Category: Blogcast

CityFM: Jim Staley in Conversation on the Evolution of Experimental Music in NYC

In this podcast, Roulette Artistic Director and co-founder Jim Staley speaks with CityFM about the evolution of experimental music in NYC.

A strange thing happened to jazz and classical music in New York amidst the countless pronouncements that they were getting old, losing audiences and cultural relevance: at their experimental and progressive core, they’ve experienced an aesthetic union. Some of the best (and best-known) of the city’s contemporary classical and jazz musicians play both, improvising, composing, and discard genre preconceptions. If there is a name for it, they call it “new music” and “creative music.” CityFM’s episode about this jazz/classical/creative music makes clear, it too has roots in a previous New York music culture of the 1970s.

Featuring Vijay Iyer, Brandee Younger, Jim Staley (of Roulette) & Ben Ratliff

And music from Vijay Iyer, Brandee Younger, Eli Keszler, Esperanza Spalding, Mary Halvorson, Kelly Moran, Caroline Shaw, Butch Morris & Nublu Orchestra, George Lewis, Onyx Collective, Arthur Russel, Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar, and Jigmastas.

Roulette Archive Awarded $20K grant from the GRAMMY Museum®

The Roulette Archive recently received a $20K grant from the GRAMMY Museum® to professionally preserve and digitize concert recordings made here between 1985 and 2004.


GRAMMY Museum® Grant Program

LOS ANGELES (JULY 10, 2019)—The GRAMMY Museum® Grant Program announced today that $200,000 in grants will be awarded to 15 recipients in the United States to help facilitate a range of research on a variety of subjects, as well as support a number of archiving and preservation programs. Research projects include work on musical anhedonia, musical training’s relationship to complex memories, and the relationship between cognitive function and singing accuracy. Preservation projects include the archiving of uncirculated John Hartford jam tapes, 960 audio reels of Cajun and zydeco artists, and 221 rare interview recordings with African-American actors, performers, composers, musicians, and scholars, among many other preservation projects.

“The GRAMMY Museum Grant Program to date has awarded more than $7.5 million to more than 400 grantees,” said Michael Sticka, Executive Director of the GRAMMY Museum. “The work we help fund includes an impressive array of projects that are at the forefront of exploring music’s beneficial intersection with science, and that maintain our musical legacy for future generations. The initiatives announced today exemplify the Museum’s mission to uphold music’s value in our lives and shared culture.”

Generously funded by the Recording Academy, the GRAMMY Museum Grant Program provides funding annually to organizations and individuals to support efforts that advance the archiving and preservation of the recorded sound heritage of the Americas for future generations, in addition to research projects related to the impact of music on the human condition. In 2008, the Grant Program expanded its categories to include assistance grants for individuals and small to mid-sized organizations to aid collections held by individuals and organizations that may not have access to the expertise needed to create a preservation plan. The assistance planning process, which may include inventorying and stabilizing a collection, articulates the steps to be taken to ultimately archive recorded sound materials for future generations.


Scientific Research Grantees

Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning—McGill University—Montreal

Awarded: $20,000

Caroline Palmer, Signy Sheldon, and Rebecca Scheurich of McGill University will test people’s memories for rich auditory detail in real-world events. Brain activity of musically trained and untrained individuals will be measured as they recall complex events. Findings will address the link between musical training, imagery, and autobiographical memory.

Northeastern University—Boston

Awarded: $20,000

Music is a rewarding social activity across human cultures, but recent studies have identified a special population of people with musical anhedonia, who feel no reward in response to music. This project will identify the incidence and neural substrates of musical anhedonia, and test the relationship between musical reward sensitivity and difficulties with social bonding, which is characteristic in people with autism spectrum disorders.

University at Buffalo—Buffalo, New York

Awarded: $20,000

Recent studies have found correlations between singing accuracy and measures of general cognitive functioning: individuals’ ability to form auditory images and auditory short‐term memory capacity. This project consists of two training studies designed to test whether there is an actual causal relationship: Can improved imagery and/or memory lead to more accurate singing, and can improved singing accuracy enhance imagery and/or memory capacity?

