20 min read

What's past is prologue…

A fresh venture with a familiar name; an interview with David Lang and Quince Ensemble; and some final words about Richard Teitelbaum.
What's past is prologue…

Welcome (Back) to Night After Night

In October of 2005, I started my original Typepad blog, Night After Night (v.1), simply by stating that it was inevitable I would start a blog, given my incredible access to the live music scene in New York City and my lack of an outlet for reflecting on what I encountered, out loud, in a public forum. That access came as a privilege of serving as the classical music editor – and later as the music editor, period – for Time Out New York, which back then was a fat weekly guide to nearly everything worth doing. Previews were our beat; concert reviews weren’t part of the gig.

Somewhere along the way, Miranda Cuckson, a dazzling up-and-coming violinist and violist, had presented a concert at Weill Recital Hall with a tantalizing program, and I couldn’t get there. But at least I’d be able to read the reviews—only, there weren’t any. I was disappointed. I was incensed. And I took action. Inspired by two colleagues, Alex Ross and the late Marion Lignana Rosenberg, I leapt into blogging with reckless zeal.

Many things transpired because of that decision, not least a 2006 Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP. The next year, I was invited to join The New York Times as a freelance stringer, writing reviews and features. I held onto that gig, along with with my Time Out New York position, until 2014, when I became an assistant arts editor at the Boston Globe. By the fall of 2016 I was back in New York creating National Sawdust Log, a bold experiment in genuinely independent journalism and criticism housed within a performing-arts incubator. I soon was invited to contribute, first anonymously and then openly, to “Goings On About Town” in The New Yorker.

Last month, within a context of global crisis, National Sawdust Log ended. Work for The New Yorker continued at a drastically reduced scale; how could it be otherwise? Day after day we watched concerts and tours and festivals and livelihoods evaporate. The world outside our doors grew challenging and strange.

But music is being made still, in ways old and new and primal and futuristic. We can open our windows each evening and listen to clangorous peals of gratitude and honor—and we can open tabs in our browsers and hear musicians around the world playing in real time. New art forms are being invented, warranting documentation and critical consideration. (On April 24 alone I plan to “attend” the world-premiere performances of two internet operas: one by Kamala Sankaram with HERE Arts Center, and one by thingNY with the MATA Festival.)

So there’s work to be done – and, having been strongly impressed and emboldened by the examples of Joshua Minsoo Kim and Todd L. Burns and William Robin and Doug Shadle (and, in a very different mode, by my fierce former Boston Globe comrade Luke O’Neil) – I’ve determined that Substack is the platform from which I’ll be doing a lot of it. I’m excited about the prospect, and apprehensive about working without the kind of editor who would have told me by now that this preamble has run too long.

Today is my 54th birthday, and I’m delighted to introduce Night After Night (v.2). I hope that you’ll enjoy what you see in the weeks ahead. I have no shortage of ideas or plans, but I also very much encourage you to let me know what you’d like to see.

Shall we?

Interview: Quince Ensemble and David Lang

On Friday, April 24, Quince Ensemble, an extraordinary young new-music quartet comprising vocalists Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, Kayleigh Butcher, Liz Pearse, and Carrie Henneman Shaw, is set to release its fourth recording. The group’s beautiful, beguiling account of love fail, a 2012 work David Lang originally composed for the idiosyncratic, wildly popular group Anonymous 4 – whose example inspired Quince to form – is being issued by Innova Recordings, on CD and in digital form.

Normally we might expect to see a string of related tour dates that obviously are impossible now. Instead, Quince will celebrate its new album with a live online release party, on April 24 at 7:30pm EDT, with Lang featured as a guest of honor at 8pm.

Earlier this week, I discussed both the album and the celebration with everyone involved – the Quince members from their homes in Brooklyn, Omaha, St. Paul, and Winona, MN; and Lang in exile just outside of Houston – via Zoom conference. (The text was edited for length and clarity.)

Quince Ensemble (L-R: Kayleigh Butcher, Liz Pearse, Carrie Henneman Shaw, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett)
Photograph: Karjaka Studios

STEVE SMITH: Part of me wants to treat this interview like business as usual—but it's not business as usual right now, and maybe it's important to acknowledge that. I recently read a beautiful essay by Mary Kouyoumdjian, where she describes in detail how, out of self preservation, she's not pushing herself to compose right now. So I’m going to start simply by asking everyone assembled: How are you coping? What are you doing? How are you adapting to life under our present conditions?

