“I think repetition is an opportunity to fold that vulnerability, or instabilities, into the effort of sustaining something. What I’m interested in thinking about is: how do I create the space in the music that lets those vulnerabilities not become liabilities, but assets?”Victoria Cheah
Victoria Cheah (b. 1988, New York, NY) is a multi-disciplinary composer interested in boundaries, sustained effort, and social-performance rituals. Victoria’s work has been commissioned and performed by ensembles such as [Switch~ Ensemble], Line Upon Line, Yarn/Wire, Wavefield Ensemble, Vertixe Sonora, and many others, and she is alum of academies such as Schloss Solitude, Darmstadt, Fontainebleau, and Composers Conference. Currently based between Boston and New York City, Victoria currently serves as Assistant Professor at Berklee College of Music and Boston Conservatory, and works as Director of Operations with Talea Ensemble; she holds a BA in music from City University of New York Hunter College, and a PhD in music composition and theory from Brandeis University.
Victoria Cheah was recently a Fromm Foundation Composer Fellow at the Composers Conference in Avaloch Farm, New Hampshire, where we heard the world premiere of her piece ‘For and again’. Following her premiere at the Conference, we sat down with Victoria and talked about performing with sine tones, repetition, intimacy, counterintuition, ideas of body language in music, and more…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Victoria! We’ve just heard your stunning piece ‘For and again’ at the Composers Conference here in New Hampshire; tell me a bit about the process of creating the piece, what ideas did you start with?
Victoria Cheah: I started to think about repetition. That’s been an interest of mine since I started to get into new music, when I was a teenager; I’ve dabbled in “strict” repetition a little bit, and went away for whatever reason. I didn’t know why I wanted to repeat stuff, if that makes sense. But then with this [piece], I knew I wanted to do something more overt with repetition.
I wanted to think about how to stretch, or play with, time. You know when you go through a cycle over and over again, and each cycle has an arc to it, and is predictable — you know what the stages of the arc are — but once you go through it, it’s sort of like “oh, here we are again!” You intellectually know all the parts of the cycle, but once you’re in it, nothing can replace that feeling of being in the cycle. I think that’s what I wanted to explore with repetition.
That feeds into the idea of ossias, as well. I was looking for a technical thing that was part of the traditional repertoire — or traditional thinking about composition — but I wanted to look at it a different way. That’s something I’ve been generally interested in: [for example] in orchestration, basic balance — how can you balance an ensemble so you prioritise the most vulnerable members of the ensemble, and make that the highlight of the 2D sound? Taking a basic idea, but then looking at it “wrong”.
That’s such a cool way of thinking about these more traditional scoring techniques — what is it about ossias that interest you?
I think ossias are really interesting to me because they’re just alternatives, you know? Traditionally, they’re used as technical alternatives for a passage that might be too difficult for [a] soloist to play — or too high (as an option [of] range for singers.) I was really curious about performer psychology, and how they approach ossias. A bunch of the ensemble are my friends, so I asked [them] “how do you feel about ossias? How do you approach them?” — and most people said “they’re just technical alternatives”. If the range is too high, or the ask is too mechnically demanding, you choose one or the other. And then I was thinking: those are just technical things, but technique and expressivity surely must go together — does that ever meet in the discussion [that] the ossia provides, by its factor of being? Could we have interpretive ossias, or emotional ossias? How can I set it up so their choice is part of the music that’s written, but isn’t just “this has more figuration versus the other figuration?”
For this version [of the piece], I settled on pitch choices and affective directions. For the flute part, I wrote two different pitches, but one of them was labeled “harsh” and the other was labeled “kind”; but I flipped it so the “kind” one was a high note, and the “harsh” one was a low note. You wouldn’t normally think of those descriptors in those ranges in the flute, at first glance. That was more of an experiment than anything else, because I wanted to see what that would yield — if anything.
How did you come up with the structure of the piece?
Structurally, I landed on this two-part form that ended up being lopsided. -laughs- I wanted to set up this “wash cycle” of repetitions in the first part, that had slight variations for each time you go through it. The second part would be more like a “song”; and the sine tones would provide a bedrock for everything else that was happening. I wanted things to be a little bit off-kilter, but have equal temperament tunings stick out in a weird way. [That] is something I’m still thinking about too — but in this piece, the ensemble is asked to play in equal temperament (as normal), but the sine tones are not tuned to equal temperament. There is this rub between frequencies.
