Music for Three

Join CSB for our next event on April 28: Music for Three.

Vocalists Ellen Graham, Jackie Stevens, and Lauren McAllister will give the premiere of five duos and trios by composers with ties to Cincinnati: Ellen Ruth Harrison, Stephen Variames, Laura Harrison, Julia Seeholzer, and Rachel C. Walker.

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Poet Ruan Xuefang Discusses the Creation of “Song of Darkness”

Rachel C. Walker’s ashen windows will be premiered by vocalists Lauren McAllister and Jackie Stevens on April 28 as part of CSB’s Music for Three. Guandong poet Ruan Xuefang 阮雪芳 joins us for a guest blog post about the text for the work, her poem Song of Darkness 黑暗之歌.


阮雪芳, 《黑暗之歌》

孤立的夜晚
窗子灰了
肉体也熄灭
静静地躺着,海水,蝴蝶之心
我并不比身边的事物
更动荡 


微风
— 吹来成吨的黑暗

漆黑中
我是安静,无限沉沦的发光体
如此坚定,没有声音

Ruan Xuefang, Song of Darkness

Isolated night
ashen windows
Flesh, also extinguished
Lying still, seawater, heart of butterflies…
I am not more turbulent than the things around me

A light wind
— blows into one ton of darkness

In the dark
I am quiet, a luminous body sinking boundlessly
Resolute, without sound


Darkness is a kind of spirit. At some point, it opens the way to the universe as well as to self-knowledge.

At the time when this poem was written, I was facing a dilemma in life. The poem’s ashen windows / Flesh, also extinguished hints at the reality of my state then; similarly, seawater, heart of butterflies projects my sense of inner unease from another angle. This impulse to break through a predicament comes from the intrinsic strength present in all life. It is precisely because of this turbulence in the midst of silence, this tension which is formed against the darkness, that causes life to shine out like a celestial body.

For us, darkness is something which everyone must face. On another level, darkness breaks the natural perspective we hold of ourselves. It appears to be quiet and indifferent. In truth, it carries a multitude of richness: the faint, the flowing, the living inner. There flows out another kind of light; regardless of the spiritual quantity or field, or whether it is the beginning or final conclusion of life, the eternal elements have been prepared. My poetry tries to explore the subject from this angle: Human beings are absolutely isolated. So then, how to carry out the completion of life, and how to initiate the self-lighting of one’s own spirit?

Ruan Xuefang, April 2019.
Translations, Rachel C. Walker.

Composer Ellen Harrison on “Lost Time”

Composer Ellen Ruth Harrison‘s latest work, Lost Time, will be premiered by Jackie Stevens, Lauren McAllister, and Ellen Graham on our upcoming Soundbox concert Music for Three. Ellen shared some of the inspiration behind her work in a guest blog post, below. The premiere will take place at 7 PM on April 28 at the 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati (Ballroom).


The poet Norman Finkelstein once told me that he is a Romantic modernist. I believe this holds true for me as well, which may explain why I find his poetry so inspiring. When I read his work, I feel transported onto another plane or into another world. And in this other world I find the inspiration for my music. The rhythm of his poems, their haunting imagery, and their sense of mystery and magic spark my imagination; and musical ideas flow forth from me in response.

Lost Time sets segments from Finkelstein’s poem Track, a spellbinding work of great depth, wisdom, and imagination that explores the darkness surrounding us. I am fascinated by its evocative images and musical sensibility and have tried to reflect the magical, mysterious and melancholy quality of his poem in my work. The piece opens with:

“Among the paper trees
a figure glides and stops
Shimmers in a light
that is a sort of music
Turns toward
or away from home.”

Need I say more?  The mystery is captivating.

– Ellen Ruth Harrison, March 2019.

Interview with Composer Andy Villemez

Dr. Andy Villemez is a composer, educator, and performer based in Cincinnati, OH where he teaches piano and piano pedagogy at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). As a composer and arranger, his works have been praised for having their variety in style, affect, and level. His piece, CH, CO, US will be performed on our upcoming Solo Soundbox by pianist Kara Huber.


CSB: Could you tell us a little about your musical activities?

AV: For my day job, I serve as Assistant Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at CCM where I get to coach amazing pianists on how to be effective and memorable teachers. While “CH, CO, US” is an exception, most of my other composing is primarily for educational purposes. I love being able to write pieces that have lasting value and contribute to a musician’s growth. I’m currently working on writing a keyboard musicianship textbook that has quite a lot of original pieces, arrangements, and sequenced instruction. On the concert side, I also have a commission to write a fantasy for solo piano based on themes from West Side Story set to be premiered in the Spring of 2020.

CSB: When did you first start collaborating with Kara? How have your collaborations evolved over time?

AV: I’ve known Kara for almost ten years since we started our masters program at the same time. Our first collaboration resulted in an arrangement of The Sound of Music for solo piano, as well as a few preludes from a larger collection called Book of Odes. As I look back on all the collaborations, I think both of us have gotten a lot better at showcasing the strengths of the other. Kara has a good idea of what my thought process usually is and what aspects of the music I give priority to.

CSB: Describe the work being premiered on this concert. What was the compositional process for it like?

AV: As I would describe it, “CH, CO, US” is a three-part character piece that tells a simple story about feelings of safety and home while also evoking imagery of the sharp, younger peaks of the mountains in southwest Colorado. One of the guiding points I had while writing this was that in moments where we feel lost, we realize later in life there was a purpose to the journey. In the compositional process, I had to find something that sounded “lost” without also losing the audience. I also spent quite a bit time crafting the “mountain peak” harmonies that dominate the middle section.

CSB: How do you feel your background as a pianist influences your compositional thinking for the instrument?

