Wheeler and Zimmermann

Part 2 of the preview. Nonce at NEC 5/17, 8PM in Williams Hall. Do come.

Fresh ink from Vanessa Wheeler.

Tonight we will hear the premiere of Vanessa’s new quintet “Successions,” commissioned by the nonce ensemble. The piece is a lush and crackling soundworld that uses the ensemble brilliantly. What Vanessa describes as a “quiet noise piece for ensemble,” “Successions” divides the group into two duos (bassoon and voice; cello and sax), who play mostly independent material, in a sort of dialogue, wherein one set soaks itself in a rich stasis while the other bustles with activity, one asks a question while the other offers an answer. This conversation is elucidated by the violin, who acts independent of the others, prefiguring or echoing music found in the other pairs’ parts. The successions of events occur in roughly twenty-second intervals throughout the piece, in which each subset of the ensemble behaves a certain way, until, as the piece progresses, more and more the subsets cooperate – or contradict – each other as the composition approaches its climax, and when the violin finally must choose a side.

Vanessa worked intimately with the players to come up with extended techniques and notations that would work especially well for their instruments. Delving into bassoon and saxophone multiphonics and other parameters such as air pressure and lip placement, she creates a gently screeching and richly enveloping soundscape, an evolving texture of reedy winds blowing. The voice is given phonetic symbols for the various vowels and consonants, sounds and mouth-shapes, and Ceceilia’s body becomes a sonorant vessel for these gorgeous and strange tones. The strings comment on all of this through a tasteful employment of soft dynamics, scratch tones, the sound of wood, and subtle shifts in timbre.

Take a look at a page from the score. Here the sax and cello are in the supporting role, providing subtle points and echoes. The voice moves first in long, flowing lines atop an opening up of the bassoon’s multiphonic, settling into a small chromatic range while the bassoon moves four-part chords underneath, before the two split to the extremes of their ranges, swelling in a timbral-shifting wave. The violin moves in its own way, coinciding and interjecting amidst the other parts, until the sax and cello have their final say, with a beautiful chord of multiphonics and doublestops.

Successions @ 3’41”

Walter Zimmermann is a unique outsider in the world of the European avant-garde. His piece, “Paradoxes of Love” for voice and sax, uses folk melodies, two-part counterpoint and canonic writing, subtle dynamic and timbral shifts, and Pythagorean tuning to create a commentary of love and coalescence that is mystical, primal, and simultaneously convincing and subversive in its narrative arc. Derek Beckvold and Ceceilia Allwein blend and contrast beautifully, oppose and complement as lovers do, in this duet on the 13th century Dutch poet and mystic Hadewjich. I’ll let her words speak for themselves:

Wordlessness is [love’s] most beautiful utterance;
Imprisonment by her is total release;
Her sorest blow is her sweetest consolation;
Her ruthless robbery is great profit;
Her withdrawal is approach;
Her deepest silence is her sublime song;
Her deepest wrath is her dearest thanks;
Her greatest threat is pure fidelity;
Her sadness is the alleviation of all pain.


After she first played these tricks on me,
And I considered all her methods,
I went to work in a wholly different way;
By her threats and her promises
I was no longer deceived.

I will belong to her, whatever she may be,
Gracious or merciless; to me it is all one!


Ives and Finnissy

This Thursday, May 17th, nonce returns to the school that bred them together, New England Conservatory, for a fun and fantastic night of new music. We are proud to be presenting this program to our audience, as the array of pieces is quite representative of our style and mission, and should be wholly satisfying for ourselves and the listener. We will hear Charles Ives’ “A Set for Theatre Orchestra,” Michael Finnissy’s “Recent Britain,” Walter Zimmermann’s “Paradoxes of Love,” and the premiere of our own composer-in-resident Vanessa Wheeler’s “Successions.” The concert starts at 8PM in NEC’s Williams Hall. For more information, join the Facebook event. And stay tuned for a special segment on Vanessa’s new piece.

Michael Finnissy’s piece, “Recent Britain,” for violin, cello, bassoon, and piano, with pre-recorded tapes, takes the listener on a journey through webs of counterpoint, echoes of voices, and layers of cultural commentary, comprising a solemnly theatrical and mercurial essay on nature and culture after the industrial revolution. It is complex without sounding academic, rich and moving without sounding sentimental, and politically charged without coming off as empty or self-righteous. The piece, written in the late 90’s, is a comment on the preoccupations of England’s media at the time: public scandals of pedophilia, the right’s outcry against immigration, the death of Princess Diana, and so on. Fitting now that we would choose to return to such a piece amid the admonishment and unraveling of Rupert Murdoch, News of the World, and his NewsCorp empire. The piece, performed by an especially lush subset of our ensemble, features Diamanda on violin, special guest Jude Tedaldi on cello, Chris on bassoon, and Aaron Likness on piano, who has one of the warmest touches on that instrument I have ever heard. Let the mind wander amid fields of interweaving microtonal lines, with ghost voices and bird sounds, cut-up bits from news clippings and scraps from the pastoral poetry of John Clare; add to that a bunch of “cuddly-toys” and follow the piece as it culminates in a surprising and hope-affirming conclusion.