There’s a really cool dichotomy, or contradiction between performance directions there, that I can’t find the word for…
Counterintuitive! I’m still processing it. We didn’t really have very much time to chat as an ensemble, during the rehearsal process. But I also understand that’s not the first priority in putting the piece together. That was actually interesting; the priority was the notes and rhythms on the page, what relationships those notes, rhythms, dynamics, [and] timbres said to the conductor and to the ensemble. That was the beginning of the “conversation”.
How did the repetitions play out in the piece — and how did that element interact with the ossias?
I think it was like: you theoretically [and] intellectually know where the stages in the cycle are, but you don’t feel it until you get there. Let’s say, if it’s the stages of getting over a breakup, for example — if you’ve been there before, you know how it goes… -laughs- But it’s different each time, and you cycle through that multiple times in the “getting over” of the thing. These cycles on more local levels, and larger levels, that are part of a larger goal — [to] build up to some sort of resolution over time. The ossias are another version, or “step”, within each step that each cycle takes.
Yeah. If you’re going through a cycle and it becomes more and more familiar, you can become attuned to making more alternate decisions within that.
Yeah, totally. You’re aware of the framework — you’re not letting the framework run you, exactly — you’re going with the wave. But then, knowing what’s coming, you can consider “What if I tried this? What if I tried to ‘not’ do that, which is my normal tendency?” Like, if you know you get jittery from too much coffee in the morning, then what if [you] try green tea?
Ultimately, it doesn’t “matter” — I hesitate to say that — because you’re contributing to this cycle, with the larger goal of fulfilling that cycle. That’s something interesting I’ve been thinking about, building off this discussion with Kurt Rohde about intimacy, and my interest in intimacy in the work.1 You can make each time more personal — or “try” to — but maybe that doesn’t ultimately matter. But you might need to make it personal in order to get through that step; even though, ultimately, that’s not going to be a structurally consequential choice you make — “do you play the ossia, do you play the original” — but you still have to go through that choice in that moment.
‘For and again’ also featured yourself playing sine tones within the piece; how important is the electronic element of your work, and how does it relate to these ideas of repetition?
It’s something I don’t think directly about. Performing electronics with my little sine tone setup — which is very simple — has helped me work through it in a way that was really nice, and not over-intellectualising it for myself. I don’t play an instrument at a professional level. I don’t feel that comfortable playing “traditional” instruments, even for fun; whereas I feel like I can think through my sine tones. Some pianists and composers think through their hands at the piano, I feel like I understand what that feels like through sine tones.
The particular setup that I have is super simple: I generate sine tones in Audacity, put them into Logic, wrap the channels into my mixing board and twiddle with the knobs… -laughs- I like how straightforward it is. I think the mechanical nature of the knobs really helps, because I can use the fade in/fade out envelope of activating the sine tones — that repetition of the entrance and exit — as part of thinking about the pitch, and how the pitches relate to each other. That really informed how I think about instrumental writing, also; that really simple envelope is super important to me.
I do yoga a little bit; something that one teacher recently had us do was this practice where you breathe in and you hold — you hold the part of the cycle where you’ve done the intake, but you’re not breathing in or out — and then you exhale, and hold at the exhale as well. This breathwork — pranayama, I think it’s called — feels counterintuitive to what the body wants; you want to keep breathing in, and breathing out, and not stop the cycle (at least in my layman, not-wind player kind of life.) It was interesting to me to think about how holding, and stasis, is part of this envelope.
Tell me more about how you’ve used ideas of stasis in instrumental writing…
Lately, whenever I’ve asked instrumentalists to hold a sonority, there’s always some kind of undercurrent of movement. There’s not true stasis, there’s a drift towards something — maybe a slow glissando — or it’s at a point after that drift, where they’re waiting. Because if you’re holding a chord, it still takes effort to hold that chord; and the sounds themselves are made up of cycles. So you hear the oscillations of the sound waves against each other — the violin against the saxophone [for example] — and there is still movement, there is still a relationship, even in that insistence of holding on. That’s really interesting to me.
