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August 2, 2017

Dispatch from Tanglewood

by Jacob Greenberg, piano, ICE Director of Recordings and Digital Outreach

The Berkshires are looking fine today, even in heavy rain.  For the last week, I've been a guest at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, the summer home of the Boston Symphony and the site of the distinguished Tanglewood Music Center, a graduate-level fellowship program for singers and instrumentalists.  I'm an alumnus of the TMC, and this year I was invited to be a curator for the annual Festival of Contemporary Music, which for the last few decades has featured a generous helping of composers, mostly American, over five days of programs.  The other curators are violist Nadia Sirota, who played wonderfully on the recent ICE Marcos Balter disc, and Kathryn Bates, the cellist of San Francisco's distinguished Del Sol Quartet.

What better opportunity to bring all your friends and trusted colleagues to such a prestigious venue?  There will be a sizable contingent of ICE folks here, including some members of the group and some of our favorite composers.  I'm performing also, which unfortunately means that I can't take part in ICE's Mostly Mozart.  But there will be plenty to do with the Tanglewood festival.  My concert is on Thursday, August 10, at 8 PM.  For ICE fans who are interested, you can come and still get back to New York to see The Dark Mirror at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater!

Each of the curators was entrusted to build a chamber music program with a particular focus, and my program will feature keyboards and voices.  There are two premieres on this concert, by Anthony Cheung and Nathan Davis.  Anthony's piece, All thorn, but cousin to your rose, is for voice and piano, and it's a hilarious setting of various texts and poetry by Vladimir Nabokov, all about the impossibility of literary translation.  It ends with a passage from Nabokov's own translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.  The Sand Reckoner, Nathan's work, is for six solo voices and obbligato celeste, with electronics—an unusual combination of forces by any measure, and Nathan brings out the beauty and strangeness of it.  The piece sets texts by Archimedes on early hypotheses of measuring the grains of sand on the seashore; this leads to a wider discussion of ancient cosmology.  Nathan also provides commentary through passages from the Wycliffe Bible and William Blake, both of which deepen the exploration of the central metaphor of sand and the vastness of the universe.  

The rest of the program has many pieces that I first got to know through ICE.  Phyllis Chen will join me here for her Chimers, first played by ICE at Mostly Mozart.  Yesterday morning, I set up the piece for the Fellows that are performing it, and coached the session.  I also brought Phyllis's unique instruments up to Tanglewood from New York: a toy piano, a set of toy piano tines (metal bars), a toy glockenspiel, and a tiny Radio Shack speaker, which is crucial to the sound of the piece.  The Fellows quickly took to the piece, and learned one of the key elements of an ICE chamber performance: how to conduct internally within the group.  We practiced the elusive art of head-conducting, which emulates conducting patterns while the players still look forward and play their instruments.

I take for granted things that are second nature for members of ICE.  Leading and following from within a chamber group takes skill, insight, and a lot of patience.  One of the heavier pieces on my program, Sofia Gubaidulina’s Meditation on a Bach Chorale, needs actual conducting, passed among members of the group, to make the piece’s very slow pulse felt by everyone. When ICE played this piece at Mostly Mozart a few seasons ago, we arrived at the conducting system by trial and error; I tried to save time with the Fellows by prescribing a plan, but with the aim of making the leading and following organic to the piece’s expressive shape.  I’ve also coached the harpsichordist to make the most of the Tanglewood harpsichord’s registration, coupling the manuals when necessary and seeing what interesting combinations of strings are possible.

Tony Arnold, my frequent song recital partner and a member of ICE, has been on the Tanglewood faculty this summer, and she has been actively advising some of these pieces.  Tony is an expert on the vocal music of György Kurtág; she and I worked together with Kurtág when he coached us at the Darmstadt Summer Courses.  Kurtág, a brilliant and intuitive pianist, knew what he was doing when he wrote for piano and voice.  The textures, always transparent yet thorny, illuminate the tortured world of the poetry: here, it is Dostoevsky and ancient religious inscriptions.  The tenor and baritone that are singing these songs have already undergone quite a journey, working with Kurtág's unique notation, and warming to the hyper-sensitive, concentrated expression that defines the composer's work.

