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Composer Portraits: Zosha Di Castri

Extremes. But soft extremes. Like dark and bright in Cortège for a standard line-up of thirteen instrumental soloists (2010), or like static and fluid in that same work, which swings between the solemn intoning or harsh outburst of wind and dry percussion and the luminous circling of mixed treble-register instruments. These things are not to be resolved but rather exposed, brought into being and then cherished, balanced.

Or try it another way. Sound. The first work in Di Castri’s catalogue – the piano piece The Thinking Eye, on tonight’s program – dates from only a decade ago, but already she has three titles beginning with “phono-,” the Greek root for “sound.” This is a composer for whom sound is elemental, a composer fired by the spectral imagination, a composer who wants to give us time to explore the soundscapes she puts before us, vistas sometimes enriched by electronics.

Or this: distance and closeness. Some of Di Castri’s pieces ask the musicians to position themselves in different parts of the auditorium. La forma dello spazio (2010) has violin, cello, and piano onstage while flute and clarinet play from the back of the hall. But the terms can also be understood figuratively. The music may be close in the directness of its utterance, or in its connection to codes we know, but it will always simultaneously be distant, “never behaving the way I would expect, coming from me, and yet always remaining a bit mysterious,” as Di Castri says of the piece she aptly named Strange Matter (2011), scored for trios of strings and woodwinds with piano and percussion.

Take that another way. There is the closeness of music, of sound, of extremes of sound in coexistence, and there is the distance of what is not conventionally regarded as music, of what the music goes out to touch, or stays to be touched by. This might be, to give two examples from last year, projections and other visual material in Dear Life for orchestra with soprano and recorded narrator, or an interactive sculpture (“a huge bellows spreads across the stage like an accordion or an old-fashioned camera”) in Phonobellow for five instrumentalists and electronics.

Go back to the beginning. Born in Canada in 1985, Di Castri had her first professional performance (by the Edmonton Symphony) when she was seventeen, and studied at McGill before coming to New York in 2008 for doctoral studies with Tristan Murail here at Columbia, where she has remained as an assistant professor. Her music has been heard regularly in the city, performed by musicians including the JACK Quartet (Sulla mappa concava del buio), Talea (Strange Matter), Margaret Lancaster and Taka Kigawa (Akkord I, another work with sculpture), ICE (Phonobellow), and Ekmeles (The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named). She has also worked with orchestras and ensembles on the West Coast and in Europe.

Introduction by Paul Griffiths


The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named for six voices and electronics (2013)

After more than a decade of writing mostly instrumental music, I decided to tackle my first serious vocal project: a commission for six voices and electronics, for Ekmeles. At first I wrestled with the idea of text. Should the sextet sing words or just sounds? I opted for text to give form, structure, and its own meaning to my work, but was also confronted with how clearly these words would signify, as compared to the relative abstractness of music without text. Not finding a poem that suited my inspiration, I chose to collaborate closely with Brooklyn-based poet Nicole Sealey. This led to a stimulating exchange on what it means for material to grow old, for one to “find one’s voice” artistically, the voice as identity, what remains constant and what changes over time, and the voice’s power to evoke dark sounds from within. Out of all this was born The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named.

Nicole’s Whitmanesque poem suggested to me an exploration of what is both human and animal in the voice. The text wavers between a tone of beseeching invocation, and a defiant proclamation of self-assurance. The resulting piece investigates a wide spectrum of vocal sound: from spoken to sung, noise to harmony, text to nonsense.

Polyphony was an important consideration. How does one compose independent lines that make sense harmonically in the 21st century, especially when working in a non- tonal, microtonal context? Instead of thinking of counterpoint in the traditional sense, I explored the idea of textural streams. In certain “loop” passages, I create a very dense, chaotic texture. These parts emphasize gesture and sound over harmony and order. They feature nonsense lyrics, and employ the use of megaphones to filter the voice, which is otherwise amplified with a microphone. All voices sing on an equal plane, creating a mass texture effect – the sonic equivalent of staring at a Jackson Pollock painting.

In other passages, I work with detailed intersecting layers, in which each voice plays a distinct and hierarchically organized role. For instance, I feature an expressive microtonal melody with an intervening counter-melody, layered over spoken text, supported by a half-noise/half-sung dyad and whistling. The electronics further expand these atmospheric layers.

One final revelation was the rediscovery of my own voice in improvising and experimenting while composing. Because no external instrument was needed, I was able to have a more direct experience of my work as it developed. This resulted in a piece that relates organically to my own physical and compositional voice.

The Thinking Eye for piano (2006)

This short piece was written for Soundstreams Canada’s Young Artist Overture, and was inspired by Paul Klee’s “Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black;” hence the title, borrowed from the published edition of Klee’s lectures and essays. While reading about Klee’s work, I found out that, ironically, though deeply influenced by music, Klee was quite guarded towards new musical aesthetics and believed that music was on a “decline in artistic creativity” ever since the time of Bach and Mozart. I do not know if he would have approved of such a project, but I have tried to capture the essence of the painting in my own language, rather than attempting a literal translation of the image into sound. What struck me most about this painting was the emergence of luminosity through the use of juxtaposing various blocks of color, which I have tried to convey compositionally. This piece is written in an improvisatory style, giving the performer the liberty to roam through the music, as a viewer’s eye might wander across the surface of a painting.

