Miranda Cuckson covers the world of the violin like few others. A musician who regularly performs both J.S. Bach and Luigi Nono, Cuckson is dedicated not just to playing the works of living composers, but also to working with them. Her family background is comparably broad: She was born in Australia to a family of Austrian/Jewish, English, and Taiwanese backgrounds. Her family relocated to New York City when she was a baby, and she began training at the Juilliard School at age nine.
Over the years Cuckson has performed with many of New York’s premier new-music ensembles. She presently is a member of counter)induction and the recently formed American Modern Opera Company (AMOC), and is founder and director of the ensemble Nunc. She has recorded works by such modern masters as Ralph Shapey, Stefan Wolpe, and Iannis Xenakis, and worked with Thomas Adès, Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Kaija Saariaho, and Salvatore Sciarrino. Among the composers who have created new works for her are Georg Friedrich Haas, Steve Lehman, and George Lewis.
A past curator at National Sawdust, Cuckson continues to explore fresh initiatives in Williamsburg. This season, two projects in particular demonstrate her commitment to collaboration: On Sept. 18, she will perform for the first time with Michael Hersch, a composer whose music she has championed consistently. Then on January 6, 2019, during National Sawdust’s annual FERUS Festival, Cuckson will showcase a partnership with the composer and sound artist Katharina Rosenberger.
Cuckson recently spoke with National Sawdust Log about those projects and more.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: You come from a traditional classical background, but you’ve focused your work in recent years on contemporary composers. What made you choose to go in that direction?
MIRANDA CUCKSON: It wasn’t exactly a choice or a decision, more an organic thing that happened. I’d been playing mostly Baroque to Romantic music, plus some 20th-century classics such as Prokofiev, Debussy, and Bartók, and I’d played a lot of the violin repertoire. At that point I got interested in exploring more recent and current music. I’d always enjoyed the occasional contemporary piece I played, and once I really got going with new music I became very fascinated, and a lot of people started asking me to play new pieces. I love to discover a new way of seeing or hearing something, to have my mind spun around by new dimensions I was not aware of, and to play the same old violin I’ve always played, but have a very different musical experience with it.
While there’s a lot of old music and art and literature that I love, I do have a modern sensibility in many ways—in music, visual art, fashion, architecture. I believe in dealing with the past and future. I think it can be very challenging for any of us to truly keep engaging with both, to situate ourselves in the now between these. People can either get obsessed with the past and stuck on the familiar, or refuse to acknowledge the past and want to only deal with now and what’s coming up.
Your discography is becoming an encyclopedia of 20th- and 21st-century violin music. How is it different to approach recording or performing a piece people haven’t heard before, as opposed to taking on something from the contemporary canon?
Offering a totally new piece to listeners is a special type of excitement. As an interpreter, jumping into music that’s really new and unfamiliar is a thrilling kind of adventure—there is so much to grasp and absorb, and you start to feel your way around the piece. Sometimes you have a strong sense of the piece immediately, and sometimes it takes longer to cohere or reveal itself to you.
Whether a piece is known already or not, I try to approach it from the source, to figure out for myself where this music is coming from and what it’s saying, not to think I already know what it is or how it goes because it’s been played a certain way. I often get inspired and learn certain things from other performances, but I resist imitating. Though I can definitely get swept up hearing a piece, I often listen to a performance with a little questioning voice in the back of my mind saying, “Is this how I feel this music should sound?” Not a negative voice, just asking. Sometimes the music itself can communicate something very different if it’s played differently.
Contemporary composers often call for specialized techniques that are best worked out, when possible, in rehearsal with the performer. I’m sure you’ve been called upon to do that on a number of occasions. But sometimes you take it a step further. Earlier this year, you gave the New York premiere of Michael Hersch’s Violin Concerto, one of many pieces of his you’ve performed, and at National Sawdust on September 18 you’ll be playing four of his works with him at the piano—the first time the two of you have ever played as a duo in concert. How did you meet and come to work with Hersch and what is the composer/co-performer relationship like? How much is it a performer collaboration as opposed to, say, a scribe/muse relationship?
I met Michael in 2010, after I played his piano trio at a concert which he was unable to attend. He heard the recording from that performance and wrote me a nice letter. We met for coffee soon after and were immediately friends. Working together has usually been a matter of a few specifics: finding a right tempo, tinting a sound color more in one direction or another, or molding a gesture so that the expression is very vivid. I’ve played many of his pieces, but only one so far has been written expressly for me: the solo piece the weather and landscape are on our side. It’s very spooky, and in it he explored some exposed, very high-register things and super-quiet effects.
He is a remarkable pianist but he performs quite seldom and mostly solo, so it’s a special treat to play with him, a milestone in our collaboration. It’ll be a kind of immersion experience, I think. You can hear how much of his musical language is derived from his own piano playing—in the way he voices chords, how he plays explosive runs, and how he shapes the gestures. Composers are not always the best performers of their music, but I’ve learned a great deal about his music from listening to his playing.
