Creating and Un-creating: A Conversation with Cayenna Ponchione

A rumble. Subterranean where there can be no ground. A calling from within where there can be no within. Is it a voice? A sleeping giant? The rolling pulse of marimbas. Something familiar, daunting all the same. Metal, touched to the skin of darkness, rolls like an ice cube down our backs. Suddenly, marimbas pronounce themselves ephemeral, morphing into glockenspiel and drums. A primordial froth, foaming at the mouth of something soon to be sacred. Finding itself as it goes along. Notes and staves invisible, but there. Like Braille across out space, they stand. A specific method of becoming, ever enveloped by a breath of destruction. Wrought, perhaps, in a filigree of swirling gasses and dark matter, in which there is only the emptiness of an embrace. Shape, size, and color—the peeling skin of sound. There is only inception, for nothing has ever ceased. The watery depths of a vibraphone give us our first taste of brine, finding in its habits an incalculable emotion. Each of these gestures is a cluster of numbers, elements, and intent, not so much divine as introductory. These deep build-ups reveal massive clouds of energy, imploding as much as exploding, as if searching for a primary spatiotemporal juncture in which to beat to the rhythm of all that animates it. A ghost in stardust. A child of orbit. Ring of fire. Singing tension. Birth.

This is what Cayenna Ponchione’s music feels like. As distinct as her name, it breathes. Born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, Ponchione pursues a life of conducting and composition imbued with fervent dedication to the orchestra as a site of creation. Having directed a number of ensembles in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, she has also amassed a growing body of sonic territories. Among them is, appropriately enough, The Creation, a work for percussion that won the 2003 Percussive Arts Society Composition Contest and garnered international recognition for her compositional accomplishments. As a marimbist herself, Ponchione is invested in the world of reverberation, and in shaping its amorphous possibilities into music one can admire and develop into life experience. For more, check out her site.

To hear The Creation, check out samples and buy the CD at Capstone Records.

Ponchione is currently at Oxford, where she hopes to complete a Ph.D. that will enable her to expand a personal mission of community music-making. Before she hopped across the pond, she was kind enough to take time out of her schedule and sit down for a conversation on her work and beyond.

Just hearing the title, The Creation, I cannot help but think biblically. I also think Haydn. Yet when I listen to the piece, the narrative possibilities of something out of nothing slip away in favor of a more immediate, visceral effect. Were there any images, texts, or pieces of music that you had in mind while bringing this piece to fruition, or did it emerge, as well it probably should, from a blank slate?

There was a piece of music that I heard—the Bloch Schelomo for cello and orchestra—by the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall. That would have been 1996. And when I heard that piece, I saw the creation of the earth unfold in dance. That visual stayed with me for a long time. When I went to write this piece, it wasn’t as musically inspired as it was—I don’t even want to say philosophically, because it’s kind of fantastical—just musing on the concept of matter, and the concept of matter as being quite transient, that without vibration, without motion, matter doesn’t exist. And so, I toyed with that, played with the notion of being able to hear that vibration just like you hear the vibrations of sound, and imagine what the creation of the world would have sounded like.

Building on the first question, clearly the title is a multivalent one, and for me seems to vocalize, if you will, the process of its own becoming. The compositional process is, of course, nothing if not creative. How do you see the medium and the message intertwining in The Creation?

For me, if I understand your question correctly, this was a very important aspect of the work. I wrote it based on a tone row, and I manipulated that tone row not simply abstractly but in ways that were personally connected to the subject matter—spiritually, intuitively choosing facets of the tone row, choosing different inversions and blocks for each of the four parts, which converge into the creation of the sphere, the explosion, water, and then from water the fire and the ice. In thinking about those through my personal experience, I used them in ways that reflected that.

One might say it takes boldness to compose such a piece, that to set oneself to the task of evoking the immensity of earthly existence into a formative, if not formal, piece of music. Yet after listening to it, it becomes clear to me that it’s not really about boldness at all, but rather about humility. Would you agree with this and how do you see yourself in relation to this music?

I think I wrote it at a time when there wasn’t much differentiation between myself and my surroundings, where I end and the rest of the world begins. It’s rather vague, so in that sense I didn’t feel that it was “bold,” though I probably should have. And in terms of humility I felt like it was more an extension of my own experience as opposed to a capturing or statement of an external topic. In hindsight, I never expected that people would pay enough attention to the title, despite being exactly what I wrote about. The whole title is a creation, a sonic manifestation. Had I known that a lot of people would be playing it all over the world and thinking about it in different ways…. The title is so culturally loaded and means some very specific things.

Can you talk about the structure of the piece and what part improvisational elements, if any, play in its performance?