KAYLEIGH BUTCHER: I read the article that Mary wrote, and really loved it. I've actually been creating quite a bit, but I've been creating in a non-musical way. I've been reading a book by Lynda Barry called Making Comics. I've never taken a visual art class – it's always been music all the time – so I'm taking this opportunity to learn how to draw, which I've never done before, and I'm going to start making my own comics.

CARRIE HENNEMAN SHAW: I've been super productive. I've been making all sorts of stuff that I've been thinking about for a long time. So honestly, I have to say I'm not coping with anything.

AMANDA DeBOER BARTLETT: I have a nine-month-old child, so I'm at her whim right now. She's surviving and thriving, just loving it, because I'm home all the time and I was always touring before. My husband used to travel a lot and he's not traveling now, so it's actually been a great family time.

LIZ PEARSE: I've been taking the time to try and figure out what I want to do on my own; so much of our time is scripted, and I've been teaching more than full time this year. I've been playing a lot of piano, trying to figure out new songs to sing and play. I took out my clarinet today for the first time in years… that was humiliating. Preparing the garden—I don't think any of the greenhouses are going to be open, so we had to start seedlings inside this year. I live in the middle of nowhere, with the big backyards, so we’re trying to figure out when it's going to stop snowing so we can plant stuff.

David, you're stuck far away from home. You're not only in this condition of social isolation, but you're literally removed from your normal circumstance.

DAVID LANG: I love New York, and I love being around everyone. I feel terrible that there are people in New York suffering and I'm not there with them, because I think that's one of the things that happens in New York which is amazing, like after September 11: the feeling that we're united, we're in this together, everyone's misery is shared. That's when New York really shines, so I feel bad to be not there. But I'm writing music every day. I’m working really hard.

During the rest of the year, I should have been on the road… I looked at my calendar, and I was not going to be home for more than two or three days at a time until the end of August. All of that travel time, to go and hear other music and work with people and have new experiences, I find really invigorating. But that stuff cuts out of the time that you need to think about your work, and the time you need to do your work.

David Lang
Photograph: Axel Dupeux

David, love fail has existed for quite a while now, and you've talked about it in the past. But for the sake of people who might be coming to it new, could you talk about how you decided to take the story of Tristan and Isolde, and then reorient it using Google Translate? Would you walk us through how you made the piece?

DL: It came because after little match girl passion, which was a sort of pseudo-medieval piece, a bunch of vocal ensembles that were involved with keeping medieval feeling alive got in touch with me. One was Anonymous 4, and they said, We really loved your piece, and can you write one of these for us? So because that was the avenue in – we're people who specialize in medieval music, and that's why we like you – it became interesting to me to think about the friction between old stories and who we are now.

So I thought, how do we deal with this? We're keeping alive this way of making music, and we kind of fetishize it and remember it and love it, and it becomes part of our modern sound. But we take it away from the stories that originally made that music possible, the courtly love stories and religious stories and all the sorts of things that made the music and the texts wedded together when both were fresh. So I thought, maybe I could think of a project that would deal with that.

I had read all these different versions of Tristan and Isolde, and I thought, maybe there's something there. So I went back and collected every different version of the Tristan story that I could find. Then I started thinking, well, it's not so interesting to tell this from the point of view of all the places where they agree. It's an oral tradition for each of them, basically, and they all have a different detail that is not in each other's versions. So I thought that rather than just tell the positive part of the story, I would tell the negative part of the story—the parts of the story that disagree.

And when I got to the disagreement of the stories, I was reminded me of those little details in the stories by Lydia Davis, which are these really painful love stories where people have a conversation, and it's a completely ordinary conversation that's hilarious and devastating at the same time. I wrote her and said, can I use some of your stories? And she said, sure.

So that's how it was assembled. It really was kind of like a problem to solve: how to be a modern person thinking about old things at the same time, which, as you know, is something I'm really interested in. And it's something that we as classical musicians, all six of us on this screen, that's something that we deal with: how are we modern people engaged in something that's been kept alive from the past. Sometimes we try to make believe that that's not our issue. But a lot of times I find it's really provocative to go straight to that, and see where it gets us.

In rereading details about the piece on your website, I noticed that one part of it was done first by The Crossing. Did love fail come to you in fits and starts? Did you make certain parts of it available to others beforehand, to sort of get it in your ear?

