International Contemporary Ensemble‘s Cory Smythe, the pianist I just saw playing Ives Violin Sonatas, hymns, and “Happy Birthday” with Hilary Hahn at The Stone last October, is quite a great artist in his own right, and along with his journey through Ives he’s also been interpreting works by Iannis Xenakis, Alvin Lucier, Anthony Braxton, Magnus Lindberg, Donald Crockett, and many others. A graduate of the music schools of Indiana University and USC, Smythe is also a composer, and has an album titled Pluripotent available for download. On Tuesday, December 13, Cory will be appearing in concert with avant-cabaret artist Amy X Neuburg at Roulette in Brooklyn, NY. Mr. Smythe had a few minutes to speak with me.
CM: Can you give the most condensed version of your musical beginnings? If possible, give us the moment where contemporary music stole your heart–Some people had this as their first love, while others had to discover it later–Either way it’s fascinating to hear how this takes place. And when did you start composing your own music?
CS: The way my mom tells it, there was this sudden, surprising moment when, as a 2-year-old, I went from banging incoherently on the piano to playing Beatles songs (I’ve been telling this story, myself, and to myself, for long enough that I often forget to question its accuracy…). I started lessons soon after but for a long time preferred writing songs, improvising, playing by ear. By the time I finished high school, I was coming up with these really overwrought piano pieces–part Rachmaninov, part McCoy Tyner, part my best approximations of Bartok and Stravinsky, thanks in large part to my piano teacher back then, who encouraged me to write variations on the classical pieces she’d assigned me. I still have a vivid memory of being 14 and listening for the first time to the recording of the Rite of Spring she’d lent me–it was like the storied riots that took place at the premiere, only in my brain, and in the best possible way.
Xenakis: Palimpsest (excerpt; w/ICE, rehearsal 2009)
CM: On Pluripotent, the improvs, and the use of vocals and toy piano sounds is very interesting, as well as playing inside the piano. I had to google the definition of the word “pluripotent”, and it makes sense now why you gave the album this title. Can you give us your take on the connection?
CS: Thank you… I definitely went through a lot of working titles before settling on Pluripotent. I liked the idea of a pluripotent stem cell giving rise to (almost) any other cell type in the body. On one level, I’d hoped that the tracks on the album would feel similarly linked to some common originating material, in spite of their existing across a spectrum of composed and improvised material and alluding variously to free jazz, pop, and new music. Besides that, and while I’m sure this is biologically dubious, the idea of pluripotent cells seemed resonant with the idea of early microbial life–and an imagined primordial ocean teaming with inconceivable evolutionary potential. That was sort of the image/wonder-provoking thought that I kept trying to invoke for myself while working on the project.
CM: What can we expect to hear you play at the Roulette gig with Amy X Neuburg?
CS: I’m looking forward to collaborating with Amy on some really clever pieces of hers as well as some improvisatory stuff we’ve arrived at together. We’ll each also do some solo music which, for my part, will comprise a couple of the pieces from Pulripotent that have continued to evolve as well as some newer ideas that are more electronically influenced. As of right now, I’m also planning on doing some (heavily processed!) singing on a couple of things–but you’ll have to come on the 13th to see if I chicken out.
CM: Your performances with Hilary Hahn of the Ives Violin Sonatas at The Stone were really good! I think you said you hadn’t been familiar with his music before that event, but I never would have known that if you hadn’t said so. How long did you have to learn them before you played the pieces at the gig? And would you say Ives music isn’t so far removed from some contemporary work?
CS: Thank you! A guy like me doesn’t normally get to perform with a superstar like Hilary Hahn except on very short notice! But I had played one of those Ives sonatas (the 4th) before…thankfully.
Ives actually does feel somewhat significantly removed from the contemporary music I know best. But some part of his underlying approach–the part that had him synthesizing all the different types of music to which he was exposed–remains, I think, pretty vital. At least, that’s what it feels like I’m doing–albeit with much less inventiveness…and everything else that leads to the creation of musical masterworks.
CM: Do you think that there is always going to be something nobody has heard or tried? Or would you say that even if something’s been tried, that there will always be a new perspective on it?
CS: Yes to both. Jaded New Yorker that I’m everyday becoming, I’m still consistently fascinated, surprised, bewildered by new music all the time.
Could be those two options make for a useful framing of the new music scene now–always?–where there are some musicians intent on creating something no one’s ever heard before and others focused on telling new stories in, subverting, or generally playing with already extant language(s).Peter Evans: Cut/Paste (Live w/ICElab, LPR, NY 3/16/10)
If you are in the area on Tues, Dec 13, be sure to check out the show with Cory and Amy X Neuburg.
Click here to buy tickets for Amy X Neuburg/Cory Smythe at Roulette
Amy X Neuburg/Cory Smythe
Tuesday, Dec 13, 8 PM
509 Atlantic Ave (At the corner of 3rd Ave)
Brooklyn, NY 11217
Download the album on Cory’s Bandcamp page
Cory’s official website