March Orchestral Sessions

The PARMA team just returned from our second trip to the Czech Republic in 2015, producing a week of premiere recordings.  The week saw recordings of “Symphony for String Orchestra” from new PARMA composer Fred Broer, along with “The Luminous Mystery” by longtime PARMA artist Stephen Yip, “In Hand” for chamber orchestra by Paula Diehl,  and”Inhuman Henry” for orchestra by Alan Beeler.

Among the works recorded was Michael J. Evans anti-concerto for bassoon, “Misery.”  Michael was in the Czech Republic for the recording of “Misery” and A&R Representative Alex Bourne had the chance to catch up with him and reflect on his trip.

Michael J. Evans
AB: You just went to the Czech Republic with our team to record your anti-concerto, “Misery.” Can you share some background on the piece and your approach to writing an anti-concerto?
ME: Well, the piece is based on the Anton Chekhov short story “Misery”. How this story ended up being the subject of the anti-concerto was pure serendipity. I had been kicking around the idea of writing a bassoon concerto for a while, love the sound of the instrument, and realized that there are not a lot of concertos for it.
One of the issues in writing for bassoon is the fact that it tends to get swallowed up by the orchestra unless it is amplified. Most people view that as a weakness, but I wanted to take a more zen approach and exploit that quality. It just so happened, while reading a review of an anthology of short stories, it mentioned “Misery”. I had never read the story, but once I did, I realized I had the subject for my piece. The main character is a sled driver who’s son died the week before. He tries to tell his fares about it, but everyone is too self-involved to listen. He, like the bassoon in the orchestra, tends to get swallowed up in the crowd, even though he is being incredibly strong.

A special technique I wanted to incorporate into the piece was that of circular breathing. Through this technique, I was able to give the soloist these long notes, (held for 4 or 5 minutes at a time), which represents the main character’s grief;  and, the fact that, in grief, sometimes the most difficult thing to do is hang on or keep breathing. These sustained notes help differentiate this as an anti-concerto.

Sustaining the pitches is incredibly difficult but can pass by unnoticed. It is quite effective too. When we would cut during the recording, I actually heard the other members of the orchestra audibly gasping. This is different from a typical romantic concerto, where the soloist is this heroic figure that is either triumphing over or leading the orchestra, and generally playing lots of fast passagework.
AB: What’s your favorite part of the recording process?

ME: I love working with the orchestra and hearing them breathe life into these things I put on paper. It’s one thing to hear something in your head or through a computer rendering, but quite another when you have actual humans, who are all fantastic musicians, playing your stuff and hearing their emotions coming through too.  It always makes me happy.
AB: Your last project, CIPHER, focused on language, translation, and how words can become obscured depending on how they’re interpreted.  I know you brushed up on your Czech before going overseas, but how did working and communicating with a foreign group affect the music?  Do you feel that through your writing, you were able to express your message to the orchestra, conductor, and soloist?

ME: Yes, as it turned out, I really didn’t need the Czech that much, which was good, because I am really just learning. At the same time, I didn’t want to be the typical American that doesn’t put forth the effort to learn the language. The times I did speak Czech, people really appreciated it. It also helped to know my numbers so I could find my place in the score quickly while we were recording. I will say that the language had no real impact on the performance at all.
As musicians, we all speak the same language. And, fortunately we had Vít Mužík translating and working out the specifics. He is great to work with. The soloist, Jan Hudeček, was incredible. I was told he read the story and all the notes I provided. It definitely came through in the music. In fact, he played the piece so beautifully I ended up dedicating the piece to him.
AB: Building off of that, “Misery” is a piece that tells a story.  What narrative cues should we be listening for?

ME: The music follows the narrative, so it is really a soundtrack for the story. Throughout the score, when the various characters have dialog, the music imitates the speech. You can hear the instruments, (representing the individual characters), speak the dialog, kind of like a wordless opera. I wasn’t just focused on the dialog though.  I wanted to create a soundscape, incorporating the snow, the amount of time passing while the main character is waiting for a fare, etc.
AB: Recently, you’ve been producing multi-media projects that appeal to new audiences.  You’re working with an artist to give “Misery” a visual treatment.  Can you tell us more about your approach and goals for the animation?”

ME: From the beginning I wanted to have a visual component to the work, so I composed the music with that in mind. I’m lucky to have a great friend, Sam Cummins, who is also a phenomenal artist. We decided to go for a graphic novel style for the images. The storyboarding of the entire piece came next, and then Sam created the artwork from the storyboards as well as from the text itself.

There are several ways to utilize the visuals. For a recording, it will be a video, with the images following the music track.  In a live performance, the images are included with the score and parts, as well as the storyboard so that a separate performer can work at a laptop and cue the images during a live performance, freeing the conductor and soloist from having to be bound to a set tempo.
Artwork for “Misery” by Sam Cummins

As far as goals, since this story is classic literature and is on almost every High School and College reading list, I would like to have it used in the classroom as a way to engage the students more, and to show the value of, and bring together the literary, visual, and musical arts.

Another goal is to present a different paradigm for composers who want to do film scores or soundtracks. Typically, unless you are John Williams and Steven Spielberg, the composer really doesn’t have much input into a film. The director decides what it will sound like, and the composer is basically stuck realizing someone else’s vision. Also, if a composer reads a book or story and has an idea for a soundtrack, typically they have to wait and hope that someone makes it into a film and that the visions line up.

With this model, the composer is the director, and the visual elements follow the score. I think there is room for both models. It will be interesting to compare a body of work is created in this way, and to the work created when the images are created first.
AB: Your writing draws from a lot of different sources and inspirations.  Can you share more about your writing process and is there anything in particular that you’re influenced by at this moment? 

ME: Again, right now stories are really influencing me.  In fact, I’m working on a String Quartet right now based on another short story. For the stories, I just read them and listen, try to get a clear picture of the scene and what that would sound like, what the emotional context is and how that would sound, etc.

Typically for any piece I generally start at the piano and just noodle around on the keys till something catches my attention.  From there, it just develops like a seed. 
AB: Tell us about a meaningful and memorable experience that your music has given you.
ME: I would have to say my life. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest. I always saw myself leaving, and music and movies were my ticket to being able to do that, by showing me that there was so much more out there than what I was surrounded by. If I had stayed there I would probably be dead or in jail.
AB: What else should we know about you?

ME: Well, I’m a vegetarian, love animals, am totally into mythology and fantasy. I’m into astrology, shamanism, the tarot, and anything like that. I love to cook, and live on coffee. I’m in search of someone who is- oh, wait, this isn’t a dating profile  LOL.

We are currently working on editing and mixing the audio we captured while in the Czech Republic.  Keep an eye out for new projects from all of the artists we recorded with this month – we’re excited to share these works with you all.

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