Archived Interview: LotUS / by David Bernabo

Music on the Edge is the University of Pittsburgh contemporary music concert series co-directed by composers Matthew Rosenblum and Eric Moe. The series presents a great mix of newer and older contemporary classical compositions. Recent concerts have included a two-day Morton Feldman symposium, the ever-exciting Alarm Will Sound, and NEWBAND, the microtonal ensemble that performs with Harry Partch's Instrument Collection and many new creations. Recent seasons have seen a partnership with the Andy Warhol Museum and their theater. The next concert in the series comes from a newer ensemble called LotUS, short for League of the Unsound Sound. The performing ensemble is well-rounded, including a wealth of esteemed composers, performers, and improvisors. Performing in Pittsburgh will be Tim Feeney (percussion), Michael Harley (bassoon), Wendy Richman (viola), David Smooke (composer/toy piano), Ken Ueno (extended vocals), and Shirley Yoo (piano). Michael Formanek, who released a beautiful record on ECM last year, is also a core member. LotUS departs from a lot of other ensembles with their mix of composed and improvised pieces, both backed by a dedication to pursuing new sounds.

I had the opportunity to conduct an e-mail interview with co-curators David Smooke and Ken Ueno. Thanks to David and Ken for their well thought out answers!!

David Bernabo: To start, what is the Unsound Sound?

David Smooke: I like the pun of this phrasing. In a nonmusical definition the words sound and unsound are opposites, but when applied to music their juxtaposition presents somewhat of a paradox. Also, it accentuates the idea that our ideas live in a realm far afield of the musical mainstream.

Ken Ueno: It was David who came up with it, but how I related to it was that it seemed to name a shared concern for advocating for sounds which have traditionally been denied in classical music: those sounds which are not privileged enough to have a letter name. 

DB: When you present an improvised work at a concert, do you discuss a method of attack beforehand, is it completely "free", or does it vary depending on circumstance? Are restrictions imposed?

DS: Personally, when playing with top-notch musicians, I very much prefer completely free improvisation. Even in the moment, people like Tim and Ken think in terms of ebb and flow and musical argument, so the end result will sound like a well-conceived composition. The advantage of working freely is that we can challenge ourselves and each other to explore new sonic possibilities that hopefully will surprise even ourselves.

KU: We do not discuss anything before hand, but nothing is ever completely “free” in life.  I often liken our approach to that of conversation. Over the course of many years, each player discovers personal sounds on his/her instrument and spends time developing fluency, a dexterous access/control of those sounds. This stage I might liken to developing a vocabulary.  What is important to us, aesthetically, is that the sounds are personal enough that there is the possibility of latent writing. That is, a quality that is opposed to the standard classical lexicon of sounds.  For example, whenever, say, a middle C is performed or written, there is as much a rewriting -- a borrowing that is impersonal -- that occurs, as there is a new writing. Metaphorically, latent writing might be akin to inventing a new syllabary – especially since new sounds demand new syllabograms.

Next, as we come together to “converse,” we listen, agree, provoke or divert, or perform any of these modes at the same time. There is a particular empathic exchange that can happen, that feels transformative. The accumulation of these empathic exchanges creates trust over time. In the same way that our most important conversations are those in which we share (and develop) our most personal topics, topics that shape our identity (as Milan Kundera said, “friends remind us of who we are”), the most cherished improvised “conversations” are performed with those we trust most musically. It is also true that, in a way, when we perform again with those trusted partners, we reengage in a lifelong conversation. We at once reengage with a shared score (transcribed in our bodies from previous shared experiences) and continue to add to that shared score (thereby creating a richer text to reengage with in future performances).

Sometimes, when we are most in agreement, it is hard to tell whose sounds are whose. The most exciting moments are those in which we discover new sounds, moments in which the experience has expanded our musical capability, which means we have also discovered an expanded capability for the body. 

The audience is a participant, too. There is an energy exchange that directly influences the structure of our piece. For example, when the audience is listening intensely, it is an energy we can feel.  That energy can translate into an encouragement to take more risks. The restrictions are only the a priori physical constraints of our instruments, which we have yet to discover how to transcend.  Sorry that was so long-winded. Ask me about coffee sometime. 

DB: I'm going to break this next one into a couple of sections: In Pittsburgh, I've had several discussions dealing with increasing attendance at experimental and new music performances. In your (Smooke) "Scare Tactics" article, you mention that the last two decades of music have been devoid of the public outrage enjoyed by prior 20th century music, while the art world has seen a fair share of controversy. It does seem that contemporary art has the ability to draw a wider audience than contemporary music in the new music sense. 

