Composing our own (foreign) rituals | An interview with Diana Soh

Kupka's Piano is incredibly excited to be performing this coming Saturday night (September 2) at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. In addition to a sizeable new work by Australian composer Elliott Gyger, and our own Liam Flenady's composition braneworlds, we're particularly thrilled to be presenting Incantare : Take 2 by Singaporean composer Diana Soh. Hannah chatted with Diana a few days ago to ask her about the work and her life as a Singaporean composer living in Paris.

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Hannah Reardon-Smith: Hi Diana, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me! We're really looking forward to playing your piece at BIFEM, and would love to find out a bit more about it, but first: could you tell us a bit more about yourself? What's your back-story, and how have you got where you are today?

Diana Soh: I started learning the piano at age four and and singing in my early teens. Composing thus came very organically, because music was always a big part of my life I suppose. Also, all music students (at least in the school program that I was in) were required to do stylistic writing and a bit of composition, etc. One day we had a guest composer present some contemporary music and sounds and well, the rest is history…

HRS: You're currently based in Paris. What's it like for you there? Could you run us through a 'typical' day-in-the-life of Diana?

DS: Paris is a very vibrant city, I’m spoilt for choice here when it comes to concerts/shows/exhibitions, etc. And of course we eat well here! I quite like this city... I used to go to as many concerts and shows as I could, but these days it requires a bit more organisation with a toddler in tow. That being said, children's shows are actually very good also! 

For now, my typical day is a juggling act between mommy-duties and composing. I'm usually up by 7am and we have a good family breakfast to start the day and touch base. After which I take my daughter to daycare and then it's work work work till it's time to fetch my little one home. Sometimes I give choral workshops or composition workshops to children but I generally limit that to not more than once a week.  

HRS: Moving on to the piece, Incantare : Take 2 is sonically a rather pointillistic, percussive work. On stage it is very active, with all performers being required to move rapidly between sounding techniques. To me, it sounds as though each of the six miniatures that make up the work form their own 'constellation' of points, perhaps with part IV being something of an anomaly – a microscopic nebula of high pitched tones. Did you have any specific visualisations as you composed this work, words or images to represent in sounds?

DS: Sometimes when I'm watching live concert I like observing the body language of musicians. The little gestures like unconscious tapping of feet, twitches, eye contact, etc. provide a lot of information and contribute to the experience of the piece. (For me at least!). The breath of the musicians, some count with their teeth… it's interesting. 

Anyways, I thought why not use “that” as material to compose with. So I used some utterances, and tapping and sliding of feet as musical material. All these things that “ritualised” concert music deems as undesirable; the things we practise away can also be made into something worth listening to and observing. 

As for the pointillistic sound world, because the starting point itself was the sound of tapping, everything else sort of grew out of that. So there’s a lot to listen to in this piece but a lot to look at as well. 

While the piece is carefully choreographed, one can choose not to look at the musicians and to just take in the aural material and the piece would still work sonically. But because such sounds are so distinct, we hear that it points to live interaction and movement on stage. 

HRS: You mention ritual, and with a name like Incantare, there is an obvious reference to both ritual and recitation. Does this relate solely to the ritual of Western music performance or does it relate to other rituals or to the idea of ritual more broadly?

DS: Yes, of course. As I mentioned before, the impetus for this project is about taking all the undesirable stuff; things that you are not supposed to do, and using that as compositional material. All societies have some form of ritual, whether musical or religious or socio-cultural and they are important because they provide structural points or containers used to hold otherwise scattered details of life.

I find even daily rituals are rather interesting to observe… For functional purposes, rituals are really great. I like being rather ritualistic about my daily routine because its simply more efficient and productive. But in a concert setting, when everything is slightly coded and repetitive, we sometimes need to make second takes. I think we know what to expect only if we are steeped in that particular tradition, but how well do we really understand the significance of a foreign ritual? Or even our own? 

HRS: On the other hand, the work has a distinct sense of fun. Does this playfulness often come through in your music?

DS: I'm a 'the glass is always half full' kind of person so I think it does cut through in most of my music.

It's serious cultural work that we do, writing music, but I cannot help but infuse some of my music with positivity and "light" (as in lumière...) – it's part of who I am and I think there's a lot of pretentious suffering in a lot of contemporary music today. Yes, every artist must inhabit his or her wounds and some of my music does have less desirable "flavours" but, I mean, some music today can go into really unnecessarily dark places which I tend to filter out a little. But I am aware some people in the contemporary music world don't like that... because they think an artist must be complex and miserable. They confound the two. I think an artist needs only to be aware. 

