On September 21st and 26th in Seattle, The Broken Bow Ensemble will premier a new piece by composer John Teske called mer. For the last couple years Teske has been working with ideas about consciousness and experience through a variety of experimental techniques and often in non-traditional settings. His new piece mer continues that self-established tradition through the lens of the water, which is ever-present in the composer’s life via his upbringing in western Washington and current daily life in Seattle. I sat down with John to talk about his process as a composer, listening, and his new piece, mer. Make sure to check out one of the upcoming performances of this incredible new work – full details can be found at John Teske’s website.
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Nat Evans: Hey John, can you give us a brief description of mer?
John Teske: mer is a new long-form piece for chamber orchestra that traces the many facets of human consciousness, awareness, and experience.
NE: How would you compare this experience you are presenting to, say, going to hear a symphony play? I mean, you’ve got a bunch of strings on stage, is it an orchestra? A string ensemble?
JT: The Broken Bow Ensemble is 21 strings and a woodwind quintet. What is different about this group is that each player has their own part and there is no hierarchy in seating. The music is orchestrated with spatial movement in mind, so the seating is more about placement of sound in space with all parts considered equal. With 26 individual parts, this allows for greater subtlety in the way sound moves and transforms.
NE: Your piece is called mer – which at once feels open (when one initially pictures the ocean), but the immense complexity of ocean life, danger and other-worldly landscapes come to mind too. Given that mer was written in and is being debuted in Seattle, a maritime city, is it site-specific in any way?
JT: For me, the sea is a romantic and abstract idea: it is at once calm and beautiful, as well as chaotic and powerful. In mer, I chose to focus on the water itself and the way it moves, its constant and impartial transformation. Part of the structure of this piece uses tide data from Port Townsend, WA, where I spent a lot of time in my childhood and where my father now lives.
NE: Many people use data sonification in their sound-based works, but it is less common in the strictly music-based contemporary music world, and especially in the orchestral sphere. How does it function in mer, and can people hear this, identify it, or does it matter at all?
JT: The tide data provides a backbone to the piece that I use to help sculpt the wave-like phrases. Just like the real tide, the listener may feel the change and how it is manifested through the waves, but will not likely perceive the tide data directly.
What I am attempting in mer is to explore the full spectrum of the sound-world I’ve created, and slowly fragment it until the the music can be heard as both calm and chaotic simultaneously. A friend of mine was studying Greek Orthodox texts and told me of a notion he called the “sea of the heart.” In times of calm, you can be sure a storm is coming, and in the midst of the storm, you can be sure that it will pass. Just as the sea is both extremes, and everything in between, the heart and the mind posses a very rich spectrum. They are dualistic, but are also much more than that.
NE: One of the things that sets your work apart from others is the use of extended techniques in strings – quiet, almost micro sounds that most people don’t think of when they think of, say, violin or cello. What sort of non-traditional sounds are you using in mer?
JT: In most of my recent music I’ve been approaching sound as texture and using extended techniques to produce many different colors. In mer, I am thinking about texture as mixtures of pitch and rhythmic figures. On the whole, the sound will be pure tones, bringing attention to the pitch and rhythm, which makes me feel uneasy—perhaps more of a step back than I’m typically comfortable with.
NE: What is your favorite youtube video right now?
JT: Um, this one.
NE: How does ritual come into play in your work as a composer?
JT: Currently the only daily ritual I have in place is sitting by the water on my way home from work. There is a bench in Myrtle Edwards/Centennial Park overlooking the water where I spend a few minutes each day watching the waves. I’ve also been taking short videos of the waves in hopes that I can make a video for mer after its premiere.
As far as the concert ritual goes, I embrace parts of it—the parts I find useful. I want to be personable and welcoming but also create a distinct physical and mental space where deep listening can happen. Particularly in a culture that is becoming more easily distracted, I think there is a lot that the sanctuary of the concert hall offers to allow a listener to have a meaningful sonic experience.
NE: How have players responded to your system of scoring? Is mer graphic and/or improvisational in nature at all?
JT: All the parts are orchestrated and indicate the pitches, rhythmic figures and dynamics, but the execution is up to individual players. I like the idea of stochastic [indeterminate] parts, that they give the piece shape but retain a human element. On the whole, rehearsals have been very smooth and the players have been able to pick it up quite easily.
NE: What is the draw for you for long-form pieces? The piece you debuted with the Broken Bow Ensemble last year, murmur, was 45 minutes long. Is mer of a similar length, and does it relate to murmur at all?
JT: My attraction to a long-form piece, especially one of slow transformation, is that it may take that long (or longer) to really get into a piece. I remember years ago hearing pianist Neal-Kosaly Meyer perform a two-hour continuous piece, consisting only of the bottom four A’s on the piano. My attention would come and go, but about 90 minutes in I could really hear what he was doing, and it made those last 30 minutes so enjoyable.
mer is related to last year’s murmur, but the approaches are very different. The sounds in murmur are all very quiet drones and extended techniques, and the piece was intended to highlight the play between the wandering mind and a return to focus. For mer, I’m using a wider palette of dynamics and bringing the pitch and rhythmic patterns to the forefront.
NE: While you were writing this piece a couple months ago, in casual conversation you described it as a minimalist work. Now that you’re done, how do you view this piece through that lens, and how does this work fit into the lineage of minimalist music?
JT: To me, the way people refer to minimalism in music is like referring to a copy as a Xerox—there is more to the concept than just one particular style or lineage. Often the open tonalities and rhythmic repetition of Minimalist music does not suit my taste and I wish for more chromaticism. mer makes use of minimal material and slow transformations over time, but the pitches and rhythms are of a broader spectrum, sometimes expressing an open feeling and at other times sounding very tumultuous.
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An emerging talent in the new music scene, Seattle-based composer John Teske writes innovative contemporary concert music for soloists, chamber groups, and chamber orchestra. Founder of the Broken Bow Ensemble and a series of “any ensemble” performances (featuring music written for flexible instrumentation), he focuses on enhancing the listener experience, utilizing extended techniques and guided improvisation to create pieces that are well-crafted while maintaining a human and organic feel. His recent work includes site-specific performances in Seattle parks and at the Seattle Center, Space Weather Listening Booth (a hybrid electroacoustic installation and acoustic performance piece in collaboration with Nat Evans), and compositions for chamber orchestra supported by a grant from the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture. John graduated from the University of Washington, where he studied with Joël-François Durand, Juan Pampin, and Josh Parmenter.
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Seattle composer Nat Evans writes concert music for various mixed chamber ensembles, distinctive electro-acoustic music, and site-specific music events that fuse nature, community and subjectivity of experience. His music is regularly presented across the United States and has also been performed in Europe, South America, Australia and China. Evans has received numerous commissions including the Seattle Percussion Collective, the Harrison Center for the Arts, ODEONQUARTET, Seattle Pacific University Men’s Choir and Percussion Ensemble, Beta Test Ensemble, The Box Is Empty, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, among others. His music has been featured on a number of radio stations in the United States, as well as BBC3, and in the 2011 Music Issue of The Believer. He studied music at Butler University with Michael Schelle and Frank Felice.