For Seattle composer Richard Karpen, “opportunism” isn’t just a good word — it’s one of the best.
Opportunism is his way of throwing open the gates between musicians who, on the surface, have little in common.
If, for example, a string quartet and three players of traditional Vietnamese instruments happen to be in town at the same time, why not try them out in concert together?
Karpen’s mix-and-match approach to music-making will be put to the test on Saturday, March 15, when New York’s venturesome JACK Quartet and a Swedish-Vietnamese experimental ensemble called The Six Tones join forces to debut Karpen’s new work, “Elliptic.”
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Karpen, director of the University of Washington School of Music, has a second world premiere, “Nam Maí,” scheduled in the next week too, also featuring The Six Tones. It’s part of Seattle Symphony’s “Celebrate Asia” program on Friday, March 21, along with Takemitsu’s “Three Film Scores” for string orchestra, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 (with Haochen Zhang as soloist), and the debut of a new work by Chinese female composer Shuying Li. Seattle’s Julia Tai guest conducts.
It was the coincidence of The Six Tones being here to play with the Symphony while JACK Quartet was in residence at the UW that triggered the collaboration between the two ensembles.
JACK Quartet’s UW connection was formed in 2012 when they collaborated with Karpen on “Aperture II,” a 40-minute blend of strings and surround-sound electronics that’s one powerhouse of a work. (You can see it on YouTube.)
“It was really a magical experience,” JACK Quartet violist John Pickford Richards said in a recent phone interview, “the most incredible electronic situation we’ve ever played. … We didn’t necessarily know what we were getting ourselves into. But now we’re really excited to do it again.”
Karpen, explaining his composition process at a rehearsal last week, hinted at the spontaneity it involves: “I’m acting as the composer sometimes. Sometimes I’m acting like the coach. You go off and do the play, but if someone passes the ball in another direction, you’ve got to react to that.”
“The JACK,” as Karpen calls them, liked that because they weren’t simply given a score and told to play exactly what was on the page.
“It’s a two-way street, by the way,” he adds. “There aren’t that many musicians out in the world who we can get together with and know that they’re going to bring something that substantial to the collaboration and not resist. … I think we had a special bond pretty quickly.”
While no electronics are involved in Karpen’s “Elliptic,” they figure in the companion piece on the program: UW composer Juan Pampin’s “Respiración Artificial” for bandoneon player Mirta Wymerszberg, string quartet and electronics.
Richards calls Karpen’s and Pampin’s electronics-enhanced work “a new kind of chamber music. … After decades of developing models of software, electronic capability is finally flexible and working really really well. … It’s the first time that I’ve really felt interactive with the electronics.”
Karpen’s connection with The Six Tones goes back eight years, most notably in a 2011 piece called “Idioms” for Vietnamese instruments (again you can find it on YouTube). Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot and vice president of artistic planning Elena Dubinets heard excerpts from “Idioms” and asked if Karpen could adapt it for the orchestra.
Instead he proposed a work scored for 19 string players, with The Six Tones performing improvisation-derived solos. “Nam Maí,” based on a traditional Vietnamese tune, also includes dance elements, both in film excerpts that accompany it and in a live performance by one of the musicians.
“My obsession,” Karpen affirms, “is getting groups of musicians together who play different kinds of music and seeing what kind of new things can happen.”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com