Preservation Assistance Grantees

The Kitchen Sisters Productions—San Francisco

Awarded: $5,000

The goal of this project is to create a plan to inventory, archive, preserve, and make publicly available the Kitchen Sisters Collection, which includes some 7,000 hours of recordings of nearly 40 years of interviews, oral histories, music and sound for the NPR series, podcasts, projects, and stories. Funds will be used to hire a professional to develop a catalog, plan for digitization, long-term storage, back-up, and accessibility.

Percussive Arts Society—Indianapolis

Awarded: $5,000

The Percussive Arts Society (PAS) plans to inventory and assess approximately 150 hours of music on 78s from the Edwin Gerhardt Marimba Xylophone Collection in preparation for its subsequent preservation, digitization and dissemination. Support will allow PAS to engage an expert to help inventory this extensive collection of recordings and prioritize items for preservation.

The House Foundation for the Arts, Inc—New York

Awarded: $5,000

As a steward of Meredith Monk’s legacy, the House will embark on the Lineage Project to preserve, enhance, and maintain the integrity of Monk’s artistic works and make such works available for the benefit of the public. The House will publish an online database cataloging 50-plus years of previously unavailable photographs, video, audio, and objects. This resource will act as a centralized location for her archive and support ongoing digitization and preservation efforts, providing students, artists, curators, and the general public access to this rich history.

Armenian Studies Program, California State University, Fresno—Fresno, California

Awarded: $5,000

This project will focus on the inventory and cataloging of nearly 1,500 recordings on 78-rpm discs from the Armenian-American diaspora. The locally produced records document the early history of Armenians in the United States. The collection represents the voices of musicians whose social, economic, and political status forced them out of their homeland. It was thus only in the emerging cosmopolitan American music scene that most of these artists were first able to be heard.

Bluegrass Country Foundation—Washington, D.C.

Awarded: $5,000

The Bluegrass Country Foundation will identify, index and preserve recordings of bluegrass music shows broadcast over the last 50 years at WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C.  These include programs featuring rare and out-of-print recordings as well as interviews, concerts, and live studio performances.

Preservation Implementation

San Francisco Symphony—San Francisco

Awarded: $12,000

The San Francisco Symphony will transfer to a digital format 118 live recordings conducted by music director Michael Tilson Thomas, who will be stepping down from his post in 2020. This comprehensive digital collection will preserve the historic contributions Thomas made to the modern orchestral repertoire during his exceptional 25-year tenure with the San Francisco Symphony.

Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University—Murfreesboro, Tennessee

Awarded: $19,963

This project will digitize and catalog 573 cassettes of jam performances from the John Hartford audio collection. A hit songwriter and “newgrass” pioneer, Hartford obsessively documented his activities at the epicenter of Nashville’s music scene. These unique and uncirculated recordings capture some of the most important bluegrass, country, and folk musicians of the late-20th century in rare and informal settings.

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings—Washington, D.C,

Awarded: $20,000

This project will digitize roughly 960 audio reels and corresponding materials—related to recordings of Cajun and zydeco artists—for preservation, rights research, and online access.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc.—Boston

Awarded: $11,518.50

The Boston Symphony Orchestra intends to transfer and preserve endangered audio from 282 DATs that correspond to 273 Boston Pops concerts held at Symphony Hall from 1992–2002. Project deliverables include preservation master files, access copies on CD for public use in the Archives Reading Room, MP3 files of the full concerts for internal and individually approved remote reference, and an Encoded Archival Description finding aid.

The City College of New York Libraries—New York

Awarded: $20,000

The City College of New York Libraries (CCNY Libraries) will digitize and preserve more than 221 rare interview recordings—conducted mainly between 1970 and 1974—with African-American actors, performers, composers, musicians and scholars. Digital copies will be preserved in CCNY’s trusted digital repository and access copies will be made available onsite at the CCNY Archives & Special Collections as well as remotely accessible at CCNY and four partner institutions.

Roulette Intermedium, Inc.—Brooklyn, New York

Awarded: $20,000

The Roulette Archive is an initiative to preserve, restore, digitize, and distribute 1,100 audio recordings on threatened PCM-F1 and DAT tapes recorded between 1986-2002. These quality recordings are part of a 4,000-plus historic collection capturing significant achievements in contemporary music dating back to 1980 and continuing to this day. The concerts took place in Roulette’s loft venue in New York City during a fertile period of experimentation and discovery.

