Ensemble last summer. It’s the most political thing I’ve done, and also the most directly I’ve dealt with trans issues in my work, so I had to be careful not to be too heavy-handed. It’s a dark and angry piece, but with a lot of humor in it. I actually wasn’t sure if it would make emotional sense until I got to hear it in the venue, the day of the concert!

The other thing about Switch is that it has rhyming lyrics, which I’ve only done a few times before. I wanted the rhymes to be witty and memorable, in a Tom Lehrer sort of way, and while I’m pretty proud of what I came up with (one of my favorites: “writing ambidextrously” and “she was never quite direct with me”), it took forever.

2. What was your favorite record, or favorite thing to listen to, this year?

Chairlift’s album Something is definitely a candidate. I actually discovered it last year, through the video for “Amanaemonesia“—a wonderfully unsettling New-Wave-ish song built out of repeated melodic cells that don’t always combine in the way you’d expect them to — but I’ve been listening to the album a lot this year, too. It reminds me of an old favorite of mine, Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age of Wireless: poppy on the surface, but melancholy and strange when you look a little closer.

3. What was your favorite musical moment of 2013?

First some background: last spring I spent a lot of time watching Wagner operas in preparation for one of my qualifying exams. Wagner is…problematic for me. His work is full of mysterious, evocative moments, but they’re almost always surrounded by long-winded exposition and endless churning.

About a month ago, I was lying in the bath listening to Gesualdo. I usually find his chromaticism beautiful in an abstract, detached way, but that night, I heard the ending of “Mercè grido piangendo” for the first time. The line “Potessi dirti pria ch’io mora” is sung twice, and both times, it ends with a startling chromatic shift. I thought of all those moments in Parsifal where the music suddenly moves to a pure major triad in a distant key, and I suddenly realized: this is the stripped-down Wagner I’ve been wishing for, and it predates him by almost 300 years.

4. What are you most looking forward to in 2014?

I’ll finally have time to work on my podcast-opera, End! I’ve been planning this piece for years, and it deals with a lot of topics that are personally important to me: the American landscape, the strange resonance of obscure mass-media artifacts, and the idea of being punished for breaking an arbitrary metaphysical rule that you didn’t even know existed. I keep putting it off to work on other, less daunting projects, but now that it’s been approved as my dissertation, I’ll have to write it!

Also: the next season of Mad Men. I know, the show has been hyped to death, but I’m continually amazed by how psychologically, politically, and aesthetically nuanced and complex it is. I’ve actually lost interest in film since I started watching it, because after all, how much depth can you go into in two hours?

5. If you could sum up what you’d like 2014 to be in three words, what would they be?

Worldwide queer liberation!

KYLE VEGTER: COMPOSER

Kyle Vegter

Kyle Vegter

1. What was your biggest musical challenge of 2013?

1) Figuring out a way to really, really get down (git down) to the bottom of Jenny Zhang’s poem for the Parlour Tapes+ *AND record compilation thing. In working with Jenny there were more than a few moments of, “OMG, I will never live up to her ultimate ART PERFECTION.” Instead I wrote a slimy little jam and pretended I was Roy Orbison on psilocybin/percocet/psilocybin again.

2) This new project I’m doing with Zach Schomburg where whenever he thinks he sees someone talking to themselves but they’re actually talking on a bluetooth headset, he immediately writes a little poem using something they’re talking about and texts it to me. Wherever I am at that moment, I have to stop and record myself singing the lines—whatever comes out on take #1. So far it has required me to leave a meeting, go to the weird grimy bathroom down the hall, and emote over Aunt Fran’s death into my iPhone.

2. What was your favorite record, or favorite thing to listen to, this year?

I think this year I’ve been doing a lot learning HOW to listen, in a very Cageian touchy-feely way. I had a bunch of opportunities to teach sound design this year (for theater/film but more specifically for puppetry). My approach to sound design comes from a very biological, even evolutionary place, and a lot of these classes were focused on trying to get my students to have real, meaningful experiences with sounds they hear all the time/may not even notice. We’d go on long silent sound walks and have discussions afterwards about our experiences, etc. Doing all that deep listening and hearing about my student’s experiences really had an impact on the way I think about sound and music and how it becomes meaningful to me.

3. What was your favorite musical moment of 2013?

Manual Cinema (my shadow puppet/performance company), did a huge insane-o-hustle summer of performances in Chicago and Pennsylvania and New York for four weeks, including the NYC Fringe. It was exhausting and the most fun thing ever and we drove a devastating amount in our tiny cars with puppet trailers hitched to them.

There was this one performance, though, at the National Puppet Festival at Swarthmore U (yes, there is a national puppet festival, and it’s EXACTLY WHAT YOU THINK IT IS>>) that was packed with something like 800 puppeteers from all across America. I had just driven overnight from Chicago and was pretty completely out of it physically and emotionally. The music for the show is really slow and drone-y and terrifying and performing it in that state for 800 psyched out of their minds puppeteers was one of the most beautifully surreal experiences I’ve had as a performer.

