The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Composer and violinist Andrew Waggoner talks about the importance of improvisation and his upcoming concerts at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival on Sunday, and then next Tuesday and Wednesday. | August 21, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

You might think of it as a form of musical archaeology: Recovering, reclaiming and exhibiting the time-honored tradition of improvisation that for centuries was essential to composers and performers alike.

Improvisations on a Theme” is a watchword that shapes the programs of the 2013 Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the concert presented by guest ensemble from New York, Open End (below), three of whose members will be in residence for a week at this summer’s festival.

Open End Ensemble BW

Essential to the Open End mission is the reclaiming of improvisation as the central skill of all musicians. Audiences at Open End concerts come to think of spontaneous creation as being part of a natural, ongoing dialogue between performers creating in the moment and a written body of work that continues to expand, to transform.

At home in venues from galleries and living rooms to concert halls, Open End seeks nothing less than to engage audiences in an experience that is wonderful, intimate, challenging and beautiful.

On this coming Sunday, August 25, at 4 p.m. Open End members Andrew Waggoner (violin), Caroline Stinson, (cello), and Molly Morkoski (piano) will present a program of recent works and improvisations in a program including music of Charles Ives, Henry Cowell (below), Anna Weesner, Andrew Waggoner, and Bach, concluding with the premiere of a new work by Waggoner.

henry cowell

Waggoner has been characterized by The New Yorker magazine as “the gifted practitioner of a complex but dramatic and vividly colored style” His new piano quintet, inspired by the acclaimed Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, was written this summer for the 2013 Token Creek Festival and is dedicated to Co-Artistic Directors John and Rose Mary Harbison.

Then at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, August 27, and Wednesday, August 28, the Open End members will also participate in one of the Festival’s program of Shakespeare in scenes and songs. The program opens with the premiere of John Harbison’s “Invention on a Theme of Shakespeare” for solo cello and small ensemble, followed by scenes from Shakespeare plays accompanied by new incidental music, and songs and arias on texts from the same plays set by to music by composers from the Renaissance to the present day.

Songs will be offered by composers including Morley, Arne, and Henry Purcell; Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf; and Francis Poulenc, Frank Bridge, Michael Tippett and John Harbison.

Shakespeare color

All performances take place at the Festival Barn (below), on Highway 19 near the hamlet of Token Creek, with ample parking available. The venue, indoors and air-conditioned, is invitingly small, and early reservations are recommended. 

TokenCreekbarn interior

Concert tickets ($30, and $10 for students) may be reserved by phone at 608-241-2525, by email at info@tokencreekfestival.org, or by U.S. mail at P.O. Box 55142, Madison WI, 53705.

More information about the Token Creek Festival can be found at the website, www.tokencreekfestival.org

Violinist-composer Andrew Waggoner (below) recently granted an email interview to The Ear:

Andrew Waggoner

Could you briefly introduce yourself and your work to people who don’t know you or haven’t heard about you?

I think the best way for people to approach me and my music is to know going into it is that the two paramount values for me in any musical exchange are strangeness and beauty.

I say “strangeness” because the most arresting, durable encounters we have with creative work are marked by a level of confusion, or of the numinous, of something that immediately strikes us as “other,” but that, hopefully, the work itself gives us the tools to sort out over the course of the experience.

“Beauty” is perhaps a little more self-evident, but it can manifest in myriad ways, of course, including beauty of form, of shape or dramatic arc. Much of the music I love most (J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Duke Ellington (below), Miles Davis, Harbison (really!), Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez) moves me at the level of the big shape as much as at that of surface sensuality.

That said, sensuality is hugely important to me, and when I feel I’ve found a unity of shape and surface beauty that makes a listener want to stay with a piece long enough to figure out where its strangeness is coming from and what it means, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot. This doesn’t happen all the time, of course.

Duke Ellington at piano

What are the guiding principles – improvisation — and the performance goals behind the Open End Ensemble? How do they reflect your opinion of the state of contemporary classical music today?

The thing we most wanted with Open End was to have a group that played like a group — always the same players — and that could move easily between written-out music and free improvisation and not miss a beat.

We wanted the audience to hear the improvisations as pieces, and to hear the pieces as having the same level of listening and spontaneous response as the improvs. We make an issue of improv, in part, in order to get the audience to the point where they no longer hear it as unusual.

With regard to the state of things today, I’d just say that the only criterion we bring to programming a piece is whether or not we like it. If we believe in it, we play it. We have the luxury of not taking things on for any purpose other than what we want a program to sound like, how we want it to move, to flow.

If there are specific contemporary currents that seem not to flow through our programs, it’s most likely because we’re not interested in them.