Tulane University—New Orleans

Awarded: $11,518.50

The Hogan Jazz Archive, part of Tulane University Special Collections, will digitize and preserve 25 unique recordings from Vernon Winslow, the first black disc jockey in New Orleans. The recordings offer a rare chance to hear 1940s and 1950s radio continuity, including local advertisements and conversations with local and itinerant musicians, and provide insight into the dawn of segregated radio in the city. Once digitized, they will be accessible to the public online.

about the grammy museum

Established in 2008, the GRAMMY Museum is a nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating a greater understanding of the history and significance of music. Paying tribute to our collective musical heritage, the Museum explores and celebrates all aspects of the art form—from the technology of the recording process to the legends who’ve made lasting marks on our cultural identity. In 2017, the Museum integrated with its sister organization, the GRAMMY Foundation®, to broaden the reach of its music education and preservation initiatives. As a unified organization, today, the GRAMMY Museum fulfills its mission of making music a valued and indelible part of our society through exhibits, education, grants, and public programming.

A Call to Curiosity with Meredith Monk

Our friend Meredith Monk recently sat down with Roulette TV in her home, and we loved what she had to say: that art is an antidote to the predictability of daily life and consumer culture.

We couldn’t agree more.

Art gets us out into the world and defines, expands, and challenges who we are. It asks us to take the right kind of risks and pushes us towards who we might become. Roulette is literally named after a game of chance, precisely because we celebrate the risk and adventurousness that define experimental performance, the people who make it, and the people who love it.

We all deserve what Roulette has to offer: a place to come together around delightfully weird live art; to have a beer in our renovated 1928 art-deco theater; to engage with extraordinary work and talk face-to-face about it; to be unapologetically curious together.

We need these values. And Roulette needs you.

Help Roulette protect this creative space we’ve built over the last 40 years — join us in creating a more curious, more connected, more open world.

Relive a Lost, Rarely Documented Era in New York Music History…and Discover a New One at the Roulette Archive

by Alan Young originally published on New York Music Daily


If you ran a club, would you record everything ever played there? Among venues around the world, never mind New York, Roulette probably holds the record for owning the most exhaustive archive of concert performances. Smallshas been documenting their own scene since the zeros, but Roulette goes back over two decades before then. What’s most astonishing is the wealth of material in the Roulette archive. Sure – virtually everyone who ever played a gig anywhere in the world where there’s an internet connection has been documented on youtube. But Roulette’s archive goes back to 1980, long before most people even had video cameras. It got a gala, mid-February relaunch, with a characteristically celestial, rippling performance by inventor, composer and one-man electric gamelan Pat Spadine a.k.a. Ashcan Orchestra.

Although Roulette has deep roots as a spot for free jazz, practically since the beginning they’ve been programming music and multidisciplinary work that few other venues would touch. The archive validates founder and trombonistJim Staley’s vision of how crucial that stubborn commitment to music at the furthest, most adventurous fringes would become. Staley originated the Roulette brand in the late 70s. As a New York venue, it opened as a jazz loft on West Broadway in 1980, eventually migrated to Wooster Street and now sits across from the site of another storied New York music hotspot that was forced to move, Hank’s, on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

Looking back, it’s astonishing to see how many artists who would become iconic, not only in the free jazz or avant garde demimondes, were part of the 80s Roulette scene. Shows from early in the decade featured a characteristically diverse cast: John Zorn, big band revivalist Jim McNeely and doomed polymath/indie classical pioneer Julius Eastman each played solo piano here. A young Ned Rothenberg led several ensembles, as did Butch Morris, refining his signature conduction in front of a relatively small (for him) improvisational ensemble.

Pauline Oliveros made her Roulette debut in 1984, Elliott Sharp and Bill Frisellthe following year. The earliest performance currently available online dates from 1985: the late Jerry Hunt building a swirl of insistent, astringent analog loops behind what must have been a spectacularly physical, outlandish performance. As the archive describes it, he was “Wearing his ubiquitous jacket and tie, with his equipment suitcase that doubled as a performance seat and percussion instrument, button controllers made from Bakelite dishes, optical sensors triggering video disks, fetish objects including shakers, sticks, and rattles made by David McManaway, and convincing all in attendance that they were watching a ceremonial magician.”