Going back to the question of repetition and intimacy, thinking about intimacy in general: Sometimes, you just need to hold space for somebody, or you need someone to hold space to you. To get to that point where you can do that — have a space that doesn’t “want” anything, isn’t going for a goal, and just “is” — is really difficult. Sometimes it happens effortlessly; sometimes you have to work at it, or you have it and it goes away. It’s this interesting interpersonal thing that happens.
There’s a great deal of trust that’s involved in asking performers to play in a way that’s so vulnerable. I understand this relates to your research with body language in music — tell me a little bit about how these ideas originated for you?
I’ve always been interested in observing people. I’m super introverted — I used to be really, really shy, and I was always thinking “how can you be more confident? How do people talk to people?” -laughs- And then [I was] thinking about how one presents oneself in front of a room of people. I was confronted with the idea when I started teaching. I started teaching fairly young — I started my PhD programme when I was 22 — so when I started teaching through that, I was only a year or two older than some of the seniors in the class. It was intimidating, because I felt like I had to hold a certain space, and there was an expectation content-wise; but also, the kind of authority, or trust, that an instructor in a classroom needs to project or hold in order to convey that content. To work through the learning. I learned a lot about myself that way — including body language, and how I would tend towards certain mannerisms that then would make me feel certain ways. If I altered them a little bit, I would feel different; that affected how I related to people, or allowed myself to relate to people.
Then also, my work as a stage manager — knowing that you are visible onstage, doing a utilitarian thing. You have to do [it] precisely, swiftly, and with purpose; quickly [and] without much prep time, generally speaking. Contemporary classical stage managing is a really niche thing… -laughs- You often don’t get a chance to rehearse the changes; communicate who picks up what, who moves what where, how do you dodge the microphone cable? There’s a whole unspoken communication that has to happen, that I’ve learned through that work.
I’ve never really thought about how that kind of communication happens; have you directly related these ideas of body language and performativity into your work?
There’s one piece, that I wrote [and] performed in 2016, that was directly related to this. It was a track of sine tones, and me sitting on an organ bench, breathing through a harmonica. Part of that piece is going out on stage, putting the organ centre-stage, and sitting there breathing. For the first third of the piece, you can’t hear the harmonica breathing, because the sine tones cover it; but then the sine tones sip down, and you can hear the breathing. This piece was really important for me, because it was so difficult for me to sit still, and breathe — think about how steady my breath was. Since I’m not an accomplished performer, this was one of the first times I actually performed onstage, and had to hold that space.
I’ve performed it a bunch of times now, and every time I do it, it’s awesome because nobody claps at the beginning or the end — until I’m clear offstage. There was one time a presenter was like, “People are going to clap when you stop doing the harmonica thing”, and I was like “No they’re not.” And they didn’t! That has everything to do with the way that you hold space; you watch a classical performance (or any performance) and when the performers are holding — they freeze — you kind of wait with them, until they “tell” you it’s time to move on.
I think that’s where it started. I don’t know how that translates into my work for other people at this point in time. I’m not interested in exploring the theatricality of this — I don’t have choreography in my pieces — I don’t find it directly related to the project that I’m asking other people to do. But I do think about it as an important byproduct of what I’m asking them to play. Let’s say they have to hold a chord: there are instabilities within that sonority. They have to listen to each other, and then bring out those instabilities — focus their embouchure, or bow speed — which of course requires a physical accommodation, in order to make that sound.
In your experience, have your players found this type of work demanding?
It’s sort of like, I’m asking them to listen to themselves. -laughs- I think a lot of people underestimate how taxing my scores are. It doesn’t look like very much — a couple [of] sustained things, often not at the extremities of the instrument. But [for example] with ‘For and again’… The bassoonist has to do a thing (like everybody else), repeat it for a while — and in this case, Adrian [Morejon] needed to know how it felt, so he could make his adjustments for his own breathing, for his stamina. It’s all doable; it just takes effort that looks a little bit different, [and] feels a little bit different once you do it this way.
What drew you to exploring these themes with regards to duration? Was there anything that spurred that evolution?
