Technology is the bridge

CMNW 2019 performer-composer Boja Kragulj talks technology, creativity, education, and making connections.

By CHARLES ROSE

As a freshly graduated composer, I don’t feel a particular attachment to the classical music canon. Of course there are composers and works I have a strong attachment to—Ravel’s La Valse, Beethoven’s late string quartets, Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, Ligeti’s Atmospheres, anything Webern wrote—but I don’t feel the need to listen to something just because our culture deems it important. And it sounds silly to say that I “discovered” classical music—but I didn’t grow up listening to it outside Looney Tunes and movie soundtracks. So when I began listening to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, I was also listening for the first time to Radiohead, Aphex Twin, Miles Davis, Stockhausen, Björk, Flying Lotus, and so on.

I’ve been perpetually disappointed by how little music education engages with music beyond a tiny corpus of “dead white men.” These guys may present us with valuable techniques and perspectives, but teaching them exclusively while ignoring many other important musical traditions and perspectives is naive at best. Much as we value diversity, I question the value of teaching the same things we’ve always taught, only with a more diverse set of mouth pieces.

What’s the point of allowing more people at the table if we won’t let them speak? Reading the unique perspectives of Pauline Oliveros and Kofi Agawu has been incredibly eye-opening, but I had to discover them outside of the classroom. The onus is on us millennial and zoomer composers to expand our musical minds and build a new musical culture.

Composer, clarinetist, and teacher Boja Kragulj.

What I admire about clarinetist-composer-teacher Boja Kragulj’s music is her dedication to expanding the horizons of music, looking for inspiration from Turkish music, music technology, and her students’ tastes. On June 28th, Kragulj opened this year’s Chamber Music Northwest New@Noon series with an untitled work for clarinet and laptop, creating a haunting and beautiful tapestry of loops, echoes and stretched-out tones. The rest of that first noon program celebrated the clarinet by focusing on its agility and the performer’s skill with extreme ranges and extended techniques, while Kragulj’s work brought forth the instrument’s beautiful resonance and subtle dynamics.

Her work as a composer and teacher offers a path forward for composers hoping to branch out from our perceived limitations. We Facetimed shortly after the concert to discuss her musical voice, her education, and her compositional techniques.

Kragulj performing Akiho.

Kragulj’s answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

On her inspiration

My primary goal in performing now is to connect deeply with the audience. I often feel that notated repertoire misses the mark, and the element of improvisation, real-time processing of sound, and this beautiful layering of clarinet intrigues me. Although my training as a clarinetist was very traditional and strict, I’m always searching for the path toward being a more complete musician. And I’m also always looking for ways to deepen my connection with the audience who is taking time to listen.

After my doctorate, I won a Fulbright to study the Turkish clarinet in that country. And it was there I realized my education had missed one critical piece of musical training—technology! Classical musicians always bemoan the shrinking of the music industry, but it isn’t shrinking—it’s just changing. I realized technology was my way forward, so after another Master’s degree at Berklee, I have found myself wanting to highlight and share what the clarinet can do when I use tech! And there’s no more appropriate place to showcase the interaction between performer and computer than the New@Noon events.

I always say technology is the bridge that never got built for classical musicians. We got left on our own island without a way out, and if we could accept the fact that technology can encourage creativity rather than be a threat to the tradition, we’d be better off for it.

Kragulj performing Debussy.

On the influence of Turkish Clarinet

Mozart’s K. 622 clarinet concerto was originally written for clarinet in G, but Mozart changed his mind about it and changed the concerto to be performed for clarinet in A. So the G clarinet ended up in Istanbul before the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and the Turks made it uniquely their own. It’s a distinctive style of clarinet performance with over 52 microtones used to the octave. But it’s all done by ear! Of course I tried to notate it, as have others. It was because of how the Turks process the clarinet sound that I had an “Aha, what?” kind of moment in the middle of the Fulbright that led me to begin a serious study of music technology and production.

