Meet the Nu Works Winners: Holly Harrison & Tanner Porter

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The purpose of the Nu Works Initiative is to inspire, enrich, and connect new and diverse audiences through new repertoire for the ensemble, which will compliment the genre-bending musical experiences that Nu Deco already has cultivated in its first two seasons. Last year, composers from all over the world submitted scores and Nu Deco selected two composers to feature––Tanner Porter and Holly Harrison. Both genre-bending artists in their own right, these women have collectively explored genres in their music across the spectrum, from folk to progressive rock to post-minimalism. Tanner and Holly will each have one piece featured on all three of the February Light Box performances, and both works have been set for Nu Deco’s unique instrumentation.

Nu Deco bass clarinetist and blogger Zach Manzi checked in with Holly and Tanner recently to get to know their stories and the pieces that were selected as part of Nu Works 2018.

First up is Tanner Porter. Growing up in Southern California, Tanner made her way to University of Michigan for her undergraduate degree and is now finishing her master’s in composition at the Yale School of Music. Much of her work features her singing and playing, and her website features a great deal of her visual art. I met Tanner last year for the first time and knew about her incredibly diverse yet complementary output, but there was much more to the story than I’d realized.

Q: So Tanner, in addition to writing music, you sing and play the cello. How did it all start?

A: I started playing the cello in fourth grade, which became a pretty strong vehicle for me to compose early on. The first piece I ever wrote was for two cellos and a friend, Leah Hamel, and I played it at the sixth grade talent show. I would come home after theater rehearsal or school, and I had my sister’s old laptop when she went to college, which had GarageBand on it. I spent so many hours just layering tracks of myself playing on cello. So I started composing like that…I guess I was not my cello teacher’s ideal student in that way. I showed up to a couple lessons not really knowing my Fauré, or whatever we were working on. But it was a really fun time of exploration. In regard to singing, I was a total diva child––I would sing all the time for my parents. Also I grew up in a theater family––my mom has a children’s theater company––so I was always a part of those shows, or helping backstage if I wasn’t in them. Although I wasn’t able to keep doing theater in college, the University of Michigan (where I did my undergrad in composition) has such an amazing theater program, so I actually ended up getting to work as a scenic painter for the four years I was there. All of it helped with writing. I love to tell stories, but most importantly I think about the artists and pieces that have been there for me, in times of joy and times of pain, that resonated with me and offered a shoulder for me to lean on. So it’s always been my hope to do that for someone else. If I can write a piece that speaks a bit of someone’s story back to them, that they find useful, I think that would be lovely.

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Q: With such a varied artistic output, who have been some of your biggest influences––whether that’s music or theater or anything else?

A: Definitely Joni Mitchell, she’s a big one. Not only because of her incredible ability to tell stories, but I was also drawn to her visual art. Another big one for me is Sondheim. The crossover for me with both of them is that they’re just such incredible wordsmiths. They also both have such particular sounds. I so respect that their musical languages are so recognizable. From the indie world, Sufjan Stevens was a big person in my life. I loved records that utilized huge orchestrations, so Judy Collins and her song Albatross were really important for me. I’ve always felt a love for women of the American folk revival of the 1960s––Joan Baez and Jean Ritchie. I just love that era of Child Ballad revival and storytelling. When I think of classical composers, I first think of  Ralph Vaughn Williams, whose music my parents played a lot when I was growing up.

Q: What would you like everyone to know about your piece that Nu Deco will be playing this month?

A: Landlord is off of my most recent album, The Summer Sinks. I recorded it with a wonderful engineer in Los Angeles, David Peters, in Oak House Recording Studio--David actually produced Landlord as well. It’s a piece that was written pretty much exclusively to be recorded in the studio. On the track, I’m playing almost everything, except we hired Joe Berry, an amazing sax and flute player, and David jumped on pump organ. It’s a piece that, as it evolved, became not really playable in that configuration in the real world, so it was really a special treat to orchestrate it for Nu Deco. I’ve never performed it, and I’m so excited and honored to get to do it with you guys.

Tanner is in progress with several other projects, including a song cycle called Circle, Retrace. It’s a ten-part cycle scored for voice, sax/flute (one player), two percussionists, violin, cello, bass, and electric guitar. She is thrilled to be working on a piece for Albany Symphony and voice in collaboration with librettist Vanessa Moody, and will be attending the Djerassi Resident Artists Program later this year to continue writing “Harbor,” a new work for the stage.