Do you think this relates to the economic impacts of music vs. art? 

DS: Well, I was talking about popular music in addition to experimental music, so no, I don't think it's about economic impact. I think it might have to do with the fact that the most egregious popular music receives no overt government funding while experimental music can be easily ignored, whereas contemporary art has tackled controversial topics explicitly and on the public's dime. 

KU: I think, yes, contemporary art can definitely draw a larger audience! In late capitalism, the tangibly commodifiable still carries more social prestige – e.g. Damien Hirst vs. any of the most successful composers.  

DB: With record labels, radio stations, and music outlets owned by corporations, has the corporate control of music outlets resulted in a less informed public even though all forms of music are generally easier to access? 

DS: The audience for experimental music is more fragmented and is a smaller percentage of the general public than reports from 40 years ago would indicate was the case then. However, the internet has been an incredibly powerful tool for getting the word out about non-mainstream acts. I believe that this has allowed for the proliferation of a consumer who is remarkably well informed about all sorts of independent artists and who seek is seeking to experience something exciting and new.

KU: I agree with David. I might posit that we are in a period of greater democratic access, less centralized corporate control of music than ever before!  Consequently, each individual consumer of music is more variously informed than ever before.  The listener today probably listens to more different kinds of music, from a broader geographic reach, than ever before. 

DB: Following this thought process, has frightening music popped up in the past 20 years without the public's knowledge? Thinking of John Zorn's hardcore music among others.

DS: Yes! But whereas the general public felt the need to cavil about the horrors of Elvis and punk music and gangsta rap, they can righteously ignore John Zorn and Matthew Rosenblum and Ken Ueno and David Smooke without worrying about all the fear that our music should probably inspire.

KU: Yes. Rebecca Black’s Friday.  Very frightening. In contrast, the Merzbows and Lachenmanns of the world are a womb-wall insulating us from such scariness.  Just because the public has watched it on YouTube doesn’t mean it is knowledgeable of how scary it is. 

DB: Many of the recent controversies surrounding musc have little to do with music, but deal more with ownership. Take the recent extensions of plunderphonics with The Avalanches and Girl Talk. Would you consider these acts as artists who have frightened the public?

DS: Certainly any art that can be construed as violating copyright frightens the owners of that copyright. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination! I am old enough to remember the lawsuit that De La Soul lost to the Turtles which closed the original floodgate on free sampling in music.

KU: They are part of a larger movement of what Jacques Attali calls autosurveillance, a post-industrial stage in which the profusion of technology leads to a DIY, and therefore decentralized, culture. So, the Oswalds, the Avalanches, and Girl Talks encourage their audience, though example, to make their own music as well. Oswald extended Tenney’s Collage #1 (Blue Suede). The Avalanches bought studio refinement to Oswald. Girl Talk’s genius is decoupling performance histrionics from the instrument (i.e. dancing in front of the laptop). What is sacrificed in an era of casual information exchange is the traditional trace to the author.  My greatest, personal, conflict is reconciling my fervent advocacy of democracy versus my nostalgia for the trace to the author.  

DB: From the well-established membership of LotUS, it seems like a built-in crowd would be a guarantee. How is LotUS trying to draw new audiences? Does touring help spread the word about the ensemble's goals?

DS: You are correct that we have been fortunate to have been able to engage with appreciative audiences at all of our previous concerts. In part we try to present limited performances in any one place in order to avoid saturating the market. Also, if I may say so myself, the musicians of LotUS are some of the best around, which tends to create its own sort of built-in buzz.

We are thrilled to be collaborating with Music on the Edge and the Andy Warhol museum for this concert. It's always a privilege to partner with like-minded organizations and to help entertain their audiences with some new music. One of the more exciting aspects of working with different presenting organizations has been getting to know the music from the people in these communities, and we are quite fortunate to be able to present a world premiere by Matthew Rosenblum, a Pittsburgh-based composer whom I've long admired, on this concert.


DB: Could you talk about the pieces LotUS has performed that incorporate movement? Can visuals enhance a musical work?