Actually, there is a very small amount of improvisation involved. It’s set up in four parts, and each is linked and borrows from the others in one way or another. The only point at which there is improvisation is when the sound implodes on itself. The beginning is, if you can imagine, little particles of sound colliding with each other and building. When that all starts to swirl around and gives us a big implosion, the fallout is completely improvised and is meant to shatter and decay, and from that we get the earth.

In what respects did your choice of percussion over, say, winds or strings influence the genesis of the piece?
Unfortunately, it’s a very boring answer which is: as a percussionist, and at that time in my life, that is what I was capable of writing for, and those were the forces that were at my disposal. So it never actually occurred to me in any other form than percussion. In the end, the piece couldn’t have been written for any other instruments. There’s just nothing about it that’s transferrable. It has everything to do with the timbre and using the instruments in their idiomatic fashion.

If we wanted to be nitpicky, we might say that, with no one around to hear it, the creation of the universe would have been silent. Where does one even begin to imagine it sonically?

That’s fun! To be honest, where I imagined it sonically—and there is a very clear picture of this—was to hopefully do it one day with dance. To me, the universe before the Big Bang in the “storyboard” of this particular piece, was a silent space; a vaporous, undulating mass without any direction that, by happenstance, started to collide with itself. Why I ever mused on such things is beyond me (laughs), but at the time they were very important for me.

To me, the piece’s final, drum-laden passages don’t come off so much as upheaval as organization, for somewhere in the resounding chaos of any creative process there is a dedication to order and familiarity, which in turn nourishes the beauties of an indeterminate world. How do you see, hear, and/or feel their sudden cessation?

It’s actually interesting you ask that, because I hadn’t realized until you mentioned it that it’s very organized at the end. The section is called “Fire and Ice” and my intention was for it to be much more disruptive. I think part of the issue there is that the way I had written it requires a precision of execution which then leads it to sound pretty tight and, on the other hand, I think that inadvertently I wrote it that way because I do find that I am most comfortable in order and structure and that for me, intuitively, that encapsulated my need to finish the piece. But I’m not sure that I understood the last part of that question.

Well, for me, the drums at the end stop quite suddenly. They leave the listener in a state of suspension, and I wonder how you feel about the ending.

Oh, wow, I didn’t know it was sudden! I know it’s coming (laughs). It’s interesting. I think about this from time to time, listening to one’s own music. I don’t know that I hear my own music, because it’s already there, the image is there, and it’s hard to hear it objectively. There’s a marimba solo piece I wrote before this and play more frequently than any of my other pieces, and I recorded it about a year or so ago, and I went back to listen to the recording and thought, it’s just too fast. Why is it so fast? I’d slow it down and we’d record it, but it was still too fast. And I think part of it is because I already know it. It’s hard to hear it as I play it and then experience it basically for the first time. I just can’t do it. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. I remember hearing Copland play his own reduction of Appalachian Spring on the piano, and everything was much too fast. Not to compare myself to Copland, I don’t mean to, but I just mean the notion of the author—there’s just no element of surprise, and you’re just getting through it even though there’s a different experience that might be happening on either side.

Have you had much feedback in terms of how this piece has been received, whether right after a performance or in more prolonged discussions?

I never expected that anybody else would hear this, and I’ve gotten really great feedback. People find it to be, frankly, rather profound: it’s just a beautiful piece, they love this image, even technically just well balanced and enjoyable musically. One of the most touching things that happened is that when recording this piece at the University of South Florida, there was a young man who was in that percussion department who did not play in that piece, but who was there the entire time we recorded it. I think he was a freshman that year and so the upperclassmen played. But he absolutely fell in love with it. And he e-mailed me maybe nine months ago and said, “I’m putting together my graduate recital at the University of Boston in marimba performance and I want to program your piece because it has affected me so much as a musician and conceptually. He’s actually really interested in Carl Sagan and extraterrestrial concepts, so this was particularly interesting to him and very close to him as he developed as a musician, and there’s really no greater honor than to have someone say that. So it was quite special for me. I went out last March to Boston for his recital and it was very well done and clearly a very special moment for him. Probably one of the highlights in my life as a composer. It was really quite cool.

I also really love the piece. There is one moment close to the end that I find particularly effective, during which the drums rise up and stop and there’s a gap, only to re-congregate for a final passage. There is something resonating in that gap. I don’t know if it’s a tubular bell or—

It should be a chime, yes.

I adore that moment, and I’m wondering if you could talk about it a little bit and whatever intentionality lies behind it.

I have to say I don’t recall my specific thought for that, and I apologize because I’m sure there was something. I would guess more than anything that it had to do more with balance. Actually, when I write, being a percussionist, I don’t think melodically or harmonically in the same sense. I really think of flow and balance and structure, and if there’s a pitch contrast, again that has to do with where you’ve come from and where you’re going and what’s needed, so certainly if there wasn’t an extra-musical aspect to it, it’s just that there was a need for a breath before we went on with so much sound.

