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Interview with Conductor Mercedes Diaz

Maria Mercedes Diaz Garcia is a multi-faceted conductor whose vision of integrating the classics with new creative work highlights the inclusivity with which all eras and genres have always spoken to us. She is the founder and conductor for VIVE! new music ensemble. Join us on May 30 at Urban Artifact for a concert performed by VIVE! featuring works by Michael Lanci, Paul Poston, Julia Seeholzer, Rachel C. Walker, and others.


CSB: What is the background of VIVE!?

MMDG: I had had, a while ago, actually while living in Cincinnati,  the idea of creating a group to perform music from composers from all over the world, and create programs that would be inclusive of different traditions, aesthetics, etc. Also, although I am a conductor, I did not necessarily want to have only conducted pieces in the repertoire, but wanted to combine in some programs music without conductor and music with conductor. In this concert, for instance, we will have a few chamber pieces that do not need a conductor, combined with others that do need me. Another idea came from my feeling that there is a lot of misinformation about what contemporary music is, and I would like to be helpful in bringing the vast diversity of languages that are happening nowadays to the public.

This project as such materialized in 2015, while living in Bowling Green, and has been growing ever since. Recently we did an opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, a monodrama for soprano and live electronics composed in 2010, and last year we participated in the New Music Gathering with a piece by Amit Gilutz, an Israeli composer.

CSB: What initially drew you to performing new music, and when did this interest start?

MMDG: Every music has been new at some point. By closing off to new works we are shutting down the voices of our artists and society. Actually, against what many think, new works can touch people in ways that older works might not. The composers, artists, performers creating art now are living in this society and can talk about issues that are current and affect us all. Of course art can be universal too, and touch universal, timeless issues, and that is why we also want to keep the history, in the form of art, alive, but there should be a better balance, where history does not overshadow the present.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when my interest started. As a kid and teenager I used to attend new music festivals. I remember in particular one that was inspired by the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, organized by Spanish composer Manuel Seco de Arpe, but there were several others in cities around, and I traveled to see a few during those years. As an oboist I performed many contemporary works. I was lucky growing up to have some teachers who had a broad interest in all kinds of music and who organized many concerts of all sort of aesthetics.

CSB: How do you approach working with the ensemble on a newly composed piece?

MMDG: I would say the work with the ensemble depends very much on the characteristics of the new piece. I approach the study of the pieces the same way I would do with a Beethoven Symphony, except that the musical elements used are going probably be used differently. The way composers think of the flow of time can be fundamentally different from Beethoven, for instance as in some minimalist works, but in other compositions the concept of time might actually not be different at all from that in traditional works. Depending on what the study of the piece informs me about the aesthetic—the ideas about time, about texture, color, etc—and the specific technical challenges for group playing, we then have a place to start working on the pieces. Sometimes in rehearsal something new happens, one of the performers comes up with a different idea and plays something in a way completely different I had thought of, but it works, it is fine and a real contribution to our process, then we explore from there.

CSB: Could you tell us about your experience working with the composers on this program?

MMDG: The composers on this program all have their very personal language and wrote freely for us. They had a few limitations about the instrumentation to write for, for practical reasons—this concert in Cincinnati is part of a tour that will take us to Nashville and to Dallas, so we needed to keep it light and for instance they all had to write for small percussion instruments and no alto flute.

The piece by Rachel Walker for instance, was originally for a different instrumentation and we asked her to write for the instruments we have now. It is a very interesting piece with very soft sonorities, quite poetic. She has a background as well in Chinese instruments and you can sense that in her music.

The piece by Michael Lanci has a completely different background, taking inspiration from rock and roll, and is quite rhythmical and vibrant.

The work by Paul Poston is inspired by his trip to Spain and reflects on paintings by Picasso that he saw in Reina Sofia Museum, in Madrid.

We are very excited to bring out this program. All the pieces bring a very unique language and it creates a quite micro-cosmic landscape of the contemporary world. We even have a “classic” — one of the John Cage Number Pieces from the 1980’s.

CSB: What concerts and projects are on the horizon for you and the ensemble?

MMDG: We are still thinking about possibilities. We have performed not only contemporary works, but also some very good arrangements from old classics from the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, such as Das Lied von der Erde, the Rite of Spring, and I like the idea of combining works from different periods which draw inspiration from each other.

One idea I have is performing a piece by Messiaen along with a few of the composers that drew inspiration from his work, and try to discover what aspects they found inspiration in.