George Lewis, whose album The Will to Adorn ICE released in January, is represented by his amazing piece Anthem, for voice and small ensemble with sound playback.  Kate Soper, who premiered the piece with the Wet Ink Ensemble, will be singing; the rest of the players have thrown themselves into the fray with abandon.  George’s piece involves the fifth keyboard instrument that I’m using on this program, a sampler that triggers electronics that are both atmospheric and comic.  Also, ICE saxophonist Ryan Muncy joins me here just to play this piece!

It will be a delight to see so many of the composers here and watch as they assist to bring their creations to life in this beautiful setting.  It feels good to bring so much of what I've learned in ICE about repertoire and performance practice to a crop of younger, extremely talented performers.  If one is going to be away from ICE for a short while, Tanglewood is a pretty good place to spend the weeks of the late summer. 

May 15, 2017

“An Enlarged Ratchet”

by Jacob Greenberg

Chaya Czernowin, whose disc with ICE was released this week on the Kairos label, has received a lot of attention recently for her opera, Infinite Now, at the Flemish Opera.  Chaya was also the subject of an ICE concert in April at the New York Public Library, which included a premiere for soprano Tony Arnold, and an enlightening coaching session with the composer.

For the M.A.R.S. Festival in Los Angeles last month, a quartet of ICE players—Ross Karre on percussion, Ryan Muncy on sax, Dan Lippel on electric guitar, and myself on piano—tackled Chaya’s nine-minute chamber piece Sahaf, Hebrew for “drift.”  This is a lighter piece for Chaya, where her signature compositional devices of fragmentation and quick-cutting mood shifts achieve effects which, here, are almost comic.

We largely rehearsed the piece in Brooklyn before taking it on the road.  Each of us four was prepared for the extended techniques that Chaya requires in the piece, and I had my tools ready: a NYC ID card, ideal for scraping and plucking the piano strings; and two heavy moleskin books, to place on a group of strings to mute them.  We decided to take the piece page by page, gesture by gesture, because that’s how it was conceived—a series of intricate, intimate moments. 

Looking at the score of the piece, you can see how each of these moments is designed to be just a little unstable, and fragile.  The first measure has saxophone, guitar, and ratchet playing a forte quintuplet over a quarter beat, and then two extra quintuplets that don’t finish a complete group, which makes the time signature 1 / 4 + 2/5 / 4.  This immediately changes in the next bar to all four instruments playing normal sixteenths, quietly.  We have to make the mental shift right away, but inherent in this is also a poetic idea—a very minor shift of gears, made vivid by the ratchet’s sound.  To an extent, standard music notation can’t convey the subtlety of it; in fact, these unsettled junctures may be the exact point at which standard notation begins to fail.

Every measure of the piece means to capture a fragile moment like this rhythmic change.  The rehearsal process was spent trying to internalize each gesture, and to learn the precise character that we imagined Chaya was trying to capture.  The other way that Chaya destabilizes the music is with the extended techniques; these range from oddly tuned and multiphonic notes on the saxophone, to hitting guitar strings with the palm, to using objects inside the piano.  As in those first two measures, the character changes happen in an instant, and often we have to be ready with a new technique with no preparation.  In the third measure I play thirty-second notes as palm clusters on the keyboard, and a few measures later grab the ID card for the first time.  First I stand to pluck a few high notes with it, and then drag it along a bass C. 

“Is that the way that will sound?” Ross asks.

“Yeah, it’s a slow scrape across the string,” I say. 

“Guitar’s pretty high and loud there—maybe you should play that louder than the written piano.”

“Sounds good.  Same thing may go for your chopsticks on the snare drum.  I may also need you to cue me for the clusters in 13.” The clusters are marked “extremely decisive, mechanical.” 

