Lois V Vierk is a talented composer who was originally from the Midwest and now resides in the New York Tri-state area. She began her musical journey at a young age when her family acquired a piano from a neighbor. As she experimented with the piano, she would also sing in the local church children's choir during her grade school years. When her family moved to the Philadelphia area - during her mid-teens - she began to become more proficient as a pianist, as her parents found her a top notch local piano teacher. Lois took this musical foundation into her college years where she would receive a B.A. degree in piano and ethnomusicology at UCLA, where she studied gagaku, Japanese Court Music, with SuenobuTogi. Her musical education continued at Cal Arts where she studied composition with Mel Powell, Leonard Stein and Morton Subotnick, and worked with visiting composers like John Cage, Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros and others. She eventually earned her M.F.A. in 1978, at Cal Arts. After college, Lois spent two years in Japan studying the music that she loved -gagaku - which dates back many centuries. There she studied with SukeyasuShiba - the lead ryūteki player in Japan's Imperial Court Orchestra . After her studies in Japan, Lois moved to New York to launch her composing career. Her compositional works showcase the glissando slide techniques of gagaku music. Throughout her career her works have been performed worldwide by performers such as Bang on a Can All Stars and in venues such as Carnegie Hall. Her music is available on XI Records, Tzadik Records, New World Records, VexerVerlag (Switzerland), Starkland Records. I recently spoke with Lois about her career.
R.V.B. - Hi Lois. This is Robert von Bernewitz... how are you?
L.V.V. - Hi. How are you?
R.V.B. - I'm doing pretty good. Are you living in New Jersey?
L.V.V. - Yes. We're in West New York, New Jersey.
R.V.B. - So you're experiencing the same hot weather that we have?
L.V.V. - Yes. Where are you exactly?
R.V.B. - I'm 10 minutes out of Port Jefferson.
L.V.V. - I used to go to Port Washington all the time. My long-time tap dance collaborating partner Anita Feldman lives there.
R.V.B. That is a beautiful harbor town as well. They have a really nice library as well. Thank you for taking this time for me. I thoroughly enjoyed the CD's that you sent me.
L.V.V. - Thanks.
R.V.B. - How did you get involved with music? Were your parents musical?
L.V.V. - I don't come from a musical family at all. My mom, Nora Vierk, made her living as a teacher. She taught in grade school as well as high school. She was a P.E. teacher, and she also taught 3rd grade.
My dad, Ernest Vierk, was trained as a chemist, and his career was in business administration, besides. Actually, my early contacts with music were through my church. I grew up in a German Lutheran community in Lansing, IL, south of Chicago. We went to church every Sunday and I attended Lutheran day school from kindergarten through 8th grade. During that time we had a wonderful musician who was church organist and the children's choir director.
R.V.B. - What was his name?
L.V.V. - Paul Knauft. A very German name. Mr. Knauft was a good soul.There was mutual respect between him and the kids. He let us goof around to a point but then he demanded that we sing. (Haha) For starters, he would have us sing simple Bach chorale tunes. And then all kinds of children's choir music. He was very musical and had good taste, and singing in his choir was fun. That was my first deep connection with music.
At the same time, my parents took me to a neighborhood dance studio for weekly tap and ballet classes. I was already very involved in sports -- everybody where I lived played baseball or softball everyday -- so to go to a dance class, also very physical, felt natural.
R.V.B. - Did you have a music program in grade school?
L.V.V. - No, it was just the choir. But at home, when I was about 6 years old or so, some neighbors were moving and getting rid of their family piano. My dad, my uncle and a couple others carried this huge upright piano into our house. My mom liked to sit at our new piano and play hymns. She taught me how to read music. I remember taking a pencil and writing C-D-E on the piano keys. (Haha) I also began playing simple hymns and folk tunes from a book my mom bought, and also improvising my own music. When I was around 12 years old my folks realized that I really liked sitting at the piano, and they thought "How about giving her piano lessons?"I started lessons with a decent piano teacher, who acquainted me with classical music. I took to the music and loved it.
R.V.B. - It was a good starting reference.
