Darwin: Today I have the great opportunity to talk to somebody new. This is another person from the curated series by Seth Cluett. He's been introducing me to some very fascinating people and today's certainly tops out THE list. Her name is Sasha Di Castri and she's a composer that appears to my eye at least to produce a lot of work - but also does a stunning breadth of work. There is orchestra work, there's work with string quartets, there's electronic work, and there'ss work that involves sculptures and sound art, and it's amazing. And so I'm really anxious to learn a lot more about about Zosha's work. So with that, let's get right into it. Hi Zosha, how's it going?
Zosha Di Castri: Wonderful. Thanks for inviting me.
Darwin: Thanks so much for joining, I really appreciate it. I look at your list of works and I'm surprised that you have an hour to even spend talking to somebody. It's hilarious.
Zosha: Well, I have to have some time away from work too.
Darwin: Well, good - this is a great way to spend it, I hope. Why don't we start off by having you describe a little bit about how you see your own work.
Zosha: I think what you said is true. It's quite diverse, both in terms of the ensemble formations that I write for, but also even aesthetically. Some of my work is completely notated, some of it is more improvised - and all of the space in between. And I guess I like living in that space where I can always be challenged by new projects and learn. And I think in recent years since moving to New York, moving towards performances that have a visual element to them: either with performers moving around stage or, like you mentioned, having some sort of sculptural or theatrical element - this has become more important to my work. And something I hope to explore more in the coming years.
Darwin: Right. And I think that New York actually provides some really spectacular opportunities to do that because of the stages and staging that's available there. Right?
Zosha: Yeah, that's definitely true. I mean, you have to always be adapting to different types of spaces. So you have everything from wonderful theaters with full lighting rigs to lofts with lamps and that sort of thing. And you have to be able to adapt the ideas to those different spaces. But, yeah, it's definitely been an inspiring place to live. And also just to take advantage of other arts, not just music, but to see dance performances and theater performances. I think that's definitely fed my work right now.
Darwin: When we talk about your work, you have a whole body of orchestral work. You have another body of working with chamber-sized groups and then you have another thing which I don't even know how to describe it, which is kind of like an intersection between installation and performance work. How do you manage juggling all of those things at once and how do you prevent yourself from getting pigeonholed as just the orchestra person? Or just the installation person and then cut out of the other work.
Zosha: I mean, I don't do it all at the same time, but then when I'm planning my projects, I try to have a variety there within the year so that I'm not only writing orchestra pieces or only writing chamber pieces for three years. I tried to sort of intersperse it, and some of that has just kind of come my way. And other things that has been sort of a conscious decision to say "No" to certain projects or tell people this is something I'd love to do, but I can't do it right now. Maybe in a year or two we could work together on this. So to me it's important to keep that variety. I think it's gives me energy, creatively, to have that - and things like writing for orchestra, it's a huge privilege to work with such a huge sound palette, but it's also very exhausting - just the time that it takes to prepare this score and the parts.
And I think that for myself at least, spreading that out is helpful so that I don't get sick of it. And building installations is the same thing. It's an enormous amount of work but in a different way, in a physical way. And I think what first drew me to working with sculptural elements was the fact that composing can be a solitary, still job where you just sit at your desk with your laptop. That having something where I could see before my very eyes that it was progressing and that it existed in the world and that I could respond to it and if it fell over I would know what needed to be fixed - [this] was interesting to me as a composer.
Darwin: Sure. I can imagine. So one of the things that I noticed about a lot of your work as I was listening to it and kind of embracing it was that you do a lot of stuff where voice is an active component. Not necessarily just like sung voice singing along is part of an ensemble, but also a spoken parts, which I think a lot of us would still consider almost a tape music kind of interaction. As well as vocalizations that occur in a performative way. What is it about the voice that becomes an important part of, the compositions that you create?
