Name: Ensemble Dal Niente
Interviewees: Mabel Kwan (MK), piano; Michael Lewanski (ML), conductor; Emma Hospelhorn (EH), flute
Recent release: Ensemble Dal Niente's object/animal is out now. It features works by Jeff Parker, Murat Çolak, and LJ White.
ML: Jacques Attali: Noise: The Political Economy of Music; George E. Lewis: A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music
EH: I would like recommend two beautiful works of poetry, one masquerading as an album, one in the form of prose: Karima Walker, Waking the Dreaming Body; Renee Gladman, Calamities
If you enjoyed this interview with Ensemble Dal Niente and would like to find out more, visit their official website. They're also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
[Read our Murat Çolak interview]
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
MK: I played a lot of vocal and orchestral accompaniments when I was learning to play the piano in grade school, and have been interested in sounds, tone, timbre since that time. I’m fascinated by how our perception of sound or a piece of music can change over time, or with repeated listening.
Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?
EH: It varies depending on what I’m listening to, but I often find that I listen to music with my whole body. In contrapuntal music I am drawn to the way different lines interact with each other, the way they climb or fall or step or swoop with or against one another. In other kinds of music, I might experience a sensation of being bathed in sound, or feeling like I’m on a sonic / body roller coaster ride.
MK: As a listener I tend to experience music as sculptural or textural, and as a performer I am drawn to exploring tactility and weight of sound / tone / color.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
MK: My idea of how to interpret and interact with a notated score has changed over time. I feel less like things are necessarily set in stone, and there is a lot of fluidity in working with composers and first versions of any piece. I started to understand this especially after playing more improvised music, although I am still very exacting when it comes to working on notated music.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
MK: I’ve always been interested in things that might be more rare or scarce, things that haven’t yet come into existence. So this aligns with the kind of projects or performances I seek out and gravitate towards.
EH: Growing up in Chicago, my family listened to a wide range of music: the Art Ensemble of Chicago, The Cure, Billie Holiday, The Hearts of Space radio program, The Residents, Brahms. My interests as a listener and as an artist are similarly broad; I like music that makes me feel something, whether it’s gently tactile or grooving or lyrically moving or analytically challenging. I particularly love music that makes genuine connections, whether within a group of people playing to and for each other, or a solo artist who is accessing a flow state or a state of heightened awareness.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
MK: I think there are tunnels that connect the physical to the spiritual, and the abstract to something more concrete, and art and music fuel a person’s overall well-being by creating an invitation to explore these spaces, and to be okay with not understanding everything there is to know, but that we can connect with it anyway.
ML: Music is a cultural artifact that both expresses lived contemporaneity and also predicts the future. It expresses and explores discourses that are precisely of its time and place, yet simultaneously scrupulously avoids being semantically pinned down. This sort of dialectical tension is its permanent state.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
MK: I’m interested in a continuing tradition of creating music of the future. I wouldn’t consider any of these things mutually exclusive. Experimental music can have perfection and timelessness.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
EH: Listening and communication. I have learned and continue to learn so much from my colleagues, teachers, and friends. Whether it’s teachers and mentors that have taught me how to listen deeply to music and strategies for executing tricky techniques on my instrument, composers who communicate their compositional worldviews, or colleagues with whom I negotiate the best outcomes for performances, I find the best outcomes only happen when I am listening and communicating well.
This holds true not just on an individual level, but at the group level. Dal Niente has grown immensely as an ensemble over the years, in no small part because listening to each other, inside and outside of rehearsals, is such a core part of our practice.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
EH: My work days vary wildly! Here are a few possible types:
Teaching days: Wake up, scroll through news and social media, make coffee. Then do administrative work for Dal Niente (emails, writing press materials, programming meetings, etc). Then either practice music for upcoming shows, or do creative work on my own projects. Eat lunch and then go teach for 4-5 hours. Come home, eat dinner, hang out at home or go catch some music
Heavy rehearsal days: Grab coffee on the way to morning rehearsal at the Dal Niente studio. Rehearse in blocks throughout the day, with nice meal breaks or short snack breaks depending on how much we have to do! Sometimes composers are present at these rehearsals, which become more like workshops. If it’s just a couple of rehearsals, the rest of my afternoon is free to teach, work on my own projects, read a book, or see a show. We’re all freelance musicians, so some days some of us travel from rehearsal to rehearsal.
Most days have some combination of these activities. On performance days, mornings look like any other day: sometimes free, sometimes with meetings or rehearsals. The only difference is showing up to a sound check and playing the show!
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
EH: My process for bringing compositions to life always follows a similar pattern. For Rebecca Saunders’ O Yes and I, which we performed in 2021, I received the music and then sat down with the score and a pencil and basically made sure I understood what each symbol on the page meant—in new music these things are not always obvious. Listening to previous performances (if they exist) can help with that. After that, there’s a period of going through and making sure you can make all the sounds required, and then starting to put phrases together bit by bit. In a difficult piece of music like that one, this phase may take quite a while!
Because I first learned this piece in quarantine, the first “rehearsal” involved a zoom meeting where Amanda and I talked through the piece and together discovered important points of continuity—where the bass flute note becomes a vocal note, which parts are independent or entrained, where the flute is the main voice and where it is supporting. After a couple of months we were able to rehearse together leading up to the final performance. The first rehearsals are usually about lining things up, but after that it becomes a process of discovery and interpretation.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
ML: We need to do a much better job of, to paraphrase Ken Vandermark, getting the music to the people.
EH: I believe music is communal, even when only one person is making it. My preference is usually to make music with others— it’s easier to access that spiritual place of near-total communication that way. That said, the best solo performances are those that invite listeners in and bring them, for a moment, into community with the performer.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
ML: Currently world society is, put simply, a catastrophe. It would be hard to overstate how many modes of oppression obtain everywhere all the time, whether they be terrible governments, racism, wars, religious strife, nationalism, scapegoating of queer identities, blaming immigrants for problems, or the unabashed tragedy of global neoliberal capitalism. Music might, in small and also big ways, resist these catastrophes. “The primary remit of new music and new noises,” as George Lewis puts it, is “to declare that change is possible.”
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
EH: Listening to music works well as therapy, but performing music, to be honest, works much better. The small obsessions and ruminations you come into a rehearsal or a performance with are subsumed in the process of creating something ephemeral, complex, and meaningful.
On a different level, listening to music written from or about a place of suffering or deep experience often helps me feel more about that experience even if it’s quite far from my own.
There seems to be increasing interest in a functional, “rational” and scientific approach to music. How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
EH: Music and science are two ways of interrogating and interpreting the world—and as the world encompasses both, they can interrogate and interpret each other. They are sister disciplines.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
EH: The main difference I see between making great music and making great coffee is again that aspect of communication. But perhaps there is a barista out there who could, for a blissful moment, hold a room full of people in thrall to an out-of-body coffee experience. Perhaps the nuance and complexity of that perfect roast would bring the people in that room together in a way that was both universal and never to be repeated again. In that way, the two might be the same.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
EH: Humans are perceptive animals! We could reduce visual art and cinema to waves (particles?) of light, or language to vibrations. Like visual art, literature, dance, and all the other art forms, music takes a medium—sound— that could be random and transforms it into patterns, references, and nuances that make meaning. The range of those meanings is as varied as the range of thoughts we are capable of having.