Ten bars later, another problem emerges: the part for ratchet is written in measured six-groups.  “How much will we hear that?” I ask Ross.

“Probably not much.  I’m getting a bigger ratchet in L.A. which will make it more audible.  You should rely on my cue instead.”  The cue is for me to stand, put the moleskin book on the strings, and start playing sextuplets of my own, before cueing Dan to enter. 

All the while, rhythms are meant to be obscured.  “Do NOT accentuate the beat,” Chaya writes for all players.  I collect myself for a moment: When do I remove the book?  In the middle of a high tremolo, it seems, as I start using soft pedal and damper pedal together, which requires me to sit.  This is how the choreography of the piece starts forming.

Twice in the piece, at least three of the instruments play a unison loud G after we’ve been playing other material for a long while.  Both times, the G falls on a syncopated beat.  “What’s the best way to cue the note when it’s off the beat?” I ask.

“Let’s cue it as if it’s on the beat, but we can all just know that it’s a syncopation,” Ryan answers.  Sometimes, knowing is enough.  A little later, I play the fast clusters again, and Ryan enters right afterwards, always right on the money.

For the next bit of ballet, I play a passage which begins with an accelerating gesture over another odd time signature; pick up the ID card with my left hand as I play unmeasured figures low on the keyboard with my right; drag the card over several low strings at once, listening for the contour of the baritone sax’s line to time it correctly; and then switch objects as I mute strings with both books. 

At the event at the Public Library, Chaya likened her process to a photo gradually coming into focus, where a viewer slowly realizes every thing that’s being pictured, and where in the image the one is actually supposed to be looking.  Sahaf has a lot of distractions, but the ratchet emerges as a key sound and idea.  The final gestures of the piece have all four players in complex unison rhythms, under the expressive heading “an enlarged ratchet.”  The grinding, industrial sound of all the instruments playing together—with the piano muted and the sax and guitar playing with “as little pitch as possible,” does indeed enlarge the sound of the ratchet, which Ross is playing.  As we concentrate on the composite sound and the rhythms, we feel like we’ve located something essential about the piece.  “It’s a funny piece,” Dan says.  “The whole thing is like a scherzo,” I add.

Ross says, “I really want the end to feel free with the ratchet, even though the gestures will alternate between the players like they’re supposed to.”  Chaya has written “very free, very expressive” for this final section, led by the percussionist.  The notation shows free rhythmic gestures beginning in very specific places in the measure—usually as syncopations—which makes a tricky balance.  But as we’ve learned by working in this way, it’s always a balance; and when it works, the brittle, fractured moments come alive. 

Chaya’s music always defies easy answers, but rewards inquiry, and needs no less than total immersion and commitment.  The Kairos CD, Wintersongs, traces her evolving style through a cycle of ravishing ensemble pieces with solo voices.  ICE is grateful that we’ve been able to learn about a composer’s style in such detail, and have our performance skills grow as we delve deeper into the work.  Lasting collaborations are endlessly fulfilling when the learning process is mutual, as it has been with Chaya over many years.

March 22, 2017

Instrumental Identities and Performance Practice

The idyllic Williams College hosts an ICE residency on April 6 and 7, with a concert at Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall on the 7th at 8 PM.  The concert features a piece drawn from ICEcommons, the ensemble's open composer submission database: Ann Cleare's the square of yellow light that is your window.  

Erin Gee: Mouthpiece XXIV for saxophone and percussion
Georges Aperghis: Rasch for viola and soprano saxophone
László Dubrovay: Sei Duetti for violin and percussion 
Ann Cleare: the square of yellow light that is your window for alto saxophone, electric guitar, piano and percussion
Ileana Perez Velázquez: Fire of the Heart and Mind for violin and piano

The program we are presenting at WIlliams is a platform for exploring instrumental identities, forged in a complex of historical and cultural evolutions. The works here either look at instrumental tradition as a compositional means, or they recognize instruments as sound-generating vessels without any bias. For instance, one will hear the electric guitar taken out of the rock band, but does this mean that the rock band is also taken out of the electric guitar? Can a composer discover sounds that truly divorce the sound source from one’s customary associations?