Charles Ives’ “A Set for Theatre Orchestra” is the oldest piece nonce has yet played – beating Cage and Cardew by almost fifty years – but is a perfect fit for our ensemble. The ad hoc nature of the piece’s instrumentation is especially relatable to nonce. “Nonce,” as a noun, means “for the time being” or “for the occasion,” and this piece, unlike others of Ives, allows for some adjustments in instrumentation, being written, as it is, for a theatre orchestra. As the American pioneer of classical music, Ives’ style was unique to this country, and his application of jazz and traditional idioms gives us much to work with. Further, Ives’ influence on Michael Finnissy is undeniable in the multiple tempi and disparate layers found in both pieces.

Like many of Ives’ ensemble pieces, this set is a triptych, and each of the pieces in the set exist elsewhere in different forms. The movements are titled “In the Cage,” “In the Inn,” and “In the Night,” and, aside from being arranged alphabetically, they follow an arc familiar to others of Ives’ three-movement works. We begin with an enigmatic, yet grounded, pianissimo for “In the Cage.” A very short work, with a whole-tone melody atop a quartal ostinato, the text for the original song was inspired by a walk Ives took with a friend through Central Park in 1906. The brief poem, which more recalls Kafka than the hymn text found elsewhere in Ives, reads as such:

A leopard went around his cage

from one side back to the other side;

he stopped only when the keeper came around with meat;

A boy who had been there three hours began to wonder,

“Is life anything like that?”

The raucous middle movement “In the Inn” is one of Ives’ ragtime studies, in which the general tenets of that flashy, jazzy genre – collections of melodies, accents on the offbeats, danceable virtuosity – are taken to the extreme. Actually, an orchestration from the first piano sonata, the work bears the subtitle “Potpourri,” apropos, as, in it, one can hear the waft of a multitude of tunes coming and going, as if walking through a bordello and hearing bits of music and conversation floating in from other rooms, drunkenly piecing together in our heads bits of tunes, heard in different keys and at different speeds. We hear soft hymns from the strings, jazzy snippets from the sax, all unexpectedly contextualized amidst an ensemble texture. Finally, at the end, the group seems to agree on a melody, and, just as soon as they do, they fade out, quickly and gracefully, as if a couple deciding to go home together.

Finally, “In the Night.” What a gorgeous ending! Not wishing to spoil the effect of such a tender and evocative finale, I will say merely that time moves at many different rates in this movement, slow and stretched, each member of the ensemble dividing the beat in his or her own way. The texture has the impression similar to that of looking at a painting or textile, in which many different details are initially apparent, but it is only as the eye moves across the canvas that all of its components and patterns can be fully appreciated. And just as soon as we begin to make sense of this music, we hear, for the first time in the set, the voice, as Ceceilia enters singing a melody in another tempo, completely apart from the others, gorgeously floating above this gentle apotheosis. The ensemble is fleshed out by the addition of Lucia Stavros on the harp and Elaine Rombola as the third and fourth hands of the piano part.

Life is polyphonic. Sound never stops, and no one sound is never alone. Ives and Finnissy exemplify this notion with their beautiful writing and reflections on the world we live in. We aim, with our interpretations, to do the same, to continue the impact of these pieces into the 21st century, and to do our best to do justice to such beautiful works of art. Come share in the experience with us.

Cage / Cardew

On December 5, Nonce presents Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis and Cardew’s Octet ’61 at NEC’s Brown Hall. Read up on the Cage/Cardew connection, and why we decided to pair these two great pieces. Then come and listen.

By the time John Cage and Cornelius Cardew met at the Darmstadt Summer Courses in 1958, Cage was already a successful composer with well-established avantgarde credentials in New York. In 1951 he began consulting the I Ching to compose his monumental piano piece Music of Changes, and all of his music from that point incorporated chance procedures. Following the example of his young compatriots Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, his scores gradually became more graphic and indeterminate. A few months before he landed in Darmstadt he had presented a notorious 25-year retrospective concert at New York City’s Town Hall, concluding with the rambunctious, freewheeling Concert for Piano and Orchestra. His cadre of supporters included the indefatigable avantgarde pianist David Tudor, who came with him to Darmstadt that summer. (The two had been the laughing stock of the 1954 Donaueschinger Musiktage with a performance of 12’55.6078″ for two prepared pianos and various objects, including a duck whistle.)