AV: Although it’s not always possible, I try to foster musical ideas away from the piano as much as possible. My technique usually plays a hidden but significant role in the development of a piece. Often times that can be freeing, and other times it is restricting. No composer wants to be limited by their physical capabilities on an instrument. The balance of time I spend on or off the piano is still something I’m working on. However, my background in piano helped me conceptualize a lot of the sonorities before they were on paper. I had a good idea what was possible and what was risky.

CSB: What upcoming projects are on your radar?

AV:
I’ll be spending the summer writing and composing for a textbook I’m developing, and I have one other commission set to be premiered next spring.

CSB: How has your collaboration with Kara developed over the years?

AV: I’ve known Kara for almost ten years since we started our masters program at the same time. Our first collaboration resulted in an arrangement of The Sound of Music for solo piano, as well as a few preludes from a larger collection called Book of Odes. As I look back on all the collaborations, I think both of us have gotten a lot better at showcasing the strengths of the other. Kara has a good idea of what my thought process usually is and what aspects of the music I give priority to.

CSB: Describe the work being premiered on this concert. What was the compositional process for it like?

AV: As I would describe it, “CH, CO, US” is a three-part character piece that tells a simple story about feelings of safety and home while also evoking imagery of the sharp, younger peaks of the mountains in southwest Colorado. One of the guiding points I had while writing this was that in moments where we feel lost, we realize later in life there was a purpose to the journey. In the compositional process, I had to find something that sounded “lost” without also losing the audience. I also spent quite a bit time crafting the “mountain peak” harmonies that dominate the middle section.

CSB: How do you feel your background as a pianist influences your compositional thinking for the instrument?

AV: Although it’s not always possible, I try to foster musical ideas away from the piano as much as possible. My technique usually plays a hidden but significant role in the development of a piece. Often times that can be freeing, and other times it is restricting. No composer wants to be limited by their physical capabilities on an instrument. The balance of time I spend on or off the piano is still something I’m working on. However, my background in piano helped me conceptualize a lot of the sonorities before they were on paper. I had a good idea what was possible and what was risky.

CSB: What upcoming projects are on your radar?

AV:
I’ll be spending the summer writing and composing for a textbook I’m developing, and I have one other commission set to be premiered next spring.

Interview with Phillip Golub, Composer

Composer and Jazz pianist Phillip Golub writes playful music taking into account elements of real-time decision-making, melody, and improvisation. He is based between New York City and Boston. Catch the premiere of his latest work, Twenty-Five Short Piano Pieces, Part One, on our upcoming Solo Soundbox concert featuring pianist Kara Huber.


CSB: Could you tell us a little about your musical activities?

PG: Well, they are varied! I am a pianist and improviser, and I play in a number of different kinds of groups. I do things that one might sometimes call “free improvisation” or “experimental jazz” or “avant-garde jazz”, and other things that you might just call “jazz” without qualification, but I don’t usually think of there being such a divide. I really just play with my friends and usually the contexts in which we have met go on to inform what music we make. I am writing for those contexts but also writing for contexts such as this concert, where there is more of a clear distinction between composer and performer and I am more solely responsible for the vision of the piece, which is to be realized by a performer other than myself. This, from my perspective, is what constitutes the main difference between the historically African-American and historically Euro-American modes of music making that I am a part of.

CSB: Describe the work being premiered on this concert. What was the compositional process for it like?

PG: It is a set of seven short piano pieces. Each is repetitive and much of material and ideas are shared between them. They are meant to take the listener on a surprising yet coherent journey, with each movement still being able to stand on its own as well. They are conceived in a sort of song form; there is a kind of AABABA like structure (or similar) in some of them, until that begins to break down. They began as exercises in a certain kind of harmonic thinking pioneered/theorized by jazz composer/theorist George Russell called the Lydian Chromatic Concept. I wrote the seven pieces over the course of an entire year, first three, then another, then two more, then the last one (which is a mashup of the first six). It is quite a loose application of the “concept”, but the pieces could not exist without it. The pieces also all concern themselves multiple simultaneous lines and with an extreme variety of long and short notes. They are not in the slightest easy to play and I want to thank Kara for taking on the challenge!

CSB: How do you feel your background in jazz influences your compositional thinking?

PG: It’s a question I will be answering all my life both for other people and myself, but, frankly, I don’t have the clearest answer. I know things about music, about the world, about how people can listen, and so on, from my experiences with jazz that I cannot unlearn and that are an essential part of who I am as a listener and artist. My pieces often have some kind of improvisation, or at least on the spot musical decision making built into them, but not all of them do—these seven pieces don’t really feature that sort of thing. Ultimately, I think the best answer I can give, is that I know about a range of things that are musically possible that a lack of experience in jazz would make someone unaware of. It is an awareness of those things that may influence my compositional thinking.

CSB: What upcoming projects are on your radar?

PG: I’m writing a trio for flute/alto flute, violin/viola, and bassoon. It will explore clearly differentiated kinds of music which will also be separated in space; i.e. the performers will travel around the space to different “stations” to play the varying types of music. It will be an experiment in musical simultaneity, and something quite new for me. But it is also a listening challenge to the players, because there is a complex set of rules that govern when they can go where according to what other people are playing. They have to make many, many real-time choices and they also are asked to improvise in small spurts all over the score.

Photos from Parallels

A standing-room-only concert of all new works! Thank you to everyone who came out to support new music, and to Jill Jantzen, 4-Way, and Salon 21 for collaborating with us on this event. (The program will be repeated in Warsaw on March 17!)

CSB Co-Artistic Director & composer Laura Harrison, pictured after the concert with Jill Jantzen and 4-Way Quartet