On May 20, 2023, we will perform “Ecosystem” by Gabriel Bolaños with the UC Davis Sinfonietta at the Ann E. Pitzer Center. Gabriel completed his Ph.D. in Composition at UC Davis, and used to be our Teaching Assistant with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, including our tour of Spain. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Music Composition at Arizona State University, where he teaches courses in composition, analysis, music technology, and acoustics, and co-directs the PRISMS contemporary music festival. Below is an interview with Gabriel.
Christian Baldini: Dear Gabriel, what a pleasure it is to bring your music back to our campus! I have such fond memories of having you here as our TA many moons ago. Tell us, you are now a Professor, what are some of your fondest memories of your time in Davis, as you were working to complete your Ph.D. in composition?
Gabriel Bolaños: Thank you so much, Christian! It’s an honor for me to stay connected both personally and musically with you and with UC Davis.
I actually have only fond memories of grad school. It was stressful and challenging, but also a period of extensive creative and personal growth for me. Some of my best memories (and greatest learning experiences) were working with the Empyrean Ensemble and with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra. I learned so much about my craft and how to communicate my musical intentions to performers through these opportunities.
CB: How has life changed for you since becoming a Professor?
GB: It feels very strange to have some stability in life! Growing up, I moved every 2-3 years (often internationally), and after grad school I was bouncing all around the US and Nicaragua with my wife Megan. We have been living in Phoenix since 2019 and finally feel stable. We’re now about to start a family together- our first son, Gabriel, is due any day now!
CB: Your music is very special. It deals with sonic objects, it is related to color, texture, and also to perception. How would you explain your music to someone who is not familiar with it?
GB: My music often treats color (timbre) as a structural parameter equal to harmony. I like to collaborate with performers (or even get my hands on instruments I’m writing for) to explore new sounds and playing styles. Once I discover some interesting or unusual structures, I attempt to build a musical narrative around a tight economy of these ideas. These narratives often play with perception, ambiguity, recognizability/unrecognizability, and processes of sudden changes vs. gradual transitions.
CB: Can you talk a little bit about “Ecosystem”?
GB: I wrote this piece in 2014 for AMF- a summer music festival. I spent a long time experimenting ways to create a highly unrecognizable timbre with just the acoustic instruments. In the end, I settled on this relatively unknown technique where you tie magnetic tape to a piano string, and gently pull on/rub the tape. This produces a very complex tone with rich, unpredictable partials that sounds like an electronically synthesized sound. This timbre is central to the piece, and is a “seed” from which many of the harmonies and textures were developed. At the time I was also very interested in exploring the intersections of music and language, and I incorporated lots of whispering of various tongue-twisters in the piece to add an additional palette of unpitched colors and textures.
CB: What are some of your strongest influences as a composer and performer, and why?
GB: I love composers that focus on timbre: Grisey, Murail, Saariaho, Harvey, Vivier, Cerha, Maiguashca, and Romitelli. I greatly admire Ligeti, not just for his impeccable craft, but also because he was non-dogmatic in the way he incorporated different styles into his music and made them his own.
I grew up playing guitar and studying flamenco music and Latin American folk music. I love Sabicas, Sanlucar, Peña, Yamandú Costa, Yupanqui, Os Mutantes, and Quinteto Contrapunto.
At ASU I also teach many electronic-music classes, and have grown to like Trevor Wishart, Suzanne Ciani and Morton Subotnick. I find lots of inspiration in their electroacoustic thinking.
CB: What is your advice for young composers? How can someone find their own individual voice?
GB: I always remember the advice that my old composition professor, Fabien Lévy, gave to me: “it is better not to study composition than to study with the wrong person.”
Composition lessons are very personal and can have a deep, sustained impact on your outlook. It’s important that the student trust the instructor’s intentions and also like the instructor’s music, or it could be very damaging. Studying with the wrong person is like learning an incorrect technique on an instrument: to correct this, you have to un-learn a bad habit, and then start all over with the correct way.
More practically, I think it’s important to sketch extensively, to take all of your ideas to the extreme while sketching, and to mercilessly discard something if it is not serving the piece. For every minute of music I write, there are probably 3 minutes of discarded music that didn’t make the cut. Composing is very difficult!
CB: Thank you for your time Gabriel, and welcome back to UC Davis, this will always be your home!
GB: Thank you, Christian! I really appreciate it.
Gabriel José Bolaños Chamorro (b. 1984 Bogotá, Colombia) is a Nicaraguan/American composer of solo, chamber, orchestral and electroacoustic music. He frequently collaborates closely with performers, and enjoys writing music that explores unusual techniques, structures, and timbres. He is interested in computer-assisted-composition, auditory perception, linguistics, graphic notation, improvisation, and modular synthesizers.
Bolaños is currently an Assistant Professor of Music Composition at Arizona State University, where he teaches courses in composition, analysis, music technology, and acoustics, and co- directs the PRISMS contemporary music festival. He received a BA in music from Columbia University and a PhD in Composition and Theory from UC Davis. His music is published by BabelScores.