Kyle Vegter performance

4. What’s your new year’s resolution for 2014? If you don’t have one, why not?

I think I have more resolutions than I even realize. They’re lying all over the place. Like I want to use less laundry detergent, and I want to make more diverse smoothies, and I want to take less showers, and I’d really like to wear more collared shirts.

The big overarching one though is to be more honest with myself about how I want to spend my time.

5. What are you most looking forward to in 2014?

Making the new Manual Cinema show (to premiere in January 2015). We’ve been jonesing to make a new show for years now, and I’m so excited to be working on new material with my Manual Cinemaites it hurts a little bit. They’re some of the smartest, most honest and intuitive creative people I have ever met, and getting to work with them every day feels like a dream that I’m constantly dreaming. The new show is shaping up to be like nothing we’ve ever made and it WILL involve sexy shadow puppets.

ALSO, ALSO, I’m moving my studio and home to Pilsen in June, and my love is moving in with me there. Uggh.

6. If you could sum up what you’d like 2014 to be in three words, what would they be?

VIOLET DEEP EARTHY

(beets), (beats)

AMANDA DeBOER BARTLETT: SOPRANO

Amanda deBoer Bartlett

Amanda deBoer Bartlett

1. What was your biggest musical challenge of 2013?

Recording music by Aaron Einbond with Dal Niente. Hands down. The music is in the extremes of my range and hinges on these intensely fragile textures. I had to rely heavily on the ears of the composer, engineer, and advisers in the control room. Admittedly, I haven’t spent much time in the studio (something I’d like to change), so the process isn’t completely natural to me yet.

However, at this point, I’m a leading expert at singing into thunder tubes and ceramic cups.

2. What was your favorite record, or favorite thing to listen to, this year?

I made many a road trip this year (I-80 is my nemesis), and something my friends know about me is if you put on any pop country radio song, I can sing every line with harmonies. It’s terrible, I know. These songs are sexist, commercial garbage, but they kept me awake. And now I can sing all about hoppin’ up into your truck with my painted on jeans…

Amanda deBoer Bartlett road trip

But it’s not all so dire. Here’s the soundtrack of my year:

While working:Noosa

Sunday mornings:Kurt Vile; Brahms

Pump up album:Janelle Monáe

Calming my road rage: Joni Mitchell

Long road trips: Mumford and Sons; country radio

3. What was your favorite musical moment of 2013?

My husband was out of town, and I had a night off–a rare combination–so I went to see The Tallest Man On Earth at The Waiting Room in Omaha. I like going to concerts by myself, but I don’t get to loud, sticky clubs often. I was pretty close to the stage, and Kristian Matsson was making intense, awkward eye contact with the audience. It was just him and his guitar, sweating it out in the middle of Nebraska. Everyone was swaying and vibing pretty hard. Then he played “The Wild Hunt” and I was transported back to Bowling Green State University. I listened to that album pretty continuously during my final year there, sitting on my friend’s carpeted apartment floor, eating pot-luck meals like lentil soup and grilled cheese, and quoting stupid comedies from the ‘90s. Oh, and complaining about comprehensive exams! I’m a pretty forward-looking person, so taking a moment to bask in nostalgia and honor that time was a rare treat.

4. What’s your new year’s resolution for 2014? If you don’t have one, why not?

Get better at disappointing people. I want to be a let-down! Really, in order to accomplish anything, I need to focus my energies and stick to my guns this year, which means I can’t be everything to everyone.

5. What are you most looking forward to in 2014? This can be a meal, a musical project, a trip, a party—whatever springs to mind.

Going to Italy with my husband! We both travel for work, but traveling together is tremendously rare. I just love it. Generally we bypass the museums and go straight for the consumables. Here’s what I want: outdoor seating, hand-rolled pasta with a slow-cooked red sauce, local wine, and some sort of perfect chocolate thingy for desert.

6. If you could sum up what you’d like 2014 to be in three words, what would they be?

more coffee please

ANTHONY CHEUNG: COMPOSER

Anthony Cheung

Anthony Cheung

1. What was your biggest musical challenge of 2013?

Very generally, distractions. An increasingly endless stream of information and stimulation, musical and otherwise, while keeping me apprised of everything current, was often detrimental to my creativity. When I was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome earlier in the year, it was a very good “problem” to have: long conversations with other artists and scholars, constant excursions, and amazing meals. Nourishment for future creative projects.

2. What was your favorite record, or favorite thing to listen to, this year?

Many things, but two albums that come to mind are Steve Lehman/Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Dual Identity, and Toby Twining’s Eurydice. Neither was released in 2013, but I first heard them in the past year and both made deep impressions and led to repeated listenings.