The next one is from October, 1986: Tenko and Kamura singing over skronky guitar and snapping, distorted bass, with Zeena Parkins on both her usual harp and also piano. Later that month the venue booked a night of all women improvisers: once again, Roulette was way ahead of its time.

From later in the decade, you can hear Tom Johnson’s 1978 composition Chord Catalogue, comprising the 8,178 chords that can be made using the notes in a single octave. ”The audio recording is interrupted briefly at the 74 minute point as the original recording media capacity was reached and the tape was changed.” Another rare treat is Frisell playing solo on March 13, 1989: “Solo guitar: electric, acoustic and banjo covering Thelonious Monk, Nino Rota, Disney soundtrack tunes, plus originals.”

The past twenty years are also represented: here’s a random, envelopingly ambient clip of sound sculptor and singer Lesley Flanigan from 2015. The venue also has the Roulette TV series up online, including both live performances and studio footage of artists they’ve championed recently.

These days Roulette keeps programming weird and often rapturously good stuff. Multimedia is big, but they still have regular free jazz, ambient and new orchestral and chamber music. In the past few years, they’ve also become a Brooklyn home for Robert Browning Associates’ annual slate of amazing performers playing traditional music from around the world. One such is this Friday, March 12 at 8 PM, a rare NYC concert of Indian veena music by virtuoso Jayanthi Kumaresh. You can get in for thirty bucks in advance.

The Schanzer/Speach Duo with Warren Smith

Sunday, April 7, 2019
Performance 8pm / Doors 7pm

What: Guitarist Jeffrey Schanzer and pianist Bernadette Speach perform with acclaimed percussionist Warren Smith. Featuring surreal video work from Anney Bonney.
When: Sunday, April 7, 2019
Where: Roulette, 509 Atlantic Ave Brooklyn, 2/3/4/5/A/C/G/D/M/N/R/B/Q trains & the LIRR
Cost: $18 presale, $25 Doors
Info: www.roulette.org / (917) 267-0368
Tickets: https://roulette.org/event/the-schanzer-speach-duo-with-warren-smith/

Brooklyn, NY – Longtime collaborators and acclaimed improvisors, guitarist Jeffrey Schanzer and pianist Bernadette Speach, join legendary percussionist Warren Smith in a rare appearance of trios, duos, and solos among the three musicians as well as a premiere of new work between the Schanzer/Speach Duo and the surreal landscapes of video artist Anney Bonney.

Jeffrey Schanzer: classical and electric guitars
Bernadette Speach: piano and toy piano
Warren Smith: percussion (drums and mallet percussion)
Anney Bonney: video processing

The Schanzer-Speach Duo’s collaborative works combine the intuition and spontaneity of improvisation with the structure of formal composition. Pianist Bernadette Speach is a noted new music composer and student of Morton Feldman, and guitarist Jeffrey Schanzer is composer rooted in jazz. Their album Dualities was released on the Mode/Avant label to much acclaim. Artists who have performed with the Duo include Lester Bowie, Thomas Buckner, Mark Dresser, Joseph Jarman, Oliver Lake, Joelle Leandre, Fred Ho, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Myra Melford, David Pleasant, Bobby Previte, Alva Rogers, Ned Rothenberg, and Wadada Leo Smith.

Wet Ink: 20th Anniversary Bash

Monday, April 1, 2019
Performance 8pm / Doors 7pm

What: Wet Ink Ensemble celebrates 20 years of adventurous music making.
When: Monday, April 1, 2019
Where: Roulette, 509 Atlantic Ave Brooklyn, 2/3/4/5/A/C/G/D/M/N/R/B/Q trains & the LIRR
Cost: $18 presale, $25 Doors
Info: www.roulette.org / (917) 267-0368
Tickets: http://roulette.org/event/wet-ink-20th-anniversary-bash/

Brooklyn, NY – Wet Ink Ensemble celebrates 20 years of adventurous music making in NYC and around the world with a concert celebrating the work of the ensemble’s four acclaimed composer members—Alex Mincek, Sam Pluta, Kate Soper, and Eric Wubbels. The concert will feature a retrospective look at “classics” of Wet Ink‘s repertoire, including Alex Mincek’s From Nowhere to Nowhere and Kate Soper’s Door, and new sounds including Sam Pluta’s binary/momentary iii for solo cello featuring Mariel Roberts and the world premiere of a new work for Wet Ink‘s core septet of composer-performers by Eric Wubbels.

