Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Talking with flutist Elise Blatchford about The City of Tomorrow and its upcoming concert

One of the nation’s best wind quintets, The City of Tomorrow, will play a fascinating program of new music at The Old Church on Thursday (October 8) at 8 pm. The program consists of works by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Franco Donatoni, John Aylward, and Nat Evans. You will hear a lot of unusual sounds, including five conch shells. The ensemble consists of Elise Blatchford, flute; Stuart Breczinski, oboe; Rane Moore, clarinet; Nanci Belmont, bassoon; and Leander Star, horn.

I spoke with Blatchford to find out more about COT and the concert. Blatchford used to live in Portland and is now living in Memphis, Tennessee where she is a tenure-track professor on the faculty of the University of Memphis. Here is part of our conversation (edited for brevity).

How and when did The City of Tomorrow begin?

Blatchford: The quintet has evolved quite a bit since starting five years ago. Originally, almost everyone was at Northwestern University except for me. I was living in Chicago at that time. Initially, we really enjoyed rehearsing more than performing. We started with rarely performed pieces written by composers like George Perle and Franco Donatoni. Then we did one concert and followed that by driving to Notre Dame, Indiana to compete in The Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, and won it – something we didn’t expect to happen! That just launched the group. But by that time we had already lost our clarinetist, who won a job. Since then, all of us have moved. Two of our members live in New York City, one in Boston, and Leander and I live in Memphis.

Since most of you live in different places, how do you rehearse?

Blatchford: We get together periodically to rehearse. We usually meet in New York, and will rehearse for five days in a row. That often happens when we add a new piece, or we know that we will be going on tour. Then we build in some more rehearsal time before a tour. In New York, we’ve been able to get a rehearsal room at Carnegie Hall, which is terrific.

I read that the name of your group is derived from a poem by Billy Collins.

Blatchford: We really enjoyed the Billy Collins poem, “The City of Tomorrow.” It’s about a person who loves the pulp science fiction from the 30s and 40s, and he is wondering what the future is going to look like. Would it be this bright shiny thing or something more complicated? We thought that idea worked well with a lot of the music that was written in the mid-century. It was music that thought it was going to be one thing, then things turned out something else. I feel that a lot music – for example, the Donatoni piece that we are going to play at The Old Church – has this certain idea of what the future is going to sound like. Now that we are in 2015, we realize that things being composed today sound very different.

How do you determine the pieces that you will play for a particular concert?

Blatchford: We have an overarching concept that we have been working with for the past two years. It has to do with our recording project. We just released our first album in May. It’s called “Nature,” and it is part of a series – Nature, Machines, and the Apocalyptic Sublime – that we are doing. So we have talked to composers about natural apocalypse, the effect of machines on modern-day humans, and how we are affected and overwhelmed by technology in our lives and how that cross-pollinates changes that are occurring in the world right now with climate change, habitat destruction, and other things that are happening in the natural world. So we are looking at those larger ideas and finding pieces that seem to fit into those themes or help to propel those themes.

Hence the theme of “Wax Wings” and the piece entitled “Daedalus” that you will be playing in Portland?

Blatchford: Right. We commissioned that piece from the composer John Aylward, who was inspired by the legend of Daedalus and Icarus and how technology can sometimes accidentally destroy things that we hold dear. We thought that was a beautiful metaphor for thing that we grapple with today.

John is a friend of our clarinetist, and he lives in Boston. The piece sounds way different that the other pieces on our program. It has a lot of unusual timbres and uses a lot more extended techniques than the other pieces. For example, I’m playing alto flute on that piece, and I do a lot of speaking through the flute and air sounds. There’s some slap tongue that comes from the clarinet. Sometimes the bassoon is played without a reed.

I watched the video of your ensemble’s playing of Nat Evans's “Music for Breathing” and found it really intriguing, especially with the conch shells.

Blatchford: It is a piece that is more explicitly related to the natural world than some of the other works on the program. It is also on our CD “Nature.”

How long did it take you to learn how to play the conch shells? Heck, where did you get them?

Blatchford: There’s a fellow called the Conch King. You can find him at He will make you a conch shell horn. So we ordered five of them! They are actual shells. He drills a hole at the end and fits them with a brass-mouthpiece-ring. You buzz into the shell – like you do with a French horn. Leander has been coaching us on conch shell technique. We are not virtuosic with them like Stuart Dempster, but we do create lots of tones and chords.

Nat is from Seattle. He does a lot of site-specific sound installations. Two of us worked with him on one of them, and we liked his music a lot. So he wrote a piece for us that we can take with us.

Tell us about Dantoni’s “Blow,” which is also on the program.

Blatchford: One of the cool things about this piece is that it doesn’t require any extended technique at all, and it’s in a straight 2/4. It is a spectacular woodwind quintet with a lot of tutti sections plus solos and duets. It has some jazz influences. The music has so many fresh things to say. We want to get it out in the public, and we hope that more groups will play it.

How about the Stockhausen piece?

Blatchford: “Rotary” is part of a large opera cycle that he called “Licht,” which means light. It reflects the seven days of the week. “Rotary” is an arrangement from a scene in “Mittwoch,” which is Wednesday. In the score, it prescribes us to surround the audience; so we rotate around the stage and seating area. So the balance of a chord may change as we are rotating around the room. Every instrument plays a different character. There’s the character of Eve and the angel Michael. There’s also the devil, which is represented by a hissing sound like a snake.

How often do you tour?

Blatchford: We typically do two to five tours. This summer we plan to record another album. That takes up a lot of time.

Will your CD “Nature” will be available at the concert?

Blatchford: You bet! And we will be delighted to sign it too!

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