L.V.V. - Yeah. Then when I was 15, my folks moved me and our dog - I'm an only child - to the east coast. We moved to the Philadelphia area. At that point my mom set out to find me a really good piano teacher. I began studying with a pianist named May Harrow. She brought a lot of music literature to me, including Beethoven. I loved Beethoven from the get-go. I also played a lot of Bach. I didn't really like 19th century piano music as much as Bach and Beethoven. My teacher would also throw some eastern European composers at me, like Kabalevsky, Bartok and Shostakovich, music which was more contemporary. I connected with the contemporary music and practiced it a lot. I wrote some little pieces at that time - kind of in the style of Shostakovich - and I showed them to my piano teacher. Her response was that she didn't really understand what I was doing and that she wasn't the one to talk to about it. I set aside my writing because I didn't have any resources around or teachers to help me.
I decided I wanted to be a pianist. The big problem there was that I hadn't developed any playing technique. I hadn't been practicing scales or anything that would make my fingers work really well until I was about 12 years old. When it was time to go to college I applied to some great music schools. I enjoyed my visit to Oberlin and badly wanted to go there. I applied to Eastman and to Indiana University. I didn't get into any one of those schools, though. My high school grades were near the top... my SAT scores were near the top... but I wanted to be a pianist so none of that mattered. My fallback was the school that my parents had graduated from, Valparaiso University in Indiana, a Lutheran school.
I started out at Valparaiso, and soon realized that if you wanted to be a church musician, an organist or a choir director, Valparaiso University is a great place. I didn't really know yet what I wanted, but it wasn't that.
So at Valparaiso I was back in the kind of community I'd been brought up in, a largely monolithic ethnic environment. Many of my classmates were German American like me. I did have a few friends on campus who were from other places and had different backgrounds. They pointed out, "There's so much music in the world. Why do you do only German church music?" What they said to me made an impact, and I thought about it a lot. It was also a time in pop culture that some non-Western music was having a big impact. For example, Ravi Shankar was very popular. George Harrison was also bringing an Indian sensibility as well as instruments into his own songs. There were new sounds that we were hearing moment to moment on the radio, at festivals, on records.
R.V.B. - It was like the birth of world music.
L.V.V. - Yes. All of that was exciting. I wanted to know more. I asked my piano teacher at Valparaiso, "Where can you study this sort of thing?", not really expecting an answer. But actually he knew! He said "If you want to do more than take a few classroom courses in ethnomusicology, you could go to UCLA or to the University of Hawaii. In the US, those are about the only places where you can get hands-on training in music from other cultures and traditions." Well, the next day I started to research UCLA, which in those days meant reading whatever you could find in the library and then sending out a letter of inquiry. Then waiting for UCLA to mail me their catalog. Nothing like today where everything happens immediately online. Once I got UCLA's catalog and read about their courses and teachers, I applied right away.
R.V.B. - And this time you got accepted.
L.V.V. - I did! Never having even gone out to California, I transferred to UCLA as a sophomore.
L.V.V. - Yes. I was able to secure a room in a women's co-op that was right next to campus. As a non-resident, I started off paying $750 per quarter. That was tuition! (Haha) After I'd lived in California for about a year I was considered a state resident. Then my tuition was $250 per quarter. I took a job at my co-op cooking a few meals per week and was able to pay my tuition, room and board with what I earned from very part-time work.
R.V.B. - Now you're in a candy store with all of this music in your fingertips.
L.V.V. - It was just amazing being at UCLA with its Institute of Ethnomusicology. I tried out a lot of classes. For starters, I took a class in drumming from Ghana, taught by a master drummer from that country. I took a Chinese classical music class with an excellent musician named Mr. Lui. I took a course in folk dance from the area formerly called Yugoslavia.
What I really fell in love with though was the Japanese court music, Gagaku (which literally means "elegant music"). It's music with a powerful and strong sound, and it's nuanced and graceful, as well. The dance that goes with it is called Bugaku. I started off with a Bugaku course in the dance department. The dance is very slow moving and very stylized. I realized that performing Bugaku has a lot to do with the breath. I'm not a dancer but I enjoyed Bugaku to no end. After my first quarter in this class in the dance department, I signed up for the Gagaku music class as well. Both classes were taught by the same teacher, Mr. Suenobu Tōgi. Tōgi-sensei was an extraordinary musician and one of the most musical people I have ever known. He had been a member of the Emperor's Court Orchestra in Tokyo and could trace his ancestry, generation to generation, back to around the year 800 or 900 A.D. That's when Japan brought over musicians, artists and scholars from the area we now know as China and the Korea. Mr. Tōgi's ancestors, the males that is, had been musicians in the Japanese emperor's court for all those centuries. The Tōgi clan had moved from Nara to Kyoto to Tokyo over the years, whenever the emperor and the court moved. Tōgi-sensei was the first person to leave the Emperor's Court Orchestra and take a teaching job in a foreign country. UCLA was so fortunate to have him!
