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[Interview] The Voice of the Sibyl in Boston: A Conversation with James Primosch

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Congratulations on your upcoming premiere with Collage New Music! Your latest song cycle, A Sibyl, will be premiered this October 15. How did the commission come about?

The project came about as the result of a commission awarded by the Fromm Music Foundation, which is based at Harvard, and has long been a generous supporter of new music. I contacted David Hoose and Frank Epstein about the possibility of applying for a Fromm [Music Foundation] commission, asking if they would commit to performing the piece if the grant came through, and they agreed to do so. The application was successful and here we are! I’m grateful both to the Fromm and to David and Frank for putting their faith in me and committing to a piece that didn’t yet exist.

What has it been like to work with Collage New Music over the years? Is there a specific highlight in your collaboration with the ensemble?

My relationship with Collage actually goes back decades as the late Gunther Schuller conducted my Septet on a Collage program back in the 1980s. Later David Hoose conducted my Four Sacred Songs, with Janice Felty as soloist, and most recently Christopher Oldfather, the fabulous pianist with the group, gave the Boston premiere of a set of piano pieces that he had co-commissioned. (In fact, that most recent performance was the last time I saw Gunther, sad to say.) I can’t single out any one of these concerts as a highlight; I’ve been terrifically pleased every time with the high standards Collage brings to its performances.

In addition to working with Collage over the years, you’ve also had a long working relationship with Susan Stewart. A Sibyl marks the fourth time you’ve set her poetry. What initially drew you to Stewart as a collaborator? For this most recent work, what about the Cumaean Sibyl spoke to you and Susan?

Susan Stewart, poet
Susan Stewart, poet

I came upon the work of Susan Stewart about 20 years ago thanks to a newspaper article in the Philadelphia Inquirer on the occasion of her receiving a MacArthur Fellowship. The article included a short poem of Susan’s called “Cinder.” As soon as I read it, I knew I wanted to set it; it spoke to me that powerfully. I did not realize that Susan was at the time a professor in the English department at Penn, where I also teach. We met, she gave me permission to use “Cinder,” and my setting of her text became the fulcrum of my song cycle Holy the Firm, composed for Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish — in fact, my setting of “Cinder” is my most performed piece. Subsequently, I used two of Susan’s poems in a cycle with baritone entitled Dark the Star, and she wrote new poems specifically for a piece with baritone and orchestra, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony, Songs for Adam. The poems of A Sibyl were again created especially for this project.

Speaking for myself, I understand the sibyl as an archetype of a singer, her voice guiding us to moonlit places, speaking of fate and the mysteries of life, death, and love. Susan’s poems reflect on the mysteries the sibyl utters, but also ponder the vulnerability of the sibyl herself and how her power and identity are embodied in her voice.

You’ve noted the “amazing trifecta of good luck” to have two other Boston performances on October 15. In addition to the afternoon premiere with Collage New Music, Emmanuel Music will present one of your motets in the morning and Winsor Music will play your Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano in the evening. What would you say to a Boston music lover considering to undertake the full Primosch marathon? What kind of experience might they have hearing these pieces back to back? Do you have any favorite Boston restaurants you might recommend between concerts?

I will certainly be delighted — thought a little surprised — if anyone wishes to attend all three performances. There is a nice variety of performing media with these three pieces: choral, solo voice with ensemble, and purely instrumental ensemble. There is also variation in the age of the pieces. The work for Collage is a premiere, while the piece Winsor Music will play is receiving its second performance, having been first played earlier this year. In contrast, the motet that will be done at Emmanuel’s morning Eucharist dates from twenty years ago. I don’t see a lot of stylistic difference between the recent pieces and the older one, but maybe that will become apparent by hearing the pieces in close succession. Certainly all three pieces, written specifically for these organizations, have deep Boston connections, as I have been lucky enough to have all three groups engage my work over the years. (Even the text for the Emmanuel piece has a Boston connection in that its author is Denise Levertov, who attended Emmanuel for a time.)

As for dining options on October 15, I will leave that kind of advice to those more informed than I. I’ve certainly had lovely brunches within walking distance of Emmanuel over the years, as well as some fine dinners in Brookline, not far from St. Paul’s, where Winsor Music will perform. I hope my contribution to the music of the day provides its own kind of nourishment.

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[Blog Post] BYU Animation’s Latest Success: Jacob Wyatt and Metro

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This past summer, Jacob Wyatt’s short animated film Metro became the latest product of the BYU animation program to win significant critical praise.

To date, Metro has been screened and won awards at 10 film festivals, including receiving Best Short Film from 2012 Nantucket Film Festival, a Student Award from the 2012 Blue Plum Animation Festival, and the Audience Choice Award from BYU’s Final Cut Film Festival.

Metro relates the adventures of a little girl as she tries to ride the subway but gets lost, as Wyatt put it, in the “dream-world at the edges of the metro station.”

Wyatt created the film with funding from KBYU and with the help of his friends at BYU. The camaraderie of working on the film was his favorite part of the project.

“I either was or became friends with everyone who worked on the film,” Wyatt related. “I really enjoyed getting help and input from those guys and seeing people send amazing work back.”

Wyatt’s collaborators enjoyed working with him as well.

