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Composer Rick Baitz at the rehearsal for the INTO LIGHT release concert.

Rick Baitz Releases New Album, Into Light

Faculty member Rick Baitz’s most recent works have been immortalized by Innova Recordings and released on the new album Into Light. The three pieces presented span various stages of his career. Together, they represent a return to concert music for the seasoned media composer.

Baitz’s work tends to explore musical movement in time. He speaks at length about the ways that music can show that movement, and the way it transports the listener. Given his background, he’s especially interested in non-Western ways of approaching that motion. He spent part of his youth in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Durban, South Africa, among others. His wide variety of experiences instilled in him a unique sense of how to approach musical construction. His singular perspective shows in the way he deliberately eschews harmonic motion at times in favor of texture, rhythm, and musical gesture. These latest works represent some of his most comprehensive takes on his longstanding fascinations.

“Chthonic Dances” is a string quartet composed in 2011 for Mary Rowell, and revised in 2016. It features Joyce Hammann and Mary Rowell on violin, Beth Meyers on viola, and Ashley Bathgate on cello. The piece exalts his experience with the healing, cathartic power of dance across cultures around the planet. It veers between shimmering textures and bright, folksy dances. “The healing energy of dance is a constant wherever I’ve lived,” says Baitz. “From South African township music to Brazilian samba, the juxtaposition of dance and story-telling creates catharsis- and if you’re down, the act of dancing your pain is a force in transcending it. So the dance of chthonic spirits brings out their complement, the spirits of light.”

Image may contain: 1 person, on stage

“Hall of Mirrors” was a commission for the Juilliard School’s “Beyond the Machine” concert series, and premiered in 2015. This recording features percussionists Brian Shank, Christrian Lundqvist, Jeremy Smith, and Brian Shankar Adler. Baitz himself accompanies on electronics via a laptop computer. The piece features percussion from around the world, including mbira, caxixi, talking drum, surdo, dumbek, and tabla, to spin a unique web of weaving, interlocking rhythms.

“Into Light” is a new recording of an earlier work, from before Baitz’s film scoring years. Baitz calls it both a dance and a meditation. It features Ken Thomson on clarinet, Jessica Meyer on viola, and Stephen Gosling on piano.

Rick has a long history of bringing phenomenal New York session musicians to the VCFA program. During his tenure as faculty chair in the early years of the Music Composition MFA, establishing strong relationships with virtuosic talent was one of his most enduring achievements. In turn, he has collaborated with several people that he has met through the school. Baitz’s collaborative projects are a perfect example of VCFA’s spirit of cooperation and artistic spark.

A concert and release party on Thursday, September 13th celebrated the album. Tribeca New Music hosted the concert, which was a virtuosic showcase for the composer and the performers alike.

You can find Into Light at Amazon on CD or digitally. You can also find it at Apple Music or iTunes. If you’re feeling more direct, you can always grab it straight from Innova.

This year has been an exciting one for Baitz. In May, BMI awarded him their Classic Contribution Award. The commendation recognized his creation and 10-year leadership of BMI’s “Composing for the Screen” workshop. Previous honorees have included the likes of Mike Post and David Newman.

Diving Into Everything Part 2: An Interview with Carla Kihlstedt

by Cameron Finch

Our interview with MFA in Music Composition faculty member Carla Kihlstedt about her latest  multimedia work, Black Inscription, continues.

Where did the title Black Inscription come from?

I credit two people for the inspiration of Black Inscription: Natalia Molchanova and Rachel Carson. Rachel Carson made her mark much like Natalia, by not only being a profound observer of the natural world and humans’ impact on it, but by having the ability to put those multifaceted observations into words so moving and accessible to all. It was both of these women ability to communicate that solidified their influence on their communities and on our culture at large.

When I read the term ‘black inscription’ in Carson’s description of the universal line of microplants that lives everywhere the sea touches the rocky shoreline, it clicked. It felt like an invitation to all of us. An invitation to do some work, to decipher, to investigate the clues we get from the ocean. Great scientific discoveries have been made by studying the smallest traces and evidences of the processes of the natural world. You don’t have to see the whole picture in order to begin to understand. No one will ever see the whole picture. But the better we get at sharing our clues, the more of it we’ll understand.