In years past, I had liked the sound of Western flute, so I just naturally decided to play the Japanese Gaguku flute, the ryūteki (which translates as "dragon flute"). The ryūteki flute has large open finger holes, so you can move your fingers slowly or quickly on or off the holes. You can make all kinds of wonderfully controlled slides.
R.V.B. - Is that where you were first exposed to the glissando slide technique?
L.V.V.- Yes. When you play this music, you realize that a glissando is not a decoration in Gagaku melodies. Every slide serves to move the melody forward. Every slide has a meaning, besides being beautiful.
R.V.B. - I see. How did you enjoy working with Leonard Stein?
L.V.V. - Well, Leonard was the best! After I graduated from UCLA with a bachelor's degree in piano performance and ethnomusicology, I still didn't know what I wanted to do professionally. I had taken some composition classes at UCLA but the university's process was geared to making students compose in the style of X,Y or Z composer. I didn't like it and I didn't do it very well. So then I was out of school with this degree... now what do I do? To make a living, I started playing for dance classes and things like that. I talked to my piano teacher and said, "I really like music composition but I think I need to study more theory." My teacher said "My neighbor is Leonard Stein, perhaps a terrific teacher for you. Why don't you call him?" I did call Leonard, but at first he wouldn't teach me. He said "You have to study with one of my students before I will see you." So he sent me to Dean Drummond. Dean encouraged me to write my own sounds and to loosen up on the page as opposed to trying to be careful. Dean himself was also working with Harry Partch at that time. Partch had a studio in Santa Monica, where he constructed his instruments. Dean was assisting Partch to repair instruments and build new ones. When Dean would take me to Partch's studio, it was breathtaking, being introduced to these incredible instruments and being allowed to play on them. With my own writing, little by little, Dean got me to open up try to write new sounds which were personal to me. I still didn't have my own compositional voice, but after working with Dean for a year I was accepted as a student by Leonard Stein. He decided that he would teach me. I started going to Leonard's every Saturday for lessons.
R.V.B. - Sounds like a great learning experience.
L.V.V. - Leonard Stein was a major teacher for me. I couldn't have done better. He would look carefully at what I was doing. He would never tell me to compose in one style or the other. He would see and understand what kind of compositional problem or issue that I was grappling with. He would then get out a score from his own huge contemporary music collection, analyze that score, and say, "Look how this composer dealt with the same kind of issue you are going after." We would analyze piece after piece in my lessons.
Arnold Schoenberg had been Leonard's mentor. Leonard was a pianist and not a composer. He was an interpreter of Schoenberg's music as well as of many others. Of course we would analyze a lot of Schoenberg in my lessons. But for example, La Monte Young had been one of Leonard's Students, so we would look at La Monte's scores. We'd also look at Ligeti, we'd look at Stockhausen, Berio, Takemitsu. We'd analyze scores of whoever was on the scene at the moment. Leonard was able to take almost any score - and any style - and speak to it. That's what a musician he was. He was very encouraging to me. Anyone in new music who came to Los Angeles would come to see Leonard. He would often host soirees with musicians at his home. World class musicians from Europe, Asia, and all over the US would come to visit Leonard and maybe perform a piece or two in his living room. He would invite me and some of his other students to come and listen, discuss, shoot the breeze.
Sometimes I would call Leonard and say "Hey... it's time for my lesson. When should we schedule it?" He might schedule, or he might say something like, "I'm so busy right now with Monday Evening Concerts. Please come to the concert instead and we can talk about lessons later." I'd go to the Monday Evening Concerts at the LA Art Museum, where Leonard was one of the musicians in charge and was often performing himself. He would introduce me there to all the composers and performers he knew. I was thinking of myself as some little composer, trying to make her way. But there was Leonard, introducing me to world famous people as his "talented student". I was blown away by the whole thing.
R.V.B. - I see that you also worked with Morton Subotnick and Mel Powell. Was that at the school?
