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Gabrielle Herbst on her opera-in-progress “BODILESS”

Contemporaneous will perform an excerpt from Gabrielle Herbst’s opera in progress BODILESS this Friday in Brooklyn! Click here for more information on the show and read on for Gabi’s ideas on the piece.

“I used to feel guilty at night. I live in, I always used to live in two countries, the diurnal one and the continuous discontinuous very tempestuous nocturnal one. But I didn’t tell. I thought myself under false pretences in the one and in the other under false pretences differently, since I had but one visa for both. Furthermore I couldn’t have said which was the main, the primordial one, having two lives and two temporalities, which one was the legitimate or the other. I went to the one that was perhaps the other with the surreptitious joy that gives the soul wings on its way to love, to lovingness, even without going anywhere save to the depths. I have a rendezvous. What a delight to head off with high hopes to night’s court, without any knowledge of what may happen! Where shall I be taken tonight? Into which country? Into which country of countries?”

Hélène Cixous, Dream I Tell You

The inspiration and libretto for BODILESS came from French‐Algerian writer Hélène Cixous’ Dream I Tell You. She sees dreams as a way of processing extreme emotion we are prohibited to process publicly in our culture—pain, passion and ecstasy. I was interested in looking at the symbolic nature of dreams as overly emotive representations of everyday life and how that is similar to my understanding of opera—storytelling through symbols and archetypes.

I used this dichotomy borrowed from Cixous as my groundwork: “You know my love everything is false — Dream I tell you.”
“By the Beating of my heart which does not lie.”

I was thinking about fakery and deception versus sincerity and corporeality in the waking and dreaming world and how that too relates to my concept of an opera, a play, a show, a momentary pleasure of deception.

Through compositional structure and fluctuating rhythms I tried to replicate my own experience of conscious and unconscious states—at times blurry, unstable, shifting foundations surrounding “learned” overly sentimental gestures. This relationship of blatant romance and unstable groundwork resulting in the bombastic give and take of serenity and chaos mirrors the dramatic, unpredictable state of dreams.

There have been recent scientific studies speculating that at the moment of death there is a brief period of time where your mind is still active after your body has died. Religions like Tibetan Buddhism prepare for this liminal period through meditation over the course of a lifetime. Ultimately this piece became about being left alone in one’s own mind—the difficulty and fear of that state in our current overly stimulated culture dependent on consumption. This piece is an exploration into solitary dreams and unstable quiet—hence BODILESS imagining the state of mind when the body has been left behind.

— Gabrielle Herbst

To hear Gabrielle’s music, visit her SoundCloud page.

About our programming


At MATA Interval 6.3, a concert we’re sharing with the explosive C4 Choral Collective at the always hip Galapagos Art Space — a purple-lit water-filled venue that feels like a mix between a night in Bora Bora and a flight on Virgin America — Contemporaneous will be playing new music by Ryan Brown, Bryce Dessner, David Moore, and Wil Smith.

The question is: how did we come up with that list?

The process of programming new music is fundamentally different from that of programming old music. For the most part, the reason to program an old piece falls somewhere on the spectrum between “I’ve always wanted to play ‘insert-masterwork here” and “man, lots of people will show up if we play ‘insert-well-known-work-here.” There’s obviously some wiggle room in there, and some more out of the box thinking, such as “everyone knows ‘insert-famous composer-here’, but do they know his less talented distant relative?!” or “do they know his weirdly awful piece that he wrote as a joke?!”

There happens to be an extremely long list of very amazing and very well-known pieces that have already been written, and if that’s your territory, then finding a justification for which piece you choose to program might very well be the most difficult part of the concert. In the end, it usually comes down to those two sides of proprietary appropriation — “this is our Beethoven 7,” or “Beethoven 7 is what you want to pay to hear.”

Programming new music is not like that.

Chances are high that most people in the audience will never have heard any of the pieces that we’ll be performing. In most cases, most of the performers have never heard any of the pieces that they’ll be performing before we email them PDFs of their parts.