Repertoire:
Alex Mincek: From Nowhere To Nowhere, for ensemble
Kate Soper: Door, for voice and ensemble
Sam Pluta: binary/momentary iii for solo cello, for Mariel Roberts
Eric Wubbels: New Work for Wet Ink Septet

Performers:
Wet Ink Ensemble
Erin Lesser, flutes
Alex Mincek, saxophone
Ian Antonio, percussion
Eric Wubbels, piano
Josh Modney, violin
Sam Pluta, electronics
Kate Soper, voice
Mariel Roberts, cello

Wet Ink Ensemble is proud to celebrate 20 years of adventurous music-making in NYC and around the world with the 2018-19 concert season. The 20th Anniversary Season highlights the ethos of innovation through collaboration that has guided the work of Wet Ink throughout the ensemble’s history, celebrating the music and the unique performance practice developed in the “band” atmosphere of Wet Ink’s core septet of composer-performers, and presenting exciting new projects with emerging and underrepresented artists and longtime collaborators.

Since the group’s first concerts in 1998, Wet Ink has moved fluently along a continuum of composition, improvisation, and interpretation, from early collaborations with Christian Wolff, George Lewis, and ZS to pioneering portrait concerts of Peter Ablinger, Mathias Spahlinger, Anthony Braxton, and the AACM composers, and deep, long-term collaborative work by members of Wet Ink.

Wet Ink is co-directed by a core septet of world class composers, improvisers, and interpreters that collaborate in band-like fashion, writing, improvising, preparing, and touring pieces together over long stretches of time. These directors are Erin Lesser (flutes), Alex Mincek (saxophone), Ian Antonio (percussion), Eric Wubbels (piano), Josh Modney (violin), Kate Soper (voice), and Sam Pluta (electronics). The Wet Ink Large Ensemble is a group of extraordinary New York City musicians that come together to play the world’s most exciting and innovative music

Brooklyn Maqam 1st Anniversary Concert

Sunday, March 31, 2019
Performance 7pm / Doors 6pm

What: An Arabic music revival in Brooklyn: Brooklyn Maqam celebrates a groundbreaking year with an all-star Arabic music concert at Roulette featuring Syrian vocalist Nano Raies, the Tarab Ensemble, led by the Tunisian-born Taoufiq Ben-Amor, and Takht Al-Nagham, joined by Syrian mutrib (vocalist) Wajde Ayub, performing a classical Syrian repertoire.
When: Sunday, March 31, 2019
Where: Roulette, 509 Atlantic Ave Brooklyn, 2/3/4/5/A/C/G/D/M/N/R/B/Q trains & the LIRR
Cost: $25 presale, $30 Doors
Info: www.roulette.org / (917) 267-0368
Tickets: http://roulette.org/event/brooklyn-maqam-presents-brooklyn-maqam-1st-anniversary-concert/

Brooklyn, NY – Roulette is excited to partner with Brooklyn Maqam—an organization dedicated to promoting Arabic music in New York City—to present a special concert to celebrate its groundbreaking first year of bringing musicians playing Middle Eastern music together and presenting Arabic music concerts in Brooklyn.

The evening will offer a rare chance to hear diverse Arabic music traditions performed by master musicians and singers. The full night of music will feature three of the top Arabic musical groups from in and around NYC, including Syrian vocalist Nano Raies, a rising star who emigrated from war-torn Homs to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music. Raies’s adventurous performance-style combine her passion for traditions from the golden age of Arabic music as well as other melodic forms and rhythms from around the world. Also featured will be the Tarab Ensemble, led by the Tunisian-born Taoufiq Ben-Amor, a specialist in the malouf (Andalusian classical music of the Maghreb) tradition of Tunisia. Headlining the evening will be Takht Al-Nagham, joined by Syrian mutrib (vocalist) Wajde Ayub, performing the classical Syrian repertoire, rarely heard in the U.S. This group is the performing arm of the Syrian Music Preservation Initiative.