You’ve been playing his compositions for over a decade. What is it that keeps you coming back for more?
Michael’s music deals with very grim sides of human experience: desolation, sorrow, sickness, war, violence, isolation. I sometimes say you have to be in the mood for this music, but I gladly play his works often because of the depth of emotion and human experience that his music reaches. In person he’s usually quite affable and upbeat, and we have lively talks over drinks or coffee every so often. If his personality was as dour and grim as his music, I’m not sure I could’ve kept up such an ongoing personal collaboration!
I also return to his music because the sheer craft keeps me engaged as a musician. As with all great music, there is so much to work with. We delve into texts and emotions and message and programmatic meanings, but the tools of our trade are sounds, notes, rhythms, time, silence, registral space, timbre, volume. His particular arrangements of these elements are very satisfying to play with.
What we can expect from the pieces the two of you will be playing on Sept. 18?
For this concert, Michael has selected around 30 short movements from his piano and violin music: from three of his solo violin pieces, his duo the wreckage of flowers, and his piano work The Vanishing Pavilions. He has newly assembled those movements into a continuous sequence, with some movements segueing smoothly into the next or even overlapping, and with piano music now superimposed on some of the violin pieces. I think he will be somewhat improvising, but he’s also been thinking a lot about what he’ll be doing, and we’re rehearsing in the days before. Michael uses a very consistent musical language, with motives and ideas that recur and get re-explored and contextualized in different pieces. That really lends itself to this kind of mobile, kaleidoscopic reordering and layering of his works. I think it’ll be an interesting window on how his compositional mind works.
You’ll be back at National Sawdust in January, playing the music of Katharina Rosenberger. She’s known for working outside the usual boundaries of instrumental language, and the concert requires you to work with various violin preparations, including paper woven between your strings. It will also employ electronic sound and lighting design. Is it too soon to ask how all these elements will come together?
We’ve been discussing this collaboration for a while, but the actual work is just starting. A key element will be paper. In addition to composing concert pieces, Katharina creates sound installations and her work intersects with the world of visual art. She works not only with instruments, but with materials like metal, wood and fabrics, sometimes attaching microphones to amplify their sounds or to record samples.
She’s been interested in using paper and I’m also fascinated with it, as a beautiful material but also for what it signifies in our current times. Paper used to be used to document our ideas, including our musical ones. We wrote ideas and thoughts down, or printed them, on paper and in books, and we saved them. But paper is such a fragile thing – it ages and crumbles, it can be easily torn up or burned or gotten wet. Now we store our ideas on computers and in intangible ways that are more permanent but which also can feel impersonal and less real. Katharina and I will explore this musically using paper, electronic sounds and music both ancient and new.
I understand the two of you will also be working some Renaissance music into the mix. That brings us right up to pre-Classical times, so I want to ask you about Bach. His concertos and sonatas for violin have been a part of your repertoire. How close is that music to you, both to your heart and to your performance practice?
Bach’s music is very fundamental to my playing and music-making. I play some of the solo music almost every day. It’s also one of my favorite things to work on with students. There’s no other music that so reacquaints you each day with the physicality of a stringed instrument and opens you to its possibilities. I explore new sounds and ways of playing as a contemporary violinist, but I return continually to this basis.
Mentally I get very clear playing Bach as I observe the amazing construction of his pieces, the materials and structures. Emotionally, the music always makes me feel hopeful and affirmed, connected to human daily life but also to timeless things beyond a lifespan. Bach’s music inhabits a particular world but encompasses such a huge variety of characters, from the dances and arias to preludes and fugues. Even in something as “abstract” as a fugue, there is such huge emotional drama and excitement in the way the music is built up.
What else is coming up for you?
Over the past year I’ve been playing a wonderful new violin concerto that was written for me by Georg Friedrich Haas and premiered in Tokyo and Stuttgart. The next performance is on December 9 at the Casa da Musica in Porto, Portugal. I’ll be playing Luigi Nono’s La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura with Chris Burns on electronics – another ongoing exploration of mine – at the SinusTon Festival in Germany on October 27. And I’m a member of the multidisciplinary collective AMOC, which will next be at the ODC in San Francisco at the beginning of November.
Miranda Cuckson performs with Michael Hersch at National Sawdust on Sept. 18 at 8pm; nationalsawdust.org
Kurt Gottschalk has written about music for All About Jazz, Signal to Noise, The Wire, Guitar Player, Goldmine, NYC Jazz Record, Brooklyn Rail, Coda, Musicworks, New Music Box, Time Out New York, and publications in France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, and Russia. He is the producer and host of the Miniature Minotaursradio program on WFMU, and is the author of two books of fiction.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.