HRS: Speaking of light, have you spent any time in Australia – the sun-burned country? What are your thoughts on hearing that your music is to be played here?

DS: Yes, my uncle and his family lives in Brisbane and I've spent some time visiting them. Great Beaches and BBQ! 

I'm really happy my music is played in Australia and that it has the chance to travel there when I can't. Honestly, I do not know the music scene in Australia that well but now I definitely will take time to at least google it! Hopefully I'll get the chance to visit and to work directly with Australian musicians in the near future.

HRS: And we'd love for you to visit! You're from Singapore, a remarkable cultural melting pot a mere skip and a jump from our southern continent. How do you feel Singaporean culture might (or might not) feed into your music today? Is there anything you especially miss about home?

DS: I've left Singapore for a while now, but I regularly return mostly for family visits. I think that growing up in Singapore made me extremely adaptable and flexible. It also made me very hungry for contemporary/experimental music because there was not much weird and wonderful stuff going on back when I was living there. And so, when my world opened up I just became very greedy and very excited about the freedom that such creation can have. Deprivation sometimes does help to propel one forward. I miss the food and my family very much. I also miss that I can walk around till late and not have to worry one bit about my personal safety. 

HRS: And finally, what's on high rotation for you at the moment? (What are you listening to, watching, reading, etc?)

DS: I just listened to some neoclassical Stravinsky. It has never been my cup of tea and I wanted to see if my taste has changed since… I am also catching up on season 7 of Game of Thrones and I re-watched Richard Linklater’s Before… series on my long flight from Paris to Singapore. It's so weird to watch his accidental trilogy and to watch how the characters age so naturally… It's like watching a video of friends! 

I’ve just finished reading a collection called Fairytales for the Disillusioned (a collection of short stories from the 'decadent' literary movement) but the highest rotation of all would be reading The Hungry Caterpillar and l’Ane Trotro Fait Dodo every night! =)

HRS: Sounds lovely! Check out Possum Magic if you want some great Australian children's literature ;) Anyway, thanks for chatting. We can't wait to perform your piece and we look forward to a future potential Australia visit!

Kupka's PianoComment
"Lurking in the text" | An interview with Helen Howard and Michael Futcher

In a few short days, Kupka’s Piano presents the Australian premiere performance of 'Words and Music', a radio play by Samuel Beckett set to music by Morton Feldman. For this special performance at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, hosted by the Queensland Music Festival, we are very excited to welcome award-winning actress Helen Howard and director Michael Futcher in a rare return to the stage. KP pianist Alex Raineri sits down for a chat with Helen and Michael in between rehearsals.  

Helen Howard

AR: Firstly, welcome! Thank you so much for joining us for this rather dark and mysterious, yet extraordinarily powerful work. To recreate the context of a radio play as best as possible, we’re performing this work out of sight behind a curtain. There’s also some extended song components. I imagine this is quite a bizarre project for you both?  

HH: I do love a challenge! To be out of sight, relying on just one’s voice for a subtle intention in a piece which defies instant interpretation…? Yes, that’s unusual. I will find being out of sight rather freeing, however. If an actor ever wonders “how am I seen” or becomes self-conscious, then he or she is in trouble! At least being screened removes that danger – I’m being tongue in cheek of course!

MF: Yes, it’s quite unusual to do a radio play in front of a live audience, in the dark, but I think it will be a fascinating experience for all. It will certainly make demands on the audience’s imagination and it will be interesting to hear how people interpret the work, having nothing more than sound to convey the themes and characters (notice I didn’t mention “meaning” as this can only be suggested in a Beckett production – never made explicit!).

AR: It’s also very exciting and rare for us to be collaborating with practitioners of other artforms. In relation to working with Beckett’s narrative (one that is albeit quite abstract), it has been fascinating for us to step outside of the conceptuality inherent in purely instrumental music into a space which is driven by dialogue that alludes to a more concrete meaning. This juxtaposition of ‘words’ and/versus ‘music’ is in itself a fundamental notion of what is explored in this work. How does this manifest for you both in this iteration of Beckett’s radio play with Morton Feldman’s setting of the musical score?  