Zosha: That's a good question. I guess in some ways voice seems the most human to me, that it's it's coming from the body. It's very immediate. So it's a way to connect to our bodies, but maybe even just more... Basically, when I compose, I use all the means available to me to write. So sometimes that's paper and pencil. Sometimes that's being at the piano, sometimes it's being at the computer in front of a DAW - digital audio workstation. But often when I get ideas, it'll be when I'm walking around the city. And what I've gotten in the habit of doing to try to catch the idea before it leaves - I don't have a great memory - is that I would record my voice just like on the using Audio Memos on my telephone.
So for every piece I might have, I don't know, 20 or 30 little ideas as I'm walking around the city that are just 30 seconds long or whatever. But that's sort of an initial impulse for me just to capture a gesture or to describe the type of texture or sound that I'm hearing in my head. So maybe, I don't know, I hadn't thought of it before, but maybe that's part of it. Is that what I'm thinking? Compositionally, one of the steps is going through my voice - and I am not a trained singer by any means - but you know, even if you just sort of scat an idea or something like that, it gives you the contour. It gives you a sense of the energy, the quality of the sound, and then you can start imagining what that would sound like on an oboe or with percussion.
Darwin: Yeah, it solidifies the shape of it in some concrete way. That makes a lot of sense. I like it. Now [let's look at] the complete flip side of the, I dunno, the very personal and intimate use of your voice to do this stuff. You also work a lot with movement. I mean, you mentioned it already - you like seeing movement around the stage. When I talk about these sculptural things, it's not like you have a statue standing in the middle of the stage. Sometimes you have... you seem to be a little obsessed with "bellows". I'll just say that, but you know, you'll have a piano at one end of a bellows and flutist at the other and the bellows is being expanded and contracted. There's movement in combination and it's part of the sculptural pieces. When some of your compositional process is as intimate as singing little phrases, what is the part of it that makes you say, "But I have to have size and I have to have movement and I have to have the drama of stage presence in order to, in order to make this feel complete."
Zosha: Well, yeah, I think it's project specific. So some projects I may have a miniature for solo violin that lasts three minutes and there's no staged elements there. But I guess maybe some of the visual and movement aspects come from the fact that I danced a lot growing up - quite seriously. Like I had thought about going into becoming a choreographer rather than the music path at some point. So that's definitely a way that I've grown up - thinking about how bodies move and how we respond to them visually. And I think that for me, at a certain point, going to concerts - although it's wonderful to hear great music, there is something very predictable about that ritual that I thought was sort of missing out on creativity. The fact that they're going to come out, they're probably going to be dressed in black. They're going to bow, everyone's going to clap, something's going to happen. Everyone's going to clap again, regardless of whether they liked it or not.
And I just thought that was a little bit dull. And so I was interested in sort of re-imagining the concert space, what that could mean for musicians. And sometimes that has very fantastical shapes. Sometimes it's more interior. But I would say when I said exploring movement more, especially during my graduate studies, I think that it was maybe a way of going back to those roots. And now as a teacher, I also explore that. Like I teach a graduate seminar composing for dance and finding ways to sort of talk about different modes of collaborations, different ways that we talk about music and movement from the dance perspective, but also from composer's perspective. So that's maybe one part of it: the size. I don't know, that's a good question. I'd have to think more.
Darwin: So you've kind of opened the door a little bit about some background with a familiarity with dance, and I can see where that would be a potent part of your artistic vision and envisioning. One of the things I like doing in my podcast is talking to people about their background and how they got to be the artists that they are. I'm curious, where does someone come from who is equally comfortable singing into a audio memo or writing large format scores or creating sculptures or dance pieces - where are you coming from? What is your background and how did you get here?
Zosha: That's a good question. I grew up in a small town called Saint Albert in Alberta, Canada, in the prairies. And both my parents are teachers, but they always loved music. And so I started playing piano when I was quite young - three and a half years old. So that has kind of been with me longer than I can remember, really. And in high school or junior high and high school I played various instruments in band, both in jazz band and wind band. So that was sort of an introduction to other forms of music. My dad, though he was a teacher, was also a closet drummer, so he would have his little rock band with other teachers. Then they would play together on the weekends. So we had drums in the basement, which I liked to experiment with. And I remember when in jazz band, normally I played a keyboard for jazz band, but they just had nobody to play drums and jazz band without drums is not much of a jazz band.
