Posts in Interview
Interview with Isaac Schankler

We welcome Isaac Schankler to the Aerocade Music roster!
Read more about Isaac

Isaac Schankler (Photo: Gabriel Harber)

Isaac Schankler (Photo: Gabriel Harber)

Meg Wilhoite previewed Isaac’s upcoming album Because Patterns and interviewed them to learn more about the album and their process.

In their aptly-named album Because Patterns, composer Isaac Schankler explores three approaches to creating and manipulating musical patterns, carrying out a full integration of electronic sonic environment, mathematical compositional procedure, and acoustic performance. The overall effect of the title track, “Because Patterns/Deep State,” is that of finespun electronic swells punctuated by the percussive sounds of the piano, performed by the Ray-Kallay Duo, who commissioned the piece. Incorporating a mathematical model called a cellular automaton, the musical patterns begin with a single seed and shift organically according to the rule assigned to it. As the title suggests, there is an element of Deep Listening in this piece—performed by double bassist Scott Worthington—as from minute 17:30 to 20:30 we settle into a sotto voce electronic hum that is present-only, with no sense of past or future. Subtly, quietly the piano returns, a distant echo from earlier in the piece, nestled deep within the electronic texture. 

The electronics and violin in “Mobile I” are interlaced by means of spectral analysis, as the electronic sounds are a reaction to violinist Sakura Tsai’s fragmented statements. The former keen and hum around the latter, creating the sense of a large, open structure in which the violinist is centrally situated. The final minutes of the piece shift to a more active texture, the electronics and violinist merging in polyrhythmic arpeggios. The final track, “Future Feelings,” performed by Nadia Shpachenko, features alternately swirling and languid piano figures overlaid with hissing static and Morse code-like blips panning between the ears. Later on in the piece, the electronics also provide occasional low, reverberant hums. While the piano hints at past styles of lush vibrations, the electronics pull the listener into the noise-filled, pulsating present.

Because Patterns  will be released on May 31, 2019.  Sign up for our mailing list to be notified when Because Patterns comes out.

Because Patterns will be released on May 31, 2019. Sign up for our mailing list to be notified when Because Patterns comes out.

Meg: Is Because Patterns a nod to Feldman’s Why Patterns

Isaac: It's a nod to the title more than the piece or Feldman's music. I always thought “Why Patterns?” was a strange kind of question, because really patterns justify themselves. We can't help but make sense of the world through patterns, through making connections between disparate things. That's one thing people and machines have in common too, and much of our lives is now mediated by patterns created by algorithms, for better or worse. So for a long time I’ve been interested in what happens when there’s too much or not enough information to truly discern a pattern. What happens when a person or machine starts seeing patterns that aren’t really there? So a lot of the piece Because Patterns/Deep State consists of gestures or motives that are moving either too quickly or too slowly to really get a handle on. So you have to make a decision about what's really important, and maybe in the end it's not the patterns? Maybe it's something else.

Meg: What program(s) do you use to make the electronic tracks? I'm particularly interested in the "ongoing spectral analysis" you mention for Mobile I. 

Isaac: I use a variety of things, but mostly Max/MSP for anything involving live electronics. The "ongoing spectral analysis" in Mobile I is basically a glorified pitch tracker that also detects harmonics, but what I liked about it for that piece is that it was a little unpredictable. It wasn't perfect, so sometimes you'd get the correct pitch, but other times you'd get another pitch that was related. So there were these microdeviations that you could use to create textures. If the pitch tracker worked perfectly the piece wouldn't be nearly as interesting. This is something I worry about actually, if the pitch tracker gets updated the piece might become obsolete. It’s also a tricky thing for the violinist to react to the electronics and remain on track, and I love the way Sakura Tsai plays it on the album, how it manages to feel improvisational and polished at the same time.

Meg: At what part of the compositional process do creating the electronics and writing the instrumental parts first meet? Do you generally start with one or the other, or do you develop the two strands concurrently?

Isaac: I wish it was more tidy, but often it's a kind of back and forth where the electronics will affect the instrumental material and vice versa, so sometimes the process takes a lot longer than I would like. Because Patterns was originally an acoustic prepared piano piece with plinky music box-like material that was composed with the help of some algorithms (specifically cellular automata). It was written for the Ray-Kallay Duo, and it demands a lot of precision and tight coordination from them. Deep State, which was written for Scott Worthington, is almost the opposite. It was originally a somewhat improvisatory piece with low bass drones being frozen and extended by electronics, and Scott provided a ton of valuable input that really shaped the piece. But while those pieces worked great live, they seemed strangely incomplete on a recording. We expect recorded music to saturate the frequency spectrum. Also the pieces seemed to be in dialogue with each other, working out some of the same kinds of ideas but at very different time scales. So I thought it would be fun to mash the pieces together, which made the mixing process vastly more complicated than I anticipated! I added a lot more electronic sounds after the fact, including sampled pianos that would frequently double the recorded pianos, bringing out different aspects of the sound like mechanical key noise, pedal resonance, things like that. For a while I had a lot of inner turmoil about whether or not I was allowed to do this, to ruin the real piano sound with "artificial" samples.

