Member Project Spotlight – Steve Horowitz with Fred Frith – CSIC Commissions in Concert

Fred-Frith-Berkeley-HighSeptember 2011, Member Project, Steve Horowitz, Fred Frith and Berkeley High School

steve-horowitzAn email interview with composer Steve Horowitz regarding his commission for Berkeley High.

CSIC: Please tell us about the piece you’ve written for Berkeley High.

Steve: I wanted to write a piece that would interest the students, and that they would enjoy playing. I also wanted to write a piece that was scalable based on the individual performance level of each player or group of players. The thought was, to introduce the players to a whole new kind of classical music, another way of thinking about what music can be, so I decided to write a score with many graphic elements. The New York school of composers is a huge influence on me, also large abstract works by composers such as Xankis and Ligeti. This piece will introduce the players to the worlds of Earle Brown and John Cage as well as the next generation of creative improvising musicians such as Fred Frith and Elliott Sharp. MMMOG, is based on the idea of a game, young people love to play games of all kinds. In the video game world, many play MMO’s, Massive Multiplayer On-line Games. These are expansive worlds that encourage players to work together or compete with each other in virtual landscapes to achieve set goals. My piece, is a MMMOG, Massive Multiplayer Musical Organized (or Off-line) Game. It also encourages them to play together or work separately to achieve a singular and noble goal, a quest to make a satisfying piece of music.

The open is fast, pounding and fairly brutal, Think Stravinsky meets Anthony Braxton, and from this wild unstable kernel of raw energy the rest of the piece is conceived!

MMMOG was commissioned by Composers and Schools in Concert, performed by the Berkeley High Concert Orchestra with guest artist Fred Frith.

CSIC: What inspired you to focus on this theme?

Steve: I have been scoring music for games since the early 1990’s. I really love it. Interactive media is very different from writing music for other visual forms, like film. The challenge is to create a unified piece of music out of many small pieces that must work together. When you play a game, you have no idea how long the challenge will last or how long the music must play, same in this piece. Plus, lets face it, things are changing, kids love games, why not give them what they want and at the same time, expose them to some of the great musical concepts of the past, all at the same time. Xenakis and Spongebob can work together, really, take my word for it!

CSIC: Will there be room for improvisation in the piece, and if so, how do you speculate student musicians might improvise on this theme? 

Steve: All games have rules and this one is no different. In MMMOG the players are asked to accept a specific musical reality right from the outset. The opening is made up of a pounding beat, rapid trills and liquid flowing glissando’s, it is from this reality that all music choices spring. In the sections that follow, the players will improvise freely at times, and at others transform a row of notes into a melody. The form of the piece is in some ways similar to Earle Browns Folio, a series of oblique strategy’s that move from section to section, making a greater whole. Most of all, it is important that they have fun listening and creating music together.

CSIC: Has the idea evolved since you started writing for this ensemble, specifically?

Steve: Not yet, but I am sure that it will once we begin rehearsals next week..!

CSIC: We could envision your piece becoming popular with student ensembles throughout the country.  Do you think it could be adapted for orchestras, jazz or chamber ensembles in the future?

Steve: Yes to all of the above. I would like to think of this piece as a gateway, a door into making more accessible, the music of the NY school and other large form graphic pieces. There is a long and robust history of visual music all over the world, and composers and performers are writing and performing these types of pieces more than ever. I think this piece, along with a discussion of the pioneering artists who first developed ideas of random chance and improvisation in music, could go a long way to creating a new generation of musicians who understand and appreciate abstract forms. The piece itself can easily be adapted as to the number of players and the level of complexity. To that end, I have left certain instruments open, only noting if they should be treble or bass instruments. It is also a perfect piece for featuring brilliant soloists, made for defining open spaces and creative exploration.

CSIC: You’ve mentioned in previous conversations with Composers and Schools in Concert that the music education provided you by the BHS public school system started you on the path that led to where you are today.  Can you elaborate?

Steve: BHS was and still is, a very exciting place to be a young musician with an open mind and open ear. The surrounding Berkeley music community is uncommonly rich and diverse, filled with a myriad of diverse influences. Jimi plays Berkeley was filmed on the campus, at the Berkeley Community Theater, the same place we did our jazz band performances. Phil Hardeman game me my first bass and showed me how to play walking bass lines. From him, I developed a lifelong love of Jazz and creative music, not to mention the chance to play at the Monterey Jazz Festival. I dedicated this piece to him, he was a great teacher and friend. I also spent a huge amount of time in the Berkeley public library looking at scores and listening to recordings by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. See, I already had the rock and popular music training coming in, BHS gave me the opportunity and the resources to expand my horizons and musical vision, It is a very special place. That is why I am so happy to have been invited back in. At a time when music classes are disappearing and budgets are non-existent, this is my chance to give back to a new generation of musicians, I am very lucky and honored to be able to do that!