And then that particular year I was playing percussion in the wind band. So I said, "Well, I'll try." And I wasn't very good at it, but I could at least lay down the beat. So percussion has also been important and I think that that's fairly obvious if you listen to my music, even the chamber music and orchestral music, that percussion often plays a pretty important part. And then I had studied music from a young age, but I hadn't had a lot of exposure to music theory, so I didn't necessarily know a lot about writing music down on the page. But starting when I was maybe 11 or 12, I would improvise at the piano a lot in addition to playing classical repertoire. So I'd make up my own songs, but I didn't worry too much about figuring out ways to record them.
I would just kind of remember them. And, my mom had heard of this program with the local orchestra, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. They had a Young Composers program where it was an opportunity for high school students to work with a composer and residents to get lessons. And then at the end of the year, you'd have a piece played by the orchestra and she said, "You know, you're already writing these songs. You should go do this." And I of course, being a teenager, I thought this was ridiculous and embarrassing I didn't know how to write it down. So how could I pretend to be a composer? But anyways, I had the chance to work with Allen Gilliland, and that was a really wonderful introduction to composition and also kind of a weird introduction in that your first piece [was] being performed is by orchestra.
But at that point I had been accepted to do a piano performance degree at McGill. And that experience really put the composition bug in me where I wanted to learn more. So when I got to Montreal, the first thing I started doing was knocking on all the doors of the composition faculty and I convinced them to let me do a double major there. So that's how I sort of branched into both composition and piano. I guess studying at McGill, one of the fortunate things is that they have a really wonderful digital composition studio where all of the composers are required to do quite a lot of electronics classes. Cause that was really not something I had been exposed to at all before moving to Montreal when I was 17. And New Music, also. I mean, I think the most wacky stuff I had played up until that point was Debussy and Bartok.
I didn't really know that there was music that was written in the last hundred years. So there was a huge process of discovery that I think that setting up McGill and having that sort of conservatory training and orchestration and theory and history, sort of all the basics, but then also getting a lot of electronics, was really formative to me and helped inform where I'd go after that. I spent a gap year in Paris where I studied with Phillipe Hurel, a pianist there, and I took some lessons with Martin Matalon and then then following the French connection that sort of had me applying back. And I did my graduate studies at Columbia because at the time Tristan Murail and Fabien Levy were professors there. So my introduction to the New York scene was through French Spectralism.
Darwin: Now one of the things that I'm always interested in, first of all, I'll tell you - so you're the fourth of the people that I've interviewed that Seth has introduced me to, and all four people had this watershed moment where it was, like up until that point, they hadn't realized that composers could be alive. There's a sense that composers are people that have been dead for a hundred years and now we're we're honoring their memory by playing their pieces or whatever. And each person had like a different watershed "moment" when all of a sudden it broke open for them. What was it for you? What did you hear or what did you see or what did you find yourself playing that all of a sudden opened your ears to the breadth that New Music could provide?
Zosha: Well, I would say the first time I kind of became aware that being a composer was a thing that you could do, I was... I was lucky that my parents were very encouraging of my interest in music and would take me to concerts of all different kinds of music. But we would often go camping in the mountains around Banff, and there's this wonderful arts center there. And we would go from the campsite and catch whatever concert was happening. And my mom had caught wind that there was a program of New Music when I was, I don't know, maybe 12 or 13 years old. And that there was a young woman who had music on this concert. And so it was, I think, the first time I really heard contemporary music played, and definitely the first time I ever saw a woman speak about her music and have it performed: Kelly-Marie Murphy. And that just kind of blew my mind. I guess I had always assumed that that was just not something that women, because you know, I had never learned, I had been playing piano since I was three, but I'd never played a piece by a woman.
Darwin: And you'd never see a woman's name on the page.
