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Episode Four: 4th Wave

Episode Four: 4th Wave

Nov 9, 2020

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TRANSCRIPT

KC Trommer (host)
This is Criss Cross, the NYU Gallatin Podcast. I'm your host, KC Trommer. For this episode, I spoke with pianist, composer, and musicologist, and Gallatin faculty member Kwami Coleman and vocalist, sonic artist, and Gallatin alumna, Rosie K., about their work on 4th Wave, the Gallatin Summer Music Intensive; a three-week long collaborative project designed to engage Gallatin student and alumni musicians. 4th Wave was begun in the summer of 2019 with the aim of connecting musicians across specialty and genre, to create cutting-edge work through collaboration. In our talk, we looked at what student and alumni musicians of 4th Wave have learned in their work together in the first intensive and how music making is happening right now. I was looking over the material about 4th Wave from the original iteration in 2019, and I saw it, the ambitions of it again, which was really interesting to see. So, you were saying that you wanted it to be a, not only an incubator to allow participants to develop skills about forming and leading ensembles, but you also wanted it to be a business model, an entity of cultural production, and then a way to think about how to collectively perform and produce music. So, I'd love to hear how you guys came together, first of all, and then I'd like to hear how you came to those points and developing those ambitions for 4th Wave.

Kwami Coleman
Yeah, I can jump in first. I just want to shout Rosie out again, because this was her grand idea in the world of the arts where one collaborates often, you know, it was such a pleasure to work with her and Noah, but there's, there's one point that you mentioned, KC, that was really interesting to me. I think this is the point at which Rosie, Noah, and I really found common ground, and it has something to do with business, I guess, music business, but like not music business in the sense that we're in an industry looking for, like, wealth and fame and prestige. I think what united us was this idea that to be an independent musician in a place like New York City, but also in the world, you had to be very practical and very resourceful. And it was more about kind of understanding the business of music from the perspective of a creator so that you can sustain yourself and continue to create your work, which is not the most straightforward thing in the world. I'm still trying to figure it out, I think everyone still is. And especially now with COVID-19, that's yet another dimension or a facet of that journey. But I think once we understood that we all had experienced trying to navigate the field and trying to support ourselves, we had an understanding of how to make a workshop that would be of best use to the kind of students that attend Gallatin.

KC Trommer

Yeah. Rosie, can you speak about this as your idea. And then I would love to follow up on an understanding of being a music maker in this particular moment with all of its challenges as well.

Rosie Kaplan
It's very generous of Kwami to credit me in that way, but I feel that there's many people at Gallatin who have been thinking along these lines in terms of how to bring the music community together there. When I met with Dean Wofford in 2018, I had originally thought of current students, and she talked about alumni, and that really spoke to me because I am an alumni. And I thought, yeah, the important thing about creating a community of musicians in New York is it helps to have some commonality of, you know, being in the same school. Because speaking to what Kwami was saying about business, which is the word we used, but it stretches to being --making: you're making music in the world. So what does that mean in terms of how you engage in the world? Like, what are your values as a musician? How do you hope to support yourself? What practices will you bring into yours? And there's a lot of different ways of looking at that and making decisions.

KC Trommer
Then we should say, there's a third party. Who's not in this interview: Noah. Who's your partner, I believe, yes?

Rosie Kaplan
Yeah, Noah is my partner. And we met at New England conservatory, which is where I left to come to Gallatin for a lot of these reasons. There's a lot of freedom when you bring musicians together, who haven't been on a track of, like, "I'm in the classical department" and "I'm in the jazz" or, you know, "I'm majoring in this instrument," because today as musician does so many, many things. And so with Gallatin you get that kind of already freedom from separate tracks and traditions to build something new.

KC Trommer
Yeah. So there's a baseline openness to experimentation and collaboration that might not be present in a more tracked university or conservatory. And so then, she suggested Kwami as someone who's working in ensembles and as a musician to you, to work with to develop this project. When you and Kwami were finally able to like sit down and articulate your ambitions, and then when you were faced with bringing people together, you did a call for students and alumni, and then you ended up with a student and alumni intergenerational, intermusical, multi-musical group. And how many student musicians, alumni musicians did you bring together?

Rosie Kaplan
12.

KC Trommer
12, right. Okay. And then you had them in different groups, so smaller ensembles. Did you designate based on experience who would lead, or did they kind of work it out together?

Kwami Coleman
We were more thinking about which instruments would compliment each other in a given ensemble.

KC Trommer
Were they by genre of music or no?

Rosie Kaplan
No . . .

KC Trommer
You weren't directing in that way at all. Can you speak a bit about what, what emerged as a result? So you had how many ensembles and what emerged out of those pairings?