I’m much more aware now, after having created this piece, of the symbiotic relationship that the expressive arts and the sciences have. Scientists get deeply into their studies because they are moved and fascinated by something they observe. That is the same part of the brain that activates when we are moved and engaged by a compelling piece of art. It’s all storytelling…. not to imply at all that it is shallow or fictional, but that the storytelling parts of our brain are where we engage our sense of wonder, awe, excitement and pathos. Often scientific discovery is conveyed as a series of dry facts, because the process of analyzing observed facts is critical for deep scientific understanding and verification. But translating those observations back into something the story-telling parts of our brains can indulge in is critical for motivating people to be curious enough to learn more and ideally, to take responsibility for their own actions. Science and art need each other. They are two sides of a coin.

How has the piece changed throughout the course of making it?

For the first 18 months, I didn’t know how to introduce the audience to their protagonist. I tried all kinds of things in my mind. None of them were satisfactory. Essentially, she dies in the first scene of the play… there’s an unspoken rule in theater that you’re definitely not supposed to do that. Especially if you want people to follow her in her implied afterlife. I built a fence around this empty space at the beginning and waited for the answer to fall from the sky. And one day it did. A radio producer friend sent me a link to a beautifully written and produced radio piece on BBC Radio called Jump Blue.

It is a 20-minute piece that imagines Natalia Molchanova’s final dive from her perspective. It is extraordinary. Fiona Shaw is the voice of Molchanova. And it quite literally ends where our first song begins. I reached out to the author, Hannah Silva. She not only agreed to edit a version of her text specifically to fit as an intro to Black Inscription; she’d also write a new text that would reconnect with us near the end of the piece. Her words bring such depth to the piece, both as a live experience, and on the album. I am so grateful for that twist of fate and serendipity. I will forever believe in the power of patience!

I read an article that stated that Black Inscriptionturns Molchanova into an immortal creature who is able to guide the audience through the depths, past the point of safety, and through a world that has never before been experienced. ” Can you discuss the importance of immortalizing the life of deep-diver Natalia Molchanova? Of immortalizing people through art, in general?

Molchanova spoke of wishing she could simply stay in the depths. She felt such clarity, calm, and focus when she dove, and had conflicting emotions at the point at which she knew she had to return to the surface. When I discovered her poems on her website- http://molchanova.ru/en/verses – it was the first time I felt like I had a point of view to work with. Here’s a character through whose eyes we could explore the ocean. There also seemed to be some poetic justice in imagining that she was simply able to keep swimming as she had always fantasized about. My intention is not to take away from the obvious tragedy of losing her. She meant so much to so many people, both family and fans. Now that her diving records are being broken, as is the way with records, it feels even more important to help continue the message of her legacy.

Stories are the way we remember who we are. They are all that’s left of our lives once we are finished living them. In a way, mythologizing someone is the act of celebrating them by making them larger-than-life. It is the act of taking the bit of magic that existed at the core of their lives, their passions and their choices, and turning it into a prism… projecting it on the wall expanded and magnified. It is not that her earthly deeds, words and records were not enough in their own right. We’re connecting to her deepest intention—and therefore to our own deepest intentions—when we indulge in a bit of mythologizing. Anyone who has ever read a fairy tale to a child or made up a bedtime story knows the power of connecting our experience and our imaginations.

If you could bring Natalia back up from the deep, what question(s) would you want to ask her?

Writing the songs was my way of asking her. And in her own way, she answered.

You mentioned in the Art More Than Ever podcast that Natalia’s “sense of vanity dissolved during her dives” and “returning to the surface was always a bit of a disappointment” to her. I definitely feel this way when I find myself in almost maddening fits of writing, where words are flowing out of me and I lose a sense of time. Do you see diving and art-making as having overlapping qualities? If so, how?

Even though she was writing about diving, her words connected deeply with me across disciplines. That’s the magic of poetry. A poem is like an outline, like a constellation. It is an outline of a shape, and with a great poem, the reader can fill it with pictures from her own experiences.

Natalia’s poems are not just about diving. They are about the search for self, for the dissolving of ego, for belonging, for freedom, for connection. They are about both losing and finding one’s self, as we do when we go deeply into anything. I think that’s why this piece works, because it is an odyssey about diving into the ocean, but also about diving into everything & anything. She is Natalia, but she is also everyman/everywoman. Her point of view is specific, but her message is universal. For me, the creation of the piece was about having the courage to reconnect with my life as a creative artist in the wake of becoming a mother (I have two kids, ages 8 and 4). Ideally, everyone will have their own version of what it is about for them.

Have you noticed any changes in yourself from tackling this project?  