Zosha: No, exactly. And when I'd go to my piano teacher's studio, there'd be like a giant portrait of Brahms with his big beard and Beethoven with his crazy hair. And I just thought that's what composers were, you know, so that definitely planted a seed I guess. But more fundamentally, my exposure to New Music was more during my undergraduate studies at McGill, and Montreal has a really wonderful cultural scene. There's a lot going on for the size of the city that it is. They have some great international festivals too, or they're bringing in interesting artists. And I had the fortune to study with Sarah Laimon was my primary piano teacher when I was at McGill and she performs a lot of contemporary music and encourages all her students to collaborate with composers and sort of helped us work through that process. So I think that that definitely was extremely formative those four or five years in Montreal.
Darwin: Sure. I have to say that I have never visited Montreal, but several times my family and I have been like, "Where would we want to go?" And we've identified Montreal as the place and then for something would get in the way we haven't been able to do it. But it sounds like a fascinating place and and when I dig into it, I mean the level of cultural stuff going on there is just pretty phenomenal for the size of the city.
Zosha: Yeah, it is. It's an amazing place. I'd really encourage you to go there. And on top of it, it's very affordable or at least it was, I think it still is in terms of just paying your bills and general living. So I still have a lot of friends that live there because they can be musicians and not have to have five jobs like you might...
Darwin: I was going to say that is like the opposite of the story. So, your move to New York, was to Columbia from sort of your French connection, but at some point you also had to kind of go from being the student with promise to the composer that was getting work done. What did that transition look like for you?
Zosha: I mean I think it was a gradual process of always applying to a lot of things, getting a lot of rejection letters at the beginning, but gradually having opportunities open up. And you know, once you have a couple of things under your belt, that usually leads to more things. But yeah, I guess I started getting my first commissions [when I] was still a student and then I was lucky that that kind of continued, moving forward from there.
Darwin: I see. Sure. You dropped so many interesting kind of nuggets along the way. I just want to pick up on some of these ideas, and follow up on them a little bit. I think that it's really interesting that growing up you said that you had a serious interest in dance - enough so that being a choreographer was one of the considerations had for what you wanted the future to look like. And even now you do things where you're teaching composition for dance. So you clearly are finding a way to see the coordination or the, or the similarities between choreography and composition. For you, what represents the things that are alike and what represents the things that are different in those two disciplines?
Zosha: Hmm, good question. Well, I think that one thing that has been interesting to me is especially in teaching that class where, in addition to explaining to composers the modern history of dance in the last hundred years or so, and getting them different models of collaboration, I paired each composer with a young choreographer in the city. And at the end of the year they had a performance of a new work that they created together. And one of the things that kept coming up in our conversations was the fact that both composers and dancer/choreographers have a lot of vocabulary or words that they use that are in common, but they don't necessarily mean the same things. So things like texture, I mean gesture I guess is something that kind of goes across and people sort of understand them to be more or less one in the same thing. But things like texture - I remember we had this really fascinating moment where the composer was talking about texture and the dancer was talking about texture and it was clear they were not talking about the same thing.
And so I asked them to explain, not using that word, what it is that they were describing in the music or in the movement. And the composer was talking about sort of the overall effect of the layers and kind of how dense it was, how complex. And the dancers said, "Oh, well, texture for me is if I was imagining my body moving through different substances, what that would feel like. Like this is like a watery movement or this is like a thick goopy movement. This is a prickly movement." It was very tactile. I think that there's a lot to be learned there and it can be inspiring to think in a different way about how you're working with sound when you interact with different artists in different mediums.
Darwin: Sure. Of course - and again, just learning the vocabulary. Sometimes we think so verbally that just getting the opportunity to new learn new vocabulary puts us in a mind space to do new work.
Zosha: Definitely. Yeah.