But I have been thinking for a while I would like to include works with a small choir…maybe by Scelsi…It is still up in the air…

Also, HIllary LaBonte, the soprano who sang the part of Emilie in the Saariaho opera, and I are interested in bringing the performance of the monodrama Emilie to other venues, and we are hoping that will happen during this coming season.

Interview with Composer Mark Saya

Dr. Mark Saya serves as Chair of the Department of Music and coordinates its music theory and composition programs. An active composer, his works have been performed in Canada, Germany, Japan, Poland, and throughout the United States. He studied composition at Indiana University South Bend and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Hear his piece Fiona’s Dance Card performed by Colleen Phelps at tonight’s Cincinnati Diaspora I concert at Urban Artifact.


CSB: What are you interested to explore in your music? 

MS: It is difficult to answer this succinctly. Given my love for words I am always interested in setting text, in both sung and spoken formats. Despite the vastness and variety of its literature I am determined to find fresh, meaningful ways to write for the piano. And, among many other things, I am very interested in making arrangements, transcriptions, and what I call hybrids, such as my recent operatic transcriptions that intertwine barcarolles by Offenbach and Chopin, and habaneras by Bizet and Debussy.

CSB: Could you share a little bit about your piece on this concert, Fiona’s Dance Card?

MS: Fiona’s Dance Card was commissioned by percussionist Colleen Phelps, a fellow CCM alum. Noting the great public interest in Fiona the baby hippo’s story, I imagined that the other animals in the Cincinnati Zoo must be just as fascinated, and because dancing hippos are a popular image, the idea of a dance card came to me quickly. The alliterative titles were the first step toward matching an animal with a particular type of dance. While I have written a few Waltzes, I had never composed a Tango or a Polka before, so it was about time, right? I had a lot of fun with these pieces.

CSB: How did you first start collaborating with Allen Otte and Percussion Group Cincinnati? Could you tell us about the projects you have worked on over the years? 

MS: My first connection with the Percussion Group Cincinnati came in 1979, when Allen Otte bravely took on The Murphy Sonata for solo vibraphone. A few years later, but while still a graduate student, I wrote From the Book of Imaginary Beings for all three players (Al, Jim Culley, and Jack Brennan at the time). Since leaving CCM I have written several more pieces for the trio, including Preludes Revisited, Bachanons, and more Imaginary Beings. I am extremely grateful to the Group for their patience and generosity in collaborating with me.

CSB: What upcoming projects are on your radar? 

MS: For many years I have toyed with the idea of writing a collection of piano pieces about boxing. It had languished as a “back-burner” project until recently when I met Andrew Yang, who, amazingly enough, is both an excellent concert pianist and serious amateur boxer! I have occasionally employed a stressful physicality in my work for percussion (the imaginary being Bahamut for example), and with Mr. Yang in mind, would like to explore this further in an athletic suite for piano.

Interview with Percussionist Allen Otte

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Percussionist and composer Allen Otte is the founder of Percussion Group Cincinnati and has taught at the University of Cincinnati. He has presented his own creative work in solo concerts and guest presentations throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. He will be performing music of William Defotis, Herbert Brun, and Rachel C. Walker, as well as his own compositions on our April 20 Cincinnati Diaspora concert in collaboration with Urban Artifact.


CSB: Could you tell us about your relationship with composers over the years? 

AO: I think the only three composers I’ve seriously played in these decades of my professional performance career with whom I have not met and discussed their music are Ives, Stravinsky and Bartok.  Everyone else has pretty much been or become a friend with whom I shared more than just the creation of new music, and that very much defines my idea of what it means to be a contributive member of one’s larger community, functioning in a creative input sort of way.  And though both with and without Percussion Group Cincinnati and its predecessor Blackearth I have had close and meaningful relationships with well established composers—Americans, Europeans, Asians (we really did intersect even with Cage—made a number of tours with him here and abroad)—mostly I’ve played the music of my college classmates, my teachers, my colleagues, people we’ve met in our travels, and “student” composers, many of them from CCM.

 CSB: What excites you most as a percussionist?

AO: What has been right about percussion for me in all of this is that it is the obvious realm for collaborative work—co-conspiracy, as my mentor Herbert Brun used to call it. Any composer will quickly admit that she or he surely knows less about the entire universe of percussion instruments— their incredible wealth and subtlety of timbre and touch, what to touch them with, and how—than any devoted percussionist will come to know in her or his years of engagement with all these beautiful objects; these artifacts of the entire history of humankind’s relationship to sound, from essential ceremonial religious totems to, delightfully, found objects of the junk yard, and absolutely anything you can think of in between. 