L.V.V. - Yes. That was at Cal Arts. I was still casting about for what the next step in my education should be, when Leonard said that Cal Arts was the place for me. I went there for my master's degree. Although Leonard was teaching at Cal Arts, he told me to study with all the other faculty composers, one by one. He had already shown me what he wanted to, and now he wanted me to expand musically. I got different kinds of direction from Mort and from Mel. Mort was an inspiring role model. He gave very helpful lessons, but if he didn't appear some week at lesson time, you'd figure out that he was -- well, it could be almost anywhere -- Darmstadt, London, New York or somewhere else for a performance of his music. Here's an example of a great thing I learned from Mort. I was writing a piece for 3 clarinets. Clarinet was Mort's instrument. Considering my score in progress, Mort picked out what regarded as sounds unique to my writing, and then he urged me, "This is a strong sound but why do you only have 10 measures of this material? Make a whole piece out of this." He showed me that I should develop my materials and take them to the extremes of what I had in me.
R.V.B. - How about Mel Powell?
L.V.V. - Mel was a musician's musician, similar, in some ways, to the way Leonard was. Mel could also look at any score or any style that you were writing in, and could speak to you about it abstractly. In teaching, he distilled many important concepts for his students. For example, he would find something he saw/heard as strong or beautiful in my in-progress score. Then he would say, "Look at this this particular musical element in your score. What is the DESTINY of this in your piece?" He showed me that the strongest statements are made with nothing extraneous to your musical intent or purpose. The composer may be hearing and understanding a lot in his or her head, but all of this needs to be brought clearly to the listener as well. Mel taught me that having an "inspiration" is just a very first step. You have to be able to figure out if your own score actually brings your inspiration to the listener. If not, change the score, keep working on it until it does. Who cares how much time it takes? You might care because you're the one doing the work, but nobody else knows about that. Just do it and make your work as strong as it can be.
As a student at Cal Arts, I had so many resources around me including all of those student musicians who were eager to perform contemporary music. They had instrumental teachers who didn't mind if someone asked them to expand their playing techniques. They were ready and eager to try almost anything you asked them to do. They were willing to show the composers new playing techniques, too. Mel Powell would encourage me to spend time working with a player. If I were writing for cello for example, I'd spend time with a willing player. I'd ask that cellist to demo playing as loud as possible and as soft as possible, as high and as low as possible, as accented and as smoothly as possible, etc. etc. Sitting with a live player makes it easy to take in sounds viscerally. I would do this every time I started a new piece, even if I was already familiar with the instrument. I've learned incredibly much from instrumentalists and have put a lot of what they've shared with me into my pieces.
Cal Arts composition students studied John Cage probably as much as students at a other schools might study and analyze Bach, for example. During my time at Cal Arts, Cage once came and spent a week with us. He taught our composition classes. We played his music. I was one of the performers in "Winter Music", with dozens pianos scattered around the Cal Arts Great Hall. It was a hugely memorable experience and I can still visualize that piano part in front of me. There were quite a few other visiting composers at Cal Arts while I was there, and we had access to all of them. Feldman came and he gave us lessons. Milton Babbit, too. Quite a few other composers stopped in too, including Pauline Oliveros, Elliot Carter, performer/composer Joan LaBarbara. They generously interacted with us students. It was quite an education.
R.V.B. - Now that you had that great background of knowledge, where did you go from there?
L.V.V. - I had my master's but "Ok now what?" was my continuing question, even then. I knew composing was my thing. It was so much fun, and sometimes startling that you could write this stuff on a piece of paper and then it comes back at you in marvelous sounds when musicians perform it.
R.V.B. - Did you ever write something down on a piece of paper and it didn't come back to you the way that you thought?
L.V.V. - Absolutely. I can't tell you how much I've thrown away.
R.V.B. - I guess there's a little bit of trial and error of becoming a composer.
L.V.V. - Absolutely. And as I composed more and more, I ended up sketching more and more, and throwing away more and more. As for that kind of thing, I'm making changes even today to pieces that I wrote in the 90's.
So I graduated Cal Arts in 1978. During this whole time I was still playing with the UCLA Gagaku group. I ended up playing with them for 10 years total. I decided to either try to really understand Gagaku by going to Japan and studying, or give it up. I went to Japan for a couple years, 1982-84. My teacher in Los Angeles, Suenobu Tōgi, set it up so I could study with a friend and colleague of his in Tokyo. Tōgi-sensei was not a flute teacher. His main instrument was the double reed hichiriki. Tōgi-sensei arranged for me to take lessons with perhaps the best ryūteki flute teacher alive, Mr. Sukeyasu Shiba of the Emperor's Court Orchestra.