Bolaños has received numerous awards and grants for his work, including a Fulbright US Scholar Grant, the Suzanne & Lee Ettelson Composer’s Award, a Research & Development Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, a residency at CMMAS in Morelia, Mexico, a commission from Vertixe Sonora and Hong Kong Baptist University, and a commission from CIRM and Festival Manca in Nice, France.
Beyond his work as a composer and teacher, Bolaños has also written music for film, theater, and dance, has experience performing as a flamenco dance accompanist, and enjoys swimming, gardening, and playing folk music with his wife, Megan.
Ecosystem Program Notes – Ecosystem, as the title suggests, explores interactions between various acoustic objects within a closed system, and how these interact with each other and their environment (the performance/listening space). Perceptual ambiguity and “source recognition” - how easily a listener identifies the origins of a particular sound - play a very important structural role in the piece.
On February 5, 2023, soprano Mikayla Sager will sing Mimì for our upcoming Barbara K. Jackson Rising Stars of Opera program at the Mondavi Center, in collaboration with the San Francisco Opera Center. Here is a conversation we had with Mikayla about Puccini, the prestigious Adler Fellowship, auditions, opera in general, and her advice for young singers.
Mikayla Sager: Some of my favorite operas are Der Rosenkavalier, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, Adriana Lecouvreur, Don Giovanni, and Eugene Onegin. I am typically drawn to operas with very fleshed out characters with interesting and dynamic relationships to one another. I love fiery, passionate roles, and have found I can either relate the role I sing/would sing from each of those operas listed.
CB: Have you worked with living composers? If so, how was that experience? If not, what would you hope to gain from such a relationship?
MS:I don’t have extensive experience working with living composers, but I have greatly enjoyed the times that I have. When I have in the past, I found it very fun to watch the creativity of a composer unfold before me, and to see how flexible things can be to suit the particular singer they are writing for. It is much easier to deeply understand the character you are portraying when the composer is in the room, and you can consistently have conversations revolving around the creation of that role.
CB: You are a part of one of the main young artist programs in the world, as an Adler Fellow for the San Francisco Opera Center. What are some of your favorite perks of this position?
MS:The Adler fellowship is a particularly unique and special program, because we are given extensive performance experience on one of the largest operatic stages in the world. I think the greatest “perk” would be knowing that you will always be given the support you need to prepare your assigned roles at the highest level, as we have access to some of the greatest coaches and mentors in the world. There are of course other perks, such as having exposure to important people in the industry, but I would say the most important thing for me personally is knowing that I am constantly supported by people with extremely sharp ears!
CB: Tell us about the auditioning process. How was your preparation for it? Is it extremely competitive? How is the atmosphere once you are in the program?
MS: The first step is applying to the Merola opera program, which is a three month long summer festival that operates adjacently to the Adler fellowship. You apply online with audio samples, and from there you are either granted an audition or asked to apply again in the future. They usually receive over a thousand applicants. From there, you audition live, and then they on average accept 25 people. During your time at Merola, you audition for San Francisco opera on the war memorial stage, and that is when they make decisions as to who will be picked for the Adler Fellowship. At the end of the summer, they notify however many people they decide to pick for the coming Adler fellowship year. In my year they picked four singers, and one pianist. It is considered extremely competitive, and you are expected when you are in the program to be always prepared and extremely professional.
CB: Why is opera important to you? What does it mean in today’s world?
MS:Opera is important to me because I think it is an art form that can make us understand each other on a deeper level. Opera evokes big emotions and revolves around subject matter that we don’t typically encounter in everyday life. For me personally, I find it can make us relate to each other beyond surface level or superficial things. I think often we can learn a lot of life lessons through the vehicle that is opera.
CB: What would you say about La Bohème, and about Mimì (or Rodolfo) to someone who does not know the opera? What should people listen for in this kind of music?
MS:La Boheme is an opera full of luscious, gorgeous lines that are extremely pleasing for the listener. Mimi is a very pure character, with a big heart and a lot of love to give. Mimi and Rodolfo’s love story is extremely heartbreaking, and has to be taken in context of the period it was written in. I think it is important for the audience to remember that because of the lack of medicine to cure Mimi’s illness, that she is an extremely selfless character and despite having absolutely nothing and in need of some help. Because we are only doing Act I, this facet of her character won’t necessarily be seen, but I do think it is important should the audience then go and see to the rest of the opera. From a musical standpoint, I think the audience should let this extremely romantic music just wash over them, and leave the hall reminded of the feeling of falling in love.
CB: Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for young singers?
MS: my biggest piece of advice to young singers is to keep your blinders up and focus on your own progress. Try to not waste time thinking about what other people are doing and focus on how you can grow your artistry.
Canadian soprano Mikayla Sager is fascinated by the richly drawn, unapologetically intense characters of the verismo repertoire. Following her recent concert performance with San Francisco Opera, the Chronicle declared her “an extraordinarily gifted young soprano… Sager delivered Desdemona’s arias with a combination of intensity and hushed majesty.” When Sager is onstage, audiences are guaranteed a multidimensional portrayal that balances authentic vulnerability and full-blooded strength.
