Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Catalyzing Compositions

Catalyzing Compositions

by Bret McCabe

This week’s Talea Ensemble residency concerts debut new works by Felipe Lara and five student composers.

Ten minutes into the Peabody faculty composer Felipe Lara’s Double Concerto, soloist Esperanza Spalding raises her left hand from her bass’ strings and places a vertical index finger in front of her lips to deliver an audible Shhhh sound. This shush gesture, familiar as a nonverbal request for silence, feels more like a disarming invitation to listen more acutely when Spalding performs it during the September 2021 world premiere of the piece by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Susanna Mälkki, which can be viewed through the orchestra’s on-demand online channel. Spalding’s delicate and crisp soprano vocalizations splash into the shush’s gentle sibilance, the orchestra behind her providing a strings and brass decrescendo that recalls the fizzy noise of a soda pop’s carbonation settling in a glass.

In separate pre-concert interviews with the composer and soloists included with the performance recording, Lara, flutist Claire Chase, and Spalding report that the creative collaboration that eventually led to Double Concerto, a co-commission by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, started with Chase and Spalding initially sending Lara some short recording notes of sounds they can make, and then in the fall of 2018 Chase visited Lara’s New Jersey home to experiment making sounds with her flutes. It’s a way for the composer to get a sense of his potential sound palette for a piece. “I love that process,” Lara says during an interview at his Peabody office. “I never really write music out of the blue. I really write for people—not in a sense to write to please them—more to try to grasp what I think they are, what I think they could be really, and then push them a little bit, too. I think in a great collaboration, neither the performer nor the composer leaves as the same person. That’s true for my Double Concerto and this new piece, too.”

Chambered Spirals, that new piece he refers to, receives its debut this week during the Peabody residency of the Talea Ensemble, the exceptional New York-based group that actively works with composers to introduce new works to the canon. Oscar Bettison, the chair of Peabody’s composition department, has also worked with Talea, who debuted his new La Arqueología del Neón in August in New York. With financial assistance from a 2020-21 Johns Hopkins Catalyst Award, Lara was able to bring Talea to Baltimore this week to perform both Chambered Spirals and Bettison’s La Arqueología del Neón alongside five new works by Peabody graduate student composers for a pair of concerts on October 28 and October 30.

“We’re known for establishing deep, long-term collaborations with composers,” says composer and percussionist James Baker, the Talea Ensemble conductor. “This is at least the third time around working closely with Felipe, and we in the group have a tremendous respect for him and vice versa. He’s in the rehearsal room, where he’s fielding questions, he’s making comments, and the piece is put together apace, translating what’s in his head into what we hear. It’s important to us that composers feel free to bring their material to us, that it will be accepted and also really well taken care of.”

Having students write for the group offers them both the practical experience of turning a score into sound and a coveted chance to work with an experienced professional ensemble with a sterling reputation for bringing new pieces to life. “We get together with this text, which is the score, but now let’s shape it,” Lara says of the rehearsal process. “If there’s something they can suggest that would make it better, I’m all in for that. It’s a real privilege to be in this community of incredible virtuoso performers, and I think we shape each other’s musical life. And for the students, having an established professional ensemble, who can literally play anything and are also incredibly nice people to work with, at their disposal pushed them to be pretty fearless about what they’re writing.”

Each student was assigned to write for different instrumental combinations of Talea musicians, from the full 13 members of the ensemble to smaller units. “We all have heard of them because they’re phenomenal,” says David Carlton Adams, whose On the Thin Ice of Modern Life is for cello, clarinet, and flute. He says he went up to New York to hear Talea perform Bettison’s La Arqueología del Neón in August and had the chance to chat with a few of the musicians.

“The ideas that I had going in needed to be basically taken up a few notches after I heard them play,” Adams continues while sharing a copy of his score, showing his notational clef for extended techniques, such as taking the head joint off the flute. Flutist “Barry Crawford took a few moments to demonstrate a few things for me, questions that I had asked him in email. It really shaped the piece. I already had some basic structural ideas and had sketched out a form, but the way that different kinds of sounds were realized was definitely influenced by actually hearing him make them.”

Jia Yi Lee was assigned to write for cello, clarinet, flute, percussion, piano, and violin, and traded a few emails with the group to better understand how to format her percussion score. “I am interested in sounds that are not commonly found in regular instruments, unconventional playing techniques,” she says, adding that her sift includes bowed Styrofoam block. She’s aiming to create the effect of digital filters in electronic music production, processes that only allow certain frequency ranges to pass through, with acoustic instruments.

“I was exploring a lot of sounds, including how to get as close to white noise from the instruments,” Lee continues. “And in the middle part of the piece, I did something that I’ve never really done in my work before, which is calculate mathematically certain harmonies, because I know that this ensemble is able to play microtones. I have heard from my teachers and other people who have worked with Talea that they are really amazing musicians, so I’m excited to hear how it turns out when they come down here—I mean, having your piece performed by a high-caliber ensemble is just a dream that many of us have.”

Julio Elvin Quiñones started thinking about his work by exploring other repertoire featuring the violin, piano, and percussion instrumentation he was assigned. He says that Peabody faculty composer Michael Hersch, his advisor, has encouraged him to engage with things outside of music, such as literature and poetry, when writing, and Quiñones has lately sought guiding inspiration from the poetry of Julia de Burgos, a famed poet and activist from his native Puerto Rico. He borrows the title of her Transmutación (Transmutation) for his new work.

“The poem is basically about how relationships change us and shape who we are,” Quiñones says, adding that while writing, “it really helped me to think of the relationship that the three instruments have with each other, the sort of commonalities and stark differences that the violin has with the piano, and what comes in when you start adding percussion. While I was writing the piece, I found out that disparate though they may seem, it’s a very symphonic combination, and it helped to think of these relationships between the instrumentation in the context of the poem.”

Graduate student composer Zhishu Chang says the thematic terrain of her Into the Red, for 13 musicians, is pretty straightforward: “What do you mean when you see red?” she says during a Zoom interview. The color red, she adds “brings a lot of emotions and associations for people, maybe some really fierce or explosive force. This piece has some bombastic and upheaval motion and also some contemplative inwardness to it and writing for Talea gave me a chance to really push myself to another zone for their technical prowess. I think the players gave me more power and courage to do what I want.”

Chang is echoing Lara’s sentiment about the ideal collaboration changing both musicians and composer a little bit. Through working with Talea ensemble, students are participating in the kind of structured experiment that accompanies creating new projects: going from nothing to something. The path forward is never the same twice, and the overall journey from page to sound can fork in many different places.

When I stopped by Lara’s office to chat with him, he was working on a new piece for the Parker Quartet. He says he returns to the string quartet every so often to feed his creativity and returning to that form now has him wondering what it means for him now. “Any time I start a piece I think, Well, what should I do?” he says. “I often don’t know, but I know what I should not do. And I was thinking, well, the last thing I want to do is some kind of sonata form.

“My immediate reaction was, Why not?” Lara continues. “If you’re rejecting it so hard, maybe that’s precisely why you should go there. I tell my students that we tend to gravitate toward the things that we’re good at and the things we like and tend to reject the things that we’re not so strong or comfortable with, but it should be really the opposite. We should enhance the things that we’re good at by working on the things that maybe need to be encountered or challenged. So I’m facing my fears of the form and trying to find interesting ways to shape this thing.”