Rosie Kaplan
In terms of ensemble, I think only a few of the students had played together before, so it was very new interactions for everyone. In the group I led, which had two alums and two current students; viola, synthesizer, guitar, and bass. And then everyone also had a vocal style and technique that they contributed, and what was so, so, wonderful was that everyone brought in a piece, wrote a piece for this group, in addition to like daily improvisation sessions, and the way everyone's playing changed and adapted and grew and broadened for supporting one another was so much. It was amazing. Also, just the approach to writing music changed, too. Like, somebody who wrote a song for playing solo guitar then was adding a string part and a sound design part. And so it just --the way you thought about your own music, became so open to "I could do this with anyone, and they also bring so much into it."

KC Trommer
So it kind of, it was breaking down this idea of the individual musician, making music and trying to be brilliant and potentially a moneymaker ,and thinking about who else could be available and other conversations you could have while making?

Rosie Kaplan
Yeah. And I think there were just a lot of people who had a real desire to play with other people. I mean, now we are so isolated, but even --I think even times when you're starting out in New York as a professional musician, it can be hard to find people who have the time to sit down with you and work through a piece.

Kwami Coleman
Just to build off what Rosie mentioned, one of the most important parts of the workshop, something that permeated, everything that we did was improvisation, like the skill of improvisation. And I think that's really the glue that can bind people together. You know, we tend to think about music, improvisation, that's being attached to jazz and jazz practice, but there are many different music improvisatory traditions around the world. Having the skill of improvisation allows you to play with almost anybody. So we figured that if we could encourage people to improvise and to understand improvisation and be able to utilize it in pretty strategic ways, then, absolutely they'll create together. I think that's exactly what happened. It allowed people to basically play the way they wanted to play and write the way they wanted to write because the whole idea was to do it collaboratively.

KC Trommer
It takes a certain level of trust and confidence to enter into a space with people you don't know, as Rosie mentioned, and to then offer yourself up in this vulnerable way. When you said you were trying to teach them something about how to improvise, can you speak about that piece? It sounds like it was very much built into the structure of the intensive.

Rosie Kaplan
Teaching improvisation is a great thing to think about. A lot of it has to do with music as a practice in thought, thinking musically kind of changing your perception of time, your idea about impulse response, connecting to that listening. The first two weeks each of us (Kwami, Noah, and I) are leading on the ensembles and then the third week they're on their own, leading their own rehearsals. And so the first few days, my approach was just giving it time, like playing together without stopping and breaking too much to talk about and think back and all of that. And I record all of the sessions also. So throughout like an hour long improvisation, people, I noticed just begin not overthinking what they're trying to do and instead thinking and doing, and I think that's an important part of it without, you know, trying to put it in a stylistic term.

Kwami Coleman
Yeah, just to piggyback off that you know in my experience, the way music improvisation is taught in the music schools is exactly the same conservatory model that you would find for classical music. That can be a very nerve-wracking anxiety-inducing environment. Why? Because you're kind of meant to show up every single time and be perfect. You know, these kinds of spaces can be very anti-mistake and anti-creativity. And there is something about the conservatory model where you're really just meant to execute as perfectly as possible that we find, we found stifled parts of us, personally, but also tend to stifle many other people, too. It can also build this kind of really intense competitiveness that can work against the creative process. And it has more to do with ego. I think that was another nexus point for us; we realized that if we were going to coach student musicians through anything, one of the first things we had to address was ego. Because you need ego actually, but at the same time, there's a way in which one can feed the ego by kind of overplaying, outshining others, as a way to say, "look how great of a musician I am," "look how amazing I can be." And so, we wanted to make a very deliberate point to not go down that road. It's that fine balance between listening to others and the input of others, but also being open and vulnerable enough to play the way you feel. It's in that kind of dynamic that I think you get some really creative stuff, and creative in the sense that everyone feels like their own personal stamp is in the product rather than just replicating or executing one person's vision.

KC Trommer
That dialectic that you're talking about between the confidence that you would need in order to improvise, but also the necessary vulnerability to be able to open yourself up to the possibility of failing. I'm curious, what else came of it for you, or I think I asked when we spoke before, what was surprising to you? Was there anything surprising, or unusual, or unanticipated, about what came from that time together?

Rosie Kaplan
It's funny because I'm not surprised by the generosity of spirit, by the talent, by the creativity. Like none of that surprises me from these people, because I sensed that just, you know, [by] meeting them, hearing them. And so that wasn't surprising, but I did feel there, that change happened. And whether that change was a sense of deeper commitment, and ability to do this, and how to spend more time doing this, and how to continue in new ways—like, one of the tracks we got from the playlist is from a group. They weren't all in the same ensemble, and it's mixed between alum and current students, and they just made a new track last week. I didn't know that was going on, and so I also wasn't surprised by that because I could tell everyone really connected, but I was happy. I was so excited about it.

