Good interviews happen when the journalist can get his or her subject to break the script, so that’s my goal when I go to Rice University to speak with Dr. Tony Brandt about Musiqa, a Houston-based non-profit organization dedicated to performing modern concert music. But he derails me first when, halfway through our interview, he asks, “Do you want to take a test?”
Never mind that I haven’t been a student for three years now. What Brandt cares about is this idea in his head, an aural magic trick. He explains as he finds the playlist he made the night before: “So, I’m gonna play you a little bit of two arias from different operas about Orpheus and Eurydice, okay? One of them is going to be them declaring love for each other, and the other one is going to be Orpheus after he has realized he will never see Eurydice again—when he looks back and she disappears.”
Each clip is maybe twenty seconds. The first is slow and minor, a man moaning in the lower register; the second is fast and major, a duet brightened with strings. I know what I’m supposed to say: that the second sample is obviously the love song, since it has a man and a woman and sounds “happy.” So I pick the other one. We’ve been talking for over thirty minutes now, but this is the first time he seems to see me. He raises his eyebrows. “Really? Well, that’s interesting. That’s very interesting.”
Here’s the trick: neither sample is actually a love song. They are both laments. Not entirely discouraged, Brandt explains that this experiment is part of a talk he’s developing for the Jung Center. His mission? To convince his audience that the cliché is not true: music is not a universal language. In other words, Western music is not the only music.
Musiqa would agree. Founded twelve years ago, its priorities are simple: new music, new work, new art. Featured concerts consist of modern classical music paired with another art form, anything from poetry to experimental film. The integration of an additional visual or performative art might seem strange, but Brandt sees it as a way to help audiences break the habit of seeing the same Beethoven symphonies year after year.
He believes that people should risk something when they attend a concert, just as people attending, say, a baseball game risk seeing their team lose. But a baseball game isn’t just about the score; it’s also about the experience of going to the ballpark. Modern music concerts should be the same. “You’re not necessarily gonna like everything you hear on any exhibition of modern work,” Brandt says. “However, you’re likely to [enjoy] something, and just the experience itself can be so inspiring and wonderfully mind-awakening.”
Musiqa’s next concert—on February 26 at the Contemporary Art Museum—will be one such experience. During their eleven-year partnership, Musiqa’s concerts at the Contemporary Art Museum have provided a more intimate environment than the main stage concerts at Zilkha Hall. At the museum, the performers and the audience aren’t necessarily tethered to their designated spaces. “It depends on the layout of the room,” Brandt says, “but that’s also part of the experience. You’re right up close. As close as you can get to a painting, you can practically get that close to the music in those concerts.”
For those unfamiliar, the Contemporary Art Museum does not have any permanent artwork. When a new exhibition goes on display, the entire space resets. Usually, Brandt enjoys the process, watching the rooms change and letting the curators inspire him. However, the current exhibition, DOUBLE LIFE, presents its own challenges, as it includes three separate installations rather than the typical exhibit of various objects centered on a single theme.
Though each of the installations in DOUBLE LIFE is meant to “blur the boundaries between staged narratives and real world encounters,” Brandt thought Mountains of Encounter by Haegue Yang would work best with Musiqa. Inspired by secret meetings between an American journalist and a Korean rebel in the 1930s, Yang’s installation is layers of suspended red venetian blinds illuminated by moving spotlights. To complement Yang’s work, Brandt chose three themes Musiqa would attempt to speak to: audience participation, the union of cultures, and politics.
At the time of our meeting, Brandt and his fellow board members have already chosen the pieces that will represent audience participation (a text-based piece by Lei Liang that involves a soloist and the audience rubbing stones together) and union of cultures (a piece by Arab-American composer Saad Haddad). What I want to know more about, though, is the piece centered on politics by Charlie Halka, Musiqa’s first ever “composer intern,” a position that mixes the honor of an artistic residency with the rigor of an internship.
About Halka, I only know the basics: his main instrument is piano, and he holds a doctorate degree in composition from Rice University. When I ask him about his background beyond that, he explains that he started out as an aspiring concert pianist, switching to composition late during his undergraduate career at Peabody in Baltimore, Maryland. During that transitional period, he wrote mainly from his experience as a performer—what was feasible, what would be easy to rehearse, etc. These days, he’s trying to focus more on sound.
When I ask him about Musiqua, he says he’s been going to their concerts since he moved to Houston in 2009 and was aware of their reputation even before he came. So naturally, when he applied for their inaugural internship season last year and was the chosen composer, it was a personal dream come true. His new piece, “Liaison,” written specifically for the upcoming concert, will be Halka’s third piece with Musiqa. It’s the only piece on the program that will feature all four players—a cellist, horn player, percussionist, and clarinetist.
Thinking on the idea of private versus public conversation, “Liaison” is essentially a series of duets, separated by sections where the ensemble plays together. The instruments, paired in every permutation, aim to sound like one another, whereas the group sections are “all noise, very monotonous,” to the point of being “mechanical,” which Halka says is meant to imitate the sound of a public forum.
The fact that Halka based such a unique piece as “Liaison” on the Contemporary Art Museum’s Mountains of Encounter installation recalls a point Brandt tried to make earlier: that artists are not isolated, but “are alive reading the same newspapers as everybody, living in the same world, and reflecting on what we’re all experimenting. Everything gets so compartmentalized, but often, when you bring the arts together, you begin to see the relevance of each one and how they’re responding to similar things.”
So why is modern music relevant? Like every other art form, it acts as a mirror. It both reflects and projects. Is it perfect? No. Is it always comfortable? No. But that’s the point: distortion is what prompts change.