Due to war, strife and politics, New York has become home to some of the world’s greatest Arabic musicians. Brooklyn Maqam is dedicated to presenting Arabic and other maqam-based musical traditions with the goals of expanding its audience, preserving it as an art form, and building community. “We’ve been overwhelmed with the response we’ve gotten,” says co-founder Marandi Hostetter. “We started Brooklyn Maqam because we felt the community needed a way to come together; we’re thrilled so many people feel the same way.” Brooklyn Maqam’s twice-monthly packed Brooklyn Maqam Hang events at Sisters, a popular restaurant/music venue in Clinton Hill, have forged new connections between musicians and enthusiastic audiences. “When musicians and listeners can get together on a regular basis, it turns into something more than just a series of performances,” says co-founder Brian Prunka. “People make friends, new collaborations sprout up, listeners discover new music—it’s really about nurturing relationships and making connections.” Every two weeks, the intimate back room fills to capacity with a devoted following of musicians and listeners. Each Hang begins with an hour of music from a featured artist, and concludes with an open-ended jam session in which professionals and skilled amateurs play, drink, and laugh until closing time. According to violinist, author, and educator Sami Abu Shumays, “Brooklyn Maqam has fostered a really inclusive and enjoyable atmosphere that helps to keep alive one of the most important aspects of the oral tradition: jamming together and learning from other musicians.” Johnny Farraj, a respected percussionist and, along with Shumays, an advisor to Brooklyn Maqam, adds, “It’s really filled a void in New York’s Arabic music scene; the jam sessions allow us to offer guidance and encouragement to newer musicians and the regular performances help bring the community together.” Hang music series has presented new performers on a biweekly basis throughout their first year, garnering enthusiastic support from audiences.

Spotlight On jaimie branch

On May 4th, ghostly avant-garde trumpeter jaimie branch presents her 2019 commissioned work: May the 4th Be With You.


Tell us about yourself and what you’re planning for Roulette.

My name is jaime branch; I am a trumpetist, composer, and improvisor from Chicago, based in Brooklyn. I wrote a multimedia piece for this Roulette performance for my electronic duo Anteloper with Jason Nazary and Chicago-based video artist Kim Alpert. In this work, we will be exploring the visuality of sonic spectrums, turning the audible into the visual. The second set is a rare NYC set with Fly or Die—my quartet featuring Lester St. Louis on cello, Jason Ajemian on bass, and Chad Taylor on drums and Mbira.

What is your first musical memory?

My first musical memory is probably watching my older brother Russell practice piano — he was ten years older than me and played the shit out of some Billy Joel. I was pretty much hooked from the jump wanting to play music from the time I can remember. There’s also a picture of me in a bunny suit playing some keys circa 1986, but that one’s less of a memory and more of a feeling.

What is influencing your work right now?

So many things are constantly influencing my work, but it’s mostly my surroundings, the people I play with, the cities I find myself in… I’m interested in art that is fully saturated — this is not to be confused with density or volume, although it could be both of those things. Potent music. I’ve come to find that music is an ether—sometimes it swirls just out of reach, but it’s always in the air. Sometimes we choose to tune in and sometimes we don’t. But music doesn’t go anywhere one note played one time echoes throughout eternity. I’m trying to tune in to the hidden music of the universe, ya know? 

What is the most vivid dream you’ve ever had?

I had a REALLY vivid dream on the plane just the other day — I thought I had leaned over and hit a bowl ON THE PLANE. Just a one hitter (I’m not that fancy, even in my dreams) and even though I was holding in the smoke like a champ, some got out and another passenger noticed and started fussing. I then jerked awake only to find that I was in a plastic box, then I fought through the confusion and actually woke up. I straight up thought we had landed. I’m all, “Why isn’t anyone getting off the plane?” Twenty minutes later, they announced we were beginning our descent into Knoxville. Pretty cool blue dream.

Spotlight On Mary Prescott

For her Roulette commission, interdisciplinary artist, composer, and pianist Mary Prescott presents Songs Between Life and Death—a performative song cycle integrating music, word, movement, physical theater, and installation—on Tuesday, April 30th.