To help answer this question, László Dubrovay's six short pieces for violin and percussion, interleaved through the program, are a reference for familiar violin and keyboard percussion playing. A hybrid of Bela Bartók and Second Viennese styles, these six movements recall the folk fiddle and the romantic violin soloist, and they are a stark contrast with the other works. Miranda Cuckson and Ross Karre will rely on the traditions of their practice to guide their interpretation.

For the other composers, George Aperghis, Ann Cleare, and Erin Gee, performance practices are reinvented with each new piece. These composers find the ways that these instruments express the sonic phenomena in the minds’ ear. The piano, saxophone, guitar, and violin are on a level playing field with found objects of percussion, like the tin can and cookie sheet in Ann Cleare’s piece. Is a grand piano the same as a cookie sheet? This is a question that today’s composers have to answer.

When one hears instruments coaxed into anonymity, one is equally attuned to the performers’ unique personalities. Those personalities round out a forum that celebrates compositional innovation, and the attendant questions of traditional, cultural, historical, and personal perspectives. ICE is thrilled to welcome Ileana Perez Velázquez to this dialogue for the premiere of her new work, Fire of the Heart and Mind, and we are grateful to her for the invitation to Williams College.

-- Ross Karre and Jacob Greenberg

February 13, 2017

How do we love OpenICE? Let us count the ways

by Arlene and Larry Dunn (@ICEfansArleneLD)

We haven’t been in the pages of the ICEblog much recently, though we've had no shortage of ICE events to feed upon. We are swooping back in at this juncture because we are committed to immersing ourselves more deeply into OpenICE as it moves into its second season. What we love most about OpenICE is, well, its openness. By design, it is open with respect to venue, genre, instrumentation, audience, community, etc. But most exciting, OpenICE is open to the unknown.

OpenICE workshop in Chicago with composer Wojtek Blecharz (photo by Larry Dunn)

We had the opportunity to meet with OpenICE co-directors Alice Teyssier and Ryan Muncy in Chicago last December to learn more about where OpenICE is headed. This season they will start working with four composers — Wojtek Blecharz, Morgan Krauss, Monte Webber, and Sabrina Schroeder — to collaboratively develop new evening-length works over the next two years. The parameters around these projects are, you guessed it, open! The composers were selected based on proposals they submitted that only outlined the driving concept for the piece. The process is beginning with workshops with each composer (open to anyone who would like to attend) where they are starting with a blank slate. Everything is on the table to be developed in the workshops —- instrumentation, size, style, length, venue, lighting, theatrics, movement, electronics, you name it. The objective is to unleash ideas and generate work that could never be done without this sort of radically open collaboration.

This latest concept was inspired, in part, by a workshop Levy Lorenzo led in November to teach 10 participants to build a new electronic instrument, compose pieces for those instruments, and then play the pieces, all in one three-hour session. It opened a whole new platform for creating new collaborative compositions. The session fulfilled so many ICE purposes – sharing skills, education, collaboration – that OpenICE wanted to build off this idea. OpenICE is providing agency for ICE members to take their own area of expertise, try something new with it and expand the community in the process. It’s a very ICE-y way of working – making music together and expanding the circle. As this evolves, it could even be adapted to include untrained musicians and the public in ways beyond just listening, to become deeper participants, certainly in the discussion and development process, and perhaps even as performers. The possibilities are virtually limitless. We were able to participate in the first of these new OpenICE workshops with composer Wojtek Blecharz in December and it was exhilarating to be there at the inception of a new work of art. Is it any wonder we came away committed to get more involved?