DS: Live musical performance is essentially a performance art, whether or not the players recognize this fact. Guitarists step forward into their solos, and lead singers dance while they croon. While bowing a viola or blowing into a bassoon, the musicians inherently incorporate movement. The instrumentalists in LotUS tend to be very comfortable with conveying the basic musical flow in sound and in visual communication, with each other and with an audience. Therefore, it's a short step from well-articulated musical performance gestures to pieces with prescribed movements. Some works, like Ken Ueno's "Two Hands" are very subtle in their use of theatrical elements--in the case of that piece the different performance techniques (including pouring salt) simultaneously convey visual and aural meaning. My piece on this concert, "Topographies: transit/dis(solve)" is more literal in its use of movement, asking the players to partake in a ritual transformation that will have them gradually move through the venue.

DB: From your first season, each concert has a nice mix of new compositions, older pieces, and improvisation. Do many of the compositions include an improvisational aspect? Is improvisation still a radical concept or should it be (or is it) treated as another tool in music creation?

DS: Thank you! Of course, the oldest piece we've performed is from the 1980s, which in many contexts would be considered blindingly new. I think our repertoire mix has a lot to do with the odd configuration of our ensemble, which really came together around the Gubaidulina piece "Quasi Hoquetus." There are few pieces that use both bassoon and viola, and we've been very fortunate to have had many amazing composers willing to work with us to expand this repertoire. For me, improvisation has always been a part of my basic musicianship, whether public or in private, and always has been part of my basic compositional toolbox. And I find it incredibly fun to be able to collaborate on new performances with musicians like Ken and Tim.

KU: There is no improvisation in my piece, Two Hands. Inspired by the way Gerhard Richter has photorealist paintings as well as abstract expressionist works, from work to work there are differences - there are written pieces and improvised performances. In some pieces, the written and the improvised are both present. Improvisation is still controversial within the milieu of classical music – but accepted elsewhere.  The written still carries a heftier prestige value in classical music. It delivers an illusion of fixity, which gives the illusion of rigor, albeit the reality is that it also reduces the possibility of latent writing. The illusion of fixity also delivers comfort for those who are afraid of death. 

DB: Who will be performing in LotUS for the Pittsburgh show at The Andy Warhol Museum? What pieces will be performed?

DS: For this concert, we will have Tim Feeney, who was a founding member of So Percussion and who is on faculty at Cornell University playing percussion; Michael Harley, a founding and current member of Alarm Will Sound and faculty at University of South Carolina on bassoon; Wendy Richman, a founding and current member of ICE on viola; Ken Ueno, a composer who has won the Rome and Berlin Prizes and who is on faculty at UC Berkeley will also perform vocalizations; Shirley Yoo, who I met when she was on faculty at Peabody and who is now at Mercyhurst College will play piano; and I will play a little piano (a toy piano, actually).

The concert will include two world premieres. The first will be "Two Harmonies", a work for microtonally tuned pianos, viola and percussion that University of Pittsburgh composer Matthew Rosenblum wrote for Wendy Richman. The second is my own "Topographies: transit/dis(solve)" for bassoon and viola, a work that involves movement and several unusual performance techniques, including bowed piano and slide piano.

We'll also play two "older" pieces: Ken Ueno's "Two Hands" [which he'll talk about himself!] and Sofia Gubaidulina's ecstatic and highly virtuosic "Quasi Hoquetus" for viola, bassoon and piano.

And there will be improvisation as well.

KU: My piece, which Wendy (viola) and Tim (percussion) will play, is Two Hands. It was originally written for Kim Kashkashian, and the percussionist, Robyn Schulkowsky.  It was inspired by their suggestion to compose a piece which responds to the poetic selections contained in the anthology, Reich mir die Hand.  My five-movement piece responds to Anne Sexton’s poem, Two Hands.  The different movements set, or reflect upon different fragments of Sexton’s poem that I found especially moving.  The movement titles quote those fragments. 

I. …even the prison of their bodies, as Christ was prisoned in His  body
II. …with the altars of the tides…closing the eyes
III. Unwind…you angel webs
IV. …with the silences of the fishes…
V. the salt of the mother

DB: Thank you both for the terrific answers!

LotUS will perform at The Andy Warhol Museum on January 14, 2012 at 8pm. Tickets are available in advance through ProArtsTickets. General admission is $15; students and seniors are $10. Visit or call 412-394-3353. At the door: General admission is $20; students and seniors are $15.

Check out a video of LotUS performing Ruby Fulton's "Half the Way Down" at The Wind-Up Space in Baltimore, MD.


Half the Way Down - LotUS - Ruby Fulton