As a second-year Adler Fellow, Sager performs on stages across California this season. In San Francisco Opera’s centennial, she appears on the War Memorial mainstage as Sister Felicité in Dialogues des Carmélites, Kate Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Guardian of the Temple in Die Frau ohne Schatten, and as Image No. 1 in the world premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank’s El ultimo sueño de Frida y Diego. Elsewhere, she brings her Mimì to performances with Bohème out of the Box and the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra. Additional concert appearances include The Future is Now, the Adler Fellowship’s final concert, and Eun Sun Kim Conducts Verdi, under the baton of SFO’s new music director.
Sager has previously appeared as Violetta (La traviata), Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte), Vitellia (La clemenza di Tito), Micäela(Carmen), and Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), as well as Pamina (Die Zauberflöte) and The Fox (The Cunning Little Vixen) during her education at Manhattan School of Music. Following her debut as Norina (Don Pasquale) with Venture Opera, Opera Canada praised her “edgy intensity… she augmented her vocal prowess with enviable acting skills.” Concert highlights include a concert at Festival Napa Valley, conducted by James Conlon, a Hawaii International Music Festival tour, numerous recitals, including an appearance at Carnegie Hall, and a performance at David Geffen Hall with the New York Philharmonic.
Sager has earned recognition and support from the Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonygne Foundation’s Elizabeth Connell Competition, Jensen Foundation Vocal Competition, Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (District Winner), Vienna International Music Competition, Festival Napa Valley’s Manetti Shrem Prize, National Opera Association’s Carolyn Bailey and Dominick Argento Competition, and Gran Teatre del Liceu’s Tenor Viñas Competition in Barcelona.
Sager draws inspiration from many other art forms, include architecture and ceramics, as well as an unconventional childhood aboard a sailboat that traveled around the world. These days, her travel companion is her rescue dog Remy, whose fiery personality would suit any operatic stage.
Christian Baldini: María Laura, cómo comenzó la génesis de “Criaturas de fuego”? Cuál fue el disparador que te inspiró a escribir un concierto para violín y orquesta?
María Laura Antonelli: Esta obra “Criaturas del fuego” para violín y orquesta nació después del estreno de mi obra “Infernadero, seis piezas para Orquesta con piano y gritos olvidados”, en la que yo estuve como piano solista y con medios electroacústicos en vivo también. “Infernadero…” fue encargada y estrenada por la ONMA en 2019, a raiz de que yo lanzara mi disco de composiciones propias en piano “Argentígena, piano tango & electroacústica”(Acqua Records – 2018). Desde ahí me convocaron y empezó el trabajo con la Filiberto y “Criaturas” es un desafío porque es la primera vez que escribo un concierto solista para un instrumento que no es el piano. Sentí que la Orquesta estuvo muy feliz por el estreno de Infernadero y además recibí el premio de la Asociación de Críticos Musicales de la Argentina por mi labor compositiva de 2019, que atribuyo a Infernadero porque fue donde puse mi mayor energía ese año. Apenas se estrenó Infernadero, los programadores me propusieron componer una obra para violín solista y el orgánico de la ONMA. Empecé a escribirla en 2020 y luego se retrasó su estreno por la pandemia, estuve con otras obras, y hoy acá estamos.
CB: Qué le dirías al público que son los aspectos más importantes de tu música? Cuáles son los elementos que les aconsejarías escuchar, como punto de partida?
MLA: Me parece fundamental no subestimar jamás al público. Mi música está construida como un tejido de eventos sonoros que aparecen en la línea de tiempo, que a través de las intensidades y matices muestran la tímbrica, los colores y las texturas de ese tejido. Está atravesado por el tiempo de la escucha interna y la búsqueda de gestos de músicas que ya pasaron, algo así como si intentara reconstruir recuerdos de cosas que no ocurrieron. Los aspectos más importantes son la diversidad de los eventos sonoros que convergen en el espacio acústico, y para eso hay que diseñar ese espacio, que es el trabajo más difícil. Y creo que debe haber un factor de sorpresa en el ritmo en el que, aun habiendo propulsión, es decir, aunque podamos seguirlo con el cuerpo, sin haber sorpresa en esa propulsión, la música se apaga. Me gusta el desafío que tiene construir con un ancla en algo de la tradición, y también pienso que la capacidad de asombro está intacta y que hay que mantenerla viva cada vez que alguien escucha una música por primera vez. Lo que más deseo que me pase a mí al escuchar música es que la obra me permita desalienarme por un rato. Y eso mismo deseo para los otros que escuchan mi música.
CB: Cuáles han sido las influencias musicales más importantes en tu mundo compositivo?
MLA: Te los digo en cualquier orden, no cronológico ni en orden de importancia para mí, sinó así como me salen: Bach, Troilo, Piazzolla, Schaeffer, Schumann, Stravinsky, Bartok, Messiaen, Berio, Spinetta, Gobbi, De Caro, Gardel, Gismonti, Sting, y así sin nombrarte nada de jazz, el abanico es enorme igual, no sé…..todos mundos muy diferentes que desde el academicismo coexisten casi como una incongruencia dentro mío, pero es así como impactaron también en mí. Son músicas que conocí tanto al tocar el piano como escuchando en grabaciones o en vivo y que determinaron con mucha fuerza mi búsqueda de la creatividad musical y mi vocación.
