I want a cognitive dissonance in people’s take of my piece,” Michael Gancz, PM ’21, announced while gracefully sipping coffee between bites of his toasted mini sesame seed bagel. Poised in the dining hall in a cozy hoodie, he explained the process behind his newest, and deeply intimate, musical work and multimedia art piece. Not only is this his most technically adventurous performance, with choreography and projected animations, but it’s his most personal composition yet, exploring the complications of long distance romance. We sat down for an interview the morning after the world premiere of “Red Line to Union Station.” After months of writing and an impressively short amount of rehearsal time, the show premiered last Thurs., Oct. 24. Opening night featured premieres by students Sam Christopher, TD ’22, and Harry Castle, MUS ’21, as well as by Yale Department of Music Professors Kathryn Alexander and Konrad Kaczmarek.
On a recent afternoon, I dropped by a dress rehearsal. Unsure where to find the entrance to the Off-Broadway Theatre, I lingered around the Shops at Yale, struggling to locate any space conducive to experimental performance. At last, nestled behind a bike rack, I stumbled upon the black box theatre. I loitered like the graduate students chain smoking in front of Loria, unsure what kind of musical experience I was about to encounter. Professor of composition and electroacoustic genius Konrad Kaczmarek finally let me in. Immediately upon seeing the flautist’s t-shirt that proudly declared “$cumbag,” I realized this was no sanctified nor stodgy performance hall, but rather a shrine to experimentation and novelty.
During the rehearsal, Gancz worked like an octopus, diplomatically sorting logistics with a group of professors, giving performance notes to the instrumentalists, and even directing a tech operator who controlled prepared musical samples and the projected video. The piece, “Red Line to Union Station,” includes an ensemble of alto flute, voice, and prepared recordings: an assortment of ambient sounds in a train station, distorted recordings of the instruments we see on stage, and electronic sounds that Gancz synthesized. While the piece consists of eight movements, the 25-minute trip flows nonstop, initially making me think it was all one movement). In the black box theater, the two performers stood on either side of a thinly drawn line, their separation already dividing the narrative, creating a tension that lasted throughout the entire production. Behind the performers, a video by visual artist Alice Tirard, TC ’20, played on loop 75 times over the course of the piece. Its meandering red line reminded me of Harold’s purple crayon as it wandered through a hypnotizing soiree.
Growing up in a family of chemists, Gancz always dreamt of composing. Although none of his relatives played music, he learned trombone throughout grade school, performing in high school orchestras and jazz ensembles. Slyly, he shared than he even played in an emo and ska band. He cited the versatility of the regal brass instrument for allowing him to play in a range of ensembles. Over time, he grew more interested in composition as a means of expression. As an ambitious high schooler, he taught himself music theory by grabbing an AP Music Theory textbook from the library, which he now maintains is all wrong and problematic in music education. Gancz remarks on the support and “endless encouragement” of the Department of Music faculty. He noted that Yale has encouraged him to “explore shit for [him]self.” Gancz loves the open-endedness of the department’s requirements, which allow him to study a range of musical styles and heritages while developing as an artist. Having almost majored in math, he smiled with glee when asked about his favorite music classes, which include a history of Western art music with Professor James Hebokosky and a first-year seminar called “Loops and Drones in American Music.” He revealed that the seminar introduced him to the rich world of American minimalism and post-minimalism, and completely transformed how he thinks. He took private lessons with Professor Kaczmarek which he claimed were “the main reason this piece worked, especially with technology.” As a third-year Music major, he’s already taken multiple graduate seminars. He explained in a celebratory tone that he just finished his midterm for an orchestration class with internationally renowned and award-winning composer, Professor Christopher Theofanidas. Since taking this graduate course, he can’t stop listening to 20th century symphonic composer Jacob Druckman. He’s currently listening to John Luther Adams’ new composition “Become Desert,” although he prefers 2013’s “Become Ocean.” He obsesses over legendary prog-rock band King Crimson, whom he swears sounded ages ahead of their time. Throughout breakfast, Gancz seemed to be tapping his feet unconsciously, playing through ideas in his head.