DL: It was all written as one piece for Anonymous 4. But there was one piece, this movement called "I live in pain," which, I realized, after I started writing this project, was where my first thought about this whole Tristan thing had come about—this idea of looking at old troubadour songs of love and trying to figure out how to update them, which is something that I've been interested in for a long time. I have work coming up in the future which is dealing with that, as well: this whole idea of what's universal and eternal about the things that we write about. So I realized, after I started working on the Tristan part of this, that I had already done this piece for The Crossing. And so I slipped it into the project without really telling anybody, until it was already too late.

Quince Ensemble (L-R: Kayleigh Butcher, Carrie Henneman Shaw, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, Liz Pearse)
Photograph: Karjaka Studios

When you scan the Quince website or read the group’s press kit, one cannot miss the Opera News quote wherein you are proclaimed "the Anonymous 4 of modern music." Naturally, that makes me wonder about the prospect of your taking on a piece that actually was made for Anonymous 4. What interested you in taking this piece on?

LP: Quince started singing together – Amanda, Kayleigh, and I, at least – in 2010, and the piece is from 2012. There wasn't a ton of modern repertoire for four treble singers. David had been the guest at Bowling Green in 2011 for the New Music Festival, where Kayleigh, Amanda, and I had all been in school. I noticed that this piece existed, and it was under exclusivity with Anonymous 4. I contacted [Red Poppy Music managing director] Michael McCurdy once I knew the exclusivity was up, and that Anonymous 4 was retiring as an ensemble, and asked if it would be possible to see the score.

We got the perusal score, and just loved the piece. It fit so well for us. It was one of those moments: "Ah, crap, we have to do this." But then it was like: Where are we going to perform this? How are we going to get a performance? Then the next spring, we'd been mentioning to some venues and producers that we were interested in it. Beth Morrison Projects contacted us, saying, "Hey, we've got a love fail request in Poland. You want to go this June—like, in three months?" And we said, "Uh, yes. Yes, we do."

So it was the busiest spring for all of us, who were living between Omaha, Kansas City, New York, and St. Paul. There was exactly one day we could meet with David to rehearse the piece, to get final approval, before we went to Poland: Easter Sunday, in New York. So we converged in New York on Easter Sunday in 2016. There were some struggles getting to David's apartment—which I think Carrie can share, maybe?

CHS: [conspicuous silence]

KB: It'll definitely be a part of our love fail online release party. We're going to pay homage to Carrie's predicament on that particular weekend.

ADB: Part of our origin story is that I was obsessed with Anonymous 4—I found their album at a Barnes & Noble in college, and became immediately obsessed. So when Opera News came out with that quote, I sort of passed out for a minute. One of the inspirations for starting Quince is that I loved the treble-voice sound of one on a part singing, or unison singing. I knew I was interested in contemporary music, so I wanted the ability for us to choose our own repertoire, choose our own destiny as an ensemble, and not have the presence of someone making those decisions for us.

DL: Another relationship, of course, is that Amanda had been at the Bang on a Can summer school before Bowling Green. I knew you, Amanda, and I met the rest of you. So when Beth came up with this gig, she said, well, Anonymous 4 is retired. Should I just turn the gig down? And I said, well, actually there's this group that wants to sing it, so I think we should give them a chance. To me, what was really exciting about it is that I had had been an Anonymous 4 fan for 20 years, too, but I got to them as their very last project. One of the things that was really exciting for me about working with you all was that you were clearly trying to organize yourself and become something that you have. That was really exciting for me, to sort of get from the people who were just winding down to the people who are winding up, which has a much different and much more satisfying energy.

Do you hear the piece differently now than you did when you first created it? Has hearing new performers do it taught you anything new about your own work?

DL: It's definitely become disassociated from the characters of the people I wrote it for. I was really careful when I wrote it: okay, which singer gets which solo. I talked to them all, and, you know, those singers are very full of personality. And not just vocal personality, but in their lives—they're all kind of characters. One of the things that I was wondering when it started getting done by other people was, am I going to miss that when I hear the solo songs? And actually, they turn out to be great proposals to singers to do whatever makes them feel like they are unique.

Collectively to Quince: Approaching this project as avid admirers of Anonymous 4, and knowing what they had done with the piece, did you set out specifically to do anything differently?

KB: Speaking personally, in the new-music scene people are afraid to record something multiple times, and that scares me. I think it's so important to have different interpretations of the same work, because artists also have the ability of interpreting it in various ways. That does not mean that any one is better or worse than any other ones, but it's important just to have variety. I didn't come into it thinking, okay, we've got to make it different than the Anonymous 4 recording, because we all discovered the piece by that recording. Obviously it's a gateway for a lot of people, and Anonymous 4 is so iconic and amazing. I really just wanted to interpret it how I wanted to interpret it, whether it was our solo movements, or solo instrumental movements, or as a quartet.