Darwin: Kind of following on that as a concept, one of the things in listening to your work, you mentioned before about how it does seem like a lot of performances, especially of classical or classical-like work or orchestra work tends to seem run a very specific pattern. People walk on, the audience claps, they perform, clap, perform, clap. The dynamics of the music has a tendency to start to ramp up a bit, ramp up bigger, die [down], ramp up to a great big ending. Everyone bows, right? And stands up and claps - your music doesn't do that. I was often shocked by starting a track and almost getting my forehead run over by the first 20 notes. Or wondering if the track even started in all of a sudden being sucked into a really intimate moment. The way that you use dynamics and the drama that you bring into things strikes me as different from what is expected. My question to you is, first of all, how do you think of dynamics in a way that makes you actively say, "I don't want to do it like everyone else." Or is there something else that speaks to you that draws that out? And do you ever find people sort of wish they would just be quiet and then go loud at the end so that they know when to clap?
Zosha: That's a good question. I think, well I think a lot about form and then within that I sort of break down different elements. It's not uncommon that I'll make sort of a roadmap for my composed pieces where I have an idea of sort of the shape of the work and I might break it down to things like dynamics or use of register or tension graphs for instance. Like where are the moments that are going to be the loudest or the most tense? Those two might not be together. The ideas of instrumentation. I used to be very stuck to that where I would have to follow it down to the second when I was much younger. But now I think I allow that just to be sort of an initial sketch and I know that there's going to be a lot of movement and that things are gonna change and the beginning might actually end up being at the end that it's just sort of a way for me to begin the process of writing.
But I think in music, I personally listen for high moments of contrast. And also I enjoy music that journeys through a lot of different places. I don't, well I'd have to go back and listen. I would say I don't have a lot of pieces that just do one thing for the whole time. They tend to start somewhere and move somewhere very different. Sometimes return playing with memory and repetition, but not these atmospheric things that would just sit for half an hour. And it's not that I don't enjoy that music and I still like listening to pieces like that, but it's just personally when I write, I think there's a restlessness there.
Darwin: It's not your voice. Right? Yeah, I get that. Well and in fact, there was one piece - and I can't remember the name of it - but I watched a video of it and it was really quite remarkable because just about when I would get lured into somebody tapping on the side of the sculptural thing with this cool rhythmic [figure], and just as I was starting to like get drawn into that, all of a sudden I'm drawn to a different part of the stage. It lights up and somebody is bowing a piece of glass. Right? And you, you manage that transition really nicely. But again, it's one of those things where it would be really easy to almost lean into the idea that this percussive thing is becoming comfortable. Let's let people settle into it and enjoy it. And instead this restlessness really comes out in this kind of work. Like "I've been sitting here too long. It's time for me to go to the next thing." I can almost see you drumming your fingers on a tabletop. Right?
Zosha: Yeah. I mean, I think that there's a part of that that is my personality and the way I hear music. But I think I also sometimes, or at least in recent years I've been working against that a little bit, not to be too impatient because I think in my very early student pieces, things would change too quickly because I wouldn't know how to develop an idea because it would take long to write. I would assume people would be bored when they're listening. Really. That was, you know...
Darwin: You were bored writing it, but, right.
Zosha: Yes. So I think there's an element of sort of patience that I hope that I'm giving ideas enough time to speak, but then also wanting to keep the listener engaged and surprised, and present them with unexpected moments as well.
Darwin: Of course. So what other things have changed for you over time? What other things do you see changing as you mature as a composer?
Zosha: Well, I mentioned already formed and I think I allow myself to be much more flexible with that than I used to. And I think part of why that has happened is that I move progressively more towards always composing. And I'm in Logic, in a DAW, even for my pieces that don't involve electronics. I think part of it to me is when you'd write right to paper it became fixed and it's such an effort to figure out notation and put in all the details that then I would be reluctant to change things or move things even if I knew fundamentally that that needed to happen. And I found that when I worked in a digital audio workstation that I was much more flexible. Like I could just take a chunk of music and see what happens if I copy pasted it somewhere else or move the beginning to the end or you know - layered two different ideas.