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Next up is Holly Harrison. From one of the most beautiful parts of Australia, the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney, she went on to earn three degrees in composition from Western Sydney University, culminating with a Doctor of Creative Arts (a much cooler title than Doctor of Musical Arts, as it is here in the U.S.). I am being introduced to Holly’s music through the Nu Works Initiative, and through this interview became intrigued by the philosophical and artistic complexity of her music, all of which she spoke about with the most casual and upbeat demeanor.

Q: Holly, since perhaps many of us Americans have never been to the Blue Mountains, what is it like there?

A: It’s very scenic and idyllic, just west of Sydney, and it’s host to the biggest tourist attractions in Australia. It’s sort of in the top five things that you do––a lot of big rock formations and a lot of bush [Australians’ word for wilderness], things like that. I grew up on a property that was semi-rural, so we had horses and lots of animals; now I live in a much more suburban area, but that was my upbringing.

Q: How did you get started with music?

A: I came to music by starting to play trumpet in the primary school band, so I started playing trumpet when I was about four or five, in kindergarten, so I was pretty young. Through that experience, even when I was still young, around nine or ten, I became part of this sort of strange improvised music group that was with musicians who were a whole lot older. I started doing a lot of improvising, very open-ended, aleatoric improv, I suppose, but I was also still playing in bands and orchestras. Then I started playing drums in lots of rock bands and stuff, and began thinking, “yeah, this is pretty cool playing in bands, but I’d like to write my own pieces.” I wanted to find out what would happen if I started to make more decisions creatively and artistically about what other people would be doing. During high school, I started getting a little bit more into composition, but not really until uni [AKA university] did it pave its way into something that I might like to do afterward. I knew that I didn’t really have the nerves, or the passion, to cut it as a performer in the professional sphere, so composition was something that I definitely started to pursue more.

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Q: Who are some of the main artists that have influenced your compositions?

A: Frank Zappa is a really big inspiration for me; I think his stuff is absolutely genre-bending, which is really what I’m interested in––lots of different stylistic juxtapositions stacked on top of each other or next to each other, almost like a mosaic or patchwork. That’s the sort of realm I’m working in. I’m also really influenced by John Zorn. He does some super crazy stuff. And then from a more notated form, I’m a big fan of Dutch post-minimalist composer Louis Andriessen. I really love his rhythmic viscerally. Also Charles Ives, it’s again that idea of superimposing things and overlapping them across each other. I think his stuff is really bizarre but interesting as well, and also really beautiful. And from more of a rock band perspective, a huge influence for me growing up was Queen––I’m really into progressive rock––and also Dream Theater. Lots of bombastic prog rock, that was my “bag” ten years ago. I think it all sort of worked its way into my compositional voice. The first thing that I learned to play properly was the opening of a live Dream Theater record of their album Scenes from a Memory.

Q: What do you want us to know about your piece that Nu Deco is playing as part of the Nu Works Initiative?

A: So, the piece is called And Whether Pigs Have Wings, which is a line taken from Lewis Carrol’s poem, The Walrus and The Carpenter. It’s what you would call a nonsense poem, so it’s pretty strange. It’s about, as you might have guessed, a walrus and a carpenter who are walking along a beach. They come across this group of oysters, and the whole narrative is about them deciding whether they’ll eat them or not. They eat them in the end, and it’s very sad. Then it ends with them crying. It’s pretty warped and a bit twisted as well, and I really like that sort of thing about nonsense, this idea that nonsense is kind of the reorganization of sense. It’s got a bit of a rock opera vibe at times, with a bit of a prog rock ending. There’s lots of hints of jazz, blues, hip-hop, dance and electronic. For me, that’s a metaphor for how nonsense works. It only works from this reference point of sense; we can only really decipher what is nonsensical by what we know to make sense. So it’s kind of my playful little metaphor, lots of stylistic juxtapositions, my nonsensical take on music, kind of like a little joke.

In addition to her work in composition, Holly currently plays in an improvised rock duo called Tabua-Harrison. The group released their debut album last year, which you can listen to on Bandcamp.

You can meet both Holly and Tanner at The Light Box February 14-16. The performance will also feature new music by violist Jessica Meyer, a symphonic exploration of the music of Nina Simone, and a special collaboration with Argentinian singer-songwriter, Tei Shi. For more information and to purchase your tickets, visit the concert page here.

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