As the 2013-14 season is about to start, I talked to Armando Bayolo, composer, artistic director and conductor of Great Noise Ensemble, and New Music curator for Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C.
Even though the focus of Great Noise Ensemble’s ninth season will be the Fine Arts, with each concert focusing on a different art form, you seem to have left the moving image out. Any reason for that?
Strangely…it just slipped our minds, I think. We have featured film in our concerts before (most recently when we presented Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads along with Bill Morrison’s film last winter) but, for various reasons, we don’t have any concerts this season that present that juxtaposition. La Commedia, the Louis Andriessen “film opera” we are presenting in April, would have been a perfect opportunity, but, due to various reasons, we were unable to secure the rights to the film, unfortunately.
Louis Andriessen’s 75th birthday celebration happening next season will have you wear a few hats: curator, conductor, artistic director. How do you avoid conflict of influences in the small New Music world?
I’m not sure I do, frankly, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, either. My work as a composer informs my work as a curator, which informs my work as a composer, and vice versa. I see advocacy as incredibly important and being a curator and conductor/artistic director is, for me, all about advocacy. It’s been said that art represents the soul of a nation, therefore, I consider a life in the arts to be an inherently political act, especially in a nation for whom the arts, beyond those that are commercially useful, are so irrelevant. So, rather than a conflict of interest, I consider these activities (along with teaching, which has been an important part of my work as well) to be intertwined and an essential contribution to the evolution and continued existence of a thriving American concert music.
This season features some major achievements for you as a composer: the premiere of your concerto for orchestra, Ráfagas de Bail, the Philadelphia premiere of your cello concerto, Orfei Mors, etc. How do you balance your curatorial, and directorial responsibilities with your writing?
It’s a challenging juggling act, to be sure, but it helps to have people around you to support and keep you balanced. My wife is an incredibly supportive partner at home, and I’m grateful that she understands the strangeness of my schedule and the professional requirements of travel and long hours away from home. With those strange schedules and hours, however, comes a need for discipline, and I’ve worked very hard to make sure that I am able to keep as regular a schedule as possible so that I can have as normal a family life as possible. That often leads to compartmentalization in my work. So, if a season must be planned, be it for Great Noise or Atlas, and I don’t have pressing composing deadlines, then the focus must be on that seasonal planning. If the composing deadlines are pressing, then I must focus on those, although I like to work with enough time in advance that I don’t come up to a last minute deadline (I don’t understand how some of my colleagues can work—and often claim to thrive!—on very tight deadlines that require loss of sleep and endless, break-less work. That just sounds miserable to me). Sometimes, it means dropping some things, at least for a while, in order to get the important work done.
It helps, professionally, to have great partners to help keep me honest. GNE’s managing director, Katherine Kellert, makes sure that I don’t program too much of my own music in a Great Noise season in order to avoid it becoming all about my music. Our Associate Conductor, David Vickerman, is also an invaluable partner, allowing me, as he does, the ability to drop some of the conducting from my schedule if the composing deadlines become too overwhelming (as they have this year, which is why I’m only conducting one concert in GNE’s main season).
GNE’s debut album, Guerrilla New Music, is coming out this season. Does the title represent the ensemble’s response the proverbial issue of finding new audiences? Is it your very own manifesto?
It’s more our manifesto than a response to the quest for new audiences, although it also represents our approach to presentation, which in turn, I suppose, helps us address the question of audience building (I wrote more fully about what “guerrilla new music” means for Sequenza 21 a few years ago). Guerrilla fighters tend to blend into a general population and engage in hit and run actions that make them hard to catch and pin down while, at the same time, helping them to capture the hearts and minds of a population. All of the musicians in GNE wear many hats. We blend into the “general population” of traditional classical music by performing in orchestras and theatrical productions, but, also, play in rock bands, ethnic ensembles and military bands. Our passion for new music does not go away when we perform among the general population but, rather, our belief that “classical music is a living, vibrant tradition that is far from being the museum art of dead men played incredibly formally by people dressed very uncomfortably” informs what we do within GNE and without it.
New Yorkers will also get a chance to see GNE live on June 15, at the BOAC Marathon. Is the Bang an inspiration for you and if so how do they influence you as a composer/curator/artistic director?
Oh, absolutely! Bang on a Can is a great model for what GNE does and the way we want to do things. I was unaware of BoAC and their “rock n’ roll” way of doing things for many years as a student, but when I discovered them in graduate school, it was a revelation. I didn’t think amplification could be so easily incorporated into “classical” (I HATE that term, by the way) performance, or that “classical” performers could get away with not wearing formal attire. It was simply revelatory in how inviting it was! Their approach to programming also revealed an undogmatic or even anti-dogmatic mindset that was very attractive. I think audiences respond very well to even the most “difficult” music if it’s presented in a way that is friendly and inviting, and Bang on a Can really paved the way for that sort of thing. They’ve been an inspiration and model for me and Great Noise Ensemble for many years. It’s been an honor to have them perform at the Atlas Performing Arts Center and getting to know them more deeply through that relationship. It’s an incredible honor to bring GNE to the BoAC Marathon (our first!) in June. We’re very excited about it.