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An interview with Eliza Brown on her new piece Masque-Rondeau written for a•pe•ri•od•ic

by Kenn Kumpf of a•pe•ri•od•ic

As part of Make Music ’18, a•pe•ri•od•ic – augmented by other Chicago-based musicians – will give the world premiere of Eliza Brown’s 42-minute Masque-Rondeau at Buchanan Chapel, Fourth Presbyterian Church at 8 p.m. on June 21st.

Masque-Rondeau is a work for 10-26 performers – the premiere will include piano plus multiple strings, winds, brass, and voices – in which groups of performers gradually spread out across the room, shifting, re-organizing, dispersing, while filling the space with long swells. The pianist acts as a conductor through a series of musical cues, triggering the different movements and changing roles of the other players. The groups play slow, overlapping chords, at times in concord with other groups and at others creating piquant clashes deliberately reminiscent of 17th-century Restoration music.

I had the opportunity to ask Eliza a few questions about the work; here are some of the highlights:

Setting

K: I love your instruction “(the piece) would like to be performed on the summer solstice, during the hour in which the sun sets” – and I feel like there’s real meaning for you in that. What does that setting add to the piece for you?

E: This was one of the first things I thought of when Nomi asked me about the possibility of writing something for Make Music. I haven’t seen a piece (at Make Music) that explicitly addressed it being the solstice, even though Make Music is sort of an annual ‘ritual’ that happens on the longest day of the year. And a•pe•ri•od•ic had also just finished a run of performances of (Tim Parkinson’s) Time With People. That piece has these very ritualistic elements to it, and I think it’s not just that piece: I think a•pe•ri•od•ic’s repertoire often has a ritualistic aspect, in the sense that a lot of people sitting in relative quiet intensely making small sounds together just strikes me as a kind of worship. So it was a combination of those things that made me want to deal with the hour of sunset (on the solstice), with these astrological moments of extreme that call for ritual in almost every religious or cultural tradition on the planet.

Performer Interactions

K: Group dynamics seem to play a major role: there are groups in the piece that have to exist, groups that could exist; within those groups there are individuals who sometimes have to follow each other and sometimes have to deliberately not follow each – how much of Masque-Rondeau is about interpersonal connections of the musicians?

E: A lot! That was a big part of the concept: one of the tantalizing things for me about seeing a•pe•ri•od•ic perform Time With People is how that piece suggests these atmospheres in which people might connect with one another…and then no one ever connects. Like we’re at a party, but no one ever looks at each other – and that’s really interesting but also really hard for me, because I thrive on body language and personal connection; I had this experience of intense desire just for anyone to look at anyone ever (laughs). So I was thinking of this as a masque (an Elizabethan-era masked performance) for midsummer – like the way you might go to a New Year’s Eve party, except at the other end of the year – and I was thinking about the ways that people interact in large social gatherings. Midsummer festivals historically have elements of disguise or of losing yourself in the Bacchanalian revelry that’s happening, and maybe you can do things that you wouldn’t otherwise do or approach people in ways that you wouldn’t otherwise approach them. If this were more like a Shakespeare movie, that party would be a romp and be wild and loud. But this is the slo-mo version of that: it might get more elegant, or it might get more awkward or eerie – I’m not really sure. We’ll have to see what happens!

Space

K: What were the motivations behind how you were thinking about space – and the space (the chapel) in writing the piece?

E: The slo-mo party of social dynamics needed a space to play out, so I’m thinking of it in a theatrical way: there’s a playing space, literally and metaphorically. In order to show relationships, they have to change – you figure out what people’s relationships are by watching them change. Or at least I think so: watching two people sitting there saying “I love you”/”I love you too” for an hour is really boring! I wanted to have a wide playing space, start everyone in a central location as though they’re playing a normal piece of music, and then gradually ‘nose’ people out into the playing space with various excuses to have them regroup or find connections with other people in different parts of the space. So it’s mostly a stage. The chapel aspect fits with the nature of the piece as ritual. A lot of it is the structural aspect of the room – less its social function and more that it’s a beautiful, clean-lined space. It’s visually not a space that screams ‘church.’ I think that it says ‘contemplation’: we care about beauty – about being able to see outdoors, that it’s open to Chicago and to the sky. You could imagine lots of different kinds of events or rituals taking place in that space.

Role of the Listener

K: How does the experience of the listener differ for you in this piece from the experience in a more traditional concert setting?

E: Sometimes composers write pieces that help the listener know where they are in the piece – like announcing “hey, this is a really important structural place” with certain markers, and some composers want to avoid that: they don’t want the listener to have that clear path through the piece. With anything that unfolds as slowly as Masque-Rondeau, it’s really hard to “tour-guide”. I tend to tour-guide to a degree in other pieces, but the slow indeterminacy of this piece means that listening will be more about patient attention rather than following a through-line. My hope is that there will be through-lines of relationships that develop among the performers, just given all of the ways that people have to interact and come together and pull apart – but those won’t necessarily be predictable, and they aren’t something that I as composer can guide people toward; they just emerge.

a•pe•ri•od•ic: http://www.aperiodicchicago.com

Eliza Brown: https://www.elizabrown.net/

Event page for Masque-Rondeau: https://www.facebook.com/events/207177836566524/

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