Meg: I'd love to hear more about your compositional process. For instance, in terms of the piano part, “Future Feelings” has a very Romantic vibe in places, particularly in terms of the figuration—how does music of the past inform your process? 

Isaac: That piece in particular is deliberately nostalgic, not just for Romantic era music but also for the time in my life when I was most engaged with that kind of music, i.e. an angsty teenager. At that time I wrote that piece my kid had just been born and it was really surreal to watch him react to music, to essentially discover music, and it brought up a lot of thoughts and feelings about the music that first really moved me. I was also thinking a lot about noise and the soothing effect noise has on babies, and I really wanted to make a quiet, soothing version of noise music. The first part of the piece is based around that, and the Romantic-inflected music gradually emerges from that texture. Nadia Shpachenko, who commissioned and premiered the piece, specializes in this kind of repertoire, and she really makes this part sound incredibly gorgeous. But I'm also suspicious of nostalgia, so there's a moment where that material cracks open, because in the end you can't really go back to that era. I guess it's fueled by a kind of hope and optimism that my kid, and by extension all people younger than me, will go beyond me in ways I can't even imagine. I want to see them break the patterns of the past.

Meg: Earlier you mentioned allowing yourself as a composer to double the pianos in the first track: Over the years as a composer, has there been anything you wish you could go back in time and tell your younger self?

Isaac: Oh geez, so many things! But I think most of all I wish I could tell my younger self to take the advice of my teachers and mentors with a grain of salt, and that it’s okay, even good, to go against their advice sometimes. I realize this is a slightly dangerous thing to say as a teacher myself. But I’ve found that a lot of composers, especially highly successful ones, have never really interrogated their own aesthetics and processes, and assume that they are universal ones. They then try and pass these biases on to students, instead of teaching students to listen to and develop their own instincts. I’m still trying to unlearn a lot of anxieties and hangups I internalized a long time ago, and it’s something that I hope the next generation of composers doesn’t have to deal with.

Meg Wilhoite (Photo: Katie Muffett)

Meg Wilhoite (Photo: Katie Muffett)

Meg Wilhoite is a writer, electronic musician, and former professional organist. For over a decade she blogged about the New York City new music scene, in addition to programming concerts and working with various collectives and ensembles. When she's not listening to and writing about new music she likes to program her beloved synthesizer.

Beauty in Black Artistry Blog Interviews Elizabeth A. Baker

The Beauty in Black Artistry blog on the Castle of our Skins website spoke with Elizabeth A. Baker about being a “New Renaissance Artist” and her influences. Read the interview here.

Castle of our Skins is a concert and educational series dedicated to celebrating Black artistry through music. Read more about the organization here.

Q & A with Nick Norton and Jonathan Morgan

Nick Norton & Jonathan Morgan's single Elegy II is out today! To celebrate, we are happy to share our little interview with composer Nick Norton and violist Jonathan Morgan.

Nick Norton (photo: Lindsey Best), Jonathan Morgan (photo: Star Foreman)

Nick Norton (photo: Lindsey Best), Jonathan Morgan (photo: Star Foreman)

How did the idea for Elegy II come about?

NN: Well, the circumstances are unfortunate. Jonathan and I were both studying at UCSB when the Isla Vista shootings occurred in 2014. Isla Vista, for those that don’t know, is where the large majority of UCSB undergrads live. Six students were killed, and the campus was deeply affected - some of my students were literally on their way to one of the restaurants that got shot up when it happened.

Anyway, the music department decided to put on a memorial concert, and I wrote the piece for that. It was a kind of hard choice - the families of some of the victims were there, and I felt a major sort of “who am I to present something here?” After a lot of talks with friends about it - especially Marc Evans and my teacher, Joel Feigin - I became comfortable enough to say this isn’t telling anyone how to feel, but if music is the way I express and experience things and interact with the world, then I’d almost be doing a disservice not to write something. I was having very strong feelings, after all, and this is the exact thing we train for as composers - writing music that might matter.

I still feel slightly weird releasing a single and music video reacting to a school shooting, though. If people were to accuse us of trying to get notice off of a tragedy, I’d understand that. Hell, I worry about that view myself. But Jonathan loved the piece and plays it beautifully, and he and others really thought that people might take some comfort hearing it. It’s been performed a couple of times since that first concert, and someone invariably comes up and says “thank you for writing that.” So, okay. If it does that for some listeners, I am very happy to have it out in the world.

Did you two work together before this project? Do you have other projects coming up?

JM: Yes, we worked together in 2013 when Nick wrote a piece for my group, the Now Hear Ensemble. I'm a huge fan of Nick and his music, so I hope to perform more of it in the future. I think we are both exploring some promising ways to make that happen, so we'll keep you posted!