That sort of fluid way of composing I think really appealed to me. So I would say, yeah, that that's sort of changed the way I think about form. And then I guess we already touched on some of these things, like the idea of the physicality or the visual spectacle of pieces. And I think you know, during my graduate studies at Columbia, I continued working with electronics in the Computer Music Center. But one of the big things that Columbia had going on that I had never been exposed to before then was, people doing sound art. So first Douglas Reppeto was there and now we have Miya Masaoka, and there was an art professor, John Kessler. So Kessler and Reppeto taught this great class that had both visual artists and composers in it. And that was sort of my first introduction to building things. They sort of taught us how to use the woodshop and the metal shop. Then that I think opened up different possibilities for me for how I was thinking about sound and drama on the stage.
Darwin: Yeah. Well giving, giving Douglas Reppeto a chance to get inside your head is actually a little bit dangerous. He never leaves and he leaves droppings all over the place. He's just that guy.
Zosha: Yeah, no, it's amazing teaching
Darwin: One of the things I'm curious about is, again, when I listened to your work, there're two things that really strike me. First of all, I don't always know when things are tightly composed and when they are improvisational - and in fact a lot of times the dramatic surprise for me is when it sounds like things are getting chaotically improvisational and all of a sudden, Bam, it'll just stop on a dime. And it was just really clear that this was a very composed moment to get to that spot. Right? Or things will be happening. It'll seem like it's very improvisational and all of a sudden a spoken word piece will roll in and that just drops into what's happening and you realize, "Oh, this wasn't a madness. This was literally a pre composed effort." How do you deal with the interaction of composition and improvisation? How do you make it so that those get intertwined in the way that provides that sense of surprise. It gives that sense of risk for both the performers and the listeners and really adds that to the performance.
Zosha: I'm glad that you touched on the vitality because I think that's why I tried to incorporate elements of improvisation also because that's sort of where I started. I mean, before I knew how to set notes, the page, it was coming to it more as an improviser. But I would say that I have to adjust my approach depending on who I know I'm going to be working for and what kind of ensemble. So for instance, when I write for orchestra, usually in most settings you don't have a lot of rehearsal time and you're dealing with performers who really are not very comfortable with improvisation - usually that they want to play and execute things as perfectly as possible and they don't like the risk factor of not knowing if that's the right thing to be doing. So those pieces tend to be the most composed I should add, the most-notated.
And then with chamber music it's sort of a mix. I started experiencing in my pieces, especially during transitions in pieces, I felt like performers have such a subtle sensitivity to timing that we as composers don't even always have even in interpreting traditional repertoire like a Bach Cello Sonata is where the timing of how you execute the end of a phrase (or something) would be more flexible than it looks on the page. And so those were the moments where I would experiment with things that are more quasi-improvisational. Also, often I would give sort of a cell of material or describe the effect that I want and say how long it should last for. And there's clear adjoining parts on each end of that so that you can get in and out of it fluidly. And generally that has worked. I mean, I don't know if it would work with absolutely any performers.
So part of it is also finding people to work with that understand that and are open to it and are good at improvising. And then I guess on the extreme end of things, like when I write solo pieces and I know I'm working with a particular person - like I cowrote a piece with Diego Espinosa Cruz Gonzales, this amazing percussionist from Mexico city and he's he's got a doctorate in percussion performance so he can read any score, and he plays Boulez and is amazing, but he can also improvise and is very great to work with and good ideas and workshopping a piece. So for example, with that piece, we have what I call a storyboard score. And it really started off with the two of us in the studios spending a lot of time together trying out ideas.
And when we'd find something we'd like, I just take a scrap of paper and either jot down the main rhythm or draw a little picture of what his body looked like when he was doing that. And we had a big foamcore board and tape and we would put it up and then we would be able to move those little pieces of paper around until we were gradually finding a form that we liked and finding relationships between the selves of material that we were developing. And in that case, you know, video became an important part of how the piece was created and how it's documented at least at this stage. So we would make little videos of our sessions at the end of each day, we'd sort of do a run through. So we could hopefully come back to that.