Cardew, on the other hand, was just beginning to break into the European avantgarde scene. A gifted pianist and composer fresh out of the Royal Academy of Music, he went to Cologne in the fall of 1957 to work in Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s electronic studio. He became Stockhausen’s assistant, putting a great deal of time and effort into the preparation of Stockhausen’s massive work for four orchestral groups, Carré. Cardew’s compositions at that time were mostly experiments in the serial language.

February PieceThe summer of 1958 was a major turning point for Cardew and the rest of the European avantgarde. After his exposure to Cage’s ideas on composition, Cardew’s work immediately began to show signs of freedom. In Two Books of Study (1958) and February Pieces (1959-61) he abandoned meter and rhythm entirely. Autumn ’60 (John Cage was a performer in the work’s premiere) is really just a framework for the performers to realize a piece, a scattering of notes, symbols, and instructions, some of which the players are told to disobey. Octet ’61 teeters on the edge between these experimental works – holding on to some vestige of traditional notation – and the graphic notation of his 193-page magnum opus, Treatise (1963-67).

Throughout these developments, Cardew’s mind was on the relationship between the composer and performer. His aim as a composer was stimulation of the performer, an aspect which had been “disastrously neglected” by other avantgarde composers. The freedom he incorporated into his work was meant to encourage the performer to act creatively. After he began composing Treatise, he joined AMM, beginning a fruitful collaboration with legendary improvisers Keith Rowe, Eddie Prévost, and Lou Gare.

Cage, on the other hand, never cared for improvisation. He disliked jazz for its dependence on instinct and taste, keeping performers bound to traditional models. The freedom in his works had to do with a different goal – freeing the sounds. His pieces are not license for improvisation, but an occasion for experience, for both performer and listener. In a piece like Winter Music (1957, dedicated to Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns) chords float through space, each its own center, with no melodic or structural connection from one to the next. Occasionally there may be a perfect fifth, or a dominant 7th chord. Plucked away from any traditional context, they are still a perfect fifth or a dominant 7th chord, but also something else, something new. Having no function, we are free to simply listen to them, as individual sounds among other sounds. To me the effect is not unlike Rauschenberg’s combines of the 1950s:

Image Image

A Rauschenberg combine / a page of Winter Music

For many of his works in the later 1950s, including Winter Music, he obtained pitches from observing imperfections in the paper on which he composed. In Atlas Eclipticalis (1961) he traced star charts, creating ‘constellations’ of notes in each part (there are 86 parts, which may be played in any combination). Each note must be separated from the others, and the conductor’s role is to ensure that the presence of silence is felt. Again, each sound is its own center, so that (as Cage might say) each sound can become the Buddha. Without purpose, without function, simply allowed to exist, in a shimmering fabric of sound and silence with the rest of the ensemble. I’m reminded of a story Cage tells in Silence:

Atlas EclipticalisSeveral men, three as a matter of fact, were out walking one day, and as they were walking along and talking one of them noticed another man standing on a hill ahead of them. He turned to his friends and said, “Why do you think that man is standing up there on that hill?” One said, “He must be up there because it’s cooler there and he’s enjoying the breeze.” He turned to another and repeated his question, “Why do you think that man’s standing up there on that hill?” The second said, “Since the hill is elevated above the rest of the land, he must be up there in order to see something in the distance.” And the third said, “He must have lost his friend and that is why he is standing there alone on that hill.” After some time walking along, the men came up the hill and the one who had been standing there was still there: standing there. They asked him to say which one was right concerning his reason for standing where he was standing.

“What reasons do you have for my standing here?” he asked. “We have three,” they answered. “First, you are standing up here because it’s cooler here and you are enjoying the breeze. Second, since the hill is elevated above the rest of the land, you are up here in order to see something in the distance. Third, you have lost your friend and that is why you are standing here alone on this hill. We have walked this way; we never meant to climb this hill; now we want an answer. Which one of us is right?”

The man answered, “I just stand.”

diamanda morgenavond

Saturday, November 19th, 8:30 PM at YES.OUI.SI., nonce violinist diamanda la berge dramm will give a solo recital, performing with her mother, the flautist Anne Berge, and Belgian composer Stefan Prins, as well as myself. Read more about it here.

Check out the other artists:

Stefan Prins – very cool European composer making music about technology, foreign bodies, and Michael Jackson

Anne La Berge – diamanda’s mom talks, grunts, and snorts a lot whilst playing beautiful, delicate music on her flute

Event details

fall is upon us.