I didn’t really feel very connected to the way phrasing works in a lot of common[ly]-practiced music. I think from having to teach it, I’ve become much more attached to that repertoire — I think I understand it better, which is a big part of respecting and liking [it] — but when I started exploring longer durations, it was me trying to find a way to understand phrasing for myself. Find something I was interested [in] in phrasing that I hadn’t really been exposed to.
Even though I’d been interested in minimalist work [from] the 70’s, and the really early spectralists, I wanted to take it further for myself. I think repetition is an opportunity to fold that vulnerability, or instabilities, into the effort of sustaining something. What I’m interested in thinking about is: how do I create the space in the music that lets those vulnerabilities not become liabilities, but assets? That’s the kind of interest that happens in repetition.
We’ve talked a bit about intimacy in your compositional practice; tell me more about how intimacy informs your work…
I’m still figuring that out. -laughs- With people, I’m personally much more comfortable with one-on-one conversations, instead of a small group or a large group. I find I am different with those audiences. At this point, I have pretty much no problem public speaking, or giving lectures to a classroom — which is great -laughs- — I actually enjoy it, even, because I get to be a version of myself I can’t get to otherwise. That mode is really different than if I’m talking to a group of five or six — which is a little too big to split off into subsets, and a little too small to have a strong group vibe — [or] a one-on-one conversation, where our attention is totally focused on each other. Those are the two poles of communication.
That’s something in the relationships within the ensemble. When things “happen” in my music, it’s usually put into motion through the relationship of one instrumentalist doing a thing in response [to], or with, or against another instrumentalist — and what emerges from that relationship. How that contributes to the larger group dynamic.
I’m drawn to more intimate-sounding music. For example, singers — vocalists who you can hear when their voice cracks a little bit, or different colours that are present in different ranges of voice. That’s something that I think Western classical training tries to smooth out. You’re supposed to have a consistent, uniform tone from the bottom to the top of your range, through all the breaks — but you have singers who celebrate the different colours in different parts of their ranges, and they make that part of their vocal style. I really like that, because you can feel the roughness; the difficulty in how expressing something in one range can express certain things, versus another range. Celebrating the difference inherent to the production of sound.
That’s fascinating. There’s something really to be said there in regards to what we consider “perfection”, especially in the classical music world — but also in how that manifests in relationships with other people…
I think about that a lot. It’s hard to fight the impulse to shoot for the ideal — whatever that is. Even if you know you don’t wanna go for that, there’s a drift towards what you think something “should” be, or what you want it to be; projections, basically. Maybe it’s a self-therapy thing where I’m trying to not actually have a material ideal in the way my music sounds, or [the way] it comes across; but it’s about the process of engaging with the relationships that the music suggests.
Where does your work with sine tones relate to ideas of intimacy and the ideal?
That’s interesting, to think about the sine tones relative to the ideal. I really started doing the sine tone thing because I wanted to find a really basic electronic sound I could play with, that I could understand. I used it to mock up harmonies, and pieces. I think the smoothness of the sound let other things emerge, and so that texture really appealed to me — just on a material, physical level.
I started to find my way into harmony through [that]; honestly, I randomly pick frequency numbers that are a little bit off equal temperament. I’m playing around with what individual frequencies sound, and feel like, against each other. I’m interested in learning more about tuning systems, but that’s not part of my practice at the moment; it’s a very trial-and-error, hands-on kind of “let’s try this colour against this colour.” Going off, do I like how this makes me feel? If I like how these two sine tones make me feel, can I add more sine tones to make it feel more like that? Even though I don’t know how it works, scientifically; I’m just playing with colours.
I haven’t really interrogated my process, in terms of what my harmonic inclinations have in common. I think the wide major 2nd is a big thing… But what I’m going for, or trying to seek in harmony with the sine tones, is the feeling of instability-but-not-really; all the different expressivity within a dial tone. Which is kind of stable, but if you fuck with the contents of the dial tone… the dial tone can be really expressive somehow! In its unwaveringness, and how far apart its components are… -laughs-
There’s something very conterintuitive about that approach, too. -laughs- Like you’re choosing to find expression in a sound that isn’t “traditionally” expressive…
I think that counterintuitive relationship is really interesting to me. This is one of my favourite examples: it’s when you get a text from somebody and you’re like “what the fuck does that mean?” It’s kind of clear if you don’t read into it too hard, but if you put it in context, is there a subtext? And you can’t find an answer… -laughs- [That] feeds into my interest in making seemingly inexpressive things expressive; there’s always something more there.
