Repertoire Remix: Q&A with Tod Machover and Tae Kim

Tod Machover and members of his group answered questions submitted during the Repertoire Remix event, and here they answer a few more for which they didn’t have time during the broadcast.

Question: Amazing! I am just missing Scarlatti...any chance? :-)

Tod Machover replies: Because Festival City is a sonic portrait of Edinburgh the city, as well as Edinburgh the festival, I wanted sounds and memories of both to be woven into the composition. Luckily, I have received and recorded an amazing variety of sounds from all around the city. For the festival, I have ambient recordings from lobby discussions and ticket lines, but I didn’t have access to performance recordings from EIF events because of copyright issues. So, I decided to look at the repertoire of all music performed at the EIF since it started in 1947, in order to pick the most frequently performed composers and compositions, and to further filter that list by music that seemed like it might interconnect in surprising and unusual ways.

I have really fallen in love with bagpipes while working on Festival City, so Bb and Eb sonorities became one of the connecting links (since bagpipes are “tuned” in Bb)–Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring are all in Eb Major. I didn’t want to pick too many pieces to “play with” in Festival City, preferring to develop, juxtapose, and transform some core fragments that the ear will recognize…even if they go by really quickly. I love Scarlatti, but he didn’t make the cut this time through (partly because I favored orchestral over solo music).

Question: Why is it that while this specific performance is both leveraged and augmented by such modern technologies, there exists such a reliance on classical composers? It seems at odds with the architecture that is put in place, while also demonstrating a strong dependency on perceived ideas of what music should be, even though there is a determined attempt to move away from a traditional conductor/performer schematic.

Tod Machover replies: Interesting question, and I completely understand. I always try to combine some familiar elements with many that are not so familiar, in order to craft pieces which are surprising and fresh (I hope!) but also which extend a point of reference to listeners. This is especially true of a “festival” piece which will receive a high-profile premiere on August 27 at the EIF, and which most people will need to make sense of at that first listening.

For Festival City, I have taken a big risk by opening up the compositional process to the public and inviting the submission of material as well as the shaping of the composition to be shared. Besides the obvious reasons to do this–to establish a new kind of dialogue between artist and audience, and to open up the usually closed “black box” of the composition process so that all can peer inside–I am also excited by the potential of hearing new sounds and thinking differently about composing than I would if I had worked on this 100% in my barn-studio outside of Boston. So this is one element of the composition that will take me–and hopefully everyone–to some new musical territories.

In addition, much of the music is inspired not just by my image of Edinburgh, but by the sounds that have been collected there and how they are morphed and mixed into orchestral music. Even more than the collaborative composition I wrote for the Toronto Symphony earlier this year, I am finding that listening to Edinburgh has led me to musical textures and an overall sonic experience that is very different than anything I’ve ever done, music stemming much more from nature, man, and machines than from Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. In that context, I think that is very refreshing to hear shards of music that one might recognize–they too are part of our world, after all–although I think they’ll be presented in rather unusual ways.

Question: How does the interpreter improvise? Is he choosing/remembering a motif from the repertoire and trying to keep the music flowing?

Pianist Tae Kim replies: Repertoire Remix provided a different challenge as to how I can improvise. I can pretty much improvise for days in a language that I think is viable and enjoyable, but for many, it’s quite the opposite. What we did for the project on July 9 was to come up with some sort of structure to my improvisation. I had to memorize and remember many pieces and their motifs and somehow connect them together. Sometimes I had to play the first bar of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony and jump straight to Bach's sixth Brandenburg Concerto or sometimes I would play little bit more of the melodies and slowly morph them into another melody by plugging them into my "nonsensical" improvisation language.

Question: Do just the motifs from the repertoire inspire the interpreter or also dynamics, gesture, and other musical properties?

Pianist Tae Kim replies: This project mainly focused on the melodies or the snippets of them. This time, motifs were the main course; however, having said that, dynamics, gesture, musical key, rhythm–I can go on for a bit–they all attribute to my improvisation. For example, if I am "on" key of E flat, I can weave in and out from Stravinsky's Sacre, Elgar's Enigma Variation (“Nimrod,” especially), Beethoven's fifth concerto, or if I feel adventurous, start transposing other pieces into the key of E flat. Possibilities are endless! Throughout my life, I've listened to hours and hours of music and I don't know how that affected me and how I view and understand music, but because of that experience, I'm able to come up with a musical language on my own which translates to my improvisation. The motifs from the masterpieces, in the end, grab the audience for a split second in the midst of a language that's foreign to them. It's like listening to foreigners speak their language, and you can only understand one or two words.

Question: Tod, can you say a little more about what you’re doing now with the content gathered from the Repertoire Remix event? Are you just going to use the performances as Tae played them, or will you also look at metrics from the app for what was popular with the online collaborators as the event progressed?

Tod Machover replies: My two overriding goals in Festival City are first, to establish a truly collaborative creative process that is invigorating to me as well as to everyone who participates; and second, to compose a musical work that will be beautiful, mysterious, and meaningful for anyone to hear, whether they participated or not. To achieve this, I have established as many opportunities as I could think of for everyone to get involved, and I take very seriously–and listen very closely to–every sound and idea I receive. In turn, I post much of this received and developing material online in apps like Constellation and Cauldron that allow the public to further select, modify, and shape materials for the composition.

Repertoire Remix is our latest activity that invites such participation. I will listen to and study the results of our live session on July 9 and will use as much of the material recorded by pianist Tae Kim as possible. However, I will very likely edit and modify these recordings before they end up in the final piece–partly because piano virtuosity does not translate ideally into orchestral scoring–and will also probably add textures and structures that fit in with my overall compositional idea, and how this section fits with the others.

One thing that surprised me in listening to Tae’s incredible improvisations is how tricky it is to differentiate between many different-but-similar themes and motifs once the surrounding music becomes complex and super-charged with emotion. This inspires me to take extra care to weave together the multiple fragments I intend to use, and to carefully control when melodies and harmonies are identifiable, just past comprehension, “invisible” to the conscious mind, or absorbed into new musical hybrids.