Tell us about yourself and what you do.

I’m a Thai-American interdisciplinary artist, composer, and pianist from Minneapolis. I trained exclusively as a classical pianist for most of my life, but “converted” to experimental generative work within the past couple of years for the same reason my sister converted to Catholicism in her early 20s. (Who converts to Catholicism??) She said she had been searching for something for a long time, and then when she encountered Catholicism, she felt fulfilled. Well, that’s exactly how I feel about my practice, and even though technically art is not a religion, maybe IT IS. It’s the place where I get closest to understanding myself and the world, and the place where I feel like I can begin to untangle some of life’s bigger questions.

My experiments started with piano music, probably because I felt “safe” with a medium that was already attached to my identity. But now I allow myself to create with whatever seems best, whether I know that medium well or not—although just about everything is performance-based. So I might project a film I made, or do a choreographed movement, or install a set piece that bears some significance to the rest of the work. And those things will interact within a performance and play off each other to more deeply express an overarching concept. One of the big hangups of classical training is that everything is expected to be perfectly executed according to a holy manuscript, and there’s a lot of prior experience and skill that one must develop to attempt it. But I think that’s a very limiting way to approach art-making, and actually, pretty exclusive, too. As hard as it was at first (and still is), I’ve tried to let go of that mindset, and I feel like it’s allowed my practice to grow in ways I never could have anticipated. 

Describe the project you are developing for Roulette.

I’m creating a performative song-cycle called Songs Between Life and Death for chamber ensemble. It’s about the conscious spiritual experience unattached from the physical body. Although I don’t intend for it to be morbid at all, I do acknowledge that it could go there for some people. For me, it’s more objective, maybe. About the first-person experience of what happens emotionally and psychologically when our spirit has disconnected from the physical world as we know it, but can look back in on it. I think the fear of this unknown has had a pretty heavy impact on cultural and social development, and I’m really interested to examine that dynamic a little more closely. And it’s also something I just want to spend more time with in focused contemplation…hash it out for myself, so to speak.

What is influencing your work right now?

So, this may seem sort of silly, but I recently moved into a place that overlooks the construction site of a new residential development, and watching these huge glass buildings go up gradually but actually really quickly has been kind of amazing. I’m seeing the foundational pieces go into the ground itself: enormous cranes hoisting gigantic slabs of material, locked into the sides of the building for support, the gnarly innards of the floors and walls, and then all the fine details of the interiors. The scale of each of those things is so extreme, the power and intricacies of movement. It’s mundane, but fascinating to watch workers systematically bust up the entire block of sidewalk with heavy machinery one day; and the next day, they are very carefully painting the corner edge of a living room or squeegeeing the fingerprints off the floor-to-ceiling windows with perfection and care. Seeing a project like that in all it’s enormity and detail, with all the steps it takes on so many planes, and with such a spectacular result…a year ago that was just an overgrown vacant lot. It is strangely really inspiring in a very beautiful, dirty, dusty way. 

How did your interest in your work begin?

As I mentioned before, I was trained as a classical pianist for most of my life, and even though I always had an interest in improvising, it seemed elusive for me to take on. Or maybe because I didn’t have training in it, I felt like I couldn’t or shouldn’t do it. It occured to me that I was only going to be able to improvise if I just did it. That seems really obvious, but I think it’s actually one of the more difficult concepts to wrap one’s head around. 

Anyway, a handful of years ago, my friend Jesse Stacken, a really great fellow Minnesotan pianist and one with a mainly jazz background, had just finished up a project where he recorded an improvisation every day for a year and put the results online. I thought, “that seems like a good way to hold myself accountable.” So without a moment to think twice about what I was getting into, I started Where We Go When, which became my daily blog to do the same thing as Jesse, but from the keyboard of a non-improviser. Without getting into too many details, I’ll just say, that project was hands down one of the most important learning experiences of my life. It’s still up on my website, and I still think about it and mull over some of the same questions I had when I was in the thick of it.

Where We Go When was really the very beginning of my generative work. Even though my practice has expanded a lot since then, it gave me a bit of courage and a really solid foundation for experimentation and trust for the process.

What artists are you interested in right now?

