Saul Williams and Mivos Quartet to merge poetry and music

Saul Williamscourtesy Liquid Music

April 25, 2016

The James J. Hill Reference Library plays host to a particularly ambitious contemporary classical program on Tuesday, April 26, featuring a variety of collaborative performances from poet Saul Williams and the Mivos Quartet, as curated by producer Kate Nordstrum for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's Liquid Music Series.

Performing the Minnesota premiere of composer Thomas Kessler's NGH WHT, works by composers Jace Clayton and Ted Hearne commissioned specifically for this event, and new interpretations of Williams's solo material, No One Ever Does will combine the Mivos Quartet's expressive and boundary-pushing string renditions with Williams's evocative vocal poetry for a powerful expression of symphonic eclecticism.

"That has been pretty much my interest in [everything] that I've embarked on, the blending and twisting of genres and stylistic endeavors. I'm not certain I've ever gone too deep in a straight-ahead anything," says Saul Williams, whose latest solo album MartyrLoserKing continues his streak of powerful and politically-engaged music that draws on spoken word cadences, punk attitudes, and a sound not beholden to genre. His work in the classical realm finds him as both a piece of an ensemble, and as a point of inspiration for compositions focused on the marriage of vocal textures and instrumentation.

Thomas Kessler's NGH WHT is "based on recordings that I've done for him of myself reciting poems," explains Williams. "The first time we did that, he explained that he was sort of choosing the tempo based on my natural sense of timing and rhythm. This piece has a lot of strong language, [and] I think it's a beautiful pairing, primarily because I'm dealing with almost this sense of guttered language. To connect that with the string quartet and the sort of halls that we play in, I think it places the listener in a different context. I think that's perhaps the most interesting part of this sort of sharing is that I'm reciting a bunch of words that most people at the concert probably would not sit through if it were not for my collaboration with a string quartet."

The end result is a provocative amalgam of urgent, passionate voicing and inventive instrumentation, immediately affecting and outside of the norm for classical performance. "[We try] programming things that we feel really aesthetically strongly about, not what we think people want to hear," says cellist Mariel Roberts of the Mivos Quartet.

The string quartet — comprising Roberts, violinists Olivia De Prato and Joshua Modney, and violist Victor Lowrie — have made a name for themselves as audacious and distinctive players, taking on bold pieces that push the envelope of contemporary classical music, and this performance will be a prime example of their unique approach.

"I didn't want to be stuck in a life where I was playing a Mozart symphony every year for the rest of my life," says Roberts. "Life is about exploring new things; it's about making art that is trying to be something different, trying to be something new and interesting."

When asked to provide an original work for the quartet to perform at this event, composer Ted Hearne was excited about working with the Mivos Quartet for their adventurous understanding of the form.

"There was nobody like them five years ago," Hearne says. "[They're] part of this new set of classical musicians that put timbre and timbral rigor right at the front of their playing, and are making it very visceral, and making it pretty non-academic. Some music that may have only been appreciated in an academic context in previous generations, Mivos really works hard to bring it into a performance setting that is not academic. They're also progressive in the way they combine music from different aesthetics."

As evident on his difficult-to-categorize, hybridized experimental albums like last year's engagingly frenetic The Source, Hearne's work frequently poses a challenge to the prescribed roles of musicians; with his piece for No One Ever Does, he intends to eschew the natural tendency for the human voice to play the rhythmic role alongside melodic instruments. Using a poem Williams provided as a jumping point, Hearne focuses on the poet's low, smooth vocal register to communicate pitch and guide the contours of the string performance, which focuses on the rhythmic functions and rarely carries the melody.

"I didn't want the music to underscore what he was saying," says Hearne, "so I made a piece where there's a changing relationship between what the strings do and what he does. Sometimes the tempo of the strings is set by what Saul says, and sometimes his interpretation and his reading go with what the strings choose to play."

Composer Jace Clayton also opted to push beyond a standard classical format for his commissioned piece. Clayton occupies a number of musical spaces that utilize electronic production in acoustic territory, and has released numerous genre-fluid mixes under the moniker DJ /rupture that pull from sounds from all over the world. His work as a DJ inspires his approach to writing instrumental music, in that it focuses less on traditional authorship and more on shifting sonic ideas and generating full-fledged collaborations.

Clayton will join the players onstage to do live processing of their sounds to provide another layer of real-time interpretation, and will involve the individual performers more directly than is typical. Clayton pulls from the Mivos players' earliest musical memories, incorporating the wide variety of songs the individual performers cited as the first piece of music they memorized as a child. Growing out of sources ranging from classical standards to doo-wop and Mexican folk, Clayton fuses disparate song structures with a libretto he arranged, which stems from the avant-garde visual poetry of N. H. Pritchard of the Umbra poets collective. Leaving interpretation of the non-narrative lyrical form largely to Williams, Clayton will also draw in the speaking voices of the Mivos Quartet, further personalizing a piece that serves almost as a dialogue between creator and performer.

"In classical music composition, there's this paradigm that you write a bunch of music, and then the players play it, whether or not they like it, whether or not they know you," says Clayton. "I'm really interested in overturning that and playing with that aspect of it. When I was writing the piece, I was thinking about writing electronic and digital music, where it's all based around these loops and these digital edits, and so a part of my piece plays with the idea of cutting and pasting different types of loops, and having them performed by a bunch of players."

Together as a singular performance, the spectrum of material featured at this Liquid Series event leads both classical performance and poetry into daring new contexts.

"I'm always able to learn a bit more about intonation and dynamic and what-have-you by collaborating with these guys," says Williams. "I enjoy all of those variations. It brings new life to the work. It's something I've always looked forward to."