The other very important arrangement that Tōgi-sensei made, which allowed me to actually exist in Japan, was setting it up for me to rent a tiny "roku-jo" (six tatami mat size) apartment from distant relatives of his, the Ono family in Shitaya, Tokyo. The daughter of the family, Toshiko, is about my age. Since I hadn't learned much Japanese before moving to Tokyo, Toshiko helped me with innumerable things in getting settled. Eventually I learned enough of the language to accomplish day-to-day tasks like shopping for food, traveling around on the subway and National Railway, opening a bank account, etc. But throughout my two-year stay in Tokyo, I depended on Toshiko to translate not just Japanese words and sentences for me, but also the culture, which is so different from what we have in this country.
I lived in Tokyo for only two years but Toshiko and I became great friends for life. We still communicate often, and we've visited each other a couple times since I moved back to the US. By the way, for a Westerner to find people who can and will translate Japanese culture is of immense importance, I'd even call it a necessity. Here in New York, I was fortunate to connect with another person who could do that for me, namely Mari Ono (no relation to Toshiko), who with her husband, Naoyuki Miura, runs the presenting organization Music From Japan. Mari also has become a very good friend. Over the years she has communicated with Japanese musicians and ensembles many times on my behalf. Her help and advice have allowed me to deal with performers in much smoother and more productive ways than ever could have been, without her.
So in Tokyo, while studying with Shiba-sensei, I tried to learn Gagaku melodies in a more traditional way. By this I mean learning the melodies by listening and singing, not by using written notation. Traditionally, in this male-only tradition, if you were one of the boys from a hereditary Gagaku family in the court, the first thing you would be taught is dance. At a certain point, one of your family members would start teaching you melodies by voice. You would memorize the vocal version (called shōga) of many tunes by listening to your teacher sing, and then you in turn would sing the shōga back. Eventually you'd be given the type of wind instrument that your family was known for -- ryūteki flute, hichiriki double reed, or shō mouth organ. After you'd been playing your wind instrument, and you were a little older, you would learn one of the string instruments -- the biwalute or the koto zither. Biwa and koto have parts that are much more sparse than the wind instruments. They serve rhythmically to keep the ensemble together and move the phrases forward. Finally, when you knew all these other parts, you would learn a percussion instrument. The percussion players are kind of at the top. They control the ensemble and how it moves, its tempo and pace.
R.V.B. - From what I've read about it, the melodies are very ancient and go back many centuries.
L.V.V. - Supposedly, the melodies were preserved intact from generation to generation, from the year 800 or so till today. I say "supposedly" because things do change over the years... or centuries. Approximately around the year 1200, the melodies and instrumental parts were written down in various tablature notations. Some court musicians may tell you that things haven't changed since back then. I don't think that's totally true because you can hear performance style changes in recordings made even over recent decades. Things do change, even when preservation is the intent.
So when I was there, studying in Tokyo, what I tried to do was memorize the melodies by learning the vocal part first, before I ever played the pieces on my instrument. My teacher very generously recorded the shōga of much of the repertoire on cassette (the technology of the time) and gave me tapes. To practice, I would sit on the bamboo mat floor in my tiny apartment and learn the melodies by ear, listening to the cassette, stopping and starting the tape, singing the music back phrase by phrase, until I had memorized whole pieces. I would not look at notation. Only after all that, I would play the melodies on my ryūteki. By following this process, I discovered how deeply you understand sounds when you take them in by ear, as opposed to when you look at notation and take in sounds by your eye. It's a very different thing. It's more physical.
I always come back to this physicality, with my own music and with whatever else resonates deeply with me. I always come back to the physicality of music and the ear.
R.V.B. - It's healthy to do it that way. It's interactive.
L.V.V. - I think that with melody, it makes for a much more complex experience, hearing a Gagaku flute melody as opposed to hearing a Western flute melody. For me, all of these Gagaku slides, crescendos/decrescendos, and the different timbres that happen as you're playing a phrase on the ryūteki- these all are possible and also natural because the player has already learned to sing the melody without an instrument and without notation.
