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.

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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.”

Interview with Composer Danny Clay

Danny Clay is a composer and teaching artist from Ohio, currently based in San Francisco. His work is deeply rooted in curiosity, collaboration, and the sheer joy of making things. His projects often incorporate musical games, open forms, found objects, archival media, toy instruments, classrooms of elementary schoolers, graphic notation, digital errata, cross-disciplinary research, and the everything-in-between. His latest piece, five questions about home will be premiered by mezzo-soprano, Lauren McAllister on our April 7 Solo Soundbox concert at Rohs Street Café. 


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

DC: I like to make things that have some element of uncertainty about them built into the process — I love the idea that when I make something, I’m not entirely sure what the end result will be, perhaps even down to the moment of performance. I love the notion that we – the audience, the performer, and myself – can all be placed in a situation where we are discovering something in the same space, at the same time. This play-based approach to working has emerged in large part from working part-time as an elementary school teacher for the past five years.

CSB: What is the background to your piece for this concert, five questions about home?

DC: I put out an open call to people from all over the place to record themselves answering, sort of free-association-style, a few simple questions about their home. The text – in the form of actual recordings and singing by Lauren – is a collage of their answers. (I’m going to keep the questions a secret.) In the piece I also use a little wooden pump-organ that I am borrowing from a friend, something about it seems quite homey to me.

CSB: How have you seen the environment for new music in Cincinnati change? Do you see any similarities or connections in your current location?

DC: I haven’t been back to Cincinnati in about seven years, I’m sad to say, but I have such fond memories of the creative scene there. I remember it as a place where artistic and aesthetic risks could be taken in a warm and supportive community. I feel that here in San Francisco, too, and I can only imagine they are on similar wavelengths.

CSB: What have you been exploring in your recent works?

DC: More and more I want to make things WITH people – to use questions and inquiries about sound as a means of creating, I guess, “community building projects” of some kind. Creating spaces where voices other than my own can inhabit a space together – communicate, discover, coexist. That’s really exciting to me.

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

DC: The same night as CSB, in San Francisco, I’m doing an installation at an art gallery called “Turntable Drawings” with a friend of mine, printmaker Jon Fischer. Jon and I have made our own records (designed by him, with sounds by me engraved on them) – gallery visitors will be invited to play the records, and we will have a number of different artists playing and improvising with the various record sounds.

Bo Seo on “In Passing”

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Bo Seo is a writer and editor. He is Korean and Australian.

We asked Bo to share some thoughts on the text he wrote for a new work in collaboration with composer Rachel C. Walker, In passing. Come hear the premiere by Lauren McAllister and percussionist Carlos Camacho on April 7th at Rohs Street Café in Clifton as part of Solo Soundbox: Lauren McAllister, Mezzo-Soprano.


I got the idea for this piece on a slow train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella in Sri Lanka, on which the only escape from the heat of the carriage and its travellers were the windows. The street was at eye level, and I saw farmers, makers, builders, drivers and merchants tracking our progress along the tracks. On a few occasions, I found myself waving to them and saw them, barely seconds after, waving back. It felt like the most private of acts.

To see and to be seen in return, and to have this exchange confirmed into knowledge by physical gesture, is for us an essentially human want. In our time in China, the composer and I have seen the extraordinary growth of High-Speed Rail networks, or gāotiě (高铁), and with it, the retirement of old tracks in favor of those supporting greater speeds. It made us wonder what would happen to that gesture, the wave, and to the mind that reaches for it. And it made us think that passing has a familiar, if uneasy, interior.

– Bo Seo, March 2018

Interview with composer Mackenzie Jacob LaMont

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Mackenzie Jacob LaMont is a composer and percussionist who earned his DMA in composition from the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music. He is an active composer, performer, music educator, and owner/operator of a small music recording company. His latest piece, Snow, not ash will be premiered by clarinetist Andrea Vos-Rochefort on our April 11 Solo Soundbox Concert in collaboration with 21c Museum Hotel.


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

MJL: Since 2015, my works have mainly been divided into two categories: pieces that are essentially a fusion between minimalism and progressive rock, and pieces that are inspired by nature. The first category is great for abstract musical ideas, but can also be a vehicle for addressing various topics. There is a big difference between my twenty-minute, politically-charged wind ensemble piece, Not About Posies and my six-minute jam, Gristle, but if you take them apart they share a lot of the same musical DNA. My nature pieces are completely different, coming from a very emotional place. I did a bit of traveling around the U.S. from 2014-2017, and seeing the geographical changes from the East coast to Wyoming (sorry West-coasters, maybe soon) reawakened this deep appreciation I have for the natural world, as well as fears I have associated with climate change. Both ways of composing are very intuitive for me, and I’m starting to see it as a kind of left-brain/right-brain situation. There has been some cross-pollination in certain pieces as well.