And that is so exciting. Programming new music is its own justification, its own idealistic utopian dream. And for all that perceived conceptualism, the programming of new music is a concrete method of bringing people together and making them feel good.

When you bring new music into the world, as performers and as audience — for listening too is part of the creation — you’re making an attempt at lining people up with just the stories, passions, and experiences that they need. Within new music is the expression of a time that is uniquely our own, the sonic wind patterns of our own lives. Who can deny that feeling of hearing the perfect piece of music for your moment in time, just the right song for a Sunday afternoon, or just the right 2 hour long oratorio for a long drive? New music is about chasing that connection, and finding that harmony between yourself and someone (or everyone) else. With Beethoven, the question is “how do I relate to the music of Beethoven?” With new music, the question is “how do we, this music and I, relate to everything else?”

And so when we decide that we’re going to play music by Ryan Brown, Bryce Dessner, David Moore, and Wil Smith, what we’re really saying is this:

We think you’re going to love this. We think you’re going to love this because we love this and because the people that wrote this love this. We think you’re going to love this because we love this, the people that wrote this love this, and you’re just not that different from us or from the people that wrote this.

Tune in next week for another blog post about why you might love each piece particularly!

—Dylan Mattingly, co-artistic director, Contemporaneous

Nietzsche on the music of now

from Aphorism 171, in Assorted Opinions and Maxims

Music as the late fruit of every culture. Of all the arts that grow up on a particular cultural soil under particular social and political conditions, music makes its appearance last, in the autumn and deliquescence of the culture to which it belongs: at a time when the first signs and harbingers of a new spring are as a rule already perceptible; sometimes, indeed, music resounds into a new and astonished world like the language of an age that has vanished and arrives too late. It was only in the art of the musicians of the Netherlands that the soul of the Christian Middle Ages found its full resonance: their tonal architecture is the posthumous but genuine and equal sister of the Gothic. It was only in the music of Handel that there sounded the best that the soul of Luther and his like contained, the mighty Jewish-heroic impulse that created the whole Reformation movement. It was only Mozart who gave forth the age of Louis the Fourteenth and the art of Racine and Claude Lorraine in ringing gold. It was only in the music of Beethoven and Rossini that the eighteenth century sang itself out: the century of enthusiasm, of shattered ideals and of fleeting happiness. So that a friend of delicate metaphors might say that all truly meaningful music is swan-song. - Music is thus not a universal language for all ages, as has so often been claimed for it, but accords precisely with a measure of time, warmth and sensibility that a quite distinct individual culture, limited as to area and duration, bears within it as an inner law.

Our next show in NYC and Bard!

Shut Your Eyes

Friday, November 30, 2012 at 6:30 pm
Chapel of the Holy Innocents, Bard College
Free and open to the public

Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Presented by Neighborhood Classics
P.S. 142 (100 Attorney Street, NYC) — F to Delancey Street or J, M, Z to Essex Street
Tickets $15 in support of P.S. 142 — PURCHASE HERE

Shut Your Eyes is an evening of powerful music that will send you sprawling along an emotional and kaleidoscopic voyage — a night of heightened senses brought about by the most visceral music of the present moment. Shut your eyes and Contemporaneous will provide the view.

A founding member of Contemporaneous, Boulder-based composer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Conor Brown’s music draws from Turkish and Balkan folk as well as American minimalism, to create a highly original and compelling musical voice of driving polyrhythms and concentric structures. His large-scale, multi-movement world premiere work Scrolls on this program is a wild, haunting, rock-infused, Anatolian folk-inspired work for four vocalists and ensemble that he wrote specifically for us.

Best known for his work as a guitarist with the indie-rock band The National, Bryce Dessner regularly writes for and plays on the new music scene as well. His recent work O Shut Your Eyes Against the Wind is a dreamscape of morphing textures and beautiful sonorities that takes its title and inspiration from an evocative poem by Black Mountain poet Larry Eigner.

Inspired by the rich sean-nós vocal tradition of his native Ireland, Donnacha Dennehy’s Grá agus Bás (trans: Love and Death) is a dramatic and intense epic for vocalist and just-intoned chamber ensemble. With an emotional palate ranging from timeless bliss to devastating terror, this is a uniquely powerful journey of ecstasy and destiny that makes an unforgettable impact.