CSB: What is the background of this concert and of the pieces on this program?

 AO: And so this co-conspiracy of collaborative work: the composer with systems and structures and notions of what might not be said without her/his raising a voice, and the percussionist, with an exhaustive and imaginative knowledge of a particular and ever-expanding world of sounds. The context of the Cincinnati Diaspora I* concert is a small history of exactly such relationships.  Everyone represented here, current and former residents, has had some connection to me and my teaching over these decades, and five of the pieces are actually contributions to a really lovely little book of work which students organized as a commemorative collection upon my recent retirement from ccm; some of the pieces the composers themselves will play, others I will play. For instance, Mark Saya was a student at CCM back in the late 70’s, and is the first CCM student whose music I ever played, and I have never stopped playing his brilliant music—we’ve been friends ever since. And just one example of the resonance: how wonderful that it was then a student of mine who followed in those exact footsteps and asked Mark to make a marimba piece for her.
As to the inclusion of Herbert Brun on this otherwise all-Cincinnati-connection evening: It’s his centenary year, and as the composer/teacher who probably influenced me the most, this felt like a perfect opportunity to extend the connections which my students are so kindly making to me back to that previous generation of such connections—it really is an unbroken thread whose continuation into the future I have no doubts about. The evening closes with an excerpt from a current and on-going project which is again a collaboration with a former student-turned-colleague and dear friend.  John Lane and I began work together on the Innocents Project 10 years ago when he was a doctoral student at CCM. The piece on this concert is the newest addition – dedicated to and with some little quotation of Brun in this particular year.  Our collaborative composition is now about an hour in length – 16 individual theatrical pieces/tableaus for 2 percussionists, found objects, electronics and many texts – all on the subject of wrongful imprisonment and exoneration through post-conviction DNA evidence. There are chapters of the Innocents Project throughout the country and we have presented our performance piece in conjunction with a number of conferences, often meeting recent exonerees who had spent decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. It’s been a powerful experience.
Which brings me full cycle back to my first paragraph: the creation of new music which defines the idea of what it means to be a contributive member to one’s larger community, functioning in a creative-input sort of way — to raise one’s voice in the name of something other than oneself, and to do so in such a way where, without you and that particular perceived need of input, it would otherwise not be happening. Thus, how to be useful and contributive, and yet always faithful to the art about which one is passionate.

* The Sound Box Cincinnati Diaspora II concert comes on May 30thMercedes Diaz Garcia and VIVE! Ensemble from Bowling Green (with percussionist Allen Otte) will play a program of premieres created for a 3-concert tour by recent CCM graduates.

Interview with Composer Daniel Harrison

Dan Cincinnati-based composer Daniel Harrison writes music that is characterized by unique combinations of timbres, evocative colors, and formal cohesion. Hear his piece Under the Sun for solo tam-tam performed by Carlos Camacho on our April 20 Solo Soundbox percussion concert in collaboration with Urban Artifact.


CSB: Could you tell us a little about your work as a composer?

DH: At a “shoptalk” level my work lately has explored recursive and fractal forms, synthetic modes, timbral mapping, and physical spatialization as a formal element. At a more abstract level my work seeks to explore our relationship between the familiar and the uncanny. I am truly fortunate to say that almost all of my music has been written for my friends across the country who have challenged and encouraged me in our collaborations.

CSB: What is the background to your piece for this concert, Under the Sun?

DH: Carlos Camacho and I began meeting to discuss the possibility of me writing a solo for him in early 2017. I was incredibly intrigued when he proposed that I write a piece for solo tam-tam. While this wasn’t my first time composing for tam-tam, it was my first time composing something substantial for it alone. Throughout 2017 Carlos and I regularly meet to workshop the piece. This was an incredibly difficult yet rewarding project that expanded my approach to writing for percussion. I conceived the form of Under the Sun as a series of expanding variations on surface texture, the complex of overtones created by the sounding body, and natural decay.

CSB: What are some of the upcoming projects and performances on your radar?

DH: I have several upcoming premieres between April and May. My trio Always, We Are for flute (doubling piccolo), tuba (doubling euphonium), and piano will be premiered at CCM by Lizzy and Steve Darling on April 4th. On May 16th at the Garden Theater in Columbus Ohio the Columbus Ohio Discover Ensemble will be premiering my piece Pale Blue, Black Frame for flute, alto saxophone, violin, cello, and percussion. Later that same week on May 19th at CCM I will have three short pedagogic pieces premiered on the Creative Commissions for Young Performers premiere concert. My upcoming collaborations for 2018 will focus primarily on music written for solo instruments. Collaborators include harpist Joe Rebman, flutist Danielle Breisach, oboist Sara Renner, and clarinetist Jessica Pollack.