On the limitations of a musical education

I fell in love with music generally before I fell in love with the clarinet. And I went to school in music to become a complete musician and artist, not just a clarinet specialist. I think that it’s a little odd now because the conversation has switched to be all about “diversity and inclusion” in our institutions, when the music we’re studying isn’t all that diverse and the people teaching it aren’t all that diverse, and therefore why would the students be diverse? How do we expect change in classical music when the canon and the methods stay the same?

Technology for me is really the answer for how we achieve diversity in music, especially in higher education. Most classical musicians are missing the largest and most relevant piece of the music industry. The music business isn’t shrinking, it is growing, and it’s because of technology. It’s related to why I chose to perform this piece at the Clarinet Celebration. It’s time for a changing of the guard on what’s expected and desired from classical musicians.

The reason why it really bothers me with the “trained musician” is that they supposedly have the skillset. We put them through ear training and they know all this music but it never comes together in a way for them to be creative, and the different sects in music education never inform one another. I’ve seen students take music theory and graduate with straight As, but when I ask one of them to write something down they struggle.

Why doesn’t it translate to them, say, hearing a Coldplay song that they like, that they can write it down, or come up with some version that sounds appealing to them? These bridges aren’t bulit between different facets of music study, and that worries me. We create this high expectation so that students struggle to reach it, then when they can’t find a job as an orchestral musician, for example, what do they do with that knowledge they’ve gathered? Are the things they learned useful? They should be.

On her approach to teaching and composition

I like experimenting because it moves me away from notation, so I enjoy writing with improvisation being a first step. But this particular piece is different because the actual musical ideas were extracted by my students from two other pieces, as a listening and analysis exercise. The two pieces used to generate the new work I performed were David Lang’s Light Moving and Tina Davidson’s The Blue Curve of the Earth.

There were moments in each piece that my students identified as unique, poignant or related to each other. Both pieces gave them a sense of being above the earth, this slow movement in outer space. We asked what were the musical moments that contribute to that; some were extracted in a smaller way, like a little motive, or in a larger, formal way, where at this part they introduce, say, a raised fourth scale degree. This is how we got from the opening to a new key area. We were thinking, “Let’s try that, let’s see if that takes us to a new place or if we can evoke a similar feeling,” using these ideas taken from the Tina Davidson piece. The goal was to mesh them together, kinda DJ-like, to create a similar emotion in a totally different way.

Unlike traditional theory class, I have students approach analysis from the point of emotion and intrigue. I ask them to identify musical moments that move them, then we ask why those moments are provocative. Is it a change of key? A change of register? And then with that information we try to recreate emotional effects musically inside a new composition. All my students are composers as well as clarinetists.

I want my students to always feel as though they have a creative voice, no matter where they are at in their studies or career. It’s very rewarding [to teach this way]. It reinforces for me everything that I do that’s not in this vein. It encourages you as a teacher to listen and think differently. 

We teach students to extract emotions out of the existing theory, out of the three chord functions: tonic, dominant, subdominant. It’s interesting to see what they can do beyond that. When you just let them go and let them use their instincts, they come up with really beautiful things. From a practical standpoint, we have to consider what scale we’re using, so there’s this technical feedback loop so we know what to practice, when there’s a practical goal related to what they want to say rather than a goal printed in an etude book. 

On the construction of the piece

The idea was first moving from Earth to outer space: that fast movement, that lifting motion. Then the second part was floating above the blue curve of the Earth, that slow movement where you could see the whole Earth and stars. I actually don’t have a name. [laughs] It was listed in the program as “Music based on Tina Davidson’s Blue Curve of the Earth and David Lang’s Light Moving.”

I didn’t get a chance to explain it before the performance because I didn’t want to weigh people down with details. The problem with digital looping is that it cuts out all the beautiful reverb tail you would have in a physical space, because you are chopping off the end to get the loop. That’s why a lot of looping is very angular, if you were using a stomp box or looping in Ableton. I lost all of the beauty in the beginning and fading out of the sound using that method. And I wanted to emphasize that, especially for Chamber Music Northwest clarinet week, because that’s what I love the most about the clarinet. 

I wrote a Max/MSP patch that told the computer to listen for certain pitches or parameters of pitches. I’ve also written patches that listen for, say, this pitch?—but it has to be in tune within a particular parameter. That’s what I do with my students as a pedagogical tool, because something won’t launch unless you play it correctly. I don’t do that in this piece because I know what I’m going to do and can play reasonably well in tune. So it’s listening for “when you hear that, do this” or “loop that five times at ever increasing volume and then fade out.”

It can be a dangerous thing to do live, because the whole thing could fail. But it’s set up in such a way that the opening ideas and the later ideas are similar enough that it won’t trigger the next thing too early. I also know based on what I’ve written in the patch how to make something stop if I decide that I don’t like it, or can just move on from it in a performance. It’s an interesting way to engage with the computer. If I don’t like what I’ve just heard, I know that I can just play the next thing and move on.

I always think that the performance takes place between the audience and the performer. And what the audience feels is very important to me, and that influences who I am as a musician and a person. I don’t see myself as the artist on stage. It’s important to me that people pay attention to what they’re perceiving. I hope that it has that effect, that it gives people space to notice how they feel. 

On improvisation

I think the whole mentality of performance is different in jazz; we don’t have that in classical music, and that bothers me. So I’m interacting with the computer, the computer is interacting with me. And nothing is really completely lost. It’s never going to completely fall apart. There were pivotal moments in there, like a key change from major to minor, it is listening for the new pitch that signals the new section. I allowed freedom, and there were some ornaments and improvised ideas. That’s also related to my Turkish Clarinet stuff, because they heavily ornament things.

A lot of people talk about performance anxiety, and I think that comes from us thinking that we have to do things exactly the way its written. People have heard it a million times before. So I’m interested in how I can do things my own way.

Boja Kragulj with her clarinet and technology at CMNW 2019. Photo by Robert Holcomb.
Boja Kragulj with her clarinet and technology at CMNW 2019. Photo by Robert Holcomb.

On microphones and resonance

Microphones are fascinating to me. I have a huge collection of them. They listen like humans, since they all hear things differently, but the problem with acoustic instruments is that they require space. The sounds don’t come out of one hole, but the entire instrument, so there’s sound bleed. In [Lincoln Performance Hall] it wasn’t a problem because the speakers were far apart, but sometimes whats coming over the speakers actually gets recorded back into the microphones.

The placement was based on directional hearing. I had those AKGs on the side, set to only listen from the front, but knowing that they were going to pick up some of the ambient noise. Then I had a mic in the capsule because there were certain things that couldn’t be interfered with. Especially when I move to a new key area, it would’ve conflicted. This placement allowed some things to be played into that dry microphone and other things into the ones on the side where it really didn’t matter.

The clarinet doesn’t have a resonating cavity, so the room is our resonating cavity—unlike, say, a cello, which has its own resonating body. When you stop playing the sound keeps going. So we have to think about how we use that in performance. 

On audiences and the composer’s relation to politics and culture

I think the heaviness of classical music is, “is it good or is it bad”? And the more times it is played the more people can judge whether it is good or bad. New music takes a lot of that away. I love it for that. I wonder sometimes, does the audience know that they have permission to listen in that way?

The world is a lot more global so you have to think about think about these things. Even Mozart and Beethoven hid things in their music that they thought about the culture and royalty. And if you don’t know the context it changes classical music entirely. Even harmonically they reference things and it takes a lot in order to understand it. I’m excited about where new music is going. From a practical perspective, you bring people into the concert hall by framing things in a political or cultural way.

On social media

I’m horrible about it, but I have a new mindset thanks to social media and the internet. You should see writing as a development process. If you don’t, it will never be good enough for you to put up to see. That has been a hindrance to me, but don’t be shy about it.

Charles Rose is a composer, sound artist, and recent graduate of Portland State University. He is the sound engineer for FearNoMusic and a contributor to PSU’s journal Subito.

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