3. What was your favorite musical moment of 2013?

Well, bear with me as I list three: one as a composer/conductor, one as a performer, and another as a witness to history. The first was conducting the Scharoun Ensemble, which is comprised of musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic, in performances of Time’s Vestiges. After the premiere in Rome, they were kind enough to repeat the piece in Berlin, and getting to work with them one night and hear them play the Symphonie Fantastique under Abbado at the Philharmonie the next was an absolute thrill.

Then in August, at the Newport Jazz Festival, I performed in Steve Coleman’s new piece, Synovial Joints, written for the Talea Ensemble. Steve is one of my favorite musicians and a generally acknowledged guru of improvisation, and getting to play with him and the special guests he brought in (trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and drummer Dafnis Prieto) was a revelatory experience.

Anthony Cheung performance

And finally, back in March, at the conclusion of the papal conclave, when white smoke finally billowed from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, I was made aware of this momentous event not by internet headlines or word of mouth but simply by being in my studio at the American Academy in Rome with the windows open, hearing all the bells of the city ringing simultaneously.

4. What’s your new year’s resolution for 2014?

One is definitely getting to know Chicago better, as my wife and I have recently relocated here and haven’t ventured out nearly as much as we’d like. The cultural and culinary options seem endless. Though I’m not yet sure about changing my allegiances to the Bears from the 49ers. The UChicago community is incredibly engaging, and I’m loving my interactions with students here. Offering them the best advice and support I can will be my absolute priority.

5. What are you most looking forward to in 2014? This can be a meal, a musical project, a trip, a party—whatever springs to mind.

Premiere performances of my new orchestral work for the New York Philharmonic in June.

6. If you could sum up what you’d like 2014 to be in three words, what would they be?

Renewal without regress/regrets.

NINA DANTE: SOPRANO AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF FONEMA CONSORT

Nina Dante

Nina Dante

1. What was your biggest musical challenge of 2013?

Without a doubt, the greatest challenge of 2013 was re-dedicating myself to exploring and understanding the workings of my voice. I am more than happy to get lost in the wilderness that is extended vocal techniques, but expression is limited without a strong connection to the “raw” voice. This summer, I decided to see what I could accomplish if I spent more time with my unique instrument, finding ways to master its natural strengths and weaknesses not only through fundamental vocal exercises and breath work, but also through active listening to vocalists across the genres.

My new obsession is singing every vowel on a single note, and exploring the unbelievable range of timbre and expressive coloring available in this single note, making it a sort of three-dimensional musical object. As a performer of new music, it is amazing to be aware of and have access to this vast palette.

2. What was your favorite record, or favorite thing to listen to, this year?

Led Zeppelin, in all seriousness. For whatever reason, before the fall of this year I had never listened to their music; but this October, fate pulled the trigger and after one listen to “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” I lost my soul to them. Undeniably, they are wild, wild performers, and what makes them completely irresistible to me is that I know the music was really happening for them while they performed; it has an emotional and physical rawness that you don’t find otherwise. For me, it isn’t a question of losing your mind while they play, it is inevitable. (Robert Plant is my current fascination.) Check out at least the first few minutes of this live performance.

3. What was your favorite musical moment of 2013?

In the summer of 2012, I worked with the French singer Donatienne Michel-Dansac, at the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music. Most memorably for me, she said that if you interpret a piece of music before you perform it, then you will only ever be able to perform it in that one way.

My favorite moment performing this year was premiering Pablo Chin’s Boschiana with Fonema Consort. With Donatienne’s words in mind, I dedicated myself to keeping the interpretive slate blank, until the moment of performance could make its hand print. I spent my practice time learning the music as meticulously as possible, with the hope that this would free me to let go of interpretive control and perform honestly and spontaneously, through the labyrinth of the music.

It was an eye-opening performance experience for me. The music pulled from me something that felt honest, and at the same time, spontaneous enough to interact with the expressive prerogative of the pianist and saxophonist. I felt that I was speaking, rather than singing—it was thrilling.

4. What’s your new year’s resolution for 2014? If you don’t have one, why not?

Since 2012, I have dedicated much of my artistic life to the new music ensemble that I co-founded, Fonema Consort. Serving as general director in addition to singing in the group is a fascinating journey: learning to make a decipherable budget alongside learning to sing microtones, negotiating with venues and presenters while diving into artistic collaboration with the musicians of the ensemble … heaven, for me.

This year, a new and very personal goal for the new year is to strengthen my artistic relationship with some of the deeply inspiring musicians I have met and performed with through my work with Fonema Consort. I am eager to see what collaborative possibilities await. New adventures!

5. What are you most looking forward to in 2014?

I am beyond psyched for the release of Fonema Consort’s (and indeed, my own) debut CD project this spring. The album, Pasos en otra calle (Steps in another street), is a compilation of chamber works for voice and instruments by Costa Rican composers Pablo Chin and Mauricio Pauly. Not only will we celebrate the release of the CD at home in Chicago, but Fonema Consort will travel to Costa Rica for a release event as well, which is definitely something to look forward to!

6. If you could sum up what you’d like 2014 to be in three words, what would they be?

Unpredictable

Adventurous

Intense

RYAN MUNCY: SAXOPHONIST AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF ENSEMBLE DAL NIENTE

Ryan Muncy

Ryan Muncy

1. What was your biggest musical challenge of 2013?

Finishing my first album—and doing it in a way that was artistically satisfying and true to myself—was by far my biggest musical challenge of 2013. It allowed me to push myself to a new level and reinvigorated my enthusiasm for recording projects.

Certain pieces from 2013 really pushed me to the extremes as an interpreter and technician. The first that comes to mind is Sam Pluta’s 60 cycles for sopranino saxophone, violin, cello, and feedback televisions, a largely improvised piece we premiered at the Walden School in July 2013 with the composer himself performing the feedback TVs. Sam is one of the finest musicians and improvisers I’ve worked with—and he regularly plays with Evan Parker, an iconic figure in improvisation and arguably the world’s greatest living saxophonist—which forced me to rise to the occasion. It’s a piece that makes you Fight To Win; I remember the feeling of my forearms and wrists burning in pain midway into the piece.

2. What was your favorite record, or favorite thing to listen to, this year?

This year I found myself listening to the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, especially in his performances of Vivaldi’s arias, as well as my friends bassoonist Rebekah Heller, flutist Claire Chase, and Spektral Quartet on their groundbreaking new albums.

Also, I became a fan of the podcast Throwing Shade, hosted by Erin Gibson and Brian Safi. I’m really picky when it comes to podcasts, and this one is everything.

3. What was your favorite musical moment of 2013?

The blackout section during Dal Niente’s performance of Haas’s In Vain. I’ve never felt so exhilarated and terrified during a performance. My heart was beating out of my chest. You know: that insane C major chord with the string section pulsing, gliding, oozing all over the place. Lights flashing, gongs ringing, 24 musicians playing ten minutes of music from memory in total (hallucinogenic) darkness, the audience beat into submission.

4. What’s your new year’s resolution for 2014? If you don’t have one, why not?

When it comes to resolutions for the new year, I attempt to position myself for success. As a result, my resolutions are pretty lame. Last year I resolved to drink eight glasses of water each day. I did O.K. For 2014, I’ll probably resolve to spend more time in the kitchen.

Like many arts organization, our fiscal year begins on July 1. For me, this date feels more like the occasion for turning over a new leaf.

5. What are you most looking forward to in 2014? This can be a meal, a musical project, a trip, a party—whatever springs to mind.

I might be letting the proverbial cat out of the bag, but I’m looking forward to Sunday, May 4, 2014, when Claire Chase, Nadia Sirota, Rebekah Heller, and I will present a 40th birthday portrait concert of Marcos Balter in Preston Bradley Hall of the Chicago Cultural Center as part of the City’s “Loops and Variations” concert series. We’ll perform pieces Marcos has previously written for us, as well as the world premiere of a new quartet. Marcos is a composer who has greatly influenced the landscape of new music in Chicago, so it’s fitting to celebrate his 40th with a bang.

Also, I’m looking forward to finally earning “Silver Premiere” status at United, whatever that means.

6. If you could sum up what you’d like 2014 to be in three words, what would they be?

beautiful, ugly, REAL.

RENEE BAKER: VIOLINIST, COMPOSER, AND MUSIC DIRECTOR OF THE CHICAGO MODERN ORCHESTRA PROJECT

Renee Baker

Renee Baker

1. What was your biggest musical challenge of 2013?

Doing three recordings in three weeks in Berlin and Graz with musicians I knew and some that I didn’t.

2. What was your favorite record, or favorite thing to listen to, this year?

Two masters—trying to get inside the heads of Anthony Braxton and Wadada Leo Smith. I’ve been listening to anything written by these two AACM luminaries.

3. What was your favorite musical moment of 2013?

Presenting a 16-page graphic score at the Vermont College of Fine Arts with the Jazz Tentet from New York. I was SO mad that I couldn’t get a sound check that I threw all my anger and angst into that comprovisation and brought down the house! Then I left and went home, still pissed but vindicated. That group kicked ass!

Renee Baker

4. What’s your new year’s resolution for 2014?

Simplify everything.

5. What are you most looking forward to in 2014?

Finding a place in Berlin.

6. If you could sum up what you’d like 2014 to be in three words, what would they be?

Tea. Create. Be.

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