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Communique: Flirting With The Avant Garde | Nathanson & King Release "Waking The Sparrows"

Duo Soreño
Ravello Records
"Waking the Sparrows"

Together, Soprano Nancy King and guitarist Robert Nathanson form Duo Soreño. While they are both classically trained musicians, they've been commissioning new classical music for nearly 20 years. The latest collection is Waking the Sparrows.

Selections on this album were commissioned from composers William Neil, David Kechley, Jing Jing Luo, Andrew York, and William Bolcom. Guest musicians are Danijela Zezelj-Gualdi (violin), Laurent Estoppey (saxophones), and Helena Kopchick Spencer (bassoon & contrabassoon). Listen to selections here. The CD can be purchased and downloaded here.

Listen to our interview with Robert and Nancy above; find our extended conversation and album description below.

Credit Gina Gambony/WHQR
Robert Nathanson & Nancy King of Duo Soreno

Nancy:    Rob and I have been performing together since ...

Rob:       ‘99.

Nancy:    1999. That's right. Almost 20 years.

Gina:      What does Duo Soreño mean?

Nancy:    It actually means "Southern Duo." It's just in Spanish. It sounds much fancier.

Gina:      It does. How did you start? When did you say, "Hey, let's play together"?

Nancy:    Well I joined the faculty at UNCW in 1998 and I had just come from my doctoral studies in Minnesota where I had been working on guitar repertoire with soprano. but it was standard repertoire and when Rob and I started collaborating, he had already had a rich history of, of a commissioning new composers for repertoire for his other ensemble. That one, that other ensemble with saxophone. Oh, I'm not jealous though. Anyway ... and he, he started the ball rolling with you know, commissioning for Soprano and guitar and a lucky us.

Rob:       Actually, you initiated it by saying, “Let's get Chris Gable to write us a piece,” and you got a grant. And that really started the whole "new works" direction we went to.

Nancy:    Okay. It was me.

Gina:      Are these all commissioned?

Rob:       Mmhmm.

Gina:      I didn't realize that.

Nancy:    It's a remarkable accomplishment to come up with a CD of - how long is the CD?

Rob:       Seventy-four minutes.

Nancy:    Seventy-four minutes of absolutely new music for voice and Guitar and other combinations. There's a piece on there with voice, violin and guitar. And then the first piece by William Neil is actually a chamber ensemble which features voice and guitar, but has saxophone, violin ...

Rob:       Bassoons ...

Nancy:    Bassoons. Death whistle ... and digital acoustics, acoustical sounds that the composer does.

Gina:      So for folks out there who maybe don't know what this means, what does it mean to commission a piece and what do you have to go through?

Rob:       Well, this is really a tradition that has been going on at least Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven. People wanted them to commission works, whether it was the king or a, a friend who was a cellist or whoever would be. And so they would ask those people to write pieces for them. And usually the composer says how much he wants for it. And then you collaborate on the length of the piece, the form of the piece, you know. And with us, it was always figuring out the texts because we were always commissioning pieces with text in it and working all that out. So it's just a tradition. And I mean very few composers or artists or authors create without money upfront. So I think the commissioning process is just a euphemism for, "How much do you want?"

Gina:      But at the same time, I bet that a composer is not going to write work for people that he or she doesn't believe in.

Rob:       That's true.

Gina:      Because that could just reflect badly upon that composer.

Rob:       That's true. From the very beginning when I started commissioning composers to write for, at first it was just me, solo pieces and then it became guitar saxophone pieces. You know, we always tell the composer this was going to be played a lot and recorded. And we've always done that, whether it's been ... Frank Bonjourno was the saxophonists I worked with- whether it was him or Nancy or the quartet I work with, we've always recorded the works and played them a lot. So now it's kind of fun because when we ask composers to write for us, they just, they just say yes so fast. They know that they're gonna get something at the end.

Nancy:    Exposure.

Gina:      It's about more than money.

Rob:       Oh, it's very little about money. If those composers figured out what they were getting paid hourly, it'd probably be a dime. Yeah. No, it's not about the money at all because nobody can get paid a fairly in the composing business for sure.

Gina:      With the text, who writes that text? Does the composer actually compose the text as well? Or is that given to the composer?