NN: Ditto! I loved Jonathan’s playing from the first time I heard it. When we met he wasn’t nearly as into new music as he is now (read: he is now very very into new music), but his tone and interpretations and stage presence on more traditional rep blew me away. It’s been such a joy to watch him explore, and seriously, he kills it. Plus we’re close friends and all, so I can’t imagine that this will be the last time we do something together.

What was the inspiration for the video and whose idea was it?

JM: Initially I was the one who pushed for a video of the piece, because I think engaging more senses of an audience can increase the message of hope around which Nick has crafted his music. Our friend Gaby Goldberg runs a boutique film, graphic design, and videography/animation studio, and was gracious enough to work with us on this project. She sent us a video of violinist Charlie Siem (whom I adore) that she really liked, as a starting point for the video.

NN: I’d only add that we were adamant about keeping it simple. It’s probably worth noting that the video idea came before deciding to release the audio as a single. Nick Tipp’s mix of our extremely basic recording setup for the video was so good, though, that we couldn’t not release it too.

What's your big project for 2017? (Individually or together)

JM: my individual projects include a recital tour of California, performing music by several composers I have worked closely with who have written pieces for me, many of which are responses to political and social struggles of our time - Norton's Elegy II counted among them. I'd like to share what I love with the LGBT community in California and beyond, so if you are part of your local LGTB center, you'll be getting a call from me! I'm also teaming up with other musicians to perform retrospective concerts of Clarence Barlow's music in Fullerton, CA, Santa Barbara, CA, and at LA's REDCAT in late January, late February, and early April. As a member of the Now Hear Ensemble, I will be part of collaborations with composition students from UC Irvine who are writing works for us. Now Hear Ensemble will also produce concerts inspired by mirrors, for which we have commissioned works from Dan VanHassel and Florent Ghys.

NN: My big project is to have a big project, ha. I keep writing 4 to 6 minute pieces for chamber ensemble or piano. I don’t want to get comfortable, and I find larger scale pieces very challenging in a way that I enjoy. I suppose the two most specific things on my mind are to turn my piece Mirror Smasher, which I wrote for HOCKET, from a 9 minute thing into a 30 minute thing, and to finish my band Honest Iago’s record, which is always slow because we live in multiple cities. I’m also finishing up a chamber arrangement of my teacher Joel Feigin’s opera, Twelfth Night. There are always more ideas, though. I’ve always wanted to write a piano concerto. I have a couple of pianist friends who said they would do it, so we are looking for an opportunity for that. I’ve also got a one-act opera plot and a librettist, but it’s too early to talk about that.

Nick, you are a man of many trades and skills. Your bio says that you "enjoy craft beer" but isn't that a bit of an understatement? Please give us a short pitch for Barly.

NN: Gladly! Barly is an app some friends and I built to recommend craft beer to people. It’ll also show you what is on tap at bars or restaurants near you. The thing the separates it from other beer apps is that you don’t have to know anything about beer to use it - it asks what flavors you like in general terms, like “sweet” or “bitter” or “sour” and then recommends things the same way Netflix does - red stars for how much it thinks you’ll like a beer, yellow stars you set that are taken into account for future recommendations. We particularly think novices to the beer world like it, because if you search for ratings on a site for connoisseurs, crazy hoppy beers are going to be rated highest, and newbies tend not to like those. Getting someone from “I hate beer” or “Bud Light is good” to “I didn’t know beer could taste like cherry wine” or “White Rascal is way better than Bud Light” is way more exciting to me than helping a beer expert find Pliny The Younger. But we do that too.

I think that excitement about introducing people to beer they’ll love comes from the same place my excitement about music comes from. I love playing tour guide, and my favorite experience in life is probably when I show someone something - almost anything - and they say “oh, I didn’t know about that” and get into it. It’s why I do my best to introduce my more classically-minded friends to interesting rock and vice versa.

Jonathan, what are some of your hobbies? What kind of activities would you seek out if all your musical instruments were in the shop for a couple weeks?

JM: Good Friends, good food, and good beer are my salves. By nature, I'm a bit of a brooding loner, so I have to remind myself that I am happier when I am social. I also love being outdoors with my dog Eve, and binging on great science fiction and fact. I'd love to travel more, and hope to be in a financial situation to do so soon - yes, I take donations! ;-)

Do you either of you have a cool/funny story to tell about the other?

JM: Nick is a super cool badass who makes me laugh. I'm lucky to enjoy his friendship.

NN: Same back at you, and I’d add that while Jonathan often calls himself a curmudgeon, he is one of the warmest, sweetest, and most earnest people I’ve ever met. I have no idea how he responds to texts with contextually appropriate drag queen reaction gifs so quickly. He also looks ridiculously hot in shiny gold leggings, and I’m straight.