Yes! It has significantly made my work a much more holistic part of my life. I no longer think about writing songs and music as something separate from how I walk through the world. Now, when I walk on the beach, or anywhere really, it’s like I’m collecting colors, ideas, rhythms, words… Do you know that kids’ book by Leo Leonni called Frederick the Mouse? That was always one of my favorites. And now it’s like I’ve stepped into my role as Frederick in a more conscious way.

Your lyrics and music will be presented visually in Black Inscription performances, correct? Why did you choose this multimedia format? Do you see all of your music as having visual representations?

Visual art is never very far away from my process. I’ve always included it, either as part of my own process, or as a part of the final product. It’s just the way I’m wired. The more connections I can make between mediums, the stronger the weave of my work feels to me. In this case, as we were working, I kept on thinking about my friend Lisa Carroll, a visual artist whom I’ve known for years. She is a very intuitive artist and is deeply connected to the natural world.

Something kept her name in my head as we wrote these songs. So finally, I called her up and asked her if she was willing to do some artwork to accompany the piece. She said that she had just been getting deep into working with water imagery, and had begun to do meditations by water that she would then translate into drawings. (Again, that great feeling that something bigger than any of us was at work!) We decided that she’d do a drawing for each song. I sent her my lyrics, the songs, and my rambling thoughts and inspirations. She took them and ran in her own direction. What she came back with was simply stunning.

I think I can speak for us all that we can’t wait to see the finished product. How and when will we be able to access Black Inscription?

The album comes out on World Oceans Day on June 8, 2018. We’ll also be donating 50 percent of the digital sales on World Oceans Day to several oceanographic organizations.

There are several ways we are selling the album, ranging from digital track downloads to CDs and LPs (available on rabbitrabbitradio.com) to what I call the “pretty silver envelopes,” which will contain liner notes, artists notes, lyrics for each song, a CD, a download code for the digital tracks, and a hand-pulled screen print of each of Lisa Carroll’s drawings re-created by Jay LaCouture at AntiDesigns in Boston.

Thank you so much for chatting with me, Carla! I just have to ask: do you have any advice for budding artists/performers?

Be careful of what you tell yourself. You can do more damage to your own sense of possibility, of who you are and what you are capable of than anyone else on the planet possibly can.

Give yourself some time in the sandbox, time when it’s ok to not have the answer, but you can play with all kinds of answers. Not having the answer is a beautiful feeling. Get comfortable with it!

Hold on tightly, but let go lightly. Be willing to sacrifice everything for your vision, and then drop it all if a better way emerges. (You are made of ideas…they are not scarce. You’ll know the ones worth ditching it all for!)

For performers, you are a surrogate, a conduit, a stand-in for the audience, a docent for their experience. They look to you to know how to feel, where to put their attention. That’s a big job. Enjoy it!

Diving Into Everything Part 1: An Interview with Carla Kihlstedt

by Cameron Finch

Carla Kihlstedt is a composer, musician, and faculty member at VCFA’s own MFA in Music Composition program. She’s making waves with her newest multimedia song cycle, Black Inscription, a collaboration with her drummer/composer husband, Matthias Bossi, and multi-instrumentalist/composer Jeremy Flower. Written with the guidance of marine biologists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the 15-track song cycle imagines the final dive of the real-life record-breaking free diver, Natalia Molchanova, who took an unannounced recreational dive into the ocean in 2015 and completely disappeared. The epic piece also draws inspiration from the ocean generally and raises awareness of the changes it faces due to pollution, global warming, and overfishing.

The cycle is a mix of rock and classical genres with some overlaid spoken voice. It’s performed by Carla and Matthias as the band Rabbit Rabbit Radio, with the inclusion of a seven-piece band, sound design, and visual oceanic imagery.

Black Inscription will release on World Oceans Day (June 8) and 50 percent of the proceeds from the digital sales on that day will be given to oceanographic research and conservation.

Carla Kihlstedt was kind enough to chat with me over email about Black Inscription’s conception and evolution, the life and influence of the song’s star protagonist, and Kihlstedt’s own hopes for her song cycle’s impact on the ocean.

Where did the idea for your newest project, Black Inscription, come from? 

The winds of inspiration for Black Inscription blew in from several different directions. They twisted together and made a braid that had that sense of inevitability and promise that seems to exist at the beginning of every creative endeavor in any field—science, art, performance, writing, etc.

We live in Woods Hole on Cape Cod. It’s not only surrounded by water, but has an inordinately large community of both ocean scientists and independent radio producers. In other words, people who study all aspects of the ocean, and who are all extraordinary storytellers. These are the parents of our kids’ friends, the people we are building community with, the people we see on a daily basis. This was one of the pieces of the braid.

