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Classical 101

Music So Wrong It's Right: VIVO Music Festival Premieres John Stulz’s Second-Hand Time Aug. 31

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Composer, violist and VIVO Music Festival Co-Artistic Director John Stulz

After all of the featured performers of this year’s VIVO Music Festival arrive in Columbus later this month – after the performance venues have thrown open their doors, the tickets have been bought and the audiences have gathered – violist, composer and VIVO Music Festival co-artistic director JohnStulz won’t be there.

At least, not in the traditional sense.

But thanks to modern technology and artistic ingenuity, Stulz will be at the festival as a disembodied performer in the world premiere of his brand-new work Second-Hand Time on the VIVO Music Festival’s opening concert Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. in the Green Room at the Short North’s Garden Theater.

Presented in collaboration with the Johnstone Fund for New Music and New Music at Short North Stage, the Aug. 31 concert - "Harp with Its Hair Down" - will feature rising-star harpist and Ohio native Bridget Kibbey and other musicians in a program of works by Elliott Carter, Kati Agocs, David Bruce and Sebastian Currier, along with Stulz's new work.

Composing Himself (In)

When Stulz learned that scheduling conflicts with his work with the Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain and other obligations would prevent him from returning to his native Columbus for this year’s VIVO Music Festival, his colleague and festival co-artistic director Siwoo Kim came up with the idea for Stulz to compose himself into the festival and into a new piece of music for recorded viola and chamber ensemble.

Stulz liked the idea and eventually came up with the idea to compose a work for violin, harp and recorded viola. Stulz‘s Second-Hand Time will receive its world premiere by Kim and VIVO festival guest artist harpist Bridget Kibbey, who will play along with Stulz’s recorded viola line.

“The whole piece is based on an improvised viola line that I recorded in my apartment in Paris, and it’s based on sighing motifs. So instead of a steady pitch, the pitch falls constantly,” Stulz said.

The piece then calls upon the violinist to play the same melody but in what Stulz describes as a “faulty transcription” with certain details omitted. Then the harp plays the same tune by sliding a piece of metal along the instrument’s strings. Each time the melody is played, it becomes increasingly distorted, increasingly distant from its original form.

“The whole idea is basically consecutive voices following each other, but kind of erasing themselves and transforming into something completely different,” Stulz said. “I like the idea of not actually having exact copies. And I find it very interesting, even if two musicians are playing the exact same notes, how different (they) can be in performance.”

The Politics of Wrongness

Stulz took the idea to compose a piece of music that unfolds in imprecise copies of itself from the world of Russian politics.

While browsing in the famed Shakespeare and Company bookstore on Paris’ Left Bank, Stulz came across a copy of the English translation of Nobel Prize-winning Belarusian journalist SvetlanaAlexievich’s book Second-Hand Time, a collection of interviews with Russians immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union and 10 years later.

“I stole the name of my piece from her book Second-Hand Time,” Stulz said, “and what was interesting about the book is how everybody has different memories and everybody has different perspectives of real events that actually happened. And so I wanted to kind of figure out how to capture this second-hand time, this idea of re-experiencing an event and what happens in that change in the storytelling of something that actually happened.”

Stulz’s fascination in “that change in the storytelling” about real-life events naturally lead him to a fascination with wrongness, a by-product of living with incomplete information and faulty memories. Exploring the wrongness that permeates life lead to the imperfections Stulz composed into his Second-Hand Time.   

“We go through life and we have these experiences, and then a couple seconds later, we start to reflect on these experiences, and we build kind of a synthesis of our life this way. And when you look back, and you think of something that happened ten days ago, your picture of it is completely different than you had of that moment ten days ago.”

The Tyranny of Rightness

Wrongness also has a more personal meaning for Stulz, situated as it is at the intersection of his work as a composer and professional performer. He has come to embrace wrongness as a road to freedom from what he sees as the “oppression” of always striving to be right.

“Especially in what I do as a violist – that’s my main job – is I’m constantly trying to be right and constantly trying to perform a piece the way I think it should be performed, with the right notes, with the right intonation, with the right character, and all of this rightness, which to me can sometimes feel very oppressive<” Stulz said. “And so with a lot of the things I’ve been exploring in composition is, how can I be wrong, and how can inaccuracy create something new and interesting in the music. I try to make music that’s very flexible and that can take a lot of counterfactuals, a lot of different possible routes.”

Many of those routes will emerge in the minds of those in the audience, who will leave the world premiere of Second-Hand Time with their own recollections of what they heard, with their own stories to tell.

“I hope the people who are there listening to (Second-Hand Time) kind of use it as a space to think about the three parts of time coming together in one moment. You have the past in the viola line, you have kind of a present in the violin line, and you have the future in the harp,” Stulz said. “And when you tell a story, you’re making history, you’re making a story. So it actually is very important how we talk about the present, the past, how we talk about the future as well.”

The world premiere of John Stulz's Second-Hand Time takes place Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. in the Green Room of the Garden Theater on the first concert of the 2016 VIVO Music Festival. The festival runs through Sept. 4.

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Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.