Nancy:    Well, it depends a little bit with each composer. For example, the last pieces that are on the CD, were arrangements that Rob's former teacher, Michael Lorimer did of William Bolcom's cabaret songs. So those songs were already in existence in lower keys for piano and voice. So, those were by Arnold Weinstein. And so those texts were ... it was non-negotiable. We just morphed those into something that's Sopranos can sing with guitar. I'm in other examples that weren't arrangements, we actually let the composer choose the kind of texts that moved them, you know, it's their inspiration to begin the writing process. So for example, the Kechley pieces - David Kechley has a fondness for Haiku and Japanese poetry and so he chose that. The gentleman who wrote, "Open the River," Andrew York, loved W.S. Merwin's poetry, who was a former poet laureate, and so he just had that in mind. So, it's not so much that we try and direct the text choices. We, we let that lead the composer for their own inspiration.

Gina:      Rob, you have to play the music on your guitar. I've talked to you before about non-guitarists composing music for guitar and how that can be an interesting thing. And Nancy non vocalists composing music for, for the voice. Is there anything in this collection here that, was difficult from any of the composers for the voice or for the guitar that you had to say, "Oh, um, actually, my fingers can't do that," or "Actually, vocally, that's not possible- I have to breathe at some point."

Rob:       Well, there's some really challenging pieces on the CD. The cabaret songs are arranged from piano and to translate--it's almost ragtime music. So to translate that on the guitar--you know, the pianist has two hands to do it. A guitarist really only has one to hit all those notes, so it's really difficult music for the guitar. And then the last piece. David Kechley has a reputation for writing some incredibly difficult music, but it works. So, it works on the guitar, you might not agree that it works on the voice, but it's very difficult.

Nancy:    Well, I think each piece in and of itself presents a challenge and part of it is our responsibility to figure out how it best works with the voice. So we might, you know, I might've made some modifications that are peculiar to me as a performer. But I will say that some of the pieces that, a sort of our most evocative, like for example, Jing, Jing Luo's pieces that are based on Beijing opera or Peking Opera, are fascinating. And really those are more gestures and it's kind of interesting to use nonwestern vocal sounds to sort of get the point of the piece across. Kechley's pieces were difficult just for the sheer technical complexity of them. Range wise, they're very extended. I sing really high, really low, like a bird, like a woodpecker, like frog. I mean they're, they're meant to, you know, sort of evoke different aspects of nature. And some pieces are just written so beautifully for the voice that they fit me like a glove. I will say that William Neil's piece is--I've been collaborating with Bill for many years now and he sort of has a sense. I think he's really a singer in his head. He might not seeing a whole lot out in public, but I think he really understands my voice and you know, crafted a piece that just sits perfectly for me. And all the composers are very sensitive. At least they would say, "Is there anything that I need to alter for you?" So, it's an interesting collaboration.

Gina:      I know you've performed some of this work.

Nancy:    Yes. All of it.

Gina:      Do you have any plans of performing this music anytime soon?

Rob:       Well, actually-

Nancy:    Yes!

Rob:       Probably some of it. But we we've already moved onto new commissions. One we've already received. I've already learned it the summer. We have another one coming in ... by January I think we're going to get delivery. So we're mounting this new concert of new music that we've never played before and we'll go back and play a couple of these too, I'm sure.

Gina:      Is that going to be for next year's ProMusica?

Rob:       It is, is a matter of fact. Yeah. The one that will be for Nancy and I will be in April. That's an exciting project for us. We were just in Vienna, in Vienna we played a lot of these pieces and we worked with another guitarist, Helmut Jaspar, and a violinist Livia Sellin. They're going to come here in April and play music with us, and we commissioned a major piece for two guitars, voice, and the violin. So we're very excited about that.

Nancy:    And we'll be so happy to come do A Little Lunch Music for you.

Gina:      Oh, wonderful! For people who would like to get their hands on this music, get their ears on this music- and how can people support this kind of creation?

Rob:       Well, they can certainly buy the CD, which would be great. which is available on just about every outlet you can think of now. Amazon, iTunes, certainly from the record company, Ravello. You can go anywhere and just write in, "Waking the Sparrows" or Duo Soreno, or either of our names and it's gonna come up. Our record company has done a really good job of getting the word out. We're on the editorial playlist of Spotify, the featured classical albums of iTunes. So we finally latched onto a great record company, Ravello records. And so it's really easy to get,

Gina:      Would you call this "classical music" with any adjective preceding it?

Nancy:    Well, probably "contemporary classical music" would be the best way to describe it. Although, "contemporary chamber music" too, because we're not just the two of us, there were other performers who were involved ensembles.

Rob:       It's certainly flirts with the avant garde, especially for voice.