A lot of the beginnings of my pieces are personal. A lot of it has to do with various kinds of heartbreak, and disappointment… I’m trying to work through it [by] putting it in the piece somewhere, through various levels of human nature. -laughs- It’s actually really cathartic and important for me, because then I can put it away in a way that’s coded; that’s maybe more personal than if I put stuff down in a journal, or letters I never send. There’s a backstory to every piece.
Of course — there’s a layer of abstraction in composition that can make one more comfortable with the idea of putting these thoughts into something.
Right. The abstraction definitely helps me think through the idea, and then hopefully exorcise it a little bit. ‘For and again’ — and other things, recently — have all these “text-notations”, that are meant to be alternative notations for rhythm, phrasing, and accents. I really never want audience members to read that text! But I’ve put a lot of care into what that text is — not just in the way it sounds, and what kinds of vowels it suggests for the performers, but also as a suggestion for the affect of the piece. On the more personal side — the more coded side — it’s a way for me to be personal with the material, that does actually affect the material directly. It would be very different if I was asking the performers to read that text aloud; that would be too close, too much.
The second half of ‘For and again’ was part of a set that I’ve been developing, and playing; where I sing the line that I’m asking Sharon to sing, but against my sine tones. I really wanted to see what it would feel like for me to have somebody else do the thing that I’ve been doing. It sounds like a little thing, but for whatever reason, it felt like a really big step for me; I specifically wanted her to sing it. I didn’t want to insert myself — my actual voice — into the performance of this piece. Maybe it comes back to the abstraction thing.
Tell me about the pieces you’re currently writing — what kinds of compositional facets are you exploring in your upcoming works?
I think I feel better about my pieces that I don’t think too hard about. So I’m trying not to think too hard about this [next] one. -laughs- For this, I really want to make the ensemble speak all at once. One of the techniques I was exploring in this past piece — and the piece in the Fall for Switch~ Ensemble — was having (for example) the flutist play a multiphonic, but then [giving] them a text, like “hours and hours”; have them shape those words in their mouth cavity, and blow through the multiphonic, and pick the different components of the multiphonic that they think mimic the shape, and cadence, and rhythm of that phrase. I want to see if I can orchestrate that into the full ensemble, and build this mimicking of the spoken phrase. I feel like [it’s] a really basic idea, [but] I just wanna see how I can stretch that phrase, so that you can’t tell that it’s based off the cadence of speech; and how that’s different from when you’re doing it to make it sound more similar to the pace of everyday speech.
That’s a fascinating way of incorporating text into your work; how important is the meaning of the text in these formats?
I don’t necessarily want to convey the meaning meaning; but [more] that you can feel the intent to communicate through that structure. That’s hopefully not as rigid as if I were to notate it out into metre. Maybe it would work out to be the same thing if I said “speech-like” — but I think that counterintuitive “this feels familiar, but I don’t know what it is” kind of thing is really interesting to me.
Like being around languages that I didn’t speak, or understand; but when I hear them, it feels like home, and I can understand little bits and pieces of it. In my case, Cantonese: I grew up hearing Cantonese spoken in my household, but I was never encouraged to learn or speak it when I was young. Having to learn it as an adult was really difficult. That struggle of “I can kind of make out, or guess what they’re saying”; but then there’s some phrases where it’s just as immediate as English, where I don’t have to think about what it’s saying. That comes back to intimacy; I have this intimate relationship with this language which I fundamentally don’t understand. Maybe if I immersed myself in committing to learn Cantonese fluently, I might, but I don’t know if that’s a priority at this point in my life.
Learn more about Victoria’s practice at the following links:
- This interview was conducted shortly after a seminar by Victoria Cheah at the Composers Conference, in which artistic director Kurt Rohde commented on intimacy.