What would you like the general public to know about your performances and specific programs (Ives, Cowell, Weesner, Waggoner’ world premiere and Bach; also Harbison’s Shakespeare music) and works at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival?

We like programs that mix contemporary works with 20th-century classics, along with different instrumental combinations that provide relief and perspective on each other.

In this way we’re no different from anyone else, it must be said, except that, again, there are no “isms” guiding our programming, so we can be very free about the kinds of combinations we find.

So the works by Charles Ives and Henry Cowell make a natural pair (culturally and temperamentally, and in their dogged sense of exploration), and they provide a nice come-down from the energy of the work by Anna Weesner (below), which is volcanic.

anna weesner

The improvs will work in some way yet to be discovered to bridge these different expressive worlds, with John and Rosie’s Bach offering both a stylistic distance and expressive weight specific to it — though listeners will recognize Cowell’s affectionate nod to Bach in his little pieces, so to some degree we go in widening gyres here.

The premiere of my own work, “Floating Bridge,” is a very personal homage to John and Rosie, to John and my (and Carrie’s) shared love of the award-wining Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, to the festival’s rural setting, and to Ellen Singer, a dear friend at our own rural festival, Weekend of Chamber Music, whom we lost this past spring. All these threads were evoked for me and somehow float together in Munro’s story, also called “Floating Bridge.”

The Shakespeare program will mash-up an astonishingly diverse group of Shakespeare songs with dramatic monologues, acted by Madison native Allison Shaffer (below), with Carrie and me improvising, joined by John at the piano. We’ve done this kind of thing a lot, and we love it. We have no idea how the musical environment for the texts will take shape. We’ll find that in the moment.

Allison Schaffer

How would you characterize the style and interest of your own compositions and particularly the work that you will premiere here in Madison?

My own work, as I mentioned earlier, hopefully offers the listener something strange and compelling that is made comprehensible through a surface that is beautiful, and often sensual.

One person’s beauty is another’s caterwauling, of course, so not everyone will hear this music in the same way I do. But I am working to make the music as powerful and communicative as possible, not by trying to anticipate everyone’s varied tastes and levels of musical experience, but simply by responding to my own work as a listener.

The old modernist dichotomy of composer vs. listener bores me, in part because it always was mostly, and has now become entirely, meaningless, and because it overlooks the obvious fact that composers are listeners too.

So that’s where I start with any piece: what do I want to hear, where do I want to go with this, how do I want this to make me feel? I can only really respond to those questions as a listener, as someone who will hear the piece in performance and judge it in those terms, not as the product of a wonderfully complex compositional process.

In terms of style, the composers referenced above have all had a profound effect on me. To that list, I’d add Copland and Messiaen; if one morphs all of those different characters (Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Copland, Messiaen, Miles Davis, Carter, Boulez, Harbison (below)) one might actually come up with something like Waggoner!

JohnHarbisonatpiano

What else would you like to say about yourself and the ensemble, about your programs and work, and about the festival?

We’re crazy excited to come out to Token Creek. For us it’s both an extension of our relationships to John and Rosie Harbison (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot)and to John’s music, and an expression of how we most love to work as a group: in intimate, imaginative settings, close to the audience, able to work with the energy they give us, to shape an experience that is site-specific. For us it’s really the ideal, and we get to do only a few times a year under very special circumstances. So this is a rare privilege.

John and Rose Mary Harbison Katrin Talbot

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1 Comment »

  1. Thanks a lot for this incisive interview, Jake! Gives me a chance to make a few comments about the state of contemporary Classical music, and also relate that back to a previous thread regarding the racist presence among Classical music aficionados.

    First, I think that Michael bb was absolutely spot-on in his response to you: given reasonable standards of assessment, Jazz should be accorded the status of Black Classical Music — and central to its genius was, among other things, the re-introduction of the improvisatory requirement in music-making, requiring a level of musical sophistication at least equivalent to, and oftentimes more difficult than, the performance demands of Classical music. The fact that it hasn’t can be attributed to the transparently racist attitudes of really most Classical music people in the early 20th century: Jazz was simply “jungle music”, and inferior — just like the people who produced it. (That this attitude is not near to being dead is amply demonstrated by the reaction to Obama’s election, and then re-election — there is a feared contingent that is prepared to take the entire country down because the “truth” of Black inferiority is The Most Important Truth in the World — but I digress).

    Having said this, though, I see the present generation of Classically-trained musicians and composers as genuinely beyond this — meaning, not a fairness of condescension but a true respect for other non-Classical musical genres — and who have genuine respect for other musical “genres”. That is where I see Classical music going in the future, and there IS a future beyond that that of acting as museum curators. Like Michael bb, I think Waggoner is spot-on in his comments — and I agree totally with his compositional “heroes”.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — August 21, 2013 @ 12:54 pm


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