During the rehearsal in the Off-Broadway Theater, Gancz sat silently in the audience, watching his vision come to fruition. “Red Line to Union Station” began with the solo alto flute drifting around, slowly spelling out pitch centers: Bb, A, E, C. Immediately, we’re pulled in, transfixed by the dramatic lighting and mesmerizing video. Distorted electronics enter, sounding like a gargantuan beast, then evolving into the whispers of a flock of seagulls. Finally, the human voice joins. Between movements, pauses pave the way for spoken dialogue. Over the course of the piece, the electronics grow into a rich orchestral texture. Sometimes the recorded and processed sounds of reverberated grand piano take over, providing a space for the vulnerabilities of a sincere vocal line. At other times, the electronics sound like a gnarly heavy metal banger. The reverb of high-pitched electronics reminds me of ice. Towards the end, recordings of dissonant tremolo strings and jazzy percussion overtake the live instrumentalists, reminiscent of a New Orleans “big band” marching through a town square. This melting pot of timbres sounds more sumptuous than any gumbo.
Gancz called his song cycle a “profoundly upsetting piece about distance — physical and emotional.” He mentioned that he was in a long distance relationship for three years. Travel played a crucial role in the creation of the piece, as did the ritual of riding the train from DC to New York. “The programmatic frame of the piece is stop-by-stop,” he explained. He wanted to depict the mental state of character: “in part me and in part some abstract thing.” Over the course of the piece, sequences of narrations by the singer transform into gibberish and blur into a “sound collage.” The last movement primarily features primarily recordings of train sounds, which Gancz called “a return to physical environment.” Through the choreography and pacing of the work, Gancz strives to create “continuity and therefore separation between immediacy and distance.”
There’s rarely a moment not saturated with textures — let alone a dull one. As the end grows more distorted, blurred samples envelop the audience. The sound of the vocalist comforts and reassures the audience like a lullaby. After the chaos, the lulling flute returns along with an audio sample of a train station. Following a slow withdrawal to silence, the two performers locked eyes and parted ways, until the stage bared only music stands and the projection.
This is the first piece that Gancz composed on his own, outside of an academic class. Over the summer at Ostrava New Music Fest, he wrote it living away from the Yale “academic bubble.” Without the restrictions and self-conscious thoughts of grades or professor’s critiques, he felt more inspired approach a more serious piece. In this intimate and vulnerable sog cycle, he explores ego. He wanted to portray “how it imposes fundamental difficulty on being a person in a relationship.” Gancz reveals that he channeled the “‘sad-boy’ and [previously] irrelevant aspect of [his] life.” However, instead of gloating in self-pity, he transformed the whirlwind of emotions into an accurate portrayal of the “illogic of the mind.” Gancz enjoys toying with the expectations of his audience as well. He desires the audience to feel “bored, upset, sad, or maybe feel numb.” Well aware that the audience might have no immediately salient idea to grab onto, he values questioning the art over applause. He wants the flexibility of music to allow open interpretation to all audiences.
On a technical level, this piece achieves something new. The score contains a written part for “computer,” filled with samples that are programmed and triggered by a live performer sitting offstage. The ‘“laptop part” contains 13 tracks, which can be mixed and matched using Ableton Live, a digital music creation software. Some tracks are raw voice memos from Gancz’s phone, while other tracks are synthetic electronic instruments and “patches” he built. The prepared tracks also incorporate highly processed recordings with synthetic-reverb of the flute to create a “flute choir.” Often this rests atop electronic bass. Most impressively, the entire piece is performed with no click tracks, which would otherwise help anchor the live performers to the electronic track.
Gancz gloated that the animation loop took Tirard less than an hour to create. Instead of using a 25-minute animation to match the music, he wanted to play with concepts of repetition. The more an abstract idea is repeated, the more powerful — and meaningless — it becomes. Over breakfast Gancz compared repetition to linguistics and, more critical to this piece, miscommunication.
Already looking to the future, Gancz is developing a multidisciplinary night of music in January called “The All-Nighter.” He has secured a CPA Grant and plans to replace the chairs of a theater with blankets. He also promises to serve hot chocolate. Last January, he hosted a smaller version, which he found more successful than expected. This year Gancz plans to invite visual artists and tap into Yale’s “printmaking scene” and “typography artwork” from the JE Printing Press. He’s currently searching for musicians, artists, actors, and dancers: “Present your most unpresentable stuff!”