The logo of our new record label launched by Naxos
thoughts on a contemporary music ensemble
At last year’s Chamber Music America conference, Kevin Powell, our operations manager, met with representatives from Naxos of America to distribute our albums. We discussed the possibility of working together on new projects as well as re-releasing several film score CDs by William Susman. Naxos recently sent out the following press release announcing the launch of our label and we are very excited to be working with them!
“Belarca was founded by American composer William Susman and is the label for the visionary OCTET ensemble. Its mission is to record and widely disseminate contemporary music by living composers who push artistic boundaries. With a catalog of both concert works and film scores, Belarca maintains an impeccable recording quality and the highest standards in sound. Each album features extraordinary performances by some of the world’s finest soloists and ensembles.”
Lately, we’ve been recording at John Kilgore Sound & Recording in NYC because the musicians of OCTET live and work in and around Manhattan. It is a great facility, perfect for our needs. Our engineer, John Kilgore, has years of experience behind him and completely understands our music, offering and implementing ingenious and informed suggestions on mixing and balancing. I trust his ability greatly with these sessions. Because I live in San Francisco, he is basically running the show with a score in-hand and occasional input from me as I’m monitoring via SKYPE.
John knows how to get the most out of the instrumentalists - whether they are horns, drums, keyboards, bass, or voice - without fatiguing them. At a recent session, the microphone placement for our bassist, Eleonore Oppenheim, was perfect, capturing a warm, rich and full-bodied sound. It is critical to know when to do a retake or realize when to “fix-it-in-the-mix” so as to save time and the musicians energy and, he always seems to find the perfect balance. We love working with John and can’t wait to start mixing the concerto and hear the final results!
Recently, I was posed the question of why our music in OCTET was contemporary if it did not sound atonal. It was a surprising question considering the world wide exposure of new opera and orchestral music by the likes of Adams, Glass and Reich which is clearly not atonal. But, old habits and thoughts about music die hard so, I thought I would try to address it.
Today, contemporary music does not only mean atonal. With our ensemble OCTET we are trying to move the language of music forward with the knowledge of what came before us. Nowadays, atonality is a very broad term. Personally, when I think of atonality what first comes to mind is Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra from 1908 and its legacy.
Here and with his later 12-tone works, Schoenberg wrote with a new harmonic language combined with traditional forms and gestures. In the mid 20th century, new composers came along that utilized atonality with new compositional techniques such as serialism. They created a completely different sound from Schoenberg’s initial transformations.
Some composers today write music, which also happens to be atonal in its sound world, and in gesture is reminiscent of mid-century avant-garde. There are also some that use a mix of atonality and tonality (which usually approaches modality) as their harmonic language combined with a strong focus on forging new rhythmic landscapes.
Actually, the musical language of contemporary composers is all over the map. The influences are greatly varied but, ultimately, should be personal and ones own.
As with most artists of any medium, my early works did not use my own language. They were pieces based on composers that I admired such as Iannis Xenakis, Gyorgy Ligeti, Earle Brown, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and many others. It was mostly their tastes and not mine that informed the music. Looking back, it wasn’t until my mid to late 20s that a voice began to emerge. Up until then I was writing music the equivalent of musicians playing in a cover band.
Today, my pieces use a language that has evolved over many years of experimentation. I expect that it will always be in a continuous state of refinement, flux and evolution.
In my Quiet Rhythms for Piano Books I & II (2010) triads are layered that sometimes may sound harmonious and other times may sound inharmonious combined with rhythmic layering and structures that do not fall under traditional music forms.
Combining and layering different melodies, harmonies and rhythms create cycles that drive the duration of a section of music. Some of the pieces from Quiet Rhythms have been arranged for OCTET such as the work Camille and the Piano Concerto.
I played in big bands and combos as a teenager. I know the music and how the instruments work together. Beyond the instrumentation, there might be associations to the swing era, but they are not conscience ones.
Our instrumentation is similar to the early swing era big bands that included sections of saxophones, trumpets, and trombones, a rhythm section of piano, bass, drums, and guitar, and often a vocalist.
OCTET does one each of the brass (sax, trumpet, trombone), rhythm section of piano, bass, drums and electric piano, plus vocals.
I play the electric piano and what’s nice about it is its flexibility. For example, if I want sustained chords I can use an organ sound. If I want a punchy sound I can use a Fender Rhodes sound and so on.
We mean many things by it. In OCTET try to create, perform and record music that challenges the imagination of the performer and listener. We are interested in forming collaborations with other artists in other mediums that will challenge us as music creators.
Each new work and recording we make pushes us to ask questions about what we are trying to do and how best to accomplish it.
As an example, when we were mixing some of my songs recently in New York, our recording engineer, John Kilgore and I were trying to figure out where best to place the instruments in the balance. We discussed the interaction of the lines and John suggested spacing them in the left and right channel to compliment and enhance the musical dialogue. John’s ear is exceptional.
I look at the recording and mixing process as a part of the overall collaboration in the composition of the music. The way it is recorded and mixed directly effects how the music will be perceived.