L.V.V. - Yes. I discovered that as a foreigner in Japan and also a woman, I couldn't get past a certain level. My Gagaku lessons were cut off, and there was nothing I could do about it. I think that Japanese women musicians who want to study Gagaku today are in general doing better. Women will never be in the Emperor's Court Orchestra, but today Japanese women are offered more in the way of a professional opportunity. Shiba-sensei founded an ensemble named Reigakusha, which I think would qualify as a professional group though it's not made up of court musicians. Shiba-sensei has trained his ensemble players very well. There are women in Reigakusha who are quite good.
But for me, realizing that I was never going to have a career in Gagaku and I was never going to have a career in Japan, I wanted to leave Japan and live in New York for a while. As a composer, New York City was the place that I wanted to be. That was way back in 1984 and I'm still here in the area. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - When you settled here, is that when you started composing seriously?
L.V.V. - Yeah I did. I was introduced to the downtown scene. My personal connections were there. My music belonged there more than any other place. I started hanging out at Phill Niblock's loft.
L.V.V. - Well, my aesthetic was like the downtown New York new music scene, and not like uptown, at that time. But it's funny because in a way I also didn't fit in with the downtown scene. My music requires virtuoso playing, and at that time, there were a lot of composer/performers who were doing their own experimental stuff but they weren't interested in playing anyone else's difficult notated music. It wasn't that easy for me to find performers. I had already written "Go Guitars" for 5 guitars back in '81 when I was in Los Angeles. I had composed it originally for acoustic guitars, as commissioned by John Schneider. The premiere was in LA with four John Schneider acoustic guitars on tape and John playing the 5th part live. But in New York in 1984 I realized that the piece is more suited to electric guitars, especially because of all the guitar slides. It was a challenge to find even one electric guitarist in my circles in New York City in the mid 80s who could read music. Thankfully I found Dave Seidel. He dove into Go Guitars and recorded 4 parts, and then used his recording in concerts, performing the 5th part live.
I should add that from the beginning it was my intent for the piece to be done with 5 live guitarists. It's often done the other way for financial reasons.
After a few concerts back then in NYC, I began meeting more artists in different disciplines. Tap dance choreographer Anita Feldman and I had become familiar with each other's art and we wanted to work together. During the 1980s and 90s we created six music/tap dance pieces. In 1998 the American Dance Festival commissioned our work Hexa for three tap dancers on Tap Dance Instrument (patented), percussion, and live electronic processing of both tap and percussion. It was the inaugural work for Feldman's Tap Dance Instrument. Just like I had had a (rudimentary) training in tap dance as a kid, Anita had studied and performed percussion in her childhood. It had long been Feldman's belief that music made by the feet was equal to music made by musical instruments.
She wanted to dance on an instrument that would allow the dancers' feet to make resonant and varied music in any performance situation, so she joined forces with San Francisco instrument builder Daniel Schmidt to design the modular and portable Tap Dance Instrument, which Schmidt then built in 1987, with funding support from the NEA. The Tap Dance Instrument consists of six platforms each about 9 inches off the ground. Three of the modules are hexagons of approximately 5 feet across, made of different woods and constructed in varying ways, so that they have individual resonances and timbres. A fourth platform is the "tap marimba" with 7 pitched keys. These large wooden keys can be replaced with alternates, so a number of tunings are possible. The remaining two platforms are smaller and are topped with thick brass slabs. They ring like bells, one higher pitched and the other lower.
Hexa was named for all the sixes in the piece (hexagonal floor shapes, six feet on the Tap Dance Instrument, six percussion instruments played by the musician) and for the magical connotations of "hex" and "hex signs".
Opening the work, tap dancers' feet play a tune on the tap marimba, accompanied by the percussionist's muted cymbals. Dancers' arms, legs and bodies create visual designs as the tune moves the three performers back and forth across the tap marimba. Gradually the dancers move to non-pitched wood platforms and then to the brass floor modules. Anita and I worked together on all major aspects of the work. We experimented with different tapping techniques on each of the Tap Dance Instrument floor modules, developed sound materials and phrases together, and these later turned into larger sections and then into the entire piece. The percussion part was composed to intertwine with the tap dance part. The object of the live electronics, sometimes processing the percussion, sometimes the tap and sometimes both, was to support the sound and the dancers' movement, to add its own character and momentum, and to help the sounds and movement coalesce into one whole.