Kwami Coleman
I think one of the things that surprised me too is how, if you give someone space and time, basically everyone is a rock star. I think all around, everyone in the group, by the time we had our final concert at the Shapeshifter Lab, it was clear that we were dealing with like a group of superstars somehow.

KC Trommer
So you did a culminating event. We should say, did a culminating event at the end of the intensive in which the ensembles played together, but they also played as an uber-collective. So that was a piece that they generated?

Kwami Coleman
We approached it in a number of ways. We invited people to submit pieces or sketches of pieces that could be played by the ensemble. And then we agreed to play stuff in advance, too. Rosie who submitted pieces for us for the ensemble, to play together, do you remember?

Rosie Kaplan
So Breezy had a piece, and the other two were worked out through graphics score exercises that Kwami led them through. And what was amazing about the full ensemble pieces was the form was talked through, discussed, you know, represented visually, loosely. But it's a real testament to how incredibly attuned this listening to one another became, because there was switching off of solos changing of thematic material constantly, that was just totally seamlessly kept up with, and you would also maybe consider that an electro-acoustic ensemble of 12 might have an overpowering sound, but I think that's where we did the most work together, was on the dynamics of that. And they really grew into a great range.

KC Trommer
You said, a graphic, what did you call it? A graphic what?

Kwami Coleman
Graphic notation and graphic score. So, you know, many of us are accustomed to seeing the typography or nomenclature typical of Western music. You know, the note heads with the stems, with the usual symbols that we tend to read when we're formally trained, and by formal training, we mean kind of like Western training. So to get around that, because obviously not everyone reads the same way, and some people don't read notation at all. Some people make a deliberate point not to read notation. We thought, "well, there's another tradition of notating music that has everything to do with, like, basically graphic design." Like you design these graphics and you explain to the ensemble what they mean so that when they read them, they have the key to decipher and then execute the action that they're meant to represent.

KC Trommer
So that's an existing tradition, like an existing practice, but just not as prevalent as normal notation, or I don't know what we would call the normal notation.

Kwami Coleman
Maybe Rosie can speak to this more, but in new music circles, you know, these are circles where people are creating basically music for the now and music that tends to take Western tradition, [and] treat it somewhat skeptically. I think you would find graphic notations maybe as much as you will find traditional notation.

Rosie Kaplan
The structure of the program also is that the first four hours of the day were performance and practice. And the second half was a series of symposia. So we each presented on our work and music as individual independent artists, and we also discussed some topics across music. One thing was tuning systems. Another day --this was a great day, actually-- was like a playlist day that everybody (each of the students) brought in a piece of music that had inspired them and they wanted to share. And that, I just recall was very into --just because of the, --when you hear, --when music is presented to you in a group setting, and you're listening together, it's just an entirely different experience than when you're scrolling through a playlist. So, group listening was a big part of something that we were trying to do together.

KC Trommer
Oh yeah. I love that you would include listening because it's so -- I mean, how can you be a musician if you're not also a listener? How can you be a writer if you're not also a reader, right? You have to think about your inputs, always. Was there any moment where someone brought in something and you thought you knew what kind of music they were going to come in with and they completely surprised you?

Kwami Coleman
I think that was pretty much everybody. That was a great example in reminding us that all of our tastes are so diverse and, you know, we had an electric guitarist, right? Who you would think would bring in Van Halen or something like that. And no, this surprise was always there, because I think that's kind of the point of being a well-rounded musician, it involves pretty well-rounded listening.

KC Trommer
In this moment that we're in and knowing how incredibly difficult it is to be unable to perform and unable to be in spaces with other people. And because 4th Wave didn't happen, but we're talking about it, assuming, you know, it could potentially happen in the future and that the seeds of what you planted are still growing, what are you seeing that's (and not ignoring the difficulty) -- What is potentially a source of radical change in this moment for music and for musicians?

Kwami Coleman
I don't know. I wonder if we all don't find ourselves in this collective moment of soul searching. On the music end of things, you know, it's a tough call because we can talk about it in idealistic terms and say, "well, obviously this will be the era of the bedroom musician, and everyone will emerge with new skills on how to make their own." But I think a lot of people are also really feeling the brunt of the economic collapse of live music. You really earn most of your money with live performances and touring, not through recording, and definitely not streaming. I think a lot of folks are really feeling, it are hurting, and are trying to make the best out of a really tough situation that doesn't look like it's going to end anytime soon.

KC Trommer
Even if it did end, even if there was a magic—everything magically resolved tomorrow, there's still this gap and loss that's very deep.

Rosie Kaplan
Yes. I do hope for a radical restructuring of music performance. I think it needs it. So, new programs, new initiatives, ways we can better serve musicians in all of the respects that they're a musician, you know, so they have time to listen to right, to think about and reflect on what they're doing musically, and what they'd like to do, and gig. I hope that there are ways we can reshape on reopening.