Nancy:    Definitely.

Rob:       You don't hear a new music like this. Didn't you look up and could find no new music for-

Nancy:    There's very little written for soprano and guitar, this combination. So this was one of the reasons why we even started down this path because people love to hear guitar and they love to hear singing and it's a very intimate combination. And to get sort of stuck in just repertoire that's pre-20th century is, I think it's a little limiting. Certainly if you listen to this cd, you would find that there's a wide breadth of music, something for everybody's musical tastes on here. And that's, that's really, you know, the legacy of commissioning new music and how important it is to keep expanding people's ideas of what a combination of instruments or instrument voices would sound like and floating it out there for other people to perform and enjoy.

Gina:      Can I ask you about the title?

Rob:       Waking the Sparrows? I have traditionally chosen the title of my CDs, our CDs by choosing the title of one of the pieces on the CD, and Waking the Sparrows was just a cool ...

Nancy:    It's a cool name.

Rob:       A cool name.

Gina:      It's a great thought.

Rob:       And I wanted to have a look of the avant garde, like it's not your usual thing.

Nancy:    I think it's important to say that the CD really was a labor of love, but it's also, a very beautiful picture that's on the front that was taken by Rob's son, Carey Nathanson and sort of graphically enhanced by the Ravello company. So they did a great job with the whole packaging of the CD. It's, it's quite a thing of beauty.

Gina:      It is really lovely. It reminds me of ... it's, it's very eastern to me, and I can't remember what it's called, but there's this thing in Japan where things that are broken--they then have a history.

Nancy:    Right? There are more prized.

Gina:      Yeah. And they put them together and they aggrandize the cracks with gold.

Nancy:    Just like us.


From Ravello Records ...

WAKING THE SPARROWS, the premiere recording on PARMA RECORDINGS from classical and baroque guitarist Robert Nathanson and soprano Nancy King, performing as Duo Soreño, is the result of a twenty-year long journey exploring the grandeur of the human voice blended with the vibrancy of the guitar. Interpreting the work of five notable modern composers who were, in turn, inspired by the words of poets throughout the ages, Nathanson and King deliver a stunning performance that is rich in its variety and impressive in scope.


The album opens with William Neil’s “Out of Darkness into Light”, which adds violin, saxophone, bassoon and contrabassoon to Duo Soreño’s arrangement of what the composer described as a “mystery play interpreting through composed and improvisational music the prayer-like text written by   Malgosia Sawczuk.”  Along with violinist Danijela Žeželej-Gualdi, the duo interprets “Open the River,” with text from “To the Hand,” a poem by W.S. Merwin. The poem’s transcendental and archetypal imagery provides a rich underpinning for the piece.


The remaining pieces on WAKING THE SPARROWS feature only Nathanson and King. “A Song of Unending Sorrow” is a three-movement setting for guitar and soprano, inspired by composer Jing Jing Luo’s interpretation of a work by the Tang Dynasty poet Ba Juji. The performance, at once both simple and intricate, captures the ecstasy of love and the sorrow of loss. Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award-winning composer William Bolcom’s “Three Cabaret Songs” – among the most beloved of his songs – arise from his collaboration with poet Arnold Weinstein and are here for the first time arranged for soprano and guitar by guitarist Michael Lorimer. Inspired by the seasonal aspect of much of haiku poetry, “Waking the Sparrows: Five Haiku Songs” was composed for Duo Soreño by David Ketchley. Its lyrical and dramatic exploration of the timbral possibilities of voice and guitar evoke a haiku-like aura of Spring, further emphasized by King’s singing of the lyrics to several of the movements in Japanese.


Guitarist Robert Nathanson is an active recitalist and orchestral soloist, now focusing on chamber music. He has been performing as part of the Ryoanji Duo (guitar and saxophone) and the North Carolina Guitar Quartet since 1992 and as part of Duo Soreño since 1999. He is also the Artistic Director of PRO MUSICA, a concert series celebrating the music of living composers. A champion of new music, Nathanson has commissioned, premiered, and recorded works by many modern composers. He has released five CDs in various musical configurations prior to his PARMA RECORDINGS debut, WAKING THE SPARROWS.


Soprano Nancy King is artistic director of Opera Wilmington and an active performer and guest lecturer. She has performed and recorded with the Wilmington Symphony, Chamber Music Wilmington, Toronto Classical Singers, and the Grammy Award-winning Oregon Bach Festival Chorus, of which she was a member from 1998 – 2004.