This week’s MusicNOW program, celebrating the legacy of composer-conductor Pierre Boulez, features the world premieres of two commissioned works: Marcos Balter’s shadows of listening and Pauline Oliveros’ For Two or Three Instruments. Ahead of the April 3 concert, titled “Illuminating Boulez,” Elizabeth Ogonek, the CSO’s Mead co-composer in residence, sat down with Balter and CSO cellist Katinka Kleijn, a longtime Balter collaborator, to discuss shadows of listening, scored for cello and electronics. Though shadows of listening began as an homage to Boulez, Balter widened his thematic focus after learning of Oliveros’ death in November. Balter observes: “[Shadows of listening] is based on music-making as a ritual” — pivotal to both Boulez and Oliveros — “on listening as an active element of performance, and on the tenuous line between control and freedom.”

How did this piece come to be?

MB: This is my third time in MusicNOW, which is great. When the CSO contacted me, they asked me to write a piece for this concert, which is going to be celebration of Boulez, a composer I very much admire. I was also told that Pauline Oliveros, who was always a hero of mine, was going to be writing a new piece for the concert. So my initial intention was to write an homage to Boulez. That was my focus until November when I got the horrible news that Pauline had passed away. So I went back to my plans and decided to do a piece that celebrated both of them, which was an easy thing because there were a lot of intersections between the two composers. The name of the piece is shadows of listening, and it is for cello and live electronics. It is an homage to Pierre Boulez and Pauline Oliveros.

Tell us a little about the process of collaborating. Marcos, how has Katinka influenced the music you’ve written? Katinka, how has the close collaboration with Marcos informed your interpretation of this work?

KK: Marcos and I have collaborated a lot. I love his music. We just get along and are in sync. We worked over Skype for a little bit.

MB: Because we don’t live in the same city!

KK: We don’t live in the same city. And Marcos asked, “Can you just whisper some phrases and play the cello and whistle?” I did that, and it was just so fun. Immediately ideas came. It was like a back-and-forth snowball: “Oh, can you play that harmonic and fuse it with your voice, so you almost don’t hear the difference?” It immediately sounded very beautiful. Marcos was working with very specific pitches inspired by the Sacher theme with which Boulez worked. That’s pretty much how we began working on this piece.

MB: I’ve known Katinka for over 10 years now, which is crazy. My thing is really as much as possible to work with people who I know. I like writing for very specific people preferably people who I know not musically, but personally. I think the act of making music is really a personal act. I was really thinking of Katinka through the whole process of writing the piece. I was not only listening to it, but also seeing it. The piece is very theatrical; it’s very visual. In many ways, I couldn’t have written this particular piece if I wasn’t able to visualize Katinka. Talking via Skype with her gave me enough material to really have more assurance while writing the work. We never know what the work will be until we hear it for the first piece. But when you write something for someone you know well, I think the fear of trying things that you wouldn’t try elsewhere or before is minimized. You are encouraged to take more risks, and Katinka is a wonderful risk-taker, so I just went for it.

Could you talk a little about these risks?

KK: As fate would have it, the night before Marcos sent me the score, I saw a concert by Mocrep, a great contemporary music ensemble from Chicago, and it was very theatrical. The whole night I was thinking about how I wanted to do something like that. When Marcos sent me the score — and maybe this is proof of our ESP — it was indeed very theatrical! It is definitely a new area for me and something that I look forward to really jumping into and exploring: using my voice, using text.

MB: The text is actually an original text, but it is a sort of a collage of the three poems by René Char that Boulez used for Le Marteau sans maître. I recombined the words in the three poems to create something that had more to do with Pauline than with Boulez. So it’s this whole idea of walking along, understanding your surroundings, listening to things, listening to yourself and listening to your feelings as you express them sonically.

You both knew Pauline and Pierre. Could you talk a little about how your personal relationships with them have influenced this project?

KK: Working with Boulez in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was one of the greatest honors. As a cellist in the CSO and a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, it was so beautiful and gratifying to see someone so steeped in modernism, innovation and intellectualism. At the same time, he taught and supported young composers while also conducting a Mahler, a Bruckner symphony. He did it all with such detail and respect. The fact that he had the vision to see these different worlds at the same time is extremely inspiring to me. He was also incredibly nice … very demanding, but in a way that was never offensive. He could say the most direct things to the musicians, and it just made you want to do better. It always made you feel great because he pushed you to get to the next level. That was a great gift he had as a conductor.

MB: It’s funny because you have two people who were legends when they were alive. In many ways, it was like two wild beasts, if you will. One thing that surprised me about both of them was how sweet and generous they were toward young composers. I couldn’t expect the sweetness I got from both of them. I never got to show my music to Pauline, but I got a chance to talk about music with her. Seeing her make music was more than a lesson in many ways. With Boulez, I did get to talk about my own music. Both of them were incredibly generous spirits and very giving toward the musicians of tomorrow.

Is there anything you want to say about how your piece is directly influenced by both composers?

MB: Sure. There are many geeky, nerdy things that I don’t expect people to know and I don’t even necessarily intend for people to know. For my own mapping, I used a hexachord that Boulez used in several works. I used quotations from Boulez’s Anthèmes. I used text quotations from Pauline. I used gestures that were familiar to Pauline. I incorporated text used by Boulez in much more of an Oliveros style. There are fingerprints and footprints of both of them all over this score. Really what I wanted to create was a synthesis of Boulez and Oliveros. There are many things that they share in common: the idea of music-making as a ritual, the ritualistic nature of their music, the energy and electricity of the act of performing, the spiritual qualities of their work, the queerness, which is very dear to me. I really tried to create a baby between these two giants. I just hope I’ve done both of them justice.

For the program notes to “Illuminating Boulez,” please click here.

TOP: Marcos Balter and Katinka Kleijn. | Todd Rosenberg Photography