Composer Spotlight: Ray Lustig – Music to Bridge the Distance

In the 2012-13 season, ACO commissioned composer Ray Lustig to write a new work as part of the CoLABoratory program, a research and development lab encouraging composers to experiment and push the boundaries of American orchestral repertoire. On Saturday, October 23rd, ACO and Groupmuse Foundation will co-present this work, Lustig’s Latency Canons, as part of a hybrid virtual and in-person event titled New Canons. Recently, he spoke with us about the development of his work and why he’s excited for ACO to revisit it.

If you’d like to read about Ray’s thoughts leading up to the 2012 workshops, you can find them on ACO’s blog here: Lab 1 (before the workshop) 1, Lab 1 (after workshop), Lab 5.

Lyndsay Werking (LW): Can you tell us about the history of Latency Canons?

Ray Lustig (RL): I’d seen other people playing around with this idea of playing music together across a distance. Pauline Oliveros was one of the really early people thinking about this. She was a real pioneer. I felt like I was coming into it late in the game. I was wondering why it hadn’t caught on more. Why hasn’t this taken off? Skype had been around for years. This work was the result of my own personal curiosity about that.

Excerpt of Latency Canons from ACO’s 2013 CoLABoratory Workshops

LW: What happened when you proposed this idea to ACO?

RL: The first thing that everyone warns you about is latency. If the delay is the biggest problem, why not accept that? Let me see if I can create a piece of music that is designed to succeed and flourish under this setting.

I had this question and I also wanted to do something that felt like it fit the ACO CoLABoratory. They encouraged me to do something that no other orchestra would touch with a ten-foot pole. Something that would be a challenge organizationally to achieve. Artistically, I wanted to understand the challenges and discover an artistic/emotional viewpoint for the work. I didn’t want this to be only a technology feat.

ACO’s Music Director Laureate George Manahan leading a workshop of Latency Canons in 2013.

LW: Are there other musical influences that went into your work?

RL: I’ve always been really interested in canon writing. As a compositional exercise, I’ve always enjoyed it. I’ve always enjoyed singing rounds with people, the braininess of trying to create things that fit together?

As a college professor, I would hold an annual Holiday Canon Ball. Encouraging my students to write canons to sing at parties with friends. At the beginning of the semester, we would go through a lot of imitation works.

One work I love is Piano Phase by Steven Reich. The two pianos play the same thing until one starts playing faster by a sixteenth note. This twelve-note pattern is twelve different possibilities.

LW: When you started working on Latency Canons, you didn’t start with the idea to work with latency. What was the idea you wanted to explore?

RL: I like when the process of a work is perceivable. I’m frustrated when a concept sounds really interesting and complex but isn’t necessarily audible.

There was a sense of music at a distance. I’ve always had a bit of a sense in my heart of being just outside what is going on around me. It took me a while to find my feet to getting a music education. I had to do a lot of exploration to even discover what I wanted to learn.

The music in Latency Canons ended up reflecting an effort to connect over long distances. I remember reading about the laying the telephone cable across the transatlantic. There was a journey that used to take so much time and was a dangerous endeavor. Now, you could speak to someone on the phone across the ocean. It also made me think about people around the world who have a desire to make music but can’t do so.

LW: Tell me more about the idea of distance and how you feel about Latency Canons in the current climate?

RL: I’m happy that I worked in this area when I did. It gave me a way to feel like I could keep up connection with other musicians during the pandemic. The pandemic’s arrival really helped composers take the idea of this type of music further. Another work of mine, Clouds in Single File, riffed on a similar idea.

I had always wanted to create a piece for an orchestra in a concert hall with satellite ensembles in different places. The satellite ensembles hear that they are playing along in time. They don’t experience the canon that others are hearing in the concert hall.

I’m really excited about doing it with ACO this time where the string quartets will have live audiences. My head is swimming with the idea of the distance and the isolation that everyone is dealing with. Trevor New has gone so far beyond and turned it into such a huge thing. His work is making this a new medium to be taken seriously and written for with care.

LW: Do you have any rituals that you follow?

RL: I really like using my voice when I’m writing my music. I really like singing. Whether I’m working on music that is vocal or not, singing connects my body to the music more clearly. In the last couple of years, I’ve been taking voice lessons. What started as a meditative ritual, to focus on sensations and resonance of my own voice, has turned into a part of my music.

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