Zosha: Since we didn't live in the same city we'd have these intense periods of workshop and then long months between where we weren't in the same place. And then, eventually - just recently - I released an album of my music and for that piece we decided that video is really the best way for us to document it. And if anyone else were to play it, that'd be kind of essential to have that as a next step along with the storyboard score. And maybe at some point I'll go further with notating and in a more traditional method but I really liked the spontaneity that that brought. And also the fact that because that piece in particular was very sort of choreographic in it's gestures, It's very beautiful to watch him perform it. It was nice to not have any music stands, he could completely play this from memory. The storyboards scores more a mnemonic device for him to remember the overall shape, but that he didn't necessarily have to be stuck to the page, which I really liked.
Darwin: That's really interesting. Now I don't see you doing a lot of traditional collaborations. I see you composing pretty much solo and then, and then your collaboration really comes in working with the performer.
Zosha: Yeah, I guess it depends on how we want to define collaboration. I see the collaborations with the performers as being really important to my work. So having workshops where I can bounce ideas off and often record things and then bring that in and rework the material. That gives me a lot of ideas. There's some pieces like the... I have a large, almost one hour music, New Music theater piece called Phonobellow, which I developed with musicians from ICE, but that was co-written with David Adamcyk, who's also my partner. And so that's maybe one of the only examples of something that I co- composed with another composer. I work with different artists for the visual elements for instance, on Dear Life, my orchestra piece.
Darwin: yeah, I guess co-writing or co-composing us is just by definition may be a little difficult because if there isn't something like... it tends to be more sort of the the performer/improvisers that focus on collaboration more - at least collaboration in writing. But you talk about like doing workshops and stuff. So when you're going to work with their performer for the implementation of a piece, what are the ways that you get feedback?
Zosha: Like the early stages, the workshops can often be maybe I'll have a few little written bits, but most of it is, can show me this or can you make a sound that sounds like this? Or sometimes I'll play back sound files to performers and to see what happens when they imitate that, which has yielded really interesting results that I think even the performaners didn't really know that they could do. Like I remember there was a piece where I had played a vocalist just a bunch of strange animal sounds - like different bird sounds, turkey sounds and sound of a moose. And she was making all these amazing, amazing sounds and she had never done before, but I recorded it. And I guess then the challenge is how do you write that down or get them to do something like that again.
But yeah, so initial workshops or just sort of finding ideas and then sometimes I will do things like where I write different versions of the same material to see what they can do. Or I'll give them one sort of general idea, and then I'll just speak them through different variations. It's not actually written out, but I'd say, okay, what if we did this warped chord at twice the speed? What if we played it as high in the registers as you can, what if we play it three times as long - just for me to sort of get material and then I can take it from there and layer it with different ideas or expand or develop those cells. So, for instance, when I was writing the string quartet, that was something that I had done maybe three workshops, and by the final workshop it's more getting them to read through the score or almost complete score and give me specific feedback about how the notation could be clearer or things that were not idiomatic for their instruments, which I usually tried to make changes as much as possible cause I don't want it to be unnecessarily painful if it was really just an effect that I'm going for.
Maybe that goes back to your idea about like what's notated and what's improvised - it's sometimes in these discussions with musicians, I realized I could write something out with an extremely complicated rhythm that jumps all around, but when really when I want just sort of scattered figure that does this, I can just tell them to do that and they'll find a way that is expressive and comfortable. Whereas making them struggle through something, sometimes that doesn't actually give the effect that I wanted. So figuring out what are those moments that are worth fully writing out because you want the ensemble to come together in these crisp ways that you were mentioning and when you want something so more chaotic or exploded that you can verbally describe that to get that effect.
Darwin: Sure. Very interesting. Our time is getting close to up here already, and I do have like a big list of questions. I say that every time, I swear. So one of the things that again was sort of a surprise: I feel like your music is just filled with surprises and it's one of the things where I really enjoyed listening to the variety of it because each kind of expression brought different kinds of surprises. But one of the things I would say is that, when I would watch the video of your work being performed, I was often surprised by hearing things that I assumed were being played live either by a musician or something and it looks like it must've been fixed media because there's nobody actually actually playing that; or oftentimes the opposite, which is something that if I wasn't watching it, I would assume was fixed media or was a prerecorded electronic thing, and then I'll look at it and it's like, "Oh my God, no, that's really a person banging out a rhythm on a piece of moving wood or something like that!"
