Talking to Troy Herion about Devising Orchestral Music with ACO

If you think devising is causing a stir in the theater world, you should see what’s happening in orchestral music! The nebulously named field of “New Music” – opera, small ensemble and now orchestral music – has been exploding in NYC for the past five years, maybe more. There’s a longer story here about artists self-producing across genres and the potentials and pitfalls of multidisciplinary collaborations, but one project that caught my eye (and ear) is The American Composers Orchestra’s CoLABoratory: Playing It UNsafe program, culminating at Carnegie Hall on April 5, 2013.

A few months ago I met composer Troy Herion at a party and we immediately launched into an intense conversation on music and media. I had just sat through a slew of “new opera” productions with gratuitous video and mediocre libretti and was on a tear. I knew it wasn’t the composers’ fault but wasn’t sure where to start deconstructing the mess.

Troy told me about his work and, in particular, a new commission he was working on for ACO. Here’s the coolest part: CoLABoratory is like a research and development lab for new orchestral music. The usual model for commissioning new music is that orchestras set the parameters for composers – they’ll ask for a piece and suggest or even specify instrumentation, length, even mood!! Who knew? And we thought regional theater was bad! But ACO’s CoLABoratory inverts the situation so that the orchestra essentially becomes the guinea pig for the composer. That is really amazing and exciting and the process is made public. From November through April, ACO presented public workshop showings of the composers’ new ideas and experiments with full orchestra. On April 5 the resulting pieces will be performed at Carnegie Hall by ACO.

This year’s composers are a veritable who’s who of up and comers and already arrived: Du Yun, Troy Herion, Raymond J. Lustig, Judith Sainte Croix, and Dan Visconti. I’m looking forward to hearing (and seeing) the show and the composers’ experiments. They’re playing with a lot of things I’m seeing in dance and theater, but coming from a different place. For instance, Dan Visconti creates new instruments from obsolete analog technology such as Speak & Spell toys and vintage recording devices, which kind of reminds me of Radiohole. Judith Sainte Croix adds non-orchestral instruments like electric guitar, pre-Columbian flutes and a synthesizer to the traditional configuration, which is reminiscent of Wooster Group’s Hamlet and other devised and deconstructed classics. Raymond J. Lustig’s piece Latency Canons investigates the slight unpredictable delay in audio signal transmission through musicians playing via videoconferencing, with Dane Lam co-conducting a group of musicians in Manchester, England via Google Hangouts. That is kind of like, well, everybody that’s playing with networked performance and telepresence. And Du Yun’s new work Slow Portraits is an acoustic exploration of a “frozen point” of orchestral sound paired with super slow motion video by David Michalek.

While all the composers in the CoLABoratory are exploring visual media, the thingsthat interested me about Troy’s practice is that he’s working as both the composer and the filmmaker. He is attempting to compose in a way where the sounds and images do not have a clear hierarchical relationship. I asked him what, exactly, did he mean by that?

“This iteration of the idea of ‘Visual Music’ is basically that I’m doing it all – I’m conceiving of it, I’m filming and composing with sound and images simultaneously as I edit, trying to bring compositional rigor to how the sounds and images are combined. The goal is for the attention of the audience to be in flux between sounds and images. While the images are a component of the overall work, the overarching organizing principle is that of music in its most abstract meaning: rhythm and interval, harmony and dissonance.”

The composition that Herion will premiere at Carnegie Hall is called New York: A City Symphony and is inspired by a 1920’s film genre known as a City Symphony:

City Symphonies are motion pictures that capture the spirit and uniqueness of a city by assembling images of everyday life in that city. The classic City Symphony genre was a silent, black and white, avant-garde documentary that first appeared in the 1920s. As in a symphony, they have movements that vary in pace and intensity. These movies bombard our sight with images of a city (images that often are quite surrealistic) in order to capture its heartbeat and expose its soul. This style of film, usually made by experimental filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov and Walter Ruttmann, was a perfect marriage of the medium of filmmaking and the subject matter of cities, since both were products of a 19th century modernity that peaked in the 1920s.

The attraction to the City Symphony form was almost by default, Troy tells me.

“I’m filming NYC as it is, it is almost a documentary approach so I can’t control what I film absolutely. I have a general idea of what I’m looking for, so that if I want to capture subways or people moving I go to capture it – and then I have what I have. Then I come back to the studio, go over the footage and while I do that I have two programs open – one is music notation and one is video editing. I might start with a compositional idea – maybe I need something quick and loud, or a bell, or muted – and that may influence what I go to shoot and then what the real world gives me changes what I compose… I compose, then I edit, then I edit, and then I compose. I end up going back and forth with each one influencing the other.”