After its premiere at the American Dance Festival, Hexa has been performed many times, including at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Dance Theater Workshop, Central Park Summerstage and at various festivals. It works as a solely music piece too, and was released on CD (Innova 233).
Back around the time I was starting to work with Anita, I was also meeting more and more great musicians. Accordionist/composer Guy Klucevsek asked me for an accordion piece. I wrote him Manhattan Cascade for 4 accordions, my first piece written for a New York City area player. Then trumpet player Gary Trosclair asked me to write him a trumpet piece. I composed Cirrus for 6 trumpets. I've always loved cello so I decided to write a multiple cello piece. By that time I'd met Ted Mook, who recorded and performed my piece Simoom for 8 cellos. Ted has performed on all of my solo CDs. The first solo CD was on XI Records ("Simoom" XI 102) and contains the multiple guitar, trumpet and cello works.
R.V.B. - I heard the glissando taking form in these works.
L.V.V. - That came from Gagaku. The other major idea that comes from Gagaku is using multiples of the same instrument. There are certain kinds of pieces in Gagaku that have 3 flutes or else multiple double reed hichiriki's playing cannons in free rhythm. The tiny hichiriki pipe with its huge, wide reed, is said to be the loudest instrument in the world per cubic centimeter. It's a powerful aural experience to hear multiple hichiriki's playing a free rhythm cannon -- the same melody displaced by 2 or 3 seconds, played by these very loud, raucous double reeds. That's what inspired me to start working with multiples of the same instrument. You can get a massive sound and yet because it's the same timbre in all parts, you can hear every little nuance of the melody. It was a concept for me to use and experiment with.
R.V.B. - "River Beneath the River"... the title is beautiful. Are you insinuating there is a current beneath another current?
L.V.V. - Well, yes. I came upon a phrase in Spanish that translates as "river beneath the river". The phrase means to me that besides what's apparent on the surface, there's also a really deep meaning underneath. It's talking about life itself, not just about music. I made it the title of my first string quartet, and the piece became the title track of my second CD (Tzadik7056). There are some values and some energies that I feel that I can't really put into words, so I use sounds and music instead. The deepest meaning for me is this "underneath" quality,and it is nonverbal. It has to do with how energy flows and how time moves.
R.V.B. - When you were making this CD, did you try anything different from your previous releases?
L.V.V. - Yes. Up to that time I'd been working primarily with multiples of the same instrument. That's where I felt my muse was, and this was the type of sound world that I naturally gravitated to. I knew it was kind of impractical but so what? That's what I felt at the moment. However in time it did become apparent that at least sometimes being practical might also be a good idea and it might even expand me musically. Writing for a mixed ensemble or a set ensemble could mean that more groups might play my compositions, too. My first major piece along these lines was Red Shift for cello, electric guitar, percussion and synthesizer.
I wrote it for my friends and me to play -- Ted Mook on cello, Dave Seidel on electric guitar, Jim Pugliese on percussion, and I wrote an easy synth part to play myself. Concerning the other pieces on the CD, around that same time the Kronos Quartet commissioned River Beneath the River. I believe they played that piece approximately 100 times including at Carnegie Hall in 1994, but they never recorded it. New York musicians I knew did the CD recording -- Eva Gruesser and Patricia Davis on violin, Lois Martin on viola, Bruce Wang on cello. Karen Bamonte Danceworks from Philadelphia came to me for the other string quartet on the CD, Into the Brightening Air. Risa Jaroslow & Dancers commissioned me to write Jagged Mesa for 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 2 bass trombones (recorded by Gary Trosclair on trumpet, Bruce Eidem on trombone, Christopher Banks on bass trombone). That particular CD was programmed by John Zorn. He's the one that put that group of pieces together.I think he did this very well.
R.V.B. - It flows nicely. No pun intended!
L.V.V. - (Hahaha) And by the way, another piece for mixed ensemble that I composed around this time was Io. It didn't make it onto the Tzadik CD, but flutist Margaret Lancaster recorded it as the title track on her New World Records CD (80665). The performers are extraordinary and I try to work with them whenever possible -- Margaret on flute, Larry Polansky on electric guitar, Matthew Gold on marimba.
R.V.B. - How are you feeling these days? Are you still composing?