HH: This collaboration across disciplines is exciting for us too – we have begun associations with Anna Goldsworthy and Karin Schaupp too. Music and words have long been old and addicted lovers – in this piece perhaps they are more like old enemies, or competitors! But that old association we all have with both elements allows for a natural connection to the meaning, as long as we listen with open ears. Feldman has been as articulate in the music as Beckett in the words; rather than being obscure, we are beginning to hear very clear, distilled intentions in the piece. There are technical requirements from words and music, but when we get past those we enter a shared world of the relationship, the dialogue going on between them.

AR: Despite the complexity of Words and Music, there are some fairly notable narrative turning points that serve as structural pillars within the broad arc of the work. Bookending the work we have a prelude and postlude. In-between, the themes of love, age, and face (alluding to a past lover) are discussed. For me, there’s a very nice clarity within these themes. Even if the listener misses some of the detail in the text, these thematic components bear a lovely resonance and lends a sense of continuity to the work. Michael, I am particularly interested in your thoughts as a director, whether this has any immediate parallels with Beckett’s other works? 

MF: Yes, definitely. Apart from the familiar bleakness, which runs as a tone throughout Beckett’s oeuvre, perhaps one of the closest parallels that comes to mind is with my favourite play of his, Krapp’s Last Tape, in which an old man looks back on the key moments of his life by listening to tapes he had made during his late twenties and thirties. All three of the themes that Croak proposes in Words and Music get explored in this wonderful play. In Krapp’s Last Tape, the old Krapp is obsessed with the memory of a sexual encounter on a punt, experienced many years ago, which takes on an almost metaphysical significance for him – a kind of “totem” moment which puts into shadow all other experiences he has recorded. In Words and Music, written a few years after Krapp, Beckett has played with a sparser, more enigmatic variation on this theme, where another old man, Croak, aided by Words and Music, similarly seems to relive a significant moment of sexual union (“the great white rise and fall of the breasts, spreading as they mount and then subsiding to their natural…aperture”) which, one suspects, has embedded itself in Croak’s psyche in an unending “loop” of pleasure and pain! The brilliant interweaving of the themes of age, time and love makes these two works definitely feel like companion pieces.

Michael Futcher

AR: Beckett was famously hesitant about what kind of music was set to accompany his works. Despite having collaborated with Morton Feldman on the opera Neither (1977), it’s nevertheless quite strange that that ten years later, Beckett consented to Feldman writing a score for Words and Music (1987) without any involvement whatsoever. Another oddity is the level of interpretative decision making left open to the performers, particularly in the interaction between the ensembles commenting and quasi-directing the stilted ‘aria’ which emerges within the age and face sections. Helen, I’m interested in your thoughts. How do you define the performers responsibility in making these kinds of interpretative decisions within the framework of a writer, and composer, who are usually extremely clear in their intentions? 

HH: If we take the work on face value, there are some instructions as to tone for the word actors playing Joe and Croak. For instance, one tone is “orotund”, another “cold”, and many within sentences “How much longer cooped up here, in the dark? (With loathing) With you!” – where is here? Why dark? Why confined? Why loathing? Why no sense of an ending to it? All those questions get the mind moving. What is interesting is the exploration amongst the clues we are given as to what inspired them, what lies beneath them, unsaid. As a young actor I’d have lost confidence in the search for meaning, to which I was so wedded then! But as a mature actor, I trust my instincts more, and no longer fight for an impossible “perfection” or certainty as to the writer’s intentions. As soon as you stop being concerned with the lack of clear instructions, you find them lurking in the text. The more familiar you become with the whole, the more the words seem to be connected to a story of sorts, or an experience. When I read Beckett I always get flashes of connection - he evokes sensations, or dream-like knowledge that you suspect we all feel intuitively, and which connect us in this human experience, reduced to an essence. It can be bleak, living. I think even the most optimistic, cheerful people recognise that. Beckett articulates it idiosyncratically, and I’m grateful for his assumption that artists will embrace what he gives them. As for the music – well, it seems Beckett trusted the composer to speak for “Music”, and leave Words and Music to slug it out. Oddly, Beckett’s “composing” in words is more like music to me – suggestive, rhythmic, sometimes exultant, sometimes a flatline – than most other writers. I love the growing partnership with the ensemble in finding out who’s leading whom and when, and why! Who’s winning, who’s losing – who’s above all that?!