ADB: I'm curious about Carrie, though, because she is an early-music singer as well…you started working on the piece from that perspective.

CHS: One interesting difference between us and Anonymous 4 is that the vast majority of the music we do requires that all four of us be extremely individualistic sounds. Most of the composers that we work with know that Amanda can sing high Q-flat, and Liz will peel the paint off of the wall if you ask her. And I will do some crazy, acrobatic thing where it doesn't matter if I need a pitch reference, I can just get there, and Kayleigh will play the conch shell. [laughs]

Having been a part of groups that do medieval and renaissance music, one of the things that you're always trying to do is figure out how you bring everybody close together to be a mega-voice—one sound that is a composite of your four sounds, where you can't really tell who's doing what or when. Sometimes we get asked to do that, but it's not as common as with early-music groups.

So when we started working on this, I had to remind myself, okay, we're still us, and we still want to sound like us. We're four very different voices, and usually with early-music groups, when you're auditioning or selecting people for the group, you're trying to find people who contain little nuggets of each other's sound, so that when you start to sing together, it's as easy as possible to become that one mega voice. And we did not form that way. They have always have had voices that were completely different.

So Quince had to figure out, what do we do to our resonance to make ourselves just enough of a one voice to make the sounds that you need to make for a piece like this? Especially the long movements, where there is this churning, echoing set of melodies, it has to feel like a round room that is just echoing many versions of one person, and it's four people making that sound. It's a huge challenge for a group that has four completely different voices to adapt to a piece like this.

LP: David's scores are so beautiful, and so clearly laid out. The directions were there for us, and we had this advantage, very early on, of getting to work with him and ask him: hey, in terms of expression and phrasing, what do you want? He gave us ideas for where to go, where to restrain, where we didn't need to feel boxed in.

You’re putting this recording out into the world at a very difficult time. But might it also be, in some strange way, a fortuitous time? I've had people tell me that they're listening more closely and more deeply now than they ever had done before—partly because they simply have the time and isolation to do so. Are you at all concerned about issuing an album now? And hey, let’s also talk about that party.

DL: I can't speak to the party, although I always like a good party. But I do think that there are two things about the amount of content which is on the internet right now. People seem to be rushing to put out as much as they possibly can, and I know that everyone who has ever performed a solo piece of mine on a high school recital is now putting it up on YouTube, because everyone is hungry to let people know that they exist. One of the things which is so important for musicians is to share. That's why we do it. No one would put in all the incredible pain and hard work that you have to put in in order to shape yourself to music if you were just going to keep it for yourself. The only reason why you do this is because you have an idea about what your relationship is to other people, and you use this to communicate that.

So I think what you see in the world is this proliferation of people who are saying how intensely hungry they are for that connection. Even though it's an imperfect version of the live experience, and even though Zoom is an imperfect version of the sound experience too, I think people are so hungry for the connection – both performers and listeners – that we're willing to put up with all the challenges of all of this technology, in order to just remind ourselves that we are all here for each other. Right? So I think it's actually beautiful to put things out. I think it's beautiful to keep working. Eventually we will all be able to be together, and this is like everything that you put out as a promise of what we hope we will get when we see each other in person.

ADB: I was very anti-livestream concert. I was one of these negative "get off my lawn" types of people at the beginning. But then a group in Chicago called Experimental Sound Studio, every day they've been doing The Quarantine Concerts

Oh my god, yes. Amen.

ADB: …and they're mind blowingly amazing people. They asked me to do one, and so I did one, with Ross Karre and Katinka Kleijn and a couple of other people. And actually, it felt really good to perform and it was stressful to do it online.

When we were talking about whether we do the online version of this release or not, I think we all felt like we wanted to do something that felt special. We wanted to connect with each other. We all miss each other. We're like a little family. And we worked really hard on this, really poured our heart and souls into it. So if no one watches, and it's just us having a Zoom hang, it'll still feel special for us to do something.

We're trying to make it fun and be silly. We really celebrate our dorkiness. We're doing a coloring contest, and Extended Techniques Mad Libs, and Ask Us Anything. And we promise not to embarrass David, but he'll be there for an interview. We're trying to figure out what's the way that we do this that's not trying to replace a performance, but that's something else.