I mean it's clearly part of your composition process is to make it appear like you're moving seamlessly between these different kinds of expressions and different kinds of voicing. What is the mechanism that you find really makes that viable? How do you approach that so that you make it sound natural to move from one voicing to another?
Zosha: That's a good question. I mean it is something I think of these kind of plays on whether things are alive or prerecorded. And I think that maybe that stems back to the idea of trying to keep the listener or the audience really engaged, especially in a live context and not have it just be this predictable thing that you're always sort of - to me, okay, what's going on here is somebody actually doing this or not? And I think that as a child and I'd go to see the symphony play, that was always an exciting thing. Like when you have the seats way high up and look down and try to see, Oh that's the percussionist playing this thing. And you know, when you're not yet familiar with the instruments, sort of making that link between the visual gesture to produce a sound and the resulting sounds.
And of course the electronics open up all kinds of possibilities there where you can not only process instrumental sounds and play with that, but also bring in sounds from the real world. So I think one thing, say with a piece, like I have an orchestra piece called Dear Life for orchestra, soprano and recorded narrator. And at that piece I actually do get the orchestra to improvise a little bit, but I write out a lot of what I'm going for. And then they have some freedom within that to take it further. And because that piece is a little bit more narrative-driven, I think it works well, but it's a way to engage imaginatively with the performers. So for instance, in that piece, there's a moment where they read this poem that comes from a long time ago and I get the orchestra to sound like an old phonograph.
I tried to get them to sound like a record player to get the sort of the static or this sort of repeating background, a white noise that would produce and to do that, it was actually quite labor intensive. You know, I had a recording of what a photograph static sounded like and then I did a spectral analysis of it and I sort of broke it down into different components. Then I tried to figure out ways to notate or find ochestral samples that would sound like those little blips and clips and this sort of airy sounds. But it was pretty amazing when you get 80 people on stage making that sound really is evocative of that. Or at the end of that piece too, I have the piece sort of evaporates into the sound of a flock of birds ascending and you hear them kind of honking away as they, and I did a similar thing where I tried to figure out ways to transcribe that into the winds, for instance, where they take the mouthpiece off the clarinet and just get them to do a kind of honky thing.
And I wrote out very specifically the rhythms, but as that dies out, I drop, gradually players out until there's just three or four people left playing. Then at the end, you're left with the actual sample of the birds and it kind of morphs from the orchestral world into the natural, which is something I'm interested in.
Darwin: That really sounds beautiful. It sounds amazing. Well it's actually our time is up unfortunately. But before we go, I would like to have you just let people know, what you have got coming up either in terms of recordings, performances, debuts of your work, that people are interested in and might be able to check out.
Zosha: Sure. So I just recently released a debut album of my music on New Focus Recordings. It's called Tachitipo and it's sort of a sampling, mainly of my chamber work, and a couple of solo pieces from the last eight years or so. And that was made with a bunch of close collaborators that I've been working with over the last while, mainly in New York. So it features a bunch of great bands, really inspiring musicians. So that's up, it's called Tachitipo if people want to check that out. And, I had been sort of taken a little break from writing because I just had a baby, but I have to get back to it. So I have some of my orchestra music being played by Minnesota Orchestra this week. I was just in Philly before and the next big premiere will be in Chicago. I'm working with the Grossman Ensemble and that will be in early June. And for anyone who's in New York, August 20th Yarn/Wire is gonna play Tachitipo. It's a 24 minute piece for two pianos, two percussionist and electronics. I'm excited that they're going to get to play that again at Timespans Festival.
Darwin: That sounds amazing. Well, with that, I'm going to let you have the rest of your day. Thank you so much for the talk. It was really, really inspiring.
Zosha: Oh, thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.
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