AR: Ending on a different note, I’m sure readers would love to know what other projects you both have cooking at the moment?! 

HH: I’m looking forward to playing Mrs Sivan in Anna Goldsworthy’s dramatized memoir Piano Lessons – that’s in September and October down in Sydney, Newcastle and Port Fairy. I love that character – she’s a Russian, she’s an inspiring teacher, and she’s a vivid character to portray. My own teaching has been enriched by her influence since first I directed the piece, with our dear, much-missed Carol Burns in 2014. I was honoured to play the role next time the piece was revived in 2015, and to revisit it this year is wonderful. Carol and I agreed with Anna’s frequent exclamations of delight at the commonality in our art forms. I’m also deeply involved in a second draft, for Sam Strong at Queensland Theatre, of my own play – a dramatization of the last months of Jane Austen’s life, which encompasses an adaptation of her last, almost finished, novel, Persuasion. A quarter of the piece is my own original writing, and I’ll admit that setting it alongside Austen’s awe-inspiring prose is daunting. I hope audiences will see the play produced at QT before too long.

MF: I’m directing Helen in Piano Lessons, as well as being her dramaturg on Persuasion so we’re fortunate to be working alongside each other a lot at the moment, which we both enjoy very much. For our theatre company, Matrix Theatre, we’re also working as artists in residence for Clayfield College and producing a play called Over the Moon and Far Away, which goes on at the Roundhouse Theatre in August. Following that we both work with the 2nd Year Bachelor of Fine Arts Acting students at QUT, on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which is a wonderfully challenging piece. I also have a couple of projects in development.

Tickets are available here for concert 2 of the "Words Fail" series: the Australian premiere performance of Words and Music.

Kupka's PianoComment
"Some kind of a kaleidoscope" | An interview with Jessica Aszodi

The first Kupka's Piano performance for 2017 is rapidly approaching, on May 11th (yes, the Thursday night) at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts. We'll be featuring the spectacular vocals of Chicago-based soprano Jessica Aszodi in performance of works by Beat Furrer, Patricia Alessandrini, and Anton Webern, as well as a new piece by KP members Jodie Rottle and Hannah Reardon-Smith. Before Jessica hopped on a plane headed for Australia, Hannah managed to catch up with her for a quick skype about the upcoming concert.

Jessica Aszodi

HRS: Hi Jess, we’re really looking forward to concerting with you in a few short weeks’ time!

JA: I’m very excited to come and perform with you guys! I’ve known [KP pianist] Alex for a little while now, and have various links to your ensemble. I have been spending quite a bit of time in Brisbane over the last few years, but it will be the first time that I’ve performed in Brisbane off the campus of Griffith University. It’s timely, because I just graduated [with a Doctor of Musical Arts from the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University]!

HRS: Exactly! I think congratulations are in order on several counts, seeings as you are now Dr Jessica Aszodi, and you’re shortly to be launching your new LP in Sydney, and you’ve just had an article in New Music Box come out that I read only this morning.

JA: You know, it’s a strange thing when you spend a lot of time working on projects that require a long, quiet fermentation – the doctorate and the album took four and seven years respectively, and, you know, the article took a few months – but I had no control whatsoever on the fact that they were finalised within about 30 hours of one another! So it feels odd, because I’ve spent years working on all of these things and now they’re out in the world and I have to figure out what I’m doing with my life in the aftermath.

HRS: Yeah, amazing, also because it’s this kind of wrapping up feeling – the end of an era.

JA: Yes, so I’m excited to be doing some new projects like this one with Kupka’s, which is a different way of thinking than just lots and lots of writing. Because it’s lots and lots of notes! With new people! And building a new relationship, with new repertoire and a new audience.

HRS: The major piece in the concert that we’re going to be doing with you is Beat Furrer’s Aria for soprano and six instruments. I believe this is the first time that you’ve performed this particular piece?

JA: It is. I’ve sung a couple of pieces of Furrer’s before, one of which I believe – auf tönernen füssen – you’re going to hear performed by members of Kupka’s, and the other one is Invocation VI, which I worked on with Beat Furrer, and that was really useful for Aria, as it uses a lot of the same techniques. What took me months of hair-pulling-out when I first looked at them in Invocation, now make sense within his language, given that I’ve had a bit of time to digest it.