Interview with Percussionist/Composer Carlos Camacho

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Panamanian percussionist and composer Dr. Carlos Camacho is on the percussion faculty of the Ohio Wesleyan University and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music preparatory department. He will perform his own composition Interlude, as well as Daniel Harrison’s Under the Sun on our April 20 Solo Soundbox concert in collaboration with Urban Artifact.


CSB: Could you tell us a little about your work as a composer and performer?

CC: Through focus on chamber music for percussion, my music strongly alludes to Panamanian culture and expands the sonic possibilities or traditional sounds for percussion instruments. My piece, “Pi” for Vibraphone and Glassware won the Fisher Tull composition award at Sam Houston State University in 2011. I am a published composer by Cayambis Music Press.

CSB: What is the background to your piece for this concert, Interlude

CC: Interlude (after Rzewski) was written for Allen Otte in his retirement and inspired on Rzewski´s epic piece the Fall of the Empire, written also for Al Otte. Interlude (after Rzewski) is a piece for speaking percussionist with 4 turkish spoons with text derived from One Thousand and One Nights.

CSB: How have you seen the environment for new music in Cincinnati change throughout your time here?

CC: I am happy to see more and more events devoted to new music in Cincinnati. Thanks to Cincinnati Sound Box for supporting and promoting the works of Cincinnati composers.

CSB: What are some of the upcoming projects and performances on your radar?

CC: I have recently accepted a position at the University of Panama as professor of percussion. I am ready to start a new chapter of my life close to family and friends.

Interview with Composer Mara Helmuth

HelmuthMara Helmuth composes music often involving the computer, and creates multimedia and software for composition and improvisation. She is Professor of Composition at the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati. She holds a D.M.A. from Columbia University, and earlier degrees from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Her piece Water Birds for clarinet and electronics will be performed by Andrea Vos-Rochefort on our April 11 Solo Soundbox Concert at 21c Museum Hotel.


CSB: Could you tell us a little about your work as a composer?
MH: I am interested in sound, and music that springs from unique or innovative approaches to working with sound. Often this involves technology, and I’ve used programming to expand my range of possibilities for sounds and structures. I love collaborating with artists (and sometimes scientists), as something can be created that neither of us could have created alone. A focus of my work concerns environmental issues, and many pieces are created from natural sound.
CSB: What is the background to your piece for this concert, Water Birds?
MH: Rebecca Danard met with me some years ago when she was working on her doctorate in clarinet at CCM. She was interested in diving into electronic music, and we decided to create a piece together using sensors. Then there was a long-running collaboration between the computer music studio and the Computer Science department on wireless sensor networks and music. We used infra-red sensors to send data into my laptop that indicated her location on stage. Later, we stopped using the sensors and I performed the sound triggers instead, but the logic of the piece remained the same. We composed the piece together. She was responsible for most of the clarinet material, and an order of playing those sounds, plus her movement on stage. I programmed a MaxMSP patch to generate spectral delays based on buffers of material recorded live. We performed the piece at the Society of Electroacoustic Music in the US, the Deep Listening Conference 2014, and other festivals. Several other performers have played the piece, based on the original version in Beijing and the International Computer Music Conference in Slovenia. Andrea and I have created a new version of the piece, with a new strategy for sound initiation involving movement, and different sound materials.
CSB: How have you seen the environment for new music in Cincinnati change throughout your time here?
MH: I think there is more openness to and interest in new music overall in Cincinnati and elsewhere. While there have always been those who had strong interest in new music, you find new music popping up in many venues that might not have hosted it before.
CSB: What are some of the upcoming projects and performances on your radar?
MH: Several projects are in the works now. One is a collaboration with an architect from Austria who is currently teaching at DAAP at the University of Cincinnati, Christoph Klemmt. We are creating an installation, and also a virtual reality version of this work, Syreo. A project I’ve been involved with for a couple of years is Let Freedom Sing! an opera/musical theater project based on the book of the same name by author Vivian Kline. I am also working with CCM students on an Internet 2 performance will will present during the Network Music Conference at Stony Brook University April 19, at 9:00pm. I will be at Stony Brook with the laptop ensemble Synth Beats, and Zhixin Xu and others at CCM here will send and receive sound for an improvisation called “Endangered Sound.”