At first glance, almanacs seem like pretty dry subject matter for a piece of music. But for composer Kevin Laskey, they have become a source of high drama. This week marks the premiere of Laskey’s Almanac, an evening-length work written for the vocal ensemble Variant 6, the postmodern chamber group Warp Trio, and jazz saxophonist Kevin Sun’s quartet. By compiling texts and musics both new and old, the piece explores an almanac’s dual nature as an information compendium and prophetic text.
Recently, the composer sat down with three of Almanac’s thirteen performers—pianist Mikael Darmanie, saxophonist Kevin Sun, and mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland—to talk about putting the piece together and navigating new collaborations.
Kevin Laskey: What was it like working with these musicians for the first time?
Kevin Sun: It was wonderful. I feel like knowing you, there was a lot of trust in terms of what you would come up with. I’ve known you for a while, and I felt like I didn’t have to worry about who was getting called to the play the piece. It was just going to be a situation where I could focus on preparing my part and be open to the surprise, seeing how it all came together.
Mikael Darmanie: In Warp Trio, we’re used to that. We all play with different people every few days. Kevin Sun knows you, and I know you, and we trust the vision—there was no question about that. I felt that you knew us intimately and so we could trust you to write what would make sense for us.
Elisa Sutherland: I sometimes feel that singers are a special breed of musician, in that because of the nature of our instruments, we end up having to communicate with each other a lot. There are so many parameters that singers are considering all the time because our parts are usually so interconnected. For choral music, it’s often very homogeneous. You’re thinking about vowels, you’re thinking about articulations, you’re thinking about where you’re going to breathe. You all got a front row seat to our rehearsal process. It’s all of us yelling at each other—what are you doing here? Where in this measure should we cut off? Should this be a sixteenth note, or should it be more like an eighth? It’s very collaborative and very specific. We’re used to being in rooms with other people, but we do have a tendency to take over, and definitely are used to not having any filters ever.
I will say that it was really inspiring for us to sit there and do our way of figuring things out, and then we’ll look across the room and see Mikael talking to Matt [Honor], the drummer, and they’ll be figuring something out in a completely different way than how we’re figuring it out.
KL: Ellie, what was different about working with Warp and Kevin Sun’s group, compared to, say, working with a chamber orchestra doing baroque music?
ES: It’s one thing to have a bunch of instruments and add voice on top. With the solos that you wrote for Rebecca [Myers] and Molly [Netter], they’re very different from each other, but at the same time, this is a chamber ensemble with a single voice over it. We understand how that works, we understand what that’s supposed to sound like and what issues we’re going to have. But to talk about taking a chamber choir and a small chamber ensemble and putting them all together feels kind of chaotic in a fun way.
There’s this part—I think it’s in the fourth movement—where the jazz people go into this groovy section and they’re just playing and we haven’t really heard them do that yet. When we rehearsed that for the first time, all of us from Variant 6 were just, “Oh my God, this is so cool—they’re playing off each other and doing all of this neat stuff.” It was great to see that, because improvising isn’t part of our practice as a group. As a choir, we’re used to all being the same function all the time, not ever having a dynamic where we’re going to support you and then you’re going to pass it off as someone else.
That kind of fun, chaotic dynamic also comes in the parts where you break us up as a choir. That fourth movement starts with a madrigal, all of us singing pretty conventionally in a style that we know. And then you take us and go cut people out of tempo, while other people stay strictly in tempo. It feels like we’ve been ripped apart in an awesome way.
KL: One thing I was trying to do in the piece was set up these different musical ecosystems with all different combinations of musicians. There’s barely any music in the piece that’s just for Variant, or just for Warp, or just for Kevin’s quartet. I wanted to set up these different cooperative dynamics where everyone who was playing had to figure out a way to interface with a different kind of performance practice. From a zoomed-out vantage point, it all looks like a single scene, but if you zoom in, you see all of these different interactions, these frictions that give the scene its particular texture.
ES: That’s a beautiful metaphor, speaking about different arrangements of instruments and voices as their own ecosystem. What that ecosystem looks like when Molly’s soloing is very different from when Rebecca is soloing, which is different from the movement that Steven [Bradshaw] and I sing. You’re going to put these things together in a pot and see what emerges, and it’s always different.