KC Trommer
So I know that you didn't have, and that was unfortunate, you didn't have 4th Wave this year. Hopefully things will be better next year. Are you thinking though, if they're not, are you thinking about rethinking what it could be? I'm just curious . . .

Kwami Coleman
I think there's a lot of anticipation for the possibility for people to meet in the same room and collaborate again. One of the things that I've been reflecting on is how easy it is to take for granted these communal spaces, right? Like what, what does it mean to hold a concert? Well, it's almost like a social contract where basically we all agree to show up at this one place at this one time and allow a given group or group of people to create an experience that we all engage in. And that's kind of a magical thing. And I don't think we've been able to really match that virtually.

KC Trommer
Yeah. One day. It will be so magical when it happens again. What else did you --Kwami, you didn't answer my surprising question and I, I wonder if anything was surprising.

Kwami Coleman
Surprising about 4th Wave last year?

KC Trommer
Yeah.

Kwami Coleman
Um okay. So people opening up and flourishing, that's not a surprise, but I think how people did was the surprise. And I think for me, that was the most rewarding part as well, just to see people allow themselves to be themselves, and to do so unapologetically. And I think the most infamous moment (think Rosie, you already know what I'm probably going to say) is when our resident violist, Rosa Stravinsky, who is a wonderful, wonderful student, I've had her in several of my classes An excellent violist, she was onstage at the collective with her group, and they were going in. I mean, they were really going in. And she was playing that viola as though her life depended on it. And she started using the bow to the viola as a drumstick to play the cymbals, and somewhere between all of that, all of the horse hairs on the bow just snapped. And it was the perfect Looney Tunes moment, that point in which it just goes "bing." And to her eternal credit, she looked into the crowd with her eyes wide open in surprise, but then kept going. And I was like, "that's a pro." That's a professional. If something like that happens and you keep going, you know what you're doing.

Rosie Kaplan
Totally stand out moment.

KC Trommer
That was in the final performance?

Rosie Kaplan
That was the dress rehearsal.

Kwami Coleman
It was incredible. She had just resounding applause afterwards, but then we all had to brainstorm. "Okay. So do you need a new bow or not? The concert's coming up pretty fast."

KC Trommer
How has the experience of having shepherded all of this into existence informed you as a musician, and your approach to creating music and working with other people?

Rosie Kaplan
So often, my hopes and inspiration for teaching musically comes from things that I wish that I had experienced or opportunities I'd wished I'd had. And so, doing this, I thought "I really just hope that everyone makes work, and makes a lot of work, and doesn't stop making work." Because I think just going --When music is a lifelong practice, the most important thing is to just not stop. It's hard to sit down and make something, and having that kind of accountability of, "Oh, I know someone I can send this to who can listen," or "I know someone who I could ask to do a part on this."Yeah, that's just so important.

Kwami Coleman
Sometimes, when you teach, certain things can become ossified, in the sense that you just teach the same course maybe every year, or teach the same kind of class over and over again. And I think one of the advantages that anyone in the creative arts has, is having the muscle to kind of shake yourself out of routines and to remain, like, this eternal student. And I learned a lot, too, from my small group, because they were just so... I don't know how to describe it. Shout out to Henry, Saransh, and Ricky, and Scott, because there were just certain days where I didn't even know what we were doing. We just decided that we were going to play together. And there were some moments where we'd start joking, and start joking about jokes, and start joking about the joke about the joke. It was a spiral inside of a strange place, and then we'd be like, "okay, now let's make something from where we are right now." And I really liked that, because, I think, maybe on the outside it will look like, "Oh, you know, they're just talking, and just kind of cutting it up right now. They're not really rehearsing." But I think that is rehearsal, right? Those tangential moments are somehow feeding the creative process. And so I liked the fact that I could just kind of take a step back and allow it to happen.

KC Trommer
I'm so glad to talk to you both. The idea of the podcast is to showcase collaboration. 4Th Wave was a hundred percent that, so I was really happy to talk to you about it. And it was a huge gift to everyone who was a part of it, I'm sure. If there's anything that we haven't covered, that you would like to come into the conversation, I'm happy to talk about it.

Kwami Coleman
No, I guess we're all looking forward to being in the same room again.

KC Trommer
Thank you for listening to Criss Cross. Learn more about 4th Wave and the musicians involved on our show page on Gallatin's site. Our next episode will feature co-founder and co-director of the Center for Artistic Activism and Gallatin faculty member, Stephen Duncombe, along with student and activist Sophie Jones on the impact of artistic activism. This podcast was recorded in August 2020 and edited by Hannah Beal. We want to include student and alumni voices here, so if you have a story of collaboration at Gallatin, I'd love to hear from you. Please write to me or record a voice memo (better yet) and send it along to KC Trommer: kctrommer@nyu.edu. I'd love to hear from you.