ICE member Levy Lorenzo leading OpenICE — Electronic Etudes No. 1 Workshop

So now we are about to head out on the road for a long weekend of OpenICE activity, starting Thursday with the inaugural OpenICE performance in Fort Wayne, Indiana, ICE clarinetist Campbell MacDonald’s hometown. Then it’s on to Chicago, where there will be the added excitement of starting a new ICE working relationship with the Rebuild Foundation, which was founded and is led by visionary artist and activist Theaster Gates. Most events during this four-day Chicago session of OpenICE will be held in Rebuild Foundation venues Stony Island Arts Bank and Dorchester Arts and Housing Collaborative. Included in this week’s events are composer workshops with Morgan Krauss, an improvisation session with Glass Lantern and  resident artists Train and Maggie Brown, and a Sunday afternoon concert at Chicago Cultural Center.

This Chicago session of OpenICE will conclude with the Midwest premiere of Tyshawn Sorey’s Perle Noire: Meditations on Joséphine, which explores the music, artistry, and inner life of Josephine Baker. This work features soprano Julia Bullock embodying Josephine, with Alice Teyssier (flute), Ryan Muncy (saxophone), Rebekah Heller (bassoon), Jennifer Curtis (violin) Dan Lippel (guitar), and the composer on drums and piano. We were fortunate to be the world premiere in Ojai last summer and it was one of the most moving musical experiences we’ve had. We can’t wait to hear it again in its latest iteration. All OpenICE events are free, However, Perle Noire requires advance reservations, available here.

January 24, 2017

George Lewis: The Will to Adorn

ICE is delighted to release our fifth disc on the Tundra label: George Lewis's The Will to Adorn.  Comprising mostly live recordings from 2011-2016, this recording shows the extent to which George's performance practice has influenced ICE's aesthetic.  He writes, " with all improvisations, including our everyday-life human efforts, the performance becomes an emergent phenomenon, achieved through negotiation; success will be less a matter of individual freedom than of personal responsibility." The CD also includes a solo trombone performance by the composer of T.J. Anderson's In Memoriam Albert Lee Murray (2013).

Here are a few excerpts from the CD liner notes, with George's own descriptions of the included works that were commissioned by ICE.

The Will to Adorn (2011)

Zora Neale Hurston’s 1934 essay, “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” cites “the will to adorn” as a crucial characteristic of black expressivity, by way of this example:

     I saw in Mobile a room in which there was an over-stuffed mohair living-room suite, an imitation mahogany bed
     and chifferobe, a console victrola. The walls were gaily papered with Sunday supplements of the Mobile Register.
     There were seven calendars and three wall pockets. One of them was decorated with a lace doily. The mantel-shelf
     was covered with a scarf of deep home-made lace, looped up with a huge bow of pink crepe paper. Over the door
     was a huge lithograph showing the Treaty of Versailles beingsigned with a Waterman fountain pen.

What I'm interested in is adornment as a compositional attitude or method – for example, Hurston’s notion of “decorating a decoration,” which is a recursive move. One can imagine the music as a response to the complexity of the scene that greeted Hurston in her fieldwork. The work was composed for ICE.

Born Obbligato (2013)

This work, commissioned by ICE, is conceived in dialogue with Beethoven’s Septet Op. 20 (1800). Beethoven scholar Nicholas Mathew, to whom the work is dedicated, pointed out to me that the Septet’s convivial affect deviates markedly from the standard image of Beethovenian fist-shaking.  As the story goes, in his later years the composer found the work’s popularity a source of chagrin, reportedly responding to a compliment by growling, “Mozart wrote that.”

Both the title and musical intent of Born Obbligato derive from a remark Beethoven made in an 1800 letter to his Leipzig publisher, in which he announced “a septet per il violino, viola, violoncello, contrabass, clarinett, corno, fagotto – tutti obligati”– adding parenthetically, “I cannot write anything that is not obbligato, for I was already born with an obbligato accompaniment.” Or at least, that is what a common English translation tells us. The German is a bit more ambiguous: “Ich kann gar nichts unobligates schreiben, weil ich schon mit einem obligaten Akkompagnement auf die Welt gekommen bin.” The translation of the seldom-used word “unobligates” (i.e., not required) as referring to style refers to the Septet’s texture, but Beethoven’s use of the expression “obligates Akkompagnement” to describe the circumstances of his birth invokes the sign of enigma.