KB: I do feel like I'm listening more closely to things now. I remember as a kid, when CDs were still a thing [laughs], that when I would get a new CD, I would listen to it back to back, over and over and over again, and read the liner notes, and then do some research on it online. And I feel like I'm doing that again—like, the Fiona Apple album just came out, and Amanda and I were texting back and forth – "have you listened yet? Oh my God, it's so good, have you heard this track?" – and reading the liner notes, and reading all the Pitchfork interviews. And not just pop singers, but new-music stuff as well—I feel like I'm desperate for new material, and for people putting things out there.

So I don't know about our love fail… you know, again, it's not a performance, like Amanda said. But people need interactions right now, and I do, too. So maybe I'm doing this also part selfishly.

DL: And even if we don't get it, I think we need to know that we value it. Sometimes it's important just to say what it is that you miss about the world, when we were ignorant of all the things that we took for granted. Bang on a Can just put out a record of collaboration with Meredith Monk [Memory Game], and a lot of it is based on this project that she did a long time ago, called The Games. And that project is about after the world has blown up, and there are people on another planet, they're remembering all the things about Earth that they miss. There's one song where the text is just a list of all the things: Do you remember coffee? Do you remember football? It's just sort of a list of all the things that we took for granted. I feel like we're a little bit in that period now. So hopefully, we will get past it.

The new Quince Ensemble recording of love fail, by David Lang, will be issued by Innova Records on April 24; see innova.mu for details. Quince celebrates the release with an online event on April 24 at 7:30pm EDT; go to quince-ensemble.com/albumrelease to watch live.

Coda: Richard Teitelbaum remembered

Richard Teitelbaum at Le Poisson Rouge, June 18, 2010
Photograph: Peter Gannushkin/downtownmusic.net

Richard Teitelbaum, a pioneer in the field of live electronic-music performance, died of a stroke on April 9, and I had the privilege of writing his New York Times obituary. In general, writing obituaries is an incredible and singular challenge: you’re fighting against space limitations and time constraints, but you’re summarizing an entire life’s experience and achievements, and just want to get it all in. It was the third Times obituary I’d written recently, following remembrances of Bill Smith and Mike Longo.

On the whole I’m quite happy with the way this one turned out, for which I owe my editor, Peter Keepnews, a great deal of gratitude. Still, I had to omit some fascinating details. Teitelbaum’s brother, computer scientist Tim Teitelbaum, provided colorful glimpses of a musical household, in which Richard sang as his father played piano in selections from The Fireside Book of Folk Songs and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

I learned that, as a piano student, Teitelbaum had progressed rapidly from solo repertoire like “Für Elise” to standard concertos, in which his teacher, Edith Oppens (mother of Ursula Oppens), would play the orchestral accompaniment. And for a time, Teitelbaum sang in the Interracial Fellowship Chorus, a prominent community choir directed with distinction by Harold Aks, and reviewed regularly in The New York Times.

Finally, I requested a comment from Alvin Curran, Teitelbaum’s friend and colleague for more than half a decade in Musica Elettronica Viva. Curran complied eagerly, providing a moving essay from which I could extract only a portion. So here, in closing, is Curran’s complete tribute to Teitelbaum, published with permission.

In the MEV collective, which like the Rolling Stones shares 50-plus years, the unique character of Richard Teitelbaum’s spontaneous music was like cirrus clouds shifting to cumulus and back, at times almost not there, at other moments there – possibly in your face – then shifting evanescently away to quasi niente… leaving the listener to imagine the arrival of eternally serene days or a sudden devastating storm.

In preparing my answer, I grabbed a recent downloaded fragment from a MEV concert in Serralves Foundation, Porto, Portugal… Listening to this rich 16-minute selection of Richard, Frederic Rzewski and myself (the founding and ending trio of MEV ) I came to hear Richard’s music as the surrounding air of MEV’s music – his typical synthesizers, keyboards, and sampled sounds were as always painting with broad strokes of near subsonic bass tones to high glissing clusters or Stockhausenesque barbed-wire, to ancient wailing Ashkenazi Cantors to inscrutable unknown Asian vocalists that wrapped your brains in silken foam.

Richard, who seldom took the lead,  was the fundamental air around the music, surrounding it with knowledge, humor, occasional politically charged reminders, still never fearing to take over and wipe us all out with the whole history of electronic music, from our planet’s first lightning bolts to his own sonic walls of noise. While our aspiring musical philosophical styles in concert were distinct, Richard gave us the reliable mystical thread that bound us all.

Coming up next…

Cellist and composer Clarice Jensen discusses her second full-length album, The experience of repetition as death, and the inventive multimedia online showcase she’ll present in collaboration with The Kitchen on May 1.