CB: Sos pianista, y me pregunto, cómo comenzó todo musicalmente para vos? ¿En que momento tuviste la necesidad de comenzar a componer?
MLA: Supongo que ambas cosas nacieron juntas. En principio empecé a tocar el piano porque quería aprender, pero ya tocaba de oído en un tecladito que había en mi casa desde muy chica, incluso antes de ir al colegio. En esa época ya inventaba melodías y formas en el tiempo, improvisaba un poco y luego la formación musical apuntó al piano en primer lugar y después a la composición especialmente en la adolescencia, cuando me peleaba con la partitura y quería poder tocar de oído lo que estudiaba leyendo y viceversa, y sentía que todo eso que inventaba y grababa empezaba a agigantarse y tuve la necesidad de hacerle lugar. Pasaron varios años hasta que pude encontrar la forma del discurso sonoro en el espacio acústico más o menos parecido a lo que imaginaba y descuadrarme de lo pianístico. Creo que, por suerte, casi nunca se llega a lo imaginado, sino que en el mejor de los casos la música cobra vida propia y aparece. Por eso me parece fundamental escuchar la voz interna que es la que pide la música.
CB: Muchas gracias por tu tiempo, y espero que tengamos un hermoso estreno de “Criaturas del fuego”.
MLA: Muchas gracias a vos Christian, será un gran concierto y es un placer enorme para mí estar trabajando juntos y que “Criaturas del fuego” tenga tu mirada.
Sobre María Laura Antonelli
Pianista, compositora y arregladora argentina. Tuvo experiencias como solista académica y pianista de tango en diferentes proyectos en las más importantes salas de Buenos Aires así como en el circuito under, el interior y en países europeos como Italia, Austria, Holanda, Alemania, Escocia y República Checa. Hizo música para danza contemporánea y cine. Integró proyectos como compositora, improvisadora y arregladora con formaciones desde dúos hasta orquesta típica. Cuenta con dos discos previos de tangos clásicos. El último, Argentígena, piano tango & electroacústica (Acqua Records-2018), netamente instrumental y de composiciones propias, fue considerado un trabajo “de frontera” por sintetizar elementos del tango, la música contemporánea y el jazz y nominado a los premios Gardel 2019. Actualmente trabaja en su próxima obra orquestal y en música de piano solo. Además es docente en el Conservatorio de la Ciudad A. Piazzolla y Conservatorio Superior M. de Falla.
On Friday, May 13, 2022 I will finally have the pleasure of conducting the first public performance of the UC Davis Sinfonietta, a wonderful large ensemble comprised of some of the most advanced musicians at UC Davis. We will be performing an iconic work of the “large ensemble” repertoire: Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto. We will pair the Ligeti with three short works that were written for the exact same instrumentation by Aida Shirazi, Josiah Catalan and Sarah Wald. I asked these three excellent young composers if they’d like to write a companion piece for the Ligeti, and each of them came up with their own beautifulproposal and very distinctive style, which I find fascinating.
Sarah Wald, Lavava y Suspirava: Fantasy on a Sephardic Romance (world première)
Aida Shirazi, Lament (world premiére)
Josiah Catalan, Cloudburst (world première)
György Ligeti, Chamber Concerto
UC Davis Sinfonietta
Christian Baldini, music director & conductor
Ann E. Pitzer Center, UC Davis
May 13, 2022, 7pm
This performance was actually meant to take place in 2020, but of course we all know that the world was shut down, and this public debut the Sinfonietta was then canceled and it had to be postponed. The existence of this Sinfonietta is very important to me. I am a firm believer in the power of performing chamber music with friends and colleagues. The members of this Sinfonietta are almost exclusively leaders of the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, which is in itself a powerhouse among University orchestras in the world. Offering our members a deeper dive into this repertoire is a very symbiotic experience, which promotes artistic growth of its individual members, and also of the whole orchestra. Promoting fluid communication, better understanding and even a closer familiarity among our members is very positive in every way. Seeing their commitment, their joy and their excitement in bringing these four works to life has been a real delight, and I look forward to sharing these premieres with our audience.
György Ligeti’s music always feels to me like visiting a dear old friend. I have been very fortunate to conduct several works by him such as Lontano, Atmosphéres, Mysteries of the Macabre, selections from his Requiem, his Violin Concerto (with the wonderful Miranda Cuckson, which was released on Centaur Records), and also chamber works of his. He was probably the most original musician of his generation (and this is not a minor accomplishment having been a contemporary of Luciano Berio). He was not only a perfectionist and a tremendous innovator, but he was very independent, never quite associated with any “schools” of composition per se. He clearly did not need to associate himself with any of them aesthetically in order to succeed: “I hate all these pseudo-philosophical over-simplifications. I hate all ideologies,” Ligeti said in a 1986 interview. “I have certain musical imaginations and ideas. I don’t write music naively. But I imagine music as it sounds, very concretely. I listen to it in my inner ear. Then I look for a certain system, for a certain construction. It’s important for me, the construction. But I always know it’s a second thing, it’s not a primary factor. And I never think in philosophical terms, or never in extra-musical terms.”