Born Obbligato borrows from the Septet’s structure and texture, if not its conviviality.  The addition of percussion and digital transformation and spatialization in the fourth movement (“Tema con Variazioni”) pays homage to the conductor Steven Schick, who performs here in his other capacity as world-class percussionist. 

December 12, 2016

Camila Agosto, an ICEcommons Entry, and an OpenICE Premiere

Composer Camila Agosto has been one of the nicest surprises to come to ICE in a long while.  When ICE chose her to be represented on a November OpenICE concert at the Abrons Arts Center, we had no idea she was only twenty-one!  Camila describes her experience here, and video of the concert will follow soon on DigitICE.  Based in Baltimore, Camila brought family, co-workers, and fans to the November 12 concert, many of whom were having their first experience with new music.

- - - - - - -

I first found out about ICEcommons when I participated in an open forum hosted by ICE in late October of this year. The forum was a presentation and large group discussion about ICE’s archive It’s a free archive for performers and composers to use to find and share new works. After the forum, I had the chance to speak one-on-one with both Ryan Muncy and Alice Teyssier about this new initiative and my own works, and they suggested that I post some of work on the archive. I chose to post a trio I recently composed, Listen to me as one listens to the rain, a piece that explores the process a person goes through as they slowly lose their ability to communicate with the world around them. This piece is near to my heart and was inspired by someone close to me; I chose to post it because I felt that it represented a different aspect of myself and my work that I hadn’t yet explored. It is written for flute, soprano saxophone, and a percussion instrument I designed, and I thought that since I met Ryan, Alice, and Ross, this would be a good piece to post. A few weeks later, I received an email from Ryan expressing his interest in my work, as well as a possible performance of this piece in their OpenICE season. I was floored when I read this email. I had no expectations when I posted my work, so getting a response from members of ICE was absolutely incredible. 

Working with Ross, Alice, and Ryan has been amazing! They all took such great care to keep me informed of the logistical details for this concert, and to capture all of the nuances within this piece. When I sat in the audience during the dress rehearsal/sound check, it was an unbelievable experience to hear this piece come to life in a new way. Being able to use an archive like Metafields, and having such a positive experience come out of one post is incredible. I’m very thankful for the opportunity to continue to share my music with others, and I hope that more people will take advantage of this archive and get to know the ICEcommons initiative!

November 17, 2016

Marcos Balter on Tundra

by Jacob Greenberg, ICE Director of Recordings and Digital Outreach

Tundra, ICE's in-house recording label and an imprint of New Focus Recordings, has been busy lately.  Ryan Muncy's brilliant second solo album ism appeared in September, and just two months later, we're holding in our hands Aesopica, a retrospective of ICE's long collaboration with composer Marcos Balter.  Aesopica collects five pieces written for the members of ICE over seven years; one was developed in the ICElab program (Aesopica), one written for the occasion of a retrospective of György Ligeti in Los Angeles (ligare), and three others for small groups of ICE soloists.  Below are some remarks from ICE members, reprinted from the CD booklet, about our productive partnership with Marcos.

Ryan Muncy, saxophone

Wicker Park was my very first collaboration with Marcos Balter.  Recalling the energy and vitality of the famous Chicago neighborhood from the turn of the millennium, the work marks Marcos's first time writing for saxophone, and has quickly become one of his most-played pieces.  Wicker Park embraces the soprano saxophone's idiosyncrasies, using mechanical sounds and breathiness as expressive features.

Nadia Sirota, viola

To celebrate his fortieth birthday, Marcos wrote a joyous suite of miniatures that shows off four of his closest collaborators.  Codex Seraphinianus is inspired by the Luigi Serafini work of the same name, a 127-page illustrated volume that is a kind of alien encyclopedia.  The pages lay out indexes of different items: natural, man-made, and uncanny hybrids.  This book is written in an invented, perhaps untranslatable language, yet to a curious reader, it has a strange internal logic.  Inspired by its numerological patterns, Marcos fashioned eleven movements that play with the edge of understanding.