The film’s composer, Michael Wyatt, related, “It was an absolute joy to work so closely with my brother, who, turns out, is a great director. We had so much respect for what the other was doing, and we had great communication despite both of us not really knowing much at all about the other’s field.”

According to Michael, not only managerial instincts but also artistic ones contributed to the success of the final product.

“It’s all about the emotions,” he said. “Jake could communicate so much with such simple things like posture and timing.”

Kelly Loolsi, one of Jacob Wyatt’s mentors, attributed the success of the film to several more factors: “It is successful because it is different, well articulated and visually beautiful.”

“It is one of my favorite films we have ever made,” added Loosli. “Attending the Nantucket Film Festival with Jacob this summer was quite fun and seeing him win his award was very rewarding.”

For Wyatt, completing the film was a personal victory.

“I’d been involved in making these two other movies that just sort of fell apart because of a variety of reasons, and I had come to fear that I just couldn’t make a movie,” he said. “So making Metro, finishing it, sending it out, broke a bit of a bad streak for me, ended this line of unfinished projects and unrealized hopes.”

After his time at BYU, Wyatt has since moved to Los Angeles where he works doing storyboards for film and animation while developing his own creative ideas on the side.

Watch Metro by Jacob Wyatt.

Metro: Honors and screenings to date

  • 2011 Final Cut Film Festival – Audience Choice
  • 2011 Epiphany Children’s Film Festival (NYC)
  • 2011 Animation Block Party – Best Student Film
  • 2012 New York Int’l Children’s Film Festival
  • 2012 Love Your Shorts Film Festival
  • 2012 Blue Plum Animation Festival – Student Award
  • 2012 Nantucket Film Festival – Best Short Film
  • 2012 Seattle International Film Festival
  • 2012 Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival
  • 2012 Milwaukee International Film Festival Short List Film Festival
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[Blog Post] 8-Bit Serendipity: Whiting Speaks On His Artistic Process And Growth

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Museum-goers may have noticed the large, brightly colored sculptures that have recently sprung up in the gardens of the BYU Museum of Art. They are the work of artist and BYU alum Michael Whiting. The exhibition, michael whiting: 8-bit modern, opened this past June, and on September 20, Michael Whiting returned to BYU to speak about his work at a lecture cosponsored by the BYU Studio Areas of the Department of Visual Arts and the MOA.

His lecture covered a variety of topics, including his aesthetic origins, his career trajectory, and his creative process.

The roots of Whiting’s artistic voice emerged while living in New York. As a student at the Pratt Institute, he created an MFA show of steel-canvas paintings.

“No one liked the paintings,” Whiting related. “But they did like the steel canvas”

Knowing what to do with the materials came later and was sparked by a trip to the New York Museum of Modern Art.

“When I walked in, there’s a painting right there. You don’t have any context.” Without any obvious clues, Whiting thought he saw “something that was talking about 80s video gaming. [I was] thinking flashing lights and Pac Man.”

In fact, it was Piet Modrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, painted nearly forty years before Pac-Man existed.

“That was the experience I had: I misread a painting, but at the same time, I started thinking about this,” said Whiting.

As that connection between 8-bit video games and minimalism took root, Whiting was still developing into his current focus on sculpture.

In one of his early shows, a reviewer was critical about his artist’s statement in which Whiting called his works “paintings.” Said the reviewer, “Being creative is essential to any artist, but technically speaking, these painted steel constructions are obviously sculptures.”

From that review, Whiting concluded, “Maybe I need to hit them over the head a little harder,” and began to allow his sculptures to develop into the more representational forms they do today.

Speaking of that evolution, Whiting explained, “Every project you do builds upon the last project. Every experience you’ve had somehow comes out in what you do and what you say. And I think that that’s really the best way to come up with ideas.”

Over the course of his career, Whiting has found success in both public and gallery settings. Speaking of these differing venues, Whiting explained, “Even though the stuff I’m building looks similar in both instances, it’s a completely different experience and it’s a completely different set of people. You put something in a public space and the people that encounter it aren’t people that came there specifically to see your object. . . . Whenever you see something in a gallery, you’re expecting it to be art.”

When artist Michael Whiting got the opportunity to put on a show at the BYU Museum of Art he was thrilled. “Having gone to school here,” Whiting related, “the idea of doing a show at the museum: I was over the moon, really excited, and really wanted to go all out.”

Whiting also explained specifically how he creates his giant, pixelated sculptures:

“When I draw, I don’t draw in a sketchbook: I actually go on my computer to Paint, I blow it up 800%, and I just start drawing one pixel at a time.” He creates pages and pages of sketches that start out complicated, but he works hard to reduce them “until it gets a lot more simple, so you get the basic idea but [they’re] not so representational.”

After he finds a sketch that satisfies him, he takes it into a 3D modeling program, in which he can get more specific about the sculptures physical dimensions and create mockups. He then builds the sculptures himself using mostly a welder, a grinder, a welding table, and a crane and with occasional help from friends and family.

Whiting concluded the question and answer session with some words of wisdom for aspiring artists: “I started thinking about what I saw and what I liked. I wanted to make something that I liked rather than sounded good in an MFA thesis. I think that makes anything easier. When you’re interested in it, you can really pursue that.”

Listen to Michael Whiting’s lecture here:

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