Hacking 2020 with HOCKET at UCSB

By Steven Libowitz   |   August 20, 2020
Composer-pianists