Claire Chase, flute

When the Art Institute of Chicago asked me to invite a composer to write a new work for solo flute inspired by the museum's permanent collection, Marcos Balter immediately leapt to mind.  There was one piece in the Modern Wing, Cy Twombly's Return from Parnassus, by which I'd spent countless hours losing time, dreaming, meandering in colors, shapes, numbers, textures.  And so Descent from Parnassus was born.  The flutist recites (by turns whispering, screaming, singing, and scatting) a text from Book One of Dante's Canto Paradiso.  The work pushes the limits of the instrument and the body, just as Twombly's brush strokes seem to skyrocket off the edges of the canvas and into a celestial space.  Tragically, Twombly died just before the premiere of the work.

Jacob Greenberg, piano

ligare paints a placid yet eerie landscape.  György Ligeti is recalled by the slow-moving microtones, passed among the six instruments, but the effect of the ensemble's whistling is entirely new, a signature device of the composer.  A listener asks: where do these disembodied sounds come from, and why do they create such unease?

Rebekah Heller, bassoon

Aesopica was Marcos's first large ensemble piece for ICE.  This whimsical yet intricate suite of vignettes, drawn from the larger semistaged work, adapts texts from Aesop's Fables.  My favorite, "The Boastful Lamp," is a duet between the tenor Peter Tantsits and myself on a deconstructed bassoon (the wing joint, the part of the bassoon that looks like a mini-saxophone) that we dubbed an "oon."  Each of the movements in this suite transports the listener to tiny universes of sound, unique and fully realized.

Marcos Balter, composer

My collaborations with ICE are the fruit of artistic kinship as much as they are of close friendships.  Like may of my compositional heroes from the past, I prefer writing for people I know well and whom I know will understand and enhance my vision.  As luck would have it, my dear friends from ICE are among the most skilled and sensitive performers a composer could dream of.  The challenge, then, is to continue to push the envelope, mine and theirs, never settling for anything less than complete artistic truth.  My music for ICE is very much like a diary of my own trajectory as a composer.

Stay tuned for more releases coming soon on Tundra!  The fifth title on the label, music of another wonderful collaborator, George Lewis, will drop in January!  

November 11, 2016

On the Life of a Piece

By Ross Karre, Co-Artistic Director and Director of

At ICE, we talk a lot about pieces of music. Pieces are the building blocks of our events. They define the story that is told through our concert season. But looking deeper, a piece of music is also a hub of communication. It’s a sonic expression of a composer’s vision. It’s an act of translation on the part of the ICE musicians. And it’s an art of interpretation and discovery for our audience members. Creating new pieces and new interpretations is central to our day-to-day activity. It’s the reason that we do what we do.

Recently, we have begun to consider the entire life of a piece from a holistic point of view. Is a piece of music only its performance on stage? We think not. The reality is that most people don’t experience these new pieces in live performance. The majority of new music experiences happen via reading, viewing photos, watching videos, or listening to recordings online. While a premiere of a new work may have 40 people in its audience, thousands of people experience the piece online in faraway places.

Ashley Fure: The Force of Things - Darmstadt Summer Courses

We often “measure” music by metrics related to its immediacy: seating attendance, video views, record sales.The larger impact to the community comes from the small ripple effects of the other components of a piece’s life: the sketches leading to a new composition, the email threads between composer and performer, the rehearsal photos spread via social media, and the relationships built in the process. After the premiere, a piece has a legacy of transformation. It becomes a palimpsest as rehearsal notes and marginalia are added, erased, and scribbled on the printed sheet music. Second performances, studio recordings, critical reviews, anniversary concerts, and musicological study also contribute to the life of a piece.

