University of Pittsburgh

Mary Rowell and Geoffrey Burleson on New Music and their Upcoming MOTE Performance

Violinist Mary Rowell and pianist Geoffrey Burleson perform for Music on the Edge at the Warhol  on Saturday Night (details). Here's a recent e-mail interview with Mary and Geoff cross-posted from Pittsburgh New Music Net. PNMN: Your Music on the Edge program at the Warhol covers a really wide range of styles, from Vincent Persichetti to Arvo Pärt to Amy Kohn… those are three very different artists right there. Do you see any overarching theme for the program or was the goal more to represent the variety of contemporary music? MR: Our programming is based on our own current musical interests with an eye toward interesting juxtapositions that come about by creating a program from these interests. The obvious similarities of George Antheil, Vincent Perschetti and Julia Wolfe of a compositional order of energy and a certain type of urban-ness. Eve Beglarian's fascination with tone coloring and finding melody and harmony in what seems like noise is complimented by Arvo Pärt's chant-like Fratres .The whimsical music hall quality of Amy Kohn's music is touched with a wondrous quality yet can be tied with Antheil's popular song qualities. Jon Appleton, known for his innovative work and teaching in the electronic medium, is represented here with a new sonata that is reminiscent of Darius Milhaud; tonal, lush and evoking early swing music. I suppose all the program lacks is atonality... It certainly offers many different music voices GB:  One by now very well-established 20th/21st-century musical genre is that of the wacky-stylistic-juxtaposition piece. George Antheil helped to codify this genre in his 1923 Sonata No. 2 for Violin, Piano and Drum, with which we open the program. Phrases of ragtime, stride, sentimental popular song, and grandiose romanticism collide with each other, but are linked by use of the same motifs, and are satirically charged via sudden, unexpected dissonances. Just when you expect a final cadence in F Major, the piano enters with industrial music, with clusters and single notes in rhythmic patterns evoking the music of factory machines. But the piece ends with a soft, plaintive duet between the violin and drums. The juxtapositions within this piece set up the myriad contrasts for the rest of our program, taken from the sublime crazy quilt of American Music: the beautifully crafted, distinctive classicism and romanticism of Persichetti; the intensely spiritual music of Pärt, with its allusions to both ancient chant and to the Baroque Chaconne; the avant-pop of Amy Kohn… PNMN: Your work with the New York Art Ensemble seems to focus on giving composers the space to integrate all of their musical experiences into their creative output and emphasizes what you've termed the "emerging avant-pop." How are audiences and musicians responding? Do you see the gap that had opened up between composers and audiences closing somewhat? GB: Mercifully, the formerly much more territorial divide between “serious concert music” and adventurous, original music using popular styles as a fundamental ingredient has been closing more and more. One thing that is so inspirational about our New York Art Ensemble audience is the vast array of scenes that the audience members come from. Not too long ago, most programs featuring recently written instrumental concert music attracted audiences made up overwhelmingly of other composers. But I’ve had numerous conversations with NYAE audience members who told me that they had never been to a concert “like this” before (meaning consisting almost entirely of music written in the last two decades or so), and that they loved it, and couldn’t wait to hear more. There are also so many musicians like Mary and me that make no distinctions between one musical genre being worthier than another, and have no patience for the idea of certain musical genres not belonging together. Just over the past decade alone, so much great music has been written that ignores any concept of stylistic boundaries, and it’s a damn good thing. MR: NYAE ensemble is interested in making opportunity for music that is in a way considered "on the fringe". There was a time when anyone writing music that was tonal and or had popular music twinges or seemed "obvious", wasn't able to get their music played. It just wasn't considered interesting or "too personal". The general trend today is much more accepting of music with all of these qualities. Audiences and musicians are responding with a lot of enthusiasm. Both are experiencing a richer appreciation of the concert experience. It is not just the audience who is reaching out to understand, but musicians offering a more encompassing approach that helps the audience to engage. I would say that there is a mutual need that is getting addressed and I think it will continue for a while. PNMN: Being in an orchestra or a chamber ensemble is, at one level, sort of like being in a really fancy cover band. Have either of you ever considered taking a more Rock-oriented approach and writing your own music or collaborating with other performer/comopsers in the composition process? MR: I do this almost all of the time. My quartet ETHEL writes and performs it's own music and we are always talking with the composers who write for us. We want them to consider what we do and incorporate that into the piece they make for us. GB: Mary does this in ETHEL, and it’s been fantastic to see that the band members of this string quartet have been writing so much great original music themselves. I’ve done a lot more arranging and improvising than composing myself, and if I just could squeeze out more time, I’d love to write more original music . PNMN: More and more composers are integrating their popular music experiences into their work, and in the past their have been popular musicians who have integrated concert music into their work (the Beatles and Stockhausen come to mind, or Zappa's affinity for Varese). Are you encountering many current rock/pop-oriented musicians who are drawing inspiration from contemporary concert music? MR: Yes and no. Electronic advances are giving rock and contemporary composers the same sounds and beats and and... As to many... I can think of Björk, God Speed! You Black Emporer, Steve Vai and Joe Jackson and Todd Rungren maybe. GB: Heck yeah. I’d characterize the list of prominent types as pretty long now: Björk, Mike Patton, DJ Spooky, Final Fantasy, etc. etc. And it’s beyond just inspiration—there seem to be a growing number of musicians who become initially established in the pop world, but who entered it with the chops to write real concert music. Jonny Greenwood (from Radiohead), who has been writing more and more concert works and has been the BBC’s composer-in-residence, is a very good example, as is Final Fantasy. Amy Kohn, whose work Snow to Cement we are performing, has always primarily worked in the pop world as a singer-songwriter, but she studied composition at Oberlin. PNMN: As strong advocates for new music what advice would you give to young composers who are trying to establish themselves? GB: I think that anyone who has a truly original and compelling voice, and an interest in melding different styles, has a better chance of getting noticed today than, say, 20 or 30 years ago. (30 years ago, you had a better chance of making it if you could ally yourself with a particular established school. Thank God those days are over.) Don’t be afraid to exercise that voice, and to present your music in unconventional spaces and to audiences that might not normally consume “contemporary concert music.” There are also so many new outlets for dissemination, which demands pretty much the same level of creativity in marketing yourself as in creating the music itself (getting noticed in the massively populated realms of real and virtual competition!) MR: Find musicians to work with you. Form a band or group. If you don't play an instrument this is really important so that your music can get played and refined. Write music YOU want to write and write music that OTHERs want you to write. SAY SOMETHING with your music. Start simple. Don't be ashamed to write music that people can enjoy. HAVE FUN!

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