HRS: How would you describe that language, in Furrer's writing for the voice?

JA: I think that he breaks down the vocal performer into lots of small parts, and it’s as though he’s put the singing subject through some kind of a kaleidoscope. Most of the time the little wheel is turning but it’s turning really fast and the singer does not come into focus – you have a sense of a person in there but it’s these sort of shards of ideas, and flecks, and moments of breath, and phonemes that pop out. [In Aria] she’s never really intelligible, until – and this is very characteristic of Furrer – there are these sort of expressive break outs, where the singer addresses the audience in a more direct manner. He said himself that the piece is based on this movement towards revealing the voice, so in the beginning the singer is part of the ensemble and the ensemble is part of the singer, and they’re all living in this kaleidoscope together, circulating very very fast, with all of these breaths and sounds and phonemes, and then by the end the singer reveals herself, and together with the clarinettist walks away from the ensemble and the voice is left alone. Which makes sense, given the subject matter of the text: a goodbye letter, albeit an angry one, shouted through the window at an ex-lover by a woman going through a break-up.

HRS: And that original text is from, as I understand, a radio play, so in a way in this piece you’re giving a body to the voice. I don’t know if that’s something that you’ve thought about specifically in this piece, but given that you’ve done a lot of work on embodiment as a performer, as a vocalist, I wonder if you might share some thoughts on that?

JA: I think that Furrer, like some other European avant-garde composers of his generation and a little bit older, has a very careful approach to the way that he presents the subject and the body of the subject that is quite philosophical, and then deconstruct it. So in this piece a lot of that work has been done by the composer for me. I don’t think that I need to do very much, other than perform what’s on the page to the best of my ability, in order to convey the ideas that are present in it because he writes in this deconstruction of the body. In practicing it, I feel as if I’m constantly hyperventilating, but at the same time I’m instructed to be quiet and subdued. The cognitive dissonance of performing this very difficult but very quiet kind of vocality I think – if I can do it correctly – conveys the composers intentions without me needing to do anything too actively expressive.

HRS: Yeah, the sheer physicality of being there and going through these phonemes and the stuttering rhythmic material that he uses, before you can get the words out, before you can eventually reveal the voice, it already creates that for you. On that, the theme of Kupka’s concert series at the Judith Wright Centre this year is “Words Fail”. Given that this is taken from a radio play, which is just the sound, the words, and placed in this context to try to go further – do you think that the way that he’s set this text reveals something new about it?

JA: I think that his approach to timbre and his approach to texture, and to rhythm and metre, they do things that words can’t do in terms of their immediacy. The experiencing of it by the listener is very different to trying to follow a line of syllables that are supposed to make sense to us. I think it’s immediately apparent listening to this music that we are not expected to understand what’s going on in a logical sense, in an ordered sense, but we need to listen generously with our attention in order to make out these small patterns and these moments of expressivity to construct a constellation of meaning for ourselves that isn’t as obvious as words placed in an intelligible order may be.

HRS: You also contributed quite a bit of thought to program as a whole for this concert. We’re covering a lot of ground, from Webern’s Drei Lieder of 1934 to a brand new work.

JA: I think that there’s a nice line to be painted between Webern and his approach to poetry and his approach to texture and rhythm that is kind of a proto-influence to what we end up with in Furrer. And we nicely leap generationally across that by programming Patricia Alessandrini’s companion piece to the Webern, Wie bin ich froh, which uses the same text as the first song of Drei Lieder nach Gedichten von Hildegard Jone. I think it’s a nice journey through the twentieth century for the audience, to hear these different approaches to text and different ways of listening to the sound of text and the messier parts of the timbre of the voice as they relate to the meanings inside texts.

HRS: Before I let you go – you’re a successful Australian artist, and you do perform fairly regularly here in Australia, but you’re based in Chicago. Can you shed any light on the experience of being an Australian performer in America?

JA: I have to say, I don’t have an in-a-nutshell answer. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, especially with regards to current politics, both in Australia and in the US – it’s a strange thing to be a foreigner right now, anywhere in the world. I love that I can come back to Australia and that there is such a strong community that I get to work with over there. And I also love my community here in Chicago, so I feel not uncomplicated about being a foreigner in America right now.

You can find out more about Jess on her website, and don't forget to book tickets for "Words Fail" concert 1: Aria!