The Cambridge Student: Tell us a bit about your performance – what makes it unique?
Sasha Amaya: We’ll be performing Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together at Jesus Chapel as part of Freshers’ Week. It’s a staggeringly beautiful American work, based on a text by political activist Sam Melville, and scored for spoken voice and indeterminate instrumentation.
Naomi Woo: Rzewski’s music isn’t performed especially often in Cambridge, and like many of his works, this piece has an unusual structure that makes it highly engaging to play—and hear. The basic framework is an unrelenting musical line, which is both extremely repetitive and persistent, but also constantly shifting. Following a guiding set of instructions from the composer, the performers choose when to join the melody, and when to remain silent.
TCS: The piece is called “Coming Together”, and its combination of spoken voice and instrumental ensemble is interesting. In your roles as Director and Musical Director has navigating the two been easy or hard?
Sasha Amaya: Naomi and I first worked together a couple of years ago at Clare to produce and direct a Baroque opera. We enjoyed the experience so much and found our skills and talents incredibly complementary. Since that time, we’ve collaborated under the name tick tock to produce and direct opera, music, and physical theatre. While this piece is a little more on the musical side, the spoken vocal part is also essentially a piece of monologue theatre. Working together on this piece isn’t too hard: we are pretty collaborative about the process and often challenge or question one another, sharing opinions on how the text should be portrayed, or about what instrumentation to include, but we also defer to one another quite often.
Naomi Woo: Agreed! It’s a pleasure to work together, and our collaboration as tick tock has been an exciting way for us to explore experimental intersections between the physical, the dramatic, and the musical. In this piece, one challenging musical aspect is navigating the improvisation. The kind of freedom offered by the composer requires a surprising amount of preparation and control, and involves cultivating a degree of trust between performers: of course, all collaborative music-making has these dimensions, but from the perspective of classical musicians, I think improvisation highlights these challenges—and their accompanying rewards.
TCS: Melville’s letter was written whilst he was incarcerated and the prison system is obviously very important to the performance. Is this something the audience gains an uncomfortable impression of?
Sasha Amaya: I came to know and appreciate the piece artistically before understanding its greater political and social context. It’s simply a beautiful, exciting, moving piece to hear and to perform—it can stand on its own. That said, understanding the broader context, and, specifically, the context in which the text was written, adds depth to the piece. There’s a sense of claustrophobia at times: the repetition, the overlapping instrumentation, moments of cacophony. The way Rzewski transforms the text reveals the ordinary and mundane in Melville’s text as startling and remarkable, and he channels the pain and chaos of Melville’s situation into the relentless and yet unpredictable work which is Coming Together.
Naomi Woo: One incredibly powerful aspect of this piece is contained nowhere in the actual text: Melville was killed in the Attica Prison Riots shortly after the letter was written, and Rzewski wrote Coming Together in response to the riots.
TCS: Do you think the musical composition heightens the political message?
Naomi Woo: Absolutely. The interaction of the musicians and structure of the piece reflect both the specific political issues at stake, but also the nature of political engagement more broadly: the way in which performers are forced to choose between joining or abstaining from the relentless flow and inevitable progress, for example; their seeming freedom within an ultimately rigidly structured trajectory; the uncanny way in which the melodic line is both repetitive and unpredictable.
Sasha Amaya: I agree. The composition augments Melville’s text, and it also sheds light on the issue of our incarceration system and legal rights more generally. At the same time, this piece goes beyond the political: Rzewski captures so much about passion, and determination, and bravery in this piece; the framing of this work is very abstract, it’s very existential.
TCS: The setting of your interpretation in Jesus Chapel seems an atmospheric choice. Would you say this has influenced the end product?
Sasha Amaya: It’s always a privilege to perform in the spectacular architecture of the College chapels. They are beautiful places that promote contemplation, so we’re really pleased to be putting on this type of work in that context. Acoustically, these spaces are all a little different, too, and so it’s a great experience for us as young directors and performers to understand how sound, light, and atmosphere work in these spaces.
Article first published by The Cambridge Student, 4 October 2016.
For more information on the event see here.