The ensemble is on the road this weekend, launching our fall season in Providence as part of a double-bill with Caroline Park, at Brown University. Caroline, or CPark, will perform a set of electoacoustic pieces, with our own Derek Beckvold, among performers. From nonce, the show will include performances of Cardew, Saariaho, Xenakis, and Krause, and shall serve as a snapshot preview of what is to come for the rest of 2011.

Chris Watford and Derek Beckvold will join to perform Ryan Krause’s “Splenetic Cultures.” This summer, the two had put together a joint, low-frequency winds concert, for which they had commissioned this Krause duo. In the realm of abstract sounds the group tends to include in its palette, this piece pushes past the instruments, and includes a whole slew of mouth noises between those of the instruments, primarily those sounds of sickness – coughing, groaning, breathing – as well as a structured reading of Krause’s own poetic texts. The piece itself paints a sonic landscape of despair and black humor, as the suffering of the performers gives way to a purely aural experience inside this narrative of illness, ennui, eroticism, and disgust.

Diamanda LaBerge Dramm and Aaron Likness have a vibrant history as a violin and piano duo, playing Ives, Feldman, and Schubert. This weekend the two will step inside the chaotic and virtuosic machine that is Xenakis’s “Dikthas,” a piece built of algorithms, polyrhythms, incessant drive, and fiery bursts of sound, which is as captivating and exacting in its structure as the two in their performance.

And, these two duos shall merge to form a quartet! In the early sixties, British composer Cornelius Cardew was part of a wave of musical thought that drew influence from the art world as composers began to see their scores not merely as functional symbols necessary to capture and convey the sounds of a piece of music, but as a graphic system, much like a painting, capable of conveying tone and ambiguity, that could allow for subjective interpretation and be reflective of their content. With the complete history of musical language as his lexicon, Cardew, a graphic designer himself, erected a multi-traversable course of twisted symbols and layered meanings in the sixty small fragments that make up “Octet ’61,” drawing on Jasper Johns’ use of targets and numbers in a show Cardew had witnessed in Paris. For Friday, Derek, Chris, Aaron, and Diamanda have each orchestrated realizations of their own individual parts, and, together as an ensemble, then pieced them back together to create a version of this piece that is as representative of each individual as it is the ensemble as a whole.

Finally, we are pleased to feature two friends of the nonce family as guest performers this weekend. On Kaija Saariaho’s dazzling trio, “Adjö,” our resident soprano Ceceilia Allwein will be joined by Maarten Stragier, guitarist, who will be performing later in the evening with CPark, and flautist Jessi Rosinski, who has a history going back all the way to nonce’s debut concert, where she performed a solo piece of Trevor Bača.

And for those who can’t make it to Providence on Friday, Huntington Avenue shall be abuzz with an opening at Yes.Oui.Si. of Adrian Molina’s sculpture show “Perpetual In-Terra-Action,” as well as a lecture at NEC on Xenakis’ music featuring Stratis Minakakis, Katarina Miljkovic, and Trevor Bača in advance of the following night’s concert, which is to feature several of nonce’s members.

11/11/11 @ 8PM

Grant Hall at Brown University – Providence, RI


Iannis Xenakis “Dikthas”

Kaija Saariaho “Adjö”

Ryan Krause “Splenetic Cultures”

Cornelius Cardew “Octet ’61”


Caroline Park on laptop,

featuring Derek Beckvold, Michael Unterman, and Maarten Stragier

a snippet from Cardew’s “Octet ’61″next to some numbers of Jasper Johns:


grant received

We are pleased to announce that nonce ensemble has recently been named as a recipient of one of NEC’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship grants. Just last week, the organization confirmed that composer-in-residence Vanessa Wheeler’s proposal had been approved, and that the ensemble would be allowed funding to help with logistics, equipment, media, and other expenses for its fall and spring seasons. And, just in time, as our first fall show in Providence is only eight days away!

Eva Heinstein and Rachel Roberts of the Entrepreneurial Musician Department have been supportive of nonce in their previous endeavors. Last year, nonce’s members acted as the core of Vanessa’s Composer’s Lab Ensemble, which brought composers together to present and workshop their pieces, with live ensemble realization from us and some of our friends. The support and input of the EM Department has been invaluable along the way, and we look forward to using these resources to continue to develop our group’s potential.

In further financial news, nonce recently received nonprofit 502c3 status through the organization Fractured Atlas, making us now eligible to receive tax-deductible donations. We are thrilled that these organizations have decided to support us in these tough economic times, when Arts are often hit the worst, so that we can continue to program and perform contemporary and avant-garde music to broader and broader audiences. Please, check out our Fractured Atlas page if you are interested in supporting us as well.