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.