At its heart, public music making is about the way in which we exist in the same time and place as other people. It’s about how we communicate with and relate to one another. The playing of music is a conversation of sorts, an interaction undertaken between the musicians and the listeners, each member of the dialogue giving something and taking something away. It’s not a coincidence, then, that some of the most interesting and engaging music composed both throughout history and today comes from a wellspring of mutually supportive and inspiring relationships between musicians. On Wednesday night, concert goers at Rackham Auditorium will have the chance to witness the fruits of some of these relationships in a joint concert by the contemporary music ensembles A Far Cry and Roomful of Teeth.
“It’s a funny thing, often in popular culture classical musicians are portrayed as being very competitive and cutthroat with each other,” said violinist Miki-Sophia Cloud. “Which of course is true in some circles and true to some extent, but what’s really beautiful about this program is that every single one of the pieces on the program comes from a really respectful and inspiring and beautiful relationship between musicians that were either contemporaries or had a very close relationship.”
Cloud is a violinist with the Boston-based contemporary music chamber orchestra A Far Cry, which was founded in 2007 and has since rocketed towards the forefront of the new music scene. Nominated for a Grammy in 2015 for the their first album, Dreams and Prayers (a recording of Osvaldo Golijov’s piece of a similar name), the ensemble has been active in both performing works by living composers and commissioning new compositions. On Wednesday the chamber orchestra — along with the acclaimed, Grammy-winning contemporary music vocal octet Roomful of Teeth — will be presenting a diverse program which spans centuries and features three compositions commissioned by either one or both of the ensembles performing.
“As we’ve been living with this program, we’ve realized that it has a very special thematic tie, which is that all of the pieces on the program are really about the relationships that musicians have with each other,” Cloud said. In addition to works by Prokofiev and the Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez, the concert features compositions by two living composers, Caroline Shaw and Ted Hearne, both of whom are friends with members of the ensembles.
“When I was in grad school, at Yale School of Music, I was in a quartet with Caroline Shaw, actually, we both played violin in a quartet together at school, and we were great friends, and near the end of her time in school she started composing,” Cloud explained. “My first time hearing her music was at her Master’s recital, and I was so taken by what she wrote, I really specifically remember having this really involuntary emotional reaction to the piece she wrote, and just weeping in the concert hall, in the balcony, and thinking ‘oh my God.’ Not only is she talented in so many other ways, but she’s a really special voice as a composer as well.”
It wasn’t until several years later that this friendship blossomed into the composition “Music in Common Time,” which was written for A Far Cry and Roomful of Teeth and will be the final piece on Wednesday night’s concert.
“When I moved back to New York, we got together for coffee one day,” Cloud recollected. “And [Shaw] was telling me about this group Roomful of Teeth she was singing with, and how they just recorded their first album, and she wrote them a piece and she felt pretty excited about it, and I was like ‘Oh my gosh, you should write a piece for A Far Cry.’ ”
They decided that Shaw should write a piece for both A Far Cry and Roomful of Teeth, of which Shaw is a member.
“We were all really excited about it, and then a few months later, maybe like the following Spring — that was in the Fall — in the Spring, you know, she won the Pulitzer Prize,” Cloud said. “And we were kind of laughing that we were lucky we got a place on the list before she got famous. So she wrote this beautiful work for our two groups.”
“This one — Music in Common Time — is a really important one to me,” Shaw wrote in an email interview. “I dove deep into the sound of strings and voices, into the world of A Far Cry (many of them are friends of mine, from my violin life) and Teeth. I'm not really ready to talk about this piece yet. Maybe in a few years.”
In 2013, at the age of 30, Shaw became the youngest person ever to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Music, for her composition “Partita for 8 Voices,” which appeared on Roomful of Teeth’s debut album. “Music in Common Time” was commissioned prior to the receipt of the prize, but after the composition of “Partita.”
“My friends Alex and Miki asked me to write this piece! Way back in 2013, before all the Pulitzer crazytimes,” Shaw wrote. “It was my first real commission, and it was a dream idea, and I am so grateful for them for thinking of this beautiful program.”
Shaw has an active compositional life, collaborating on pieces with the likes of Dawn Upshaw, So Percussion, Renee Fleming and Jonathan Biss in the classical world, and such well-known and iconic figures as Richard Reed Parry and Kanye West outside of the classical genre. On top of this, however, she maintains a presence as a performer, and will be appearing in her role as a member of Roomful of Teeth on Wednesday night. In this respect, the other featured contemporary composer on the program is similar.
“This will actually be a very special performance because Ted Hearne, the composer, will actually be singing tenor in Roomful of Teeth, which is a first,” Cloud said. “He was a classmate of both Caroline and mine at Yale, and we’ll be playing two of his pieces.”
Hearne, who is a member of a group of composers known as the Sleeping Giant Collective and an assistant professor of composition at USC, was commissioned by A Far Cry to write his piece “Law of Mosaics” a few years ago, excerpts of which will be performed on Wednesday’s concert.
“‘Law of Mosaics’ is a piece that is sort of based on this idea of appropriation, you know, of the classical music canon and music in general,” Hearne said. “So the conceit behind that piece is that it’s made up of pre-existing music, there is actually no quote-unquote original music that was written for it, it’s kind of a patchwork of pre-existing pieces arranged in a new way.”
One of the movements of “Law of Mosaics” featured on Wednesday’s concert is “Palindrome for Andrew Norman,” which appropriates music from — among others — Andrew Norman’s “Companion Guide to Rome,” a string trio which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. Norman, who like Hearne is a member of the Sleeping Giant Collective and teaches at USC, was also classmates at Yale with Hearne, Shaw and Cloud. This sort of exchange of ideas and inspirations is the type of symbiosis to which Cloud referred when she spoke of this program being about relationships between the musicians.
“I came up in conservatory in the early 2000s, right, I graduated in 2004, and at that time the people we were supposed to be studying as, like, making the best contemporary classical music, those composers who were older, a lot of the people who were entrenched in school in our education, they were not that inspiring to me,” Hearne said. “There’s a lot of composer colleagues of mine who I think probably feel the same way, but for me, I really came to be inspired by some of the other composers I met along the way who were my age, who were in my generation, who were influenced by a lot of things around them besides the venerated canon of classical music … so I think that, for me, the people that I’m most inspired by are my peers.”
Another piece of Hearne’s will be featured on the program, “Coloring Book,” which was written for Roomful of Teeth and aims to explore themes of identity.
“‘Coloring Book’ is an appropriation of the words of African-American writers. It’s five movements, and I think we’re doing two movements that are texts taken from Zora Neale Hurston and one movement with texts by Claudia Rankine,” Hearne said. “Both incredible writers, but talking about identity and specifically African-American identity, so the idea of appropriation plays into that a lot as well, because of course I am not able to speak about any sort of African-American experience, but rather the conceit of the piece, the idea, is sort of an identity shift, examining the nature of identity itself by stepping into the words of someone who is different, and [asking] ‘what can that mean?’ ”
Performance is an act of social communion. It’s about the way we interact with one another, how we convey and receive our experiences. Wednesday’s program will stand as an example of the sort of ecstatic music making that can spring from the close friendships between musicians. Combining two of the most interesting composers and two of the most captivating ensembles, the evening promises to capture its listeners.