Composer Spotlight: Trevor New – Electro-acoustic Viola & Cinematic Journeys

Trevor New is a Brooklyn-based, electro acoustic violist and composer. He creates work which he describes as “innovative originals, intuitive and scored soundscapes, that evoke a cinematic journey.” On Saturday, October 23rd at 2:15pm ET, ACO and the Groupmuse Foundation will present his newly commissioned work Cohere 1, a piece written for decentralized simultaneous telematic performance. It features a soloist and orchestra, three quartets in separate locations, each with an audience, and six international soloists from around the world. They will be playing together in real time, seeing, listening, and reacting to one another. 

American Composers Orchestra will perform at the DiMenna Center conducted by Peter Askim, the Bergamot Quartet will perform at the Murray Hill Groupmuse location, Ligeti Quartet and Alexandra Quartet from the United Kingdom, and six soloists will participate from locations around the world including Argentina, Germany, India, the UK, and South Korea.

Audience members are invited to experience the work in one of three way: with ACO at the DiMenna Center (Hudson Yards in NYC), an intimate Groupmuse with the Bergamot Quartet (Murray Hill in NYC), or as a fully virtual event (online stream). We sat down with Trevor to talk about this new work and the upcoming performance. Below is our conversation, edited for context and length.

Lyndsay Werking (LW): You’ve been working quite a bit in the telematic music space since the pandemic began. For this work, where are you starting when you think about creating this piece?

Trevor New (TN): Instead of it feeling like I’m on a phone call with someone who is further away, I want to make something interactive in a way that is very much in front of me. There is an intensity that you get with playing with another musician. I wanted to achieve this feeling despite physical distance. There is a lack of physical separation. I wanted to feel extremely connected even though it was happening through a screen.

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LW: Can you tell me about latency, and how you think about it?

TN: I think of it as a part of music that I’m playing. There’s latency in everything I’m playing. Just because the timing is different from what we’re used to doesn’t mean it can’t be immediately musical. If we’re open to it, it can feel the same.

If you’re playing a massive orchestral piece, there is latency between opposite sides of the stage, between the conductor and different sections. You are always accounting for this as a musician. My experience has been when you take away your expectation and use the skills, they work the same way, whether you’re doing in-person or telematic works.

So much has to do with how you experience time as you’re playing. If you see it as playing with a conductor’s downbeat, you experience it as being in time together, but someone else experiences that sound differently. Everyone’s sound is arriving at different times and different points within time and space.

For Cohere 1, we’re using technology to balance the ideas of symmetry and chaos. The controls are really interesting, but they are all so new.

The first hurdle for the audience experience is to understand that they’re experiencing something new. The experience is accessible in a way unlike anything else that I’m aware of. The potential of this technology is that there could be hundreds of people playing from different places (as long as they have internet connection) with different latencies, and using technologies to experiment with making the sound synchronous or asynchronous.

Trevor playing in Kaufman Music Center’s Musical Storefront shows in April 2021 with Josh Henderson of Warp Trio, and Dorothy Chan of Chromic.

LW: I hear you describing the player experience and the audience experience. Which were you thinking of when you wrote Cohere 1?

TN: It was a little bit of both. Audiences can be comprised of working musicians. The musician’s experience is equally important as the audience experience. The audience will be investigating the different ways the artists are playing together, responding to other players, and how the audience will interact with the music.

I want everyone to see how the different musicians are connected. I’ve composed the work to illustrate the connections and technology. Every person is a performer and audience member at the same time. We’re all making music together at the same time, wherever they may be. A performer is also an audience member. You can see that in how you watch the piece unfold.

LW: Tell me more about the structure of Cohere 1.

TN: It starts completely singular and moves completely together. I tried to make it so that there are different points where you hear every player or group enter. Before playing together, I wanted players to start individually. You can hear the smaller groups playing on their own, taking turns in a round, cascading sound, and then everyone playing and singing together.

With my own solo work, I learned a lot. I would get up in front of an audience, create loops and effects play my sound back. On my own, I could sound like more than a single player. From the listener’s perspective, it could be hard to tell what was happening. The piece itself has a purpose. The actual performance should echo the purpose visually.

LW: Tell me about the ensembles and soloists. How have you chosen to write for the different forces?

TN: There are three quartets around the world and the orchestra in DiMenna in New York City. I’ve written somewhat differently for each ensemble. The orchestra is almost like an opera orchestra, setting the stage for a lot of different interactions to happen; shaping all the sound that is happening.

Quartet A, based in Murray Hill has the lowest latency (ie. the shortest time for sound to travel from there back to DiMenna) will be taking the lead in a lot of situations. By the time we get further into the piece, that quartet can take a lead in playing with the orchestra ensemble and me as a soloist.

It’s like a big musical party of many different sounds.

The quartets start out echoing each other. At different points the quartets have a shared purpose and then their own characters, especially the quartet with the highest latency, which is based in the UK.

The soloists are the final expression of my ideas, connected across many points around the world. I’ve written that section to begin with me playing in New York, with the sound passed one by one around the world to the other six soloists. One by one, they will flip their video on and join in. We’re showing how we’re connected, then we’re connected. Each soloist is bringing their own music and experience with some improvisation written into the score.

Orchestra, quartets, as well as individuals will be singing the phrase “Fare thee well,” which has a lot of different meanings. It’s a church/spiritual song. I think there’s a recording in the Smithsonian. It’s used to wake up the congregation. Very high energy. It can mean we’re getting going, great to see you, hope you’re doing great, see you again soon.

LW: Where do you imagine taking this idea into the future?

TN: Eventually, I can imagine using this technology to create a concert that never ends with people logging on from all over the world who continue to play the piece.

LW: Do you have any rituals that you follow?

TN: I always like a story and a visual. If you look at classical pieces, the title has a number, and we know a famous melody. I try to think of things visually. I basically have a move playing in my head when I’m playing any kind of music, similar to a short film. For example, The Bach Chaconne (Partita #2) always starts off in my head as a moving charcoal drawing with Bach in front of a bunch of headstones. I see him meandering around the cemetery and I imagine what his life was like at that time.

LW: Any other thoughts?

TN: I feel like the October 23rd performance is just a start. This format naturally lends itself to immersive performance. You’re immersing yourself in reality. As a player, I am bringing the world to myself and everyone else is getting that experience. Each of the small tools that are part of this can be used for lots of other possibilities. There is a network that is being created by everyone involved. I’m used to doing this type of work, but I’m already looking forward to what somebody else might do with these possibilities.

When I was growing up, I lost some family and friends. I went to a number of funerals as a young child. I saw the movie Hook that shows how connected everyone can be. If you think you can be connected to someone thousands of miles away from you, it helps you to realize that everyone and everything is connected.

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