It occurs to me that Xenakis often used percussion to evoke cosmic forces, and I’m wondering if you feel there is anything particular to percussion in this regard.

Yeah, well it’s certainly less earthy than a wind instrument, which is connected to the breath, and even the contact that one has with a string instrument or a piano, and just the notion of a vibrating string in and of itself, whereas with percussion, the sound of clanging metal together, it’s almost industrial. The concept of percussion music came with the Industrial Revolution. Not to say that there weren’t percussion instruments earlier, and certainly in other cultures percussion has played a large role, but the concept of percussion the way we hear it now in Western art music is definitely all post-industrial, and so I think there is perhaps a connection there and a fascination with what’s beyond.

Can you talk more about the instruments involved?

It’s two five-octave marimbas, two sets of log drums, vibraphone, at least two or more break drums, lots of tam-tams, gongs, cymbals, a couple of bass drums, glockenspiel, crotales maybe, triangles, lots of toms. So during the section in the middle, the two solo marimbists go to play the two solo tom parts. It’s basically them with the two log drums and the backup at that point. The vibraphone plays a large role in Water, as do the cymbals in the gongs. Pretty straightforward. And in the beginning I’m using more of those metallic, spacey sounds with different sizes of triangles and glockenspiel. I’d love to be able to hear it with a different pair of ears, because I know how things tie together at the end from the different players, and it’s very intentional, and I don’t know if it sounds more continuous than it was meant to be. It is meant to be one gesture, but it’s supposed to be a gesture with a whole lot of different aspects from different players and different instruments.

You and I have talked in the past about your position as a conductor and how that may or may not change the ways in which music is perceived by the audience behind you. Could you describe the effect of your gender, as you see it being perceived, on audiences and how, if at all, these perceptions influence your work as a composer?

I think it doesn’t influence my work as a composer, only because even though I’ve thought of myself, as I’ve mentioned to you, only recently as a “female” conductor and that it hadn’t occurred to me. Being behind the screen of a composition, I don’t feel gendered and I don’t have a sense at all of how my gender might be perceived through the music that I write, and perhaps I should. You know, I was just looking through old pictures today. This moving process for me is insane. I was just in Alaska in August for a week, and I shipped the last five boxes of my childhood possessions to Ithaca, and they’ve been sitting in the living room, and before I can even pack I have to clear out the living room, so I just had to unpack these boxes I had packed thirteen years ago. It’s striking, but one of these photo albums I pulled out was from when I was in junior high and there’s a picture of me wrestling because I was on the wrestling team. And I was just thinking, yeah, I actually did that. And at the time, although some said to me, “You shouldn’t being doing that, you’re a girl,” I just thought they were old-fashioned and that I would be whatever I wanted, so of course I could do this. And it took me a long time to understand that people might see me differently. The more I’m aware, and I think the more I become a woman instead of a girl, I think that certainly changes, and dealing with a wider range of generations as an adult. So now when I engage with people in their 50s, 60s, 80s, they’re engaging with me as a woman, as an adult, as opposed to when I was a teenager or even in my early 20s, when they were engaging with me as a kid and I was engaging with them, again as this separate thing. And so I think in that way we conceptualized each other differently. But as for composition, I don’t feel any gender. And as for percussion, I also don’t feel any gender. I spent most of my life doing things that guys did. I mean, the percussion sections were all boys. They were all dumb boys and I was always section leader because somebody had to keep them in order (laughs)! And on the wrestling team I was already around guys. I had two older brothers and I wanted to do everything that they did. I had girls that were my friends, it wasn’t that. So, maybe I should think about this. I actually have another piece that I have to write for Tennessee Martin’s new music building, and I was thinking about this today as I was reflecting on this piece a little bit and trying to conceptualize what I want this to sound like, and now I have to think about what I have to sound like coming from a girl (laughs). What are they going to think at Tennessee Martin? I hope this answered your question.

Yes, well I think it was an ineffable one to begin with. On the one hand, it’s so arbitrary as to not even be worth asking. On the other, I often think about this issue in relation to myself as a countertenor and one who likes to “sing high.” When I create my choral music and people hear it, they invariably ask, “Is that you singing the high parts?” as if it’s not conceptually feasible that someone of my appearance or attitude would embark down that vocal path.

I made an embarrassing boo-boo the other day. I was speaking with a vocalist who was a woman, and I had asked if she would be willing to sing some Dichterliebe. And she says, “But I don’t sing Dichterliebe.” And I said, “Oh, is it the wrong voice?” And she says, “No, it’s a men’s role.” I knew that (laughs), but it never occurred to me there would be a reason why she wouldn’t sing the song, and I was actually really embarrassed. But when I reflect on it I realize it was just because you sing songs that are suitable for your gender. I sing Beatles songs all day long, you know? (Sings: “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…”)

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