Composed between 1969 and 1970, the Chamber Concerto work utilizes Ligeti’s fascination with micropolyphony, creating textures that arise from many lines of gradually denser canons that move at different speeds or rhythms, and which result in complex sonorities, as described by Ligeti himself: “One clearly discernible interval combination is gradually blurred, and from this cloudiness it is possible to discern a new interval combination taking shape.” “This four-movement piece is a concerto inasmuch as all 13 players are virtuoso soloists and are all treated as equals,” Ligeti says. “In other words, we are not dealing with the usual type of concerto in which soli and tutti alternate, but with a piece for 13 concertante soloists. The voices always develop simultaneously, but in varying rhythmic configurations and generally at differing speeds.”
Here is also some very helpful information from Sarah Wald, Josiah Catalan and Aida Shirazi about their own works:
Notes by Sarah Wald:
I composed “Lavava y Suspirava”: Fantasy on a Sephardic Romance as part of my dissertation, which was a collection of seven pieces, for a variety of different ensembles, based on Sephardic folk songs. I was very excited to write this piece because the combination of instruments is really wonderful, and it was a lot of fun to write a companion piece to Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto. This piece was also an important precursor to my current, post-PhD work with Sephardic folk songs. It is one of only two in my dissertation collection that is based on a romance specifically. Romances—also known as narrative ballads—are a really special genre within the Sephardic folk repertoire. As my program notes mention, traditionally, they were very much a women’s genre: Sephardic women would sing romances to instill and reinforce important Jewish values. In my current work, I’ve pivoted towards focusing on the romances almost exclusively.
I’m very much looking forward to the premiere. I had originally planned and timed everything to have all of my dissertation pieces performed and recorded before receiving my PhD, but COVID threw a wrench into the works. While I was lucky to have some of my dissertation pieces recorded prior to graduation, it was a little disappointing to have a few performances/recordings still outstanding. So this upcoming premiere is highly anticipated and even cathartic, in a way.
My piece is based on the Sephardic romance “Lavava y Suspirava” (“Washing and Sighing”). Romances in Sephardic culture were traditionally associated with women and the domestic sphere: For example, mothers would often sing them to their children as lullabies. This romance is based on the tale of Don Bueso. At the beginning of the song, a captive woman washing clothes in a river spots a knight returning from war. The knight invites the woman to leave her washing behind and come with him. As the song progresses, the two recognize each other as long-lost brother and sister and are subsequently reunited with their parents.
In my piece, melodic fragments from the original song are altered and recombined constantly throughout the ensemble. I preserve the overall structure of the original song, including the surprising modal shift toward the end. The convergence on one note (Ab) during the last third of the piece serves to emphasize that modal shift and to represent a sense of suspended time, as the long-lost siblings’ realization sinks in that their family will be made whole again.
Sarah Wald holds degrees from Columbia University (BA in music), the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (MM in composition), and the University of California, Davis (PhD in composition and theory). Sarah’s music has been featured at festivals in the US and Europe and on WFMT’s Relevant Tones. Over the last several years, her pieces were selected from calls for scores for New Music on the Bayou (2016), women’s choir Vox Musica (2017), chamber group North/South Consonance (2018), and the Sewanee Summer Music Festival (2020). Sarah has also received a number of grants and commissions from organizations such as the Illinois Arts Council Agency, Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the Saint Xavier University Flute Choir, the University of Tennessee Martin’s Contemporary Music Group, Keyed Kontraptions, and Access Contemporary Music.
Lament Program Notes (by Aida Shirazi)
Lament is based on the aria, Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas. It revolves around the concepts of longing, death, and sorrow. I have tried to reimagine these concepts according to my personal experience of loss and the burden and darkness caused by it.
The core idea of my piece is a descending chromatic bass line which represents the traditional lament bass line and borrowed from the aria. The chord progression built on this bass line moves slowly and the bass line is mostly embedded in the overall texture of the piece. In time, the harmonic rhythm becomes faster and the bass line more recognizable. Towards the end of the piece, I have incorporated a melodic fragment of the aria, which is an homage to this heart-wrenching opera and Purcell.
I am thrilled about the premiere of Lament by the UC Davis Sinfonietta under the direction of Maestro Baldini. While working on the piece, I anticipated to be present at the rehearsals and premiere, like all other performances of my works at UC Davis since 2016. The idea of working with Maestro Baldini on yet another occasion and sharing the program with my dear friends, Sarah Wald and Josiah Catalan, for the inaugural concert of our Sinfonietta would give me enormous joy. However, the pandemic changed the course of everyone’s lives and sent all of us into a limbo. Thanks to science and, of course, the perseverance of our artists, we are finally able to get back to the halls and savor the beauty of live music-making. It is a pity that I cannot be present for this concert. I wish I could be there to celebrate the gift of my fellow composers and performers, but I thank all of them from the bottom of my heart and cheer them with a standing ovation all the way from Paris. Writing Lament was a rich and, at times, intense emotional journey for me. I hope I have succeeded in creating a similar experience for the audience
Born and raised in Tehran, Iran, Aida Shirazi (1987) is a composer of acoustic and electroacoustic music. Shirazi’s music is described as ”unfolding with deliberation” by The New York Times, “well-made” and “affecting” by The New Yorker, and “unusually creative” by San Francisco Classical Voice.