CSIC: Do you know of any other musicians or composers who share your sentiments about music education in the public schools?

Steve: All of  them, it is no secret that the public schools have been fighting an uphill battle to keep music alive for as long as we all can remember. I just have to say, what has happened in our schools is terrible. Without strong music and arts programs we are losing generation after generation of talented young people. Music is essential to who we are and that is being lost. Let your kids learn about music, let musicians into the schools to talk to them and share their knowledge and world view. Music can help to make the world a better place one person at a time. Music requires that people work together to make something that communicates to the soul. That is why I love CSIC, they are part of the solution to a very tough problem.

Next, we interviewed composer and collaborator, Fred Frith. 

CSIC: Where did you learn to play music? Who inspired you? Where did you get your music education?

Fred: My father was a keen amateur pianist and classical music lover, and my older brother Chris played piano and violin. My grandmother (who’d been a professional accompanist until she married my grandfather) insisted to my parents that I had talent and should start studying right away, so I began violin lessons at the age of 5. Not long afterwards I also joined the church choir, where I sang until my voice broke. In those days music education was also a normal part of the British school system. Imagine! I had a wonderful teacher called Rodney Mayes who used to sneak his head round the door when we were practicing at school and say “Nice notes!” He was very inspiring, and I spent time in the school orchestra under his baton (I was about 12 at the time, and have vivid memories of performing Ravel’s Bolero! This wasn’t a special music school, just a regular grammar school. We also had theory lessons, and he let us bring in music that WE liked, so I once performed Bert Weedon’s hit single Guitar Boogie Shuffle on the violin. 1962! Switching to guitar was only a matter of time…

CSIC: Can you share details of a specific transcendent experience, or “aha” moment, when you were a student playing music in school?

Fred: When we were working on Bolero we had a surprise visit at school from the celebrated percussionist James Blades, and he taught our drummers how to play that insistent snare drum part. He was so warm and passionate and down to earth and positive that we ALL played better because of his visit. He and Rodney Mayes helped me understand from a very early age that music was fun and exciting, and that there wasn’t one kind of music that was “better” than another. I loved them for that, and still do.

CSIC: What inspired you to work with Steve on the CSIC Project?

Fred: I was intrigued by what he might come up with. I work a lot with graphic scores, in fact I’m something of an expert at this point, so I want to see what Steve comes up with, and I like working with “amateurs” – they are often open to new ideas in a way that some professionals are not, which is sad but true. After all, amateurs are just folks who love what they do. One of my favorite projects was the 6 months I spent in Marseille working with what local government officials called “young unemployed rock musicians from the ghetto”. It was a life changing experience for all of us, and I understood how enthusiasm and energy are the fuel that can bring any project to life, however supposedly “unskilled” the protagonists. We (François-Michel Pesenti and I and these young musicians) made an opera together that toured throughout Europe. So I’m excited to explore some new terrain, new for all of us in one way or another.

CSIC: Will there be room for improvisation in the piece with Steve, and if so, how do you speculate student musicians might improvise on this theme? 

Fred: Well, I’ll certainly be improvising—as to what else is possible I leave that to the composer to determine as the rehearsal process unfolds. In a way it’s ALL about improvisation as when it comes down to it.

CSIC: As a college professor, do you have any advice for high school music students who would like to continue studying music in college?

Fred: Two things really. One is: make sure you’re having fun doing it. If you’re not, something needs attention!

And the other: it’s like everything else. What separates the people who are successful in any field from everyone else is not “natural talent”, though it doesn’t hurt of course. It’s hard work! You need to be putting in the hours to get at what you’re trying to achieve, whatever it may be—whether it’s playing in a metal band or a jazz quintet or a chamber ensemble. Without the hours, nothing much will come of it. So have fun, but don’t waste your time! If you come into college with a good basic music education, both practice and theory, you can go straight to the really interesting stuff, and you’ll get more out of everything.

CSIC: If you were to collaborate outside of this concert with a high school ensemble, what kind of project would most interest you? For example, a lecture, a master clinic, writing a piece for a high school ensemble, having a student ensemble perform your pieces, etc..?

Fred: It would probably be a combination of all of the above – the lecture and clinic would determine which students (if any!) would be interested to continue, and then writing a piece and arranging already existing pieces would allow them to get involved in all aspects of the creative process. I hate forcing people to do things they don’t want to do in music. There’s no reason why everyone has to like everything – that would be crazy. So when I do work with musicians I don’t know it helps to feel that they want to be there, whether they’re members of a crack contemporary string quartet or an amateur choir who meet every other weekend because they love to sing. It’s all about love and respect, like most things in life.

Enjoy listening to the composition MMMOG created by Steve Horowitz for the Berkeley High Concert Orchestra with guest artist Fred Frith: