I know the term “summer pieces” doesn’t really formally exist in our field, and to use it seems to denote a slightly derogative meaning to the music it describes. To think of composers of concert music working and functioning differently at the whims of the seasons and the weather (and time restriction!!!) appears horrifying and unimaginable for most. However, the truth is, I like the term, and I consider a sizable amount of my pieces written in the most recent five or six years or so to be such “summer pieces” – the pieces written for specific ensembles within the framework of one summer festival or the other, sometimes as a selected participant/fellow and sometimes as a chosen composer for collaboration/commission.
Agnes, [our love and her apparition] (2019), part of the Agnes project which encompasses three “mirroring” pieces, Agnes, [with Agnes] (ensemble with a vocalist) for the TAK ensemble within the framework of Delian Academy for New Music (Mykonos, Greece), Agnes, [with our love for Agnes] (ensemble with a video) for the mise-en Festival (New York), and this digital audio-visual work (audio from TAK ensemble’s premiere performance recording).
Unlike many of my composer colleagues, I usually preferred summer festivals over long residencies in the summer, and when I started phasing myself out from summer festival participations these couple years, I still preferred active traveling instead of stationary residencies. This has to do with my reality of being a university educator who normally lives two intensive and energy-consuming academic terms in spring and autumn, and the fact that I have a “winter brain” (again, a term I invented) – I create for myself an austerity and relative negligence towards the material and physical world in the colder, grayer days that complement a mode of intellectual intensity required for accomplishing a large chunk of difficult work within a relatively short time. This has been the habit of mine since my childhood in Taipei where a “rain season” means “all seasons” and through my young adulthood in Boston where the frost weather persists at least seven months of a year. Furthermore, I have always been fascinated by the extreme cold and dark and the places they inhabit – Iceland, the Nordic countries, Russia in the novels of Turgenev…. This inclination of course does not operate normally after I moved to southern California seven years ago, where the lovely Mediterranean weather blesses the place almost year long. Instead, I developed a seasonal rhythm that corresponds to my creativity preferences and work schedule. What turned out was that, as the day light extended longer and the noises of car doors slamming in early morning changed into car doors slamming on weekend midday, I found myself craving the heat, the sun, the cold drinks, the water, the greens, the unfamiliar cities, the uninterrupted long afternoons with very little manmade symbols (be it language, be it sound) in my head, and visions and smells that stimulate. Again, unlike many of my colleagues, I have no trouble “vacationing”, “wasting my time”, and “doing nothing”. In fact, I am very good at “doing nothing”. I am very good at forgetting about everything else and simply indulging myself in the — often not productive — moment. I suppose I am not quite keen on competing with many of my colleagues in my field at my age precisely because I am not constantly writing music. Saying that one needs “inspiration” in order to compose is no doubt a cliché and an unpardonable excuse. Rather, the necessity of my “blank” time during which my mind goes deliciously cuckoo is real and I need that for what it is and for the renewed intellectual rigor that follows. It’s a self-generating cycle essential to all aspects of my creativity. And during those moments of my “cuckoo-ness” and guilt-free intellectual promiscuity, I developed a mode of absorbing, thinking, and producing that is experimental, self-mocking in nature accompanied by quick-silver impulses and the delights in interaction and distraction. Therefore in the summer I travel, I go to the beaches, I roam aimlessly around a new city, I read multiple books at the same time, I have long chats with friends, I fix my stare at a scene or a person or a light until I go dazed, and, when I have to produce for the things of the summer, I play. Such are the backgrounds of my summer pieces and they are essential to the successes of these projects.
These summer pieces are usually on the shorter side, ranging from miniature length to 10 minutes, and they are mostly technically simpler than my other larger-scaled pieces. They were written with the restrictions and conditions of the occasions in mind, be it durational limit, the lack of rehearsal time, tight timeframe, specific theme of the festival, unusual performance spaces, or sometimes the laboratory nature of the project. Of course, not all of the pieces I composed during the summer are summer pieces; there are exceptions and also there are commissioned compositions I have ruminated or worked on for an extended period of time which just happened to wiggle through the summer months. But often time during the summer when I am to attend summer festivals I plan and produce summer pieces, and while these pieces don’t necessarily become the most representative of my work, they however demonstrate many of the ideas I have been brewing and also a highly reflective, self-critiquing form of composition that actively “whiplashes” or constructively “mocks” what I myself have been doing in my creativity at that moment. In short, I either experiment with ideas I have not yet exercised in my longer pieces, or head right in to doing something I otherwise would not have done at that moment of my career. This (very much intentional) approach resulted in quite a few pieces – the summer pieces – that are whimsical, or humorous, or bizarre, or grotesque, or ridiculing. For the audiences who experienced them they were often both uncomfortable and entertaining at the same time, and for me they appear both shameless and charming, marking every stain and jewel of my creative impulses and craziest thoughts. They are important and unusual projects that landmarked an explorative and focused continuum that is my ongoing creative work.
Danse, danse… sinon nous sommes perdu! (à la brève) (2016), miniature for Avanti! Chamber Orchestra within the framework of Summer Sounds festival, Porvoo, Finland
Coro (sur un terrain inconnu) (2018), excerpt from the premiere performance by Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart within the framework of Ticino Musica, Lugano, Switzerland
Artists appearing in the HUMANITY (2018) photos : Susanne Leitz (mezzo-soprano), Martin Nagy (countertenor), Marisa Ballaro (dancer), Simone Paris (dancer), Luca Chiodini (dancer)