In her works for solo instruments, voice, ensemble, orchestra, and electronics, she mainly focuses on timbre for organizing structures inspired by Persian or English languages and literature.
Shirazi’s music has been featured at festivals and concert series including Manifeste, Mostly Mozart, OutHear New Music Week, MATA, New Music Gathering, Direct Current, Taproot, and Tehran Contemporary Music Festival in venues such as Maison de la Radio France, Lincoln Center, and Kennedy Center. Her works are performed by Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Miranda Cuckson, International Contemporary Ensemble, Oerknal, Quince Ensemble, Ensemble Dal Niente, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, Empyrean Ensemble, and Bilkent Symphony Orchestra among others.
Shirazi has earned her Ph.D. in composition and music theory from the University of California, Davis. She has studied with Mika Pelo, Pablo Ortiz, Kurt Rohde, Yiğit Aydın, Tolga Yayalar, Onur Türkmen, and Hooshyar Khayam as well as participating in workshops and masterclasses by Mark Andre, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Riccardo Piacentini, and Füsun Köksal, among others. Shirazi holds her B.A. in classical piano from Tehran University of Art (Iran), and her B.M. in music composition and theory from Bilkent University (Ankara, Turkey). She has studied santoor (traditional Iranian hammered dulcimer) with Parissa Khosravi Samani. Shirazi is a class 2021-22 participant in IRCAM’s “Cursus Program in Composition and Computer Music.”
For flute, oboe, clarinet in B♭, bass clarinet, horn in F, trombone, piano, celesta, and strings Composed 2022
Duration about 6 minutes
Cloudburst explores a couple simple ideas throughout this piece: the accumulation and release of movement and energy. Over time, the keyboard instruments with ostinato lines become slowly distorted through countering waves of sound that cause subtle to intense degrees of rhythmic and harmonic dissonance. Eventually, this progressive accumulation of energy reaches a breaking point where all that momentum is released, leaving the aftermath of incessant ostinatos behind to slower-moving masses and trickling of sounds. I would like to thank Christian Baldini and the players of the UC Davis Sinfonietta for their work in performing this piece.
Josiah Tayag Catalan (he/him) is a Filipino-American composer born in New York City and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Recently, his compositional interests have become centered around the intersects of merging alternative modes of temporality and harmony by fusing elements that stem from influences in traditional, avant-garde, popular, and Southeast Asian musics. He has been awarded prizes from NACUSA, the Sacramento State Festival of New American Music, the Megalopolis Saxophone Orchestra, and the American Prize, has been a finalist in the Thailand International Competition Festival and ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer’s Awards, and has served as a Fromm Foundation Composer Fellow in the Composer’s Conference. Josiah’s music has been commissioned and performed internationally by individuals and groups such as the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, Earplay, Empyrean Ensemble, Lydian and Arditti String Quartets, the MANA saxophone quartet, The Megalopolis Saxophone Orchestra, violinist Miranda Cuckson, percussionist Chris Froh, and soprano Helena Sorokina. His music is published by BabelScores.
Currently, Josiah is a Bilinski Fellow at the University of California, Davis researching the music of composers in the Philippine avant-garde movement and teaching as a lecturer in Music Theory and Composition at Sacramento State. He is a tennis and baseball nerd who plays competitively, enjoys riding road bikes on scenic California highways, and often hikes around Northern California with his partner and adopted mutt.
On April 21, 2022, I will have the pleasure of conducting the US Première of Oscar Strasnoy’s Piano Concerto Kuleshov with Ryan McCullough as our soloist, together with the phenomenal UC Davis Symphony Orchestra at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis, California. Below is a very engaging interview with Ryan talking about Strasnoy, and other interesting topics:
Christian Baldini: Ryan, it will be a pleasure to have you with us for this US première of a composer that I admire and like so much, and which requires a soloist just like you. What can you share with people about Oscar Strasnoy’s Piano Concerto Kuleshov? What is unusual, different and/or attractive about it?
Ryan McCullough: Thank you so much for having me here, Christian, and for your kind words. What I find so interesting about concerti written in this century (and the end of the last) is how much they operate like musical jukeboxes. John Adams’ Century Rolls (1996) is a perfect example of this, a kind of musical survey of piano music in the 20th century, but from the perspective of listening to recordings: of contemporary jazz, stride, bebop, Stravinsky, Satie heard through Art Tatum… the piano is a kind of distant object, a fixture of the past filtered through the intimacy of listening to old recordings in the present. Adams’ more recent piano concerto Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes (2018) is another stylistic grab bag (specifically taking a foray into funk), and there are many other recent pieces I can think of that do this—Julian Anderson’s The Imaginary Museum (2017, also a stylistic grab bag), George Benjamin’s Duet (2008, even more of a throwback to the concerto pre-Beethoven), and Jonathan Harvey’s Bird Concerto with Pianosong (2001, a reimagining of Olivier Messiaen’s birdsong piano music, almost comically from the perspective birds imitating human music). More broadly, the idea of the piano concerto has been ‘broken’ for a while now. Luciano Berio said in 1973 that the concerto, with its 19th-century notions of competition and super-human strength on the part of the pianist, had no meaning anymore, especially in a society where recording technology had effectively replaced the piano as the central hub of domestic music-making. This is even more so the case today—one could easily argue that the true descendant of the piano is a streaming service like Spotify!