Because Rabbit Rabbit Radio is essentially a duo, we like to invite friends in various ports when we tour to join us on stage. Two of those people in L.A. are George Ban-Weiss (bass) and Michael Abraham (guitar). George is also an environmental engineer on the faculty of USC. When he suggested that we apply for a humanities grant that USC has, and write an ocean-based environmentally inspired piece, it was as if he’d outlined a shape that was sitting right in front of us.

This project felt inevitable, and so incredibly relevant to our lives here on Cape Cod. It also helped me begin to scratch a bigger itch of searching for ways to have my creative life connect to the bigger picture of my life as a citizen of the planet.

The ocean is so vast! How do you even begin to write a song cycle about it?

I had no idea where to even start. The ocean is like our own brains. We don’t know anything about 95 percent of it. And those who know anything about the remaining 5 percent are ocean scientists, which I am not.

I started by casting the net as wide as I could, looking for specific bits of stories, ideas, issues… things that connected to who I am as a poet. I watched every TED talk I could find, and told everyone I knew what I was doing, casting about for a good entry point. I kept a running list of ideas that came back to me.

Then, my mother sent me an article about Natalia Molchanova’s disappearance, which set the piece up to follow the form of an Odyssean journey of sorts (e.g. a character embarks on a journey, encounters all kinds of things, reaches a point of no return, and finally emerges, altered in a profound way.)

In the first two songs of the cycle, we follow Molchanova’s initial descent, seeing the underwater world as the light from the sun gets more and more remote. From there, she begins to encounter specific things in the ocean. Things that belong and things that don’t: bioluminescent creatures, trash, coral reefs, an octopus, fast-moving currents, noise pollution, etc. All of these things I learned about by reading everything and asking everyone I possibly could. We were lucky enough to have two advisors to the project who are marine biologists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. They have both spent a lot of time at sea both monitoring unmanned submersibles and descending to the depths in ALVIN, a manned submersible. They were kind enough to let me look over their shoulders in the lab, and to send me things that might spark my interest, for example, a list of marine debris they were cataloging from a dive to the canyons off the coast of Massachusetts, which sparked the song “The Ghost King.”

What was it that drew you to Molchanova as a character?

Molchanova was arguably the world’s best freediver. Freediving is the practice of training your body to dive deep into the water without any oxygen tanks or other breathing apparatus. You simply fill your lungs and go. It is both the length of the breath and the pressure of the depths that make it a self-selecting and unbelievably challenging sport. However, her influence went far beyond freedivers and athletes, because she was able to speak and write beautifully about what freediving meant to her spiritually and philosophically.

How did using the poetry of Natalia Molchanova alter the piece, its course, its trajectory, its sound?

Even though her words only figure directly in the first two songs, the piece as a whole wouldn’t exist without her poetry. When I read her poems, I could put myself in her place. I could imagine, even though I’m not a diver myself, how she felt.

We’ll post Part 2 of the interview next week. Stay tuned!

 

VCFA Professor Diane Moser Releases Birdsongs Album

VCFA professor Diane Moser’s album Birdsongs released in March, with a couple of CD release concerts planned for April. The album features Moser on piano, Anton Denner on flute and piccolo, and Ken Filiano on bass. The album represents a culmination point in Moser’s long-held fascination with birds and birdsong in music. Moser composed the vast majority of the album and she incorporates a set of variations on an Amy Beach piece. VCFA alum Kyle Pederson (‘17) contributed the composition “The (Un)Common Loon”.

Moser’s study of music and birdsong is well documented. Since staying at the MacDowell Colony—the same place that inspired Beach’s piece—she’s been fascinated. She gleefully recounts how the residency very quickly turned to her improvising for and with the birds at the retreat. Ever since, she’s become an expert on the subject. She’s held court on musicians playing for birds, musicians integrating recordings of birds into their music, and every other possible way to interact with nature’s most obviously musical creatures. She’ll mention everyone from John Luther Adams to Einojuhani Rautavaara at the drop of a hat. But for all her study, the music sounds anything but academic. It’s deft, light, even playful. The interplay between the musicians is clearly built on mutual understanding. Denner and Filiano get what Moser is going for, and they’re game to go along for the ride.

Moser has achieved something rare. She’s taken the full weight of her jazz expertise and applied it with profound thoughtfulness to a topic of deep fascination for her. And yet the resulting music feels effortlessly fun. Sounds of chickadees, sparrows, robins, and thrushes weave in and out of her trio. They definitely lend a unique feel to the music—it isn’t starting from the same place most music starts. But at the same time, it also just feels like good jazz.