So how is this different than, say, John Williams or any composer writing soundtracks for movies?

“There are a few differences between this and mainstream film composing. The main difference is that I’m doing all of it. It’s very rare that director and composer is the same person. The second major difference is that I’m not making films with any motive other than music – I’m making musical films. When I’m editing the films there’s always an over-arching property –that’s the music itself. I’m controlling the context throughout and I consider that context as compositional rigor.

I think most composers can identify music that is made as a film score because … Let me put it this way: instrumental music is this strange thing where it is really using only one sense – and it takes a lot of attention and some training to learn how to pay attention to all that information with just your ears. Classical music is even stranger in that it creates a lot of sophisticated patterns in sound alone. It is probably only going to appeal to people who like to have all their information conveyed to them via sound. But most people use all their senses and when you throw images on top of these incredibly sophisticated patterns of sound, it can become sensorially overwhelming. So when I compose for both I don’t compose for just the sound, I compose for the visuals and some of the information comes from the sound, some from the visual and it is complementary when it goes together.”

Troy’s previous “visual music” project, “Baroque Suite” followed the formal structure of the traditional Baroque Suite and was a first attempt to employ a process where the images and sounds were conceived and realized simultaneously. That project used recorded music and was a collaboration with filmmaker Alex Tyson. So why go it alone this time?

“When I made ‘Baroque Suite’ a year and a half or two years ago the piece had some success but most of the people that were interested in it were in film, dance and theater – visual disciplines. As a composer who is intentionally and rigorously expanding his practice into visuals, I wanted the work to be seen as composition, for the music world to think of music in visual intervals instead of vice versa. So when ACO commissioned me to do an unsafe project for orchestra, I took up where I left off with ‘Baroque Suite’and to do something that fit more snugly with contemporary classical music. It was really important that I use a live ensemble. So here I’ve made the film and written the music, the film is projected and the conductor has a click track so everything is synchronized and it is all performed live.”

I’ve said this before, and I have to ask: why do it at all? Isn’t it enough to just listen to the music?

“That’s a fantastic question and I don’t take it lightly at all.

I prefer most music without visuals. I do not want to suggest that anyone should visualize Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. I much prefer listening to that laying on my back or whatever. When you go to an orchestral music concert there are already visuals – the men and women in tuxedos, the hall, the conductor, all that are your visuals and if you could control it, it might give you a more enjoyable experience.

There was a conductor named Carlos Kleiber who if you polled most living conductors they would say he was one of the greatest conductors of all time. He was known for being extremely expressive with his whole body. I love watching videos of him conducting Beethoven. There are other conductors who might be getting great sound out of the orchestra but I don’t want to watch them because the visual doesn’t go well with the sound. Sometimes when you have a performer with exaggerated gestures it can be distracting. But if they’re just right, if they’re sincere – its hard to say. Kleiber I appreciate on a formal level – his shapes … But he’s also one of my favorite dancers, one of the best I’ve ever seen, I very much consider him a dancer as much as a conductor.

Not all music goes with visuals. When I’m making visual music I’m not sure the music can stand on its own, I’m not offering a solution, it is an experiment, something I’m exploring. The music that comes out in consideration of the images is different than when it’s not. I like lots of other kinds of music, I compose lots of other kinds of music but when I do this… it is about composing in both forms simultaneously.

I think I can speak for a lot of composers when I say there is a shared feeling that when music comes into a multimedia context, whether it is theater, dance or film – music is mistreated. It is misinterpreted or its given short shrift. Friends will share stories that they’re collaborating on a project and someone will say “Oh, we can just take four bars out in the middle of that sequence” or something like that. The composer loses control and then they they feel that the work has lost its integrity. I’m sure choreographers, cinematographers and other artists sometimes feel this way in collaborations sometimes,  but this is something I absolutely hear a lot of composers say, whether they are emerging or experienced, and they’re a little afraid to let it out of their hands.”

Well, here’s to giving Power To The Composer! Check out this preview of New York: A City Symphony on Vimeo:

American Composers Orchestra presents
Orchestra Underground: coLABoratory: Playing It UNsafe
Friday, April 5, 2013, at 7:30pm
Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall (57th St.& 7th Ave., NYC).

For tickets and more info, visit the Carnegie Hall website.

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