KL: I do feel like this kind of interaction created some particular performance challenges, though. What was the most challenging thing for you, Kevin?
KS: The most obvious thing was adjusting for volume with the singers. Trumpet, sax, bass, and drums can drown out their really refined sound. That was the first big adjustment. Getting past that, it was great to appreciate the subtlety and the level of detail in the phrasing that they have together. It was about trying to get inside their sound and figuring out how best to compliment that.
On the other hand, I remember talking about this with Tree [Palmedo]. When I’m in a piano-less or chord-less ensemble, I really think of the horns in front. Because there’s less pitch material in the ensemble, there’s a certain clarity that foregrounds the horns, but the way you integrated us in this ensemble is that, instead of us focusing that much on pitch material, a lot of that is deferred for quite a while; Tree and I are playing unpitched, kind of white-noisy material for a long time.
Tree said something like, “I’m not playing anything pitched until about 25 minutes into piece!” It’s challenging because we’re in a situation where we have to reach beyond our usual toolkit. Not only is the entire setting different for us, but we’re asked to contribute to the musical whole in a very different way. I might need to create this flapping effect, this kind of gradual turbulence—but how do I do it for a very long slow section, how do I shape that? It was challenging, but really rewarding.
MD: I think the hardest thing in this particular type of work is is the big shifts and style and tempo and locking into that. We got it, but I remember just because of the scope of what you’re doing, it really took some settling in for all the metric modulation. That was probably the most uncomfortable I felt.
KL: I can definitely see those sections in the fourth movement—which I’ve been calling the “Food Movement”—
ES: [Laughs] I’m only going to refer to that as the “Food Movement” now because that’s a great name.
KL: I think that the Food Movement is hard to do because in a way, I’m asking all of you collectively to be a sampler. All of those different kinds of music act like samples that can be triggered wholesale at any point. It’s something that’s really easy for a computer to do because all of the musical data is encoded, but you’re all making the sounds in real time together, and have to change your mindset really quickly and stay coordinated.
MD: In that Food Movement, I was wondering what the process was for setting up these sudden juxtapositions. Was it all stream of consciousness, or very calculated decisions, or was there a meeting point?
KL: I’d say there was both stream-of-consciousness kind of writing and more pre-planning. Setting up the texts helped a lot in terms of developing a kind of drama of musical references. On the one side, the Ben Johnson poem and the Ben Franklin quotes helped set up a kind of adversarial relationship, which to me suggested a kind of stylistic duality. On the other, I liked how both texts had a particular obsession with food, which feels very resonant today in terms of the notion of celebrity chefs and competitive cooking shows. With that in mind, I wanted to have an arc that started with referencing very old music before referencing newer music. So those relationships were pre-planned, but composing the actual material, and figuring out how they fit together in terms of pitch and tempo and what not, was very intuitive, moment-to-moment.
KL: How did you and everyone else in Variant 6 deal with these style shifts, Ellie?
ES: I’d say that switching between styles wasn’t necessarily difficult vocally, but it was challenging in terms of affect. Though we deal with text all the time, a lot of the time it’s very serious, metaphysical, or even depressing language. But then you’re doing funny music! It sounds kind of silly, but we so rarely do music that’s humorous or self-reflective. I can be very serious in this one moment, and then Jimmy [Reese] starts singing an aria about pickles in the next moment, and then I’m yodeling in the next moment.
It’s very easy for us to sing serious church music, and so the diversity of texts and styles took us a little bit by surprise. In a way, you’re not using texts that are trying to be funny themselves, but taking something like what what Benjamin Franklin was eating for dinner and thinking about that from a particular, contemporary perspective. But that’s in the nature of an almanac, and it makes sense that you turn the page and you’re onto something completely different.
MD: I really liked that aspect of the piece. It’s purposely unnatural at first, and I think it works to the benefit of the piece here because it is humans trying to make an interpretation of these sudden shifts. Having humans perform this collage-y music provides a certain level of continuity. It’s the same voices, it’s the same people on stage, and we’re trying to affect this kind of sonic change. It’s not as perfect as a machine is, but fundamentally it’s more relatable. And I feel like you’re forgiving to allow room for that human error.
