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Professor Sumanth Gopinath Discusses the School of Music’s Support of New Music

July 1, 2021

As the field of music composition is continuing to innovate and evolve, School of Music faculty member Professor Sumanth Gopinath is leading support of new music in the Twin Cities community, an important part of the School’s mission. The School of Music is co-sponsoring the presentation of a new film featuring Steven Takasugi’s The Flypaper, part of 113 Collective’s Twin Cities New Music Festival, on Friday, July 2 at noon in the St. Paul Campus Student Center. We spoke with Gopinath to discuss the piece and his interest in connecting the School of Music community with new music. 

Why did you champion the support of this composition (Steven Takasugi’s The Flypaper)?

SG: Steven Takasugi is an acclaimed Japanese American avant-garde/experimental composer based in Cambridge, MA and affiliated with Harvard University. The composition is based on a text by the Austrian writer/philosopher Robert Musil (1880–1942), best known for his long, unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities. That text, “The Flypaper” (1914, republished 1936), is a brief essay describing what happens to flies trapped on the material named in the title and how their struggles can be understood as remarkably human. Takasugi’s short, evocative electroacoustic composition (from 2005) cuts up spoken recordings of the composer/poet/translator Wieland Hoban reading Musil’s essay in the original German and English translation, intercut with the sounds of a buzzing fly, human breaths, and, by the end, increasingly reverberant stomping, snapping, tapping, and clapping sounds that seem to index hands and feet and, perhaps, physical violence by or upon them—although these sounds are distributed in ways that seem stochastic, not unlike raindrops falling on hard surfaces in cavernous spaces. In a wonderful essay on the piece, composer/scholar Trevor Bača keenly observes that if Musil humanizes the fly, Takasugi’s composition also enacts “a making-fly of the human”: by dissecting human language and bodily sounds, the composer subjects them to a microphonic form of close observation scattered across many focal points, rather than one. These dynamics are full of weighty implications. The observations of flies dying gradually that are enabled by flypaper, and the cruelty of the suffering it causes to them, are difficult to disentangle from the violence of warfare during the world war that Musil fought in and wrote about and even the later human experiments conducted by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. (Musil observed the Nazis while living in Berlin in the early 1930s, they banned his books upon coming to power, and he and his Jewish wife and painter Martha fled Austria for Switzerland after the “Anschluss” in 1938.) For Takasugi, a nonwhite composer married to the celebrated Israeli/American composer and Harvard professor Chaya Czernowin and working extensively in Germany, these implications—among many others—are surely readily apparent. However, in addition to the significance and inherent merits of the composition itself, the event on Friday at noon (Zoom registration here) is of great interest to the School of Music, since our very own Mike Duffy (who is also an MA composition grad from the University and a very talented composer, musician, and videographer/filmmaker) has made a new film of the live-performance version of the piece as realized by School of Music alumni James DeVoll and Justin Anthony Spenner.

Why is it important for the School of Music to support events featuring new music like Steven Takasugi’s The Flypaper

SG: I’m in support of any musical project that pushes our critical and creative boundaries, and Takasugi’s work in general—and this piece in particular—does that. But, in addition to that broader point, there are a few different reasons to support this event and the festival of which it is a part. First, its organizers are the 113 Composers Collective and include several PhD and MA graduates from the School of Music’s composition program, including Tiffany Skidmore (a terrific composer who has also taught several courses as an instructional faculty member in the School in the past several years since she graduated). The collective has presented some of the most interesting and challenging contemporary music events in the Twin Cities since its formation in 2012. Second, Takasugi’s work is rather remarkable and worth promoting to our music community in and adjacent to the School of Music—he is an important figure in contemporary classical music and his work has largely not been represented in our geographical orbit (aside from the last SPARK Festival in 2010, in a performance of Strange Autumn [2004] by the Talea Ensemble). Third, as the world of contemporary classical music is now acting with a new urgency to address its longstanding whiteness, maleness, and inaccessibility, it is essential to elevate BIPOC, women/female-identifying, LGBTQIA+, and working-class composers and experimentally minded musicians who operate at the more radical end of the creative spectrum (rather than only those who are typically performed by more established orchestras and institutions and/or work in more conventional idioms). In addition to Takasugi, the upcoming festival highlights work by Anthony Green, Joe Horton, and Bethany Younge—all of whom are making exciting music and are worth checking out.