Oscar Strasnoy’s Kuleshov definitely explores this idea. It’s almost like a playlist of six or seven songs on random shuffle, where the piano and ensemble snap in and out of different points in each song. Similarly to the Benjamin I mentioned earlier, this isn’t a concerto in the Lisztian sense, where I’m fighting with the orchestra to see who’s faster, louder, better… we’re inseparable. The ensemble floats in and out of the resonance of the piano, and the piano imitates instruments in the ensemble. If you can’t really tell who’s who, then we’re doing a good job! Virtuosity in this case is like a magician performing sleight of hand—“where’d my card go?!”
CB: Who are some other composers you admire, and why?
RMC: There are so many, this is such a hard question. There are many incredible composers doing really wonderful work today, and I feel very lucky to have many friends who are such composers. One is Christopher Stark, who has been writing really powerful, metaphysical works that address climate change head-on. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Tonia Ko, who has a tremendous talent for enlarging the very smallest, most intimate sounds we experience in casual everyday life. Elizabeth Ogonek, who I’m co-teaching a course with on instrument building at Cornell this semester, has an ear that can bend reality (e.g., “there is no spoon”), her music is full of sounds that are truly unreal. Jesse Jones is another friend whose music is just so freaking honest, you feel like you’ve had an unbelievably engaging conversation with an old friend. Dante De Silva is a very close friend who has been exploring alternative tuning systems recently, and writes music that is so personal, almost auto-biographical, but in a way that’s light-hearted and often self-effacing. I could go on… these folks are all in their 30s and 40s, it’s really inspiring, the future of new music feels secure.
In terms of old music, I’ve really fallen in love with the music of William Grant Still recently, there is so much clarity in the writing balancing his rich, resplendent use of harmony and texture. Also the British composer Adela Maddison, a woman known primarily (and erroneously) as Fauré’s lover, who wrote some absolutely magical song cycles and chamber music. Like many women composers in the late 19th century, she has disappeared into the patriarchal fabric of history.
On the other hand, I was just practicing a Mozart concerto for a run of concerts this summer, and ****, how could one person have been so inventive…
CB: You’ve also been composing lately, especially for yourself and your wife (the wonderful soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon). What do you look for in your own compositions? What defines your aesthetics, your choices, your imagery?
I haven’t really had any time to compose this semester, which has been a real shame, and something I plan to rectify this summer. Composing as a performer is (I imagine) a bit like cooking when you’re a professional chef—you spend all this time making incredible dishes for someone else, but when you get home and only have a few hours left to sleep, you barely manage to throw some instant ramen in the microwave and wash it down with a shot of bourbon. Composing is almost like satisfying a craving—you need certain sounds, and aren’t getting them anywhere else, so you go searching for them.
Most of what I’ve written recently has been vocal music. I began setting some poetry by Emily Dickinson (Indeterminate Inflorescence) in March 2020, born from a need for spiritual peace by exploring the reassurance of eternity. Most of the songs play games with infinite loops, where (like the flower structures they’re named for) beginnings and ends are effectively mirror images and can be repeated ad infinitum. Perhaps appropriately, there are still a couple of songs in that cycle that need to be finished and engraved so Lucy and I can finally perform it as a set…
The second set (Argumentum e Silentio), based on the French-German-Jewish poet Paul Celan, is considerably darker, and has renewed meaning to me now. The poetry, which I set in German, is also thinking about eternity, but from a more cynical perspective, a sense that history constantly repeats and everything that is beautiful must be balanced by something that is ugly. One line in particular—from the second song in this cycle, Espenbaum (“Aspen Tree”)—has been on repeat in my head recently: “Löwenzahn, so grün ist die Ukraine. / Meine blonde Mutter kam nicht heim.” [Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine. / My blonde mother never came home.] Celan was born in what is now Ukraine, and both of Celan’s parents perished in the Holocaust in what is now the Russian-backed breakaway state of Transnistria, between Ukraine and Moldova. Historically, Ukraine as a nation has always been more of an ideal than a reality, and so the double-edged imagery of birth and death from the same soil is uncomfortably poignant today. This cycle was hard to write, because such pungent poetry doesn’t need “help”, more a platform to express itself.
The last set (Mister In-Between)was a different kind of coping mechanism, all arrangements of jazz standards by the American lyricist Johnny Mercer, written for and performed with mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. If you don’t know who Mercer is, then the titles “Jeepers Creepers” and “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive” will help. This ended up being an exercise in “creative nostalgia”—since these songs are so well-known, it’s easy to mindlessly fall into clichés, or completely drown them in sauce and obscure the extraordinarily creative structures. Stephanie is a force of nature, and composing these arrangements for her was unbelievably inspiring. We’ll be recording the whole set this summer.