KL: I feel that human error, or the notion of human error, is a central part of Almanac. A lot of the earliest almanacs were these collections of data that were used to make predictions, like what crops you should grow this year. And as one would expect, those predictions failed a lot. Even now, with really powerful ways to analyze data—whether it’s something low stakes like predicting sports outcomes or high stakes like election outcomes—these predictions still fail a lot. The piece responds to the nature of almanacs not just in terms of using list-y texts and prophetic texts and a wide variety of musical styles, but also in terms of asking performers to embody this kind of predictive failure, the human error. It happens when you guys are trying to act like a machine, but also when you’re improvising and responding to unpredictable events.
KL: Going back to something Ellie mentioned for a second: what are sources of humor in music for you?
MD: I would say subversion is a big source of humor—defying expectations in a cheeky way.
ES: I totally agree.
MD: I think the referential nature of it helps too. That helps clarify the immediate juxtaposition of we’re in one world, and then we’re in another world, and what the relationship is between the two.
ES: Certainly to make that section of the piece work, Jimmy entirely needs to be in the musical world that you’ve given him. It’s funny to the listener, but it can’t be to the performer. Maybe that’s what made it difficult: how can I deliver text in a way the person who was writing the text was thinking about, it as opposed to 21st-century me reading it?
KL: That disconnect between what the audience hears and imagining what the character hears is really interesting to me. I feel that really happens in Alban Berg’s operas, or in a lot of Billy Wilder movies. There’s this great scene in Sunset Boulevard where Norma Desmond is doing a Charlie Chaplin imitation for Joe Gillis at her house, and the music is this creaky, kind-of-atonal version of 1920s jazz. I don’t think that’s how the music sounds in the reality of the scene, but it could be how Joe hears it, or it just suggests to the audience what Norma’s mental state is.
I feel that different kinds of musical references—whether they’re explicit quotations, or faithful evocations of a particular style, or really distorted versions of a style—have a lot of expressive possibilities, especially in how they engage with memory and association. Writing in a particular style feels a bit like putting on a musical costume, which relates to camp or burlesque performance. I like how it can help me activate a different part—especially a more heightened part—of my personality.
MD: Kevin, are you okay with people not understanding all of the shit you’re doing, all the references, all the subtleties?
KL: I will say that after the workshop, my dad came up to me and said that he could hear my whole life in the piece. He was remembering how when I was little, I loved looking at atlases, and his baseball almanacs, and liked memorizing things. So that was really cool. It’s definitely affirming when someone gets what you’re doing like that.
On the other hand, everyone is going to bring their own context to the piece. Since the piece has so many different threads, there are so many ways into and out of the piece for a listener. The tapestry of references in the piece gets linked into a listener’s own tapestry of references, which are different from mine. It can get real messy real quick, but that kind of messy, subjective experience is exciting to me. I do enjoy when I’m talking with someone about a piece after a performance and their hearing is so different than mine, which makes me want to go back and listen again.
I will say, though, that I’m trying to create a sense of continuity in the piece, even with all of the contrasting, seemingly mismatched musical material. In terms of the text, the prophetic elements gradually infect the list-y elements, so the arrival of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Sibyl” poem has a certain weight. And on a general musical level, there’s this arc from homogenous music to completely heterogenous music back to homogenous music.
Then there’s all of the tricks and devices you learn in music school to create implicit continuity, like how to transform melodies or rhythms in a certain way, or how to deploy recurring leitmotifs. There’s a fair bit of internal reference in the piece in addition to external reference. Every vocalist gets some solo space in the piece, and each one of those solos is either foreshadowed or back-referenced at some point. My hope is that even with the messy tapestry of references that Almanac activates, there’s enough threading to hold it together.
KS: I think people at The Jazz Gallery will have no idea what’s coming for them.
The Jazz Gallery presents the world premiere of Almanac, by composer Kevin Laskey, on Thursday, May 2, 2019. The piece features the ensembles Variant 6—Rebecca Myers & Molly Netter, soprano; Elisa Sutherland, mezzo-soprano; Steven Bradshaw and James Reese, tenor; and Daniel Schwartz bass-baritone; Warp Trio—Josh Henderson, violin; Ju-Young Lee, cello; and Mikael Darmanie, piano; and the Kevin Sun Quartet—Kevin Sun, tenor saxophone; Tree Palmedo, trumpet; Walter Stinson, bass; and Matthew Honor, drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.