L.V.V. - Unfortunately I haven't been able to gain enough physical momentum. I kind of walk a tight rope with my health. I got drastically sick in 1998. I was poisoned by a food supplement and now have a major auto-immune and neurological disease. There's very little medical understanding of the disease. It has a long name but the short name is EMS. It is caused by the ingesting the food supplement L-Tryptophan and ascribed to a contaminant, which even now has not been identified. These days it can also be caused by the chemically related food supplement 5-HTP. Back in the 1989 EMS epidemic, about 40 people suddenly sickened and died. Thousands more of us have this lifelong debilitating affliction. About a year and a half after I'd gotten sick and was struggling greatly, I thankfully became acquainted with an osteopathic physician. This person saved my life. The only way I survived was by osteopathic hands-on manipulation. This treatment made it possible for (among many other good things) the lymphatic fluid to flow up and down my spine, instead of sort of getting stuck - which was killing me. There is no medicine which can do this but the hands-on osteopathic doctors can make it happen. Sometimes now I'm ok and sometimes I can't do much at all. I continue relying on bi-weekly osteopathic treatments and on constant swimming and other exercise to keep going. I get a lot of support and encouragement from my family -- my husband, Bruce Ide, and my daughter, Wendy Shufen Ide.
You ask, "How am I feeling?" Today is good. I don't know about tomorrow. I haven't been able to keep my physical momentum going, which is one thing I need to compose a piece. I can't work at the computer or hold a pencil day after day. Some days I can and some days I can't. At first the problems and pain were just in my spine, arms and legs. By now the attacks have gone to other areas including my retinas, which can be very serious.
Although I can't travel much at all, I'm glad to be able to sometimes work with musicians these days. The first few years I didn't even have the physical ability to go to close by rehearsals. I even missed a premiere of one my pieces, composed just before I got sick. It's great though to be able to at least email materials to performers anywhere. I'm working by email right now with a terrific group in Tel Aviv named Musica Nova. They'll perform a number of my pieces soon at the Tectonics Festival in Israel. In the past few years, I've been able to work with musicians in Europe, Japan, Brazil and the US. Usually my communication is by email or phone. Happily, sometimes it's also in person, made possible becauseI live so close to NYC. It seems that most everybody comes here sometime or other. And in recent years New York filmmaker Holly Fisher has been using some of my music in her films. Even though it's not a collaboration per se, because my pieces are already finished and recorded, working with Holly has been particularly rewarding. I think her films are gorgeous, and she tends to use complete music pieces without cutting them up.
R.V.B. - I was watching a video of one of your songs being played by Tatjana Rankovich. She was playing the inside the piano
L.V.V. - That was To Stare Astonished at the Sea, played entirely on the piano strings. I was glad to see that Tatjana had posted her performance online.
On my last CD ("Words Fail Me" New World Records 80766) that piece also appears performed by a long-time colleague of mine, Swiss pianist Claudia Rüegg. Claudiahas performed almost everything I've written for piano and it has been a real joy to work with her over the years. She performs with much integrity, delving deeply into a score to discover the sense of the music and composer's intent. She presented my music in a Portrait Concert in Zürich in 1998. I asked her to direct a Portrait Concert of my music in Hamburg, Germany in 2015, which she did beautifully. I myself am pretty much unable to travel, but was able to depend on this great musician to represent me. Claudia has performed my music in Switzerland and Germany and also in several US cities. She and Petra Ronner recorded my 2-piano piece Spin 2 on the Swiss label Vexer Verlag ("Celestial Ballrom" CHF 45). I was so pleased that New World Records released Claudia's performance of To Stare Astonished at the Sea.
R.V.B. - It's a beautiful song.
L.V.V. - Thank you. There are other great players on this CD, as well. Besides Claudia on piano, Ted Mook plays cello, Matthew Gold plays marimba, and the Relâche Ensemble of Philadelphia performs. Margaret Kampmeier also plays piano on the disc, joining Ted in the title track Words Fail Me for cello and piano, which is my 9-11 piece.
A long time after composing this piece I realized that besides being about the World Trade Center tragedy (which by my family and I saw "live" out our window), Words Fail Me is also about my own health. It's a great sadness that I can't do the thing that I love so much. I've started some new piece so many times, but I get to a point of physical malfunction where I have to just set it down.
R.V.B. - Do you think that someday you'll might be able to compose?
L.V.V. - Yeah. I'm always hopeful... always!
R.V.B. - Well I certainly hope you do and I'm sure a lot of other people do also. Thank you for taking this time for me.
L.V.V. - You're very welcome.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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