You can find the album on CDBaby, Amazon, or iTunes/Apple Music.
Release concerts are slated  April 14, 5:00pm at Beattie-Powers Place in Catskill, NY and April 22 at Central Presbyterian Church of Montclair in Montclair, NJ.

You can also find live versions of a couple of these pieces on her previous album. For My Mother was recorded with Mark Dresser, Vijay Anderson, and Hafez Modirzadeh. The album was taken from a live recording, and was released through Minus Zero to benefit Planned Parenthood. (We’ve previously talked about other work she’s done for Minus Zero with VCFA alum Max Johnson.)

Album cover showing Diane Moser, Max Johnson, and Perry Robinson performing.

Max Johnson, Diane Moser join charity album with Perry Robinson

VCFA Music Composition graduate Max Johnson (Aug. ’16) and professor Diane Moser have recorded an album with clarinetist Perry Robinson, with all proceeds going to Planned Parenthood.

The album is called Top of the Head, and as the name suggests, it’s improvisatory—or, as the album’s Bandcamp page puts it, “spontaneously composed.” That’s actually a fantastic way to describe what’s happening on the album. All three musicians are jazz and improvisatory players, with deep wells of experience. Listening to the interplay between them is a joy. Moods shift and turn on a dime, and all three players are keyed in to the same emotional wavelength. The emotional intelligence and deep listening that improvisation requires is a skill, and Robinson, Johnson, and Moser have deep reserves of that skill. Hearing them respond to one another’s subtle changes in direction is a treat.

And it’s a treat for a good cause! Top of the Head has been released via Minus Zero, a musicians’ collective devoted to human rights and social justice. Planned Parenthood will receive 100 percent of the money that Minus Zero makes. The album was recorded in January 2014, but has just recently seen release. It came out on January 19, just in time for the anniversary of the Women’s March (and the second wave of marches).

Max Johnson is an adventurous composer and performer from New York City. In addition to composing and recording pieces with astonishing prolificacy (this is his third album release since July 2017), he’s also a sought-after session and touring bassist. You can catch him performing with the Jeff Austin Band across the country, as well as with his own duo, Jolliff & Johnson. He also performs with various ensembles and bluegrass jams across New York. He’s played with everyone from John Zorn to Andrew W.K.

Diane Moser is a bold jazz/improvisatory pianist and composer out of the New York area. Her Composers Big Band is a 17-piece ensemble that has been presenting monthly concerts since 1997. The ensemble is dedicated to developing and presenting new work. She also has a quintet and a trio. She’s performed with everyone from The Drifters to the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra, Marty Ehrlich, Bill Zabatsky, and more.

Perry Robinson is a noted clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer. He grew up around music and musicians because of his father, composer Earl Robinson. Perry has been playing for a while—he attended the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts in 1959. He has recorded with legends like Dave Brubeck and Archie Shepp, and he’s been releasing records regularly since his album Funk Dumpling in 1962.

 

Graduate Scott Barkan releases new album “Good at Goodbye”

Resident VCFA troubador Scott Barkan has released his long-awaited follow-up to Flightless Bird. The album, Good at Goodbye, is “an intensely personal self examination coinciding with the end of a 10 year relationship and many other seismic life changes.” The album is a 10 track tour de force, and represents the culmination of his work at VCFA in a lot of ways. The synthesis of indie rock, jazz, folk, pop, and avant-garde improvisation is something that he spent a lot of time at VCFA working on leading up to his August 2016 graduation. Many of the songs heard on the record were heard previously in evening concerts at the school.

He released the album on October 25. You can purchase it on a pay-what-you-want basis here, on Bandcamp.

The new record isn’t his only iron in the fire right now. Scott is a sought-after session and touring guitarist. He just wrapped up a national tour with singer-songwriter Marian Call in support of her new album, Standing Stones. (You can hear his guitar work on the album itself.)

Barkan is also an Adjunct Professor of Songwriting and Music Technology at Rowan University. He teaches Songwriting, History of Pop, and Audio Recording in their Music Industry department. Teaching is a newer journey for him, one that opened up as a result of his MFA.

In an unrelated but still exciting note, his script Bleed just finished filming and entered post-production. The film stars Robert Patrick (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Blood), Jodi Lyn O’Keefe (Vampire Diaries, Prison Break), and Robert Knepper (Twin Peaks: The Return, Prison Break). You’ll hear more about that as the film gets closer to release.