CSB: What is the background to your piece for this concert, Snow, not ash?

MJL: Snow, not ash is a reaction to where I currently live. Our house, surrounded by steel plants and coke processing centers (coke is basically a form of coal for processing iron), is occasionally inundated with falling ash. While composing, I can sometimes see this ash floating down outside my window. In winter it is a relief to see falling snow instead of ash. Listeners can take the title as a symbol of hope, a poetic statement, or simply the situation in which the piece was composed. It definitely fits into my “nature” category.

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

MJL: In 2012, when I first came to Cincinnati, the only new music event I was aware of outside the University of Cincinnati was the MusicNOW festival. Since then, various organizations and venues other than the symphony have stood out as centers of new music. In those six years, social media has turned into even more of a marketing tool than it was, allowing very small organizations and even individual performers and composers to reach more and more people. While it still requires hard work, well-advertised new music events in Cincinnati always seem to draw a crowd.

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

MJL: The week after this Cincinnati Soundbox concert, I have a trio for alto saxophone, bass trombone, and accordion being premiered at Butler University in Indianapolis. I enjoy commissions for odd instrumentations, but this one might have the trickiest yet! I’m currently working on a few recording projects, and I’m pursuing a few commissions for the summer.

Interview with composer Ellen Ruth Harrison

EllenEllen Ruth Harrison is a composer who currently teaches as an Adjunct Instructor of Composition at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.  She is also chair of music theory and composition in CCM’s Preparatory Department. Her music has been acclaimed as “stunning” and “sophisticated”, with “contrasting moods and atmospheres”. Her piece Ein Hauch Um Nichts will be performed by clarinetist Andrea Vos-Rochefort on our April 11 Solo Soundbox Concert in collaboration with 21c Museum Hotel.


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

ERH: My music is essentially melodic, although color, texture and, increasingly, rhythm and meter also play an important role.  Extra-musical ideas often serve as a point of departure, whether through evocative language, visual arts, book reviews, even conversations and restaurant menus.  Whatever the source of inspiration is, it conjures up some sort of imagery that grabs me on a very elementary level.  This imagery might help me express a mood or atmosphere, or create some kind of character, such as a charlatan, a masked being, a Diva, a She-Devil.

CSB: What is the background to your piece for this concert, Ein Hauch um Nichts

ERH: I became interested in Rilke after hearing a wonderful setting of four of his sonnets by my friend Cindy Cox at Aspen.  I picked up a copy of his Sonnets to Orpheus and was very taken by the third sonnet in which he writes, “Song is being.  For the god, a simple matter.  But when do we exist? . . True singing is a different breath. A breath for nothing.  A wafting in the god.  A wind.”  I was particularly struck by the rhythm and sound of the line, “Ein Hauch um Nichts,” and thought it would be a fitting title for a clarinet solo that features the lyrical, singing quality of the instrument.

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

ERH: I moved to Cincinnati from Paris.  I don’t think it’s fair to compare the two cities since Paris is so much larger and at the time was the center of most of France’s new music.  Of course, there was much less going on here.  Regardless, I found people to be quite interested in contemporary music.  I remember that Ann Santen had a radio show once a week that featured new music.  In general though, most of the new music took place at CCM.  That has certainly changed now with the advent of concert: nova, All of the Above, and your group, Cincinnati Soundbox, among others.  It’s a very exciting scene now.  And I believe the CSO is performing contemporary music on 9 or 10 of its concerts next season!

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

ERH: All of the Above’s flutist, Nave Graham, is giving a recital of contemporary music at Xavier University on April 7.  She and Jackie Stevens are premiering a work of mine for soprano and flute, Between Magic and Possibility.  It’s a setting of fragments from Norman Finkelstein’s, Track.  He’s a professor of English at Xavier so I’m excited that the premiere will happen at the chapel there.  A couple of weeks later, the Oak Park Concert Chorale will give two performances of my choral work Music Is, a setting of a wonderful text by Joshua McGuire.  And in late May, Weston Gilbert will premier the violin version of Solitude.