“I must some day be able to improvise freely on the chromatic keyboard of the rows of watercolour cups.” —Paul Klee

Near Mute Force for two female voices, viola, drum kit, and piano (2016)

When violist Steven Dann approached me about writing a piece he could play with his children, it struck me how exceptional it was that a family in this day and age should have all decided to pursue careers in music, albeit in different genres. The invitation to write for the Danns was both intimate and challenging, so of course I accepted, especially since Steven’s son Nico was a good friend of mine. Reflecting on the “family- band” idea, I considered how, before the invention of recorded sound, such a domestic ensemble would have been quite normal, but sadly no longer is so.

Another common bond that served as a catalyst for the piece was the experience of recently having had a child, Nico and Ilana having also just become parents. My initial inspiration was to compose a contemporary take on the lullaby, a near universal and timeless form that I thought could transcend the boundaries of genre. But the more I worked, the more unusual this idea became. The music that was emerging was not what I would describe as traditionally “soothing.” There was something chaotically energetic, powerful, and at times melancholy or suspended in its character.

Through my creative research, I stumbled on a lecture by Federico García Lorca, in which he speaks about the deeply sad and at times raw intensity of Spanish lullabies (“songs of blood,” he calls them). Many lullabies, I have since realized, carry dark undertones: words of warning, babies falling from broken boughs, a lost Clementine, a vanished sunshine. The more I read, the more the double function of the lullaby seemed clear: to lull the infant to sleep, but also to give parents a space to voice their inner thoughts and concerns. It is through this rabbit hole that I discovered Rivka Galchen’s extraordinary book of essays Little Labors. Uncannily, it turns out she works a floor below me in Dodge Hall at Columbia University teaching creative writing, and so another artistic friendship was forged, resulting in the adapted text used for Near Mute Force.

Given the mix of jazz improvisers and classically trained musicians in the ensemble, I wanted to create a hybrid between a notated score and a guided improvisation. I worked in collaboration with Nico through numerous exchanges to find a mutual musical language that would work for the drumset. Far from being set in stone, I see the score as a starting point for a dialogue between myself and the performers, tailoring the work to their unique personalities as we rehearse.

I have learned over time to trust my writing process and follow these multifarious clues until pieces fall into place as coherent wholes. The resulting composition, dedicated to the Danns, is the product of this sort of detective magpieing of material and inspiration.

Tachitipo for two pianists, two percussionists, and electronics (2016)

Tachitipo is a piece for two pianists, two percussionists, and electronics, which journeys through nine musical tableaux. It is as much about sound as it is the trajectory and illumination of the ensemble on stage, and the physical actions required of them.

This piece is a reflection on writing, and the machines we use to execute our ideas. Nietzsche wrote, “Our tools are also working on our thoughts,” something I think about often when composing. Here, I return to a more antiquated technology, the typewriter, to build a syntax of sounds. The title, Tachitipo, comes from an 1823 typewriter model, also known as the tachigrafo, invented by the Italian Pietro Conti di Cilavegna. The typewriter epitomizes 19th and early 20th century attitudes towards writing: efficiency becomes paramount as typing begins to approach the rapid-fire speed of thought, in all of its desperate fury. It also affixes sound to the imprinting of symbols on the page, not unlike modern technologies for music notation.

The term typewriter referred both to the machine, the occupation, and the person (mainly women) who used it. Although taking up typing may have been an emancipatory act, it is interesting that though given the tools for writing, women at this time rarely held the power behind the signs they were producing. Authorship was still at a degree of remove. This was a dictation job good-girls did before getting married, a special, temporary status, not unlike the piano lessons previous generations undertook to attract suitors. Here, I reclaim the object as author, transcriber, and pianist.

The initial impetus spurring the composition came from a comic evolutionary diagram attached to an article by Kate Lunau in Maclean’s Magazine, entitled “The downside of human evolution.” It showed the classic progression from an ape on all fours, through early bipedal ancestors, to the anatomically modern standing human—and in direct mirror image, the eventual crouching back down of the body over the exact tools and technologies which have separated us from other species. This image of the body regressing from an erect posture to a figure hunched over work shaped the dramatic progression of the piece and its resulting sounds. I believe we create art in the hopes of transcending the everyday, to connect with others, to reach towards moments of opening, clarity or understanding, and yet the tools we’ve invented to facilitate this pursuit can have the consequence of isolating us even further, curling the body back in onto itself.

The resulting music in Tachitipo ranges from very free abstract, quasi-improvisatory textures, to rigorously controlled musical structures, with the musicians emerging out of and disappearing into fields of nuanced noise. Tachitipo is dedicated to the hard- working and truly inspiring musicians of Yarn/Wire who commissioned the piece. A special thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts for their support of this project.

Program Notes by Zosha Di Castri