I am really into Pina Bausch right now. I saw her work for the first time at BAM just a year and a half ago, and it changed my life. This was right on the cusp of when I started interdisciplinary work, and is probably one of the main reasons I went in that direction at all. Her work really cut to my heart, and gave me that rapturous sense of cathartic understanding that I am always searching for. I really love the way she pulled seemingly ordinary and unrelated concepts and gestures together to express something so vulnerable and raw. And she could address really difficult social disparities head on without drama or propaganda. She just put the work out there. She wasn’t telling you how to feel or react. Through an utterly marvelous and totally genius set of physical expressions, she made available some truth of humanity. All the good and bad and ugly and beautiful. All the unfairness and injustice, longing and loneliness. You feel it all at once with her. Really powerful, potent stuff. 


Mary Prescott: Songs Between Life and Death takes place on Tuesday, April 30th 2019 at 8pm with performers: pianist Mary Prescott, violinist Ilmar Gavilán, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Nick Dunston, and vocalists: Nina Dante, Ariadne Greif, and Sara Serpa.

Spotlight On Alex Weiser

On Tuesday, June 18th, composer Alex Weiser presents the first act of his opera State of the Jews as part of his Roulette 2019 residency. Born and raised in New York City, Weiser creates acutely cosmopolitan music combining a deeply felt historical perspective with a vibrant forward-looking creativity.

Alex Weiser and the performers of his May 2017 commissioned work “And All The Days Were Purple” onstage at Roulette. Photos by Steven Pisano for Feast of Music.

 


Tell us about yourself and what you do.

I’m a composer, concert curator, and event producer. I was born and raised in New York City. I write music drawing inspiration from literary sources, ideas or inter-textual relationships from the history of classical music, and often from my fascination with and personal connection to Jewish culture. I helped run the MATA Festival for about 5 years and founded and continue to direct the new music series, Kettle Corn New Music.

Describe the project you are developing for Roulette.

I’m working on a historical-drama opera about Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), an Austro-Hungarian Jewish writer who, in response to rising antisemitism around the turn of the 20th century, ignited a movement supporting the idea of a Jewish homeland. The opera, which I’m writing with librettist Ben Kaplan, explores some of the little known details of the politics of that time and also interweaves the story of Theodor’s relationship with his wife, Julie, and the toll that his political work took on their marriage. Julie provides a stark, contrasting response to the same set of historical circumstances, exposing the complex and in many ways still un-resolved challenges of that moment. One of the things that really fascinates me about this story is that even with the benefit of hindsight, its meaning in history still remains fraught and contested.

Image result for Ben Kaplan and alex weiser

What is your favorite album?

Steve Reich’s 1980 “Octet • Music For A Large Ensemble • Violin Phase” is a long time favorite of mine that I return to often. I love how its surface bubbles with ecstatic energy, while underneath there is a broader sense of meditative stillness, and on yet another level, all of this is flowing in an always unfolding developmental arc. Besides, it’s just totally beautiful music.

What is influencing your work right now?

For the past three years I have been the Director of Public Programs at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research where I have curated and produced programs exploring and celebrating the rich history and culture of the Jewish people (with a particular focus on Yiddish speaking Jewry and their diaspora). YIVO has been a thought-provoking and inspiring home base for my work, and some of the stories, music, and literature that I have encountered there have made their way into my work as a composer.

What is your favorite Roulette memory?

I was at a concert at Roulette in December 2012 which featured John King’s Astral Epitaphs performed by TILT Brass and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. The piece had this incredible urgency and visceral power. John had the chorus surrounding the audience on the balconies, and there was this moment where they suddenly entered, with their sound enveloping everyone from all sides. I was really blown away by the experience and I loved the way the physical space and directionality of the sound became a part of the composition.

 


Alex Weiser: State of the Jews takes place on Tuesday, June 18th 2019 at 8pm with  vocalists: baritone Mario Diaz-Moresco, mezzo-soprano Augusta Caso, tenor Chad Kranak, bass-baritone Adrian Rosas, and the Os Ensemble choir directed by Raquel Acevedo Klein and musicians: pianist Marika Bournaik, cellist Julian Schwarz, violinist Avi Nagin, and clarinetist Bixby Kennedy.