Thursday, March 12, 2015

New York New Music Ensemble: An Interview with Jean Kopperud

Next year, the New York New Music Ensemble celebrates its 40th year making music.  Having commissioned, performed, and recorded works by some of the most important composers of our time, the group has been active, as JT Rinker puts it, "since 'new music' was new."  Indeed, some of the ensemble's 120 commissions have become key works in the canon of American composition, including Jacob Druckman's Come Round (1992), Harvey Sollberger's The Advancing Moment (1993), and Charles Wuorinen's The Great Procession (1996).  The ensemble has worked closely with many important artists, including Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Donald Martino, Stephen Dembski, Chou Wen-Chung, Arthur Kreiger, and Edmund Campion.  In fact, it is through the tireless work of NYNME that many important works and composers have become widely recognized.  The ensemble, once described as "tense, vicious, and aggressive," has branched out from a core catalog of intellectually rigorous pieces by the American avant garde to a diverse palette that include interactive technologies, theatre music, and important works by composers from around the world.  Just this month, the ensemble played a Kaija Saariaho portrait concert that featured several works for instruments and electronics.

NYNME performing at 2011 Latin Roots Festival
NYNME's relationship with June in Buffalo extends back many years.  The ensemble has been regularly attending the festival since the early 1990s, and has contributed to it's reputation of featuring stellar performances by expert musicians.  Having played and premiered countless works at JiB, and maintaining close relationships with many composers who have been active at the festival, we are excited that they will be joining us during this anniversary year.  This June, NYNME will present a concert of works featuring Wuorinen's New York Notes (1982), Sollberger's The Advancing Moment, Martin Bresnick's Bird as Prophet (2003), and Lukas Foss's classic Echoi (1963).  Foss, the former co-director of the Center for Creative and Performing Arts at UB (whose Evenings for New Music concerts laid the groundwork for what eventually became June in Buffalo) will be the subject of a portrait CD that NYNME will begin recording this summer.

I had a chance to sit down with Jean Kopperud, clarinetist with NYNME and a member of this year's Performance Institute faculty, to ask her about this year's festival.

What are you looking forward to about June in Buffalo 2015?

I love June in Buffalo.  I love it when NYNME comes up here to my home.  We've known David Felder a long time, he brought us here years ago.  It's a great festival, and it's the nicest part of the year in Buffalo!  We're playing great pieces by Sollberger, Wuorinen, Bresnick, and Foss.  Echoi is an incredible piece—a masterpiece.  So it will be a lot of fun.  

You're also playing New York Notes, which was a NYNME commission.  That's a piece you've played several times at the festival.  Do you have any special memories relating to this work?

Actually I do.  There was one year when James Baker was conducting, and we walked into the dress rehearsal and just laid the piece down like it was a recording.  Almost never in my life have I felt in a dress rehearsal like we as a group were stunning, but on this run we caught on fire.  I mean, Charles' jaw dropped.  It was just a dress rehearsal, but it was one of those moments that really defined who we are as a group.

You have a long relationship with Charles Wuorinen, he's composed several works for you, and has conducted NYNME on occasion.  And there are several other composers with whom you have longstanding relationships.  It's one thing to commission a single work from a composer, but what's it like having a continuing relationship over many years?

Well, it only continues if everyone is happy on both sides, and Charles has written us amazing pieces, works that will stand the test of time.  His music comes beautifully scored and it feels like it's been written for us.  If you can find someone who does that, that's special.  I've done a lot of commissions and I find that there's this huge range.  Sometimes someone writes a piece and it's clearly not for you, they weren't thinking about you or your strengths.  And then you get some other composer and it's so tailored to you, you think "they got it!"  That's one of the risks of commissioning, you don't know if it's going to be good, or if it's going to work, or how playable it's going to be.  But with some composers you know more.  If you have two or three great pieces from a composer, like we do with Charles, there's something there.

But you also work with younger, less established composers.

We do commission younger composers we don't know, people whose music we've just heard and liked.  That's what's great about June in Buffalo, it's always fun to play the young composers' music.  But a lot of times that's how we decide who to commission when we pick a 'young stranger'—we've done one of these things like June in Buffalo and we've liked their music and said, "Let's get them while they're young."

Jean Kopperud plays the hose on David Felder's Rare Air
You'll be on the Performance Institute faculty, and you're known for your unique way of working with musicians, especially in your On The Edge class that you teach at UB.  Can you describe your approach to working with young performers?

The thing about On The Edge is I work on everything but the music.  I don't do any musical coaching, that's the job of the teacher or the chamber music coach.  What I end up working on is all the other stuff:  how they prepare, focus, warm up, their mental attitude.  Basically, I look at a student and ask:  what's standing between them and being 100%?  So each person in the class is working on something quite different.  With some people it's about inner self talk, with some its about balance and the physical usage of their body.  For a lot of people, it's about performance anxiety, though that's typically a small part of it.  I can usually take care of performance anxiety pretty quickly.  It's usually other stuff in the end.  The hardest fixes are people who haven't learned how to focus, that usually takes longer.  Learning an intense focus is a bigger job, and many musicians don't even realize that they aren't present when they perform.

What's a skill that you teach that can improve focus?

I teach juggling to all my students.  Because it's not thought-oriented—it's just hand-eye coordination—it smooths out your brain waves.  In order to actually focus, your brain can't be jagged.  I juggle before every concert.  If I have no warm-up time, that would be the one thing I would do.  It's even more important than warming up the instrument.  In order to juggle you have to pay attention, otherwise you drop the balls, so it's a very clear indicator:  when you drop the balls something is amiss.  So I will just juggle until I feel a sense of calm come over me.  It's easier than meditating.  It also warms up the hands, and it works for writing blocks—and it's a diagnostic for whether I'm ready or not.

Jean Kopperud and NYNME both will be huge assets to June in Buffalo this year.  Whether it's Kopperud teaching balance, focus, and juggling at the Performance Institute, or NYNME's impeccable balance, focus, and juggling of complex counterpoint in performance, it's sure to be an exciting week of new music.

—Ethan Hayden