Over the past five years, ICE has built a number of initiatives to make visible these larger aspects of the piece's life cycle, in the hope of enriching the audience experience and deepening a listener's investment in the new music community.  One of the most important parts of the life cycle is ICE’s process of discovery. In the past, composers sent large packages of beautiful scores to our ICEhaus rehearsal space in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Our paper library of scores by composers from all over the globe occupies dozens of shelves. More recently, composers have sent these scores via email in PDF form. We welcomed this change with open arms, and it led to the creation of ICEcommons.

The library is a hybrid of a traditional call-for-scores and a crowdsourced reference system of new works. Composers are encouraged to add information regarding their works list to ICEcommons. When ICE (and any other ensemble or performance org) wants to find a new work with a non-traditional instrumentation, we look to ICEcommons first. As we get to know the piece, we use our LUIGI musical database software to catalog information about the work: rehearsal schedules, personnel lists, performance dates, and all of the minutiae related to the performance of a new work. Finally, our live performance videos are collected and distributed on our free library: Pieces come into ICE’s ecosystem via ICEcommons and they are delivered to the world via These libraries allow us to bring new audiences to this music and advocate for emerging and underrepresented composers. Our hope is that this three-phase summary of the life of a piece - DISCOVER, COLLECT, ADVOCATE - can become a consistent and holistic part of our daily practice, and we can use these new tools to make a piece available to the widest possible global audience.

As an example, let’s look to the piece of music ICE created with Ashley Fure from early 2015 until Summer of 2016 in Darmstadt for its premiere. The work, The Force of Things, was a collaborative, intermedia hybrid from the get-go. From the initial meetings and development rehearsals of the piece, we committed to capturing the process in video, still, and written form. The piece developed in several places and times throughout the season. The University of Michigan Liberty Annex at the Taubman School of Architecture played host to the material tests for this object opera while Miller Theatre at Columbia University presented a premiere of a segment of the work. Abrons Arts Center was a second home for the piece’s continuation as we prepared to present a second excerpt at Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn.

Photo: Ashley Fure with The Force of Things team: Ross Karre, Levy Lorenzo, Rebekah Heller, Alice Teyssier, Lucy Dhegrae, Ryan Muncy, Kivie Cahn-Lipman, Nick Houfek. Abrons Arts Center

Finally, at the official premiere in Darmstadt, Germany, we continued revising the work until the downbeat. The process of creation was meticulously documented and layered in a beautiful trailer created by the media team (Ross Karre, Merve Kayan, Monica Duncan, Bradley Rosen, and Caley Monahon-Ward).

The Force of Things’s life enters new stages with upcoming presentations at the University of Michigan, PEAK Performances in Montclair New Jersey, and additional possibilities around the world. The Force of Things also has led to three smaller works which will have their own lives: Shiver Lung for seven players, Etudes from the Anthropocene for septet and large silicone structure, and Shiver Lung 2 for percussion and electronics. The origin of the idea, which started as a conversation in a bar in Darmstadt 2014 between Ashley Fure and Ryan Muncy, became its own world of creation, spawning new projects with a linked consciousness; and every detail of the work's gestation became an essential element in its forward motion. ICE believes that its documentation of this process is inextricable from the way The Force of Things took shape.

Photo: Ross Karre testing the new monocord system with custom styrofoam bridges. 

ICEcommons has also spurred the lives of several pieces which are new to ICE but were created by other composer-performer pairings. Monte Weber, Mauricio Pauly, Seth Cluett, Ann Cleare, David Coll, Camila Agosto, and many more have had their works discovered via their contributions to ICEcommons. Each will have outlets on, social media, photos, text, and audience conversations at concert after-parties and open rehearsals.

Photo: ICEcommons selection Objects in Stillness by Seth Cluett. Abrons Arts Center Playhouse. Also viewable on 

ICE makes the communal nature of musical creation into a public endeavor--connecting performers, composers, and audiences via open libraries and forums. We know that a piece isn't confined to its rehearsals and performances; it needs and deserves more. And the musical community thrives when we communicate creatively across many platforms. Stay tuned to as we continue to DISCOVER, COLLECT, and ADVOCATE.