Contemporaneous is thrilled to perform this show for Neighborhood Classics at New York’s P.S. 142, hosted by artistic directors Simone Dinnerstein and James Matheson! We are particularly excited to be going into this Lower East Side school in the week before our show to expose the kids to the music of our time and engage them in fun educational activities that we hope will hook them on new music early on! For more information on this great series, click here.

Conor Brown (b. 1988): Scrolls (2012) — world premiere, Contemporaneous commission
Bryce Dessner (b. 1976): O Shut Your Eyes Against the Wind (2010)
Donnacha Dennehy (b. 1970): Grás agus Bás (2007)

Judd Greenstein discusses Steve Reich’s “Tehillim”

Steve Reich has indeed had a major influence on me as a composer… The Hebrew has something to do with it, but much more, it’s the interlocking rhythms and modal harmonies, with a great attention to big chord changes as well as small-scale harmonic and contrapuntal details, that connect my work to his. I do love all those elements of Reich’s music, and I carry them over into mine. Reich loves to establish a pattern and then move chords underneath it, with the pattern remaining entirely, or almost entirely, static… [W]hen I think about that musical device, I think of it as coming, in part, from the hip hop that I listened to, and made, when I was growing up. How do you know when a hip hop beat is ready to go? When you want to leave it on loop, and never stop listening to it. Then it’s ready for things to move over it… I think of Reich’s repetitions in the same way. Even though there’s a certain pacing that’s optimal, in terms of when the harmonies or patterns shift, and even though the shifts themselves are usually the most magical moments of the pieces, there’s also a sense in which you don’t want the patterns to end, when they’re good. I strive for that in my music.

Of course, Steve Reich didn’t invent that idea. In fact, as he’d acknowledge, it was inspired by West African drumming that he played and studied. Go a step further and you can find specific texts that he studied, which contain transcriptions of drum patterns that form the basis for much of his work in the 1970s. Does this question remind anyone of anything? “Good composers borrow, great composers steal.” Given that nothing has ever really sounded like Steve Reich, it’s a great example of the good that comes when a brilliant composer blatantly steals from someone else, or in this case, another culture. I’m very, very glad that he had the guts to do that, because the “safe” version probably wouldn’t have created the opening for his own distinct voice to emerge.

For me, I don’t know if I point back to Reich as directly as people think, but I definitely count him as a huge influence, and he’s one of the composers that I listen to regularly. That’s a short list…

What’s remarkable about [Tehillim] is precisely that, like others in this late-70s/early-80s period in his career, it blows open the rigidity of his earlier works, which were built on the idea that discernible “process” had to be paramount over other formal concerns. What this means is that the musical elements in a given work tend to remain static, and when they change, the changes happen in only one or two elements at a time, and the changes are highly discernible. You’ll hear a note added to a pattern, and then that new pattern will repeat a lot until you get to know it, and then something else will get faster, and you’ll hear that until you’re familiar with it, and so on. What’s amazing about Reich’s seminal work Music for 18 Musicians is that even with these constraints, of highly-discernible, extremely transparent “process-oriented” music, he creates a large-scale form that’s rich and complex and not as linear as most process pieces tend to be (for obvious reasons). Tehillim…takes this to an entirely different level, where the process elements are subservient to the larger form — at least to my ears (I don’t know how he constructed the works). The musical form feels highly intentional, and built from the top down, not the bottom up.

One interesting thing to note here is that a number of “minimalist” composers made this shift, as they moved into the late 1970s and 1980s — Philip Glass, John Adams, and others all started writing bigger Symphonic works that placed less emphasis on transparency than the works of the early/mid-1970s, and certainly, then those of the 1960s. I’m not sure what was in the air, but that coming-together was a really wonderful time for music, and some of my favorite scores emerged from the period, including this one.

— Judd Greenstein

From an interview with Sam Bergman on the Minnesota Orchestra’s Inside the Classics blog.

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