You have led the School of Music sponsorship of other new music events. What were they and why did you choose them?

SG: My involvement in sponsoring contemporary music in the School of Music is inseparable from the efforts of our now retired colleagues Michael Cherlin and James Dillon. Professor Cherlin, a highly esteemed music theorist and scholar of Arnold Schoenberg, was instrumental in supporting avant-garde/modernist contemporary classical music in the School for many years, including his work on the widely praised Elliott Carter Festival in 2006. Professor Dillon is regarded as one of the most important British composers of his generation, and his remarkable, powerful music is regularly performed worldwide by eminent and emerging soloists and ensembles and major orchestras (such as this recent premiere by the London Sinfonietta). When he joined the School in early 2007 along with his partner, the renowned pianist Noriko Kawai, the wealth of their musical contacts and relationships meant that we were able to organize and/or support concerts by performers/ensembles like Irvine Arditti, Rohan de Saram, Noriko Kawai, Ensemble Dal Niente, Quatuor Diotima, Steven Schick, Mario Caroli, Talea Ensemble, Duo Gelland, and numerous others. A highlight was the March 2014 concert by the Arditti String Quartet, who performed music by Carter, Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough, and Helmut Lachenmann in the MacPhail Center’s Antonello Hall. Since their retirement, I have largely focused on supporting the 113 Collective’s work, which builds on this previous history and is taking it in new directions. In general, I see music institutions in higher education as providing spaces to support a diverse array of musical practices—including those that may not initially be recognized as valuable or immediately successful within the marketplace and thereby fostering such creativity at the highest levels in ways that provoke and enrich us as listeners.

Are there other new music events you would like to see the School of Music support in the future? 

SG: Yes! I’d love to see interesting and ambitious collaborations with established institutions like the Walker Art Museum and Schubert Club. (Prior to the pandemic, I participated in conversations with both about putting on a concert of Steve Reich’s recent Reich/Richter composition from 2019—a major comeback piece for him.) I’d also really like to see a more developed pipeline between the Twin Cities and the rich contemporary classical music scene in Chicago (including groups like International Contemporary Ensemble, Ensemble Dal Niente, Spektral Quartet, and Fonema Consort, among others) and to host national and international performers and composers in concerts that otherwise wouldn’t take place in the Cities and broader region. A dream of mine would be for Professor Dillon’s music to be performed by one of the top orchestras here in town, and, if he and the relevant faculty member(s) were willing and interested, I’d love to see a major ensemble in the School of Music do one of his works (and to have him come back to town to participate in rehearsals).

What do you see in the future of new music and composition as it relates to the study of music theory? 

SG: Music theory and composition have long been deeply intertwined: indeed, some of the best known music theorists, like Schoenberg or Milton Babbitt, were epoch-defining composers as well. (Former SoM theory faculty member Bruce Quaglia, who is an excellent composer, is very much in this lineage of composer-theorists.) But most importantly, theory transforms in relation to practice, and hence theorists are often very involved in supporting contemporary music—usually by writing about or teaching it, but also in other, more mundane ways, such as the kinds of collaborations I’ve been fortunate to be involved in. My own research has focused on the hermeneutic interpretation of contemporary classical music, especially that of Steve Reich and others in the so-called minimalist lineage, and there are many parallels between the things I’ve written about and the techniques and transformations of meaning that occur in a variety of contemporary music aesthetics. For example, the deconstruction of language that takes place in Steve Reich’s electroacoustic composition Come Out (1966), which transforms a fragment of spoken testimony by Daniel Hamm (a member of the Harlem Six who was wrongly imprisoned for murder and beaten brutally by police), resonates in numerous and perhaps unexpected ways with the treatment of prerecorded speech and its dissolution in Takasugi’s composition—and many other speech-based tape pieces besides. While the heyday of the composer-theorist in the US may be over, composition and theory will undoubtedly continue to influence each other greatly.

Steven Takasugi’s The Flypaper, part of 113 Collective’s Twin Cities New Music Festival, will be shown on Friday, July 2 at noon in the St. Paul Campus Student Center. The event is free to attend in-person and virtually. You can register for the virtual event option on Zoom here (https://z.umn.edu/6zim).