CB: How were your beginnings with music? How did it all start for you?
RMC: It was bit by bit. My mom and grandmother both played piano, my grandfather (who was a master woodworker) had stripped the black paint off their Grinnell Brothers baby grand piano and refinished it to reveal its gorgeous mahogany veneer. I started piano when I was 5, but around the time I was 11 there was a confluence of forces—I started composing, I started playing clarinet in various ensembles, was singing in a children’s choir (then subsequently a jazz ensemble and barbershop choir). Suddenly music was everything, and everything was music, and that’s hard to undo. I guess it was a bit like that old piano—there was something underneath that just needed a little time to reveal, then it was off to the races.
CB: What would be your advice for your musicians starting out and/or struggling to find their path? How does one deal with adversity, bad days or rather, what can help find more hope to keep working hard?
RMC: I’m not gonna lie, if I was unsure about encouraging students to pursue a professional career in music before the pandemic, I am even less sure now. This is not an implication of the art itself, which will survive anything, but a testament to the reality that so much of our professional development is non-linear. You give what feels like an amazing performance in a big venue as part of a major festival… nothing comes of it, straight into the void. You phone in a concert at a school… suddenly people are asking you to play that piece again and again. This is even more pronounced with digital content production, which is now a significant part of the job. You spend hours and hours carefully crafting a video recording, edits and color grading and audio mastering… 27 people watch it. Or you make an audition video for someone in an afternoon and… 40k views. It makes no sense. You spend so much time as an admin, leveraging what you’re doing or about to do in order to get more work, it feels like the work itself is secondary.
On some fundamental level we are all conditioned to seek positive feedback—you want to know that what you’re doing is good, and we learn to rely on that external input from the time we’re little. This is useful for training and education, but you eventually must shut it down. You can only learn to develop a specific voice by listening to your inner ear and trusting your own instincts. As a teacher, I know half of what I’m advising students to do is ********, or at least not 100% perfectly suited to every person, and so I work to get them thinking about their own wishes and desires as soon as humanly possible, and to learn to be curious problem solvers.
If you know that music is your life, and there are no other paths that will satisfy you as much, then you will find a place for yourself, but only if you listen honestly to your inner ear and match those genuine desires with external expectations. If you only focus on what other people tell you is good, you might get somewhere in the short term, but in the long term you will cease to exist, and at that point you are eminently disposable. Know thyself, as the ancient maxim goes…
CB: Thank you so much for your wise words, beautiful musicality and time, and I can’t wait to make music with you!
RMC: It has been such a pleasure, the ensemble sounds great, the piece is amazing, California in the springtime is gorgeous… Looking forward to the concert!
Born in Boston and raised behind the Redwood Curtain of northern California, pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough has developed a diverse career as soloist, vocal and instrumental collaborator, composer, recording artist, and pedagogue. Ryan’s music-making encompasses work with historical keyboards, electro-acoustic tools and instruments, and close collaborations with some of today’s foremost composers. In a performance of Chopin “his virtuosity was evident and understated, his playing projected a warmth… that conjured the humanity of Arthur Rubinstein,” (Eli Newberger, The Boston Musical Intelligencer) and in a performance of contemporary music, his playing “found a perfect balance between the gently shimmering and the more brittle, extroverted strands… and left you eager to hear the rest.” (Allan Kozinn, NY Times).
Ryan’s growing discography features many world premiere recordings, including solo piano works of Milosz Magin (Acte Prealable), Andrew McPherson (Secrets of Antikythera, Innova), John Liberatore (Line Drawings, Albany), Nicholas Vines (Hipster Zombies from Mars, Navona), art song and solo piano music of John Harbison and James Primosch with soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon (Descent/Return, Albany), and art song by Sheila Silver (Beauty Intolerable, Albany, also with Ms. Fitz Gibbon). He has also appeared on PBS’s Great Performances (Now Hear This, “The Schubert Generation”) and is an alumnus of NPR’s From the Top.
As concerto soloist Ryan has appeared frequently with orchestra, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Sarasota Festival Orchestra, Colburn Conservatory Orchestra, Orange County Wind Symphony, and World Festival Orchestra, with such conductors as George Benjamin, Gisele Ben-Dur, Fabien Gabel, Leonid Grin, Anthony Parnther, Larry Rachleff, Mischa Santora, and Joshua Weilerstein. Mr. McCullough has collaborated with the Mark Morris Dance Group, contemporary ensembles eighth blackbird and yarn/wire, and has performed at festivals including the Tanglewood Music Center, Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, Sarasota Festival, Nohant International Chopin Festival, and Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival. Highlights of the ‘21-‘22 season include an original cabaret collaboration with mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, three separate tours with the Mark Morris Dance Group, a residency with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, Brahms’ Die Schöne Magelone at the Harvard Musical Association with soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, and performances of Stockhausen’s MANTRA at Notre Dame and Syracuse Universities as part of ensemble HereNowHear.
Ryan lives in Kingston, NY, with his wife, soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, and in his time off can be found brewing beer, building and modifying audio equipment, or photographing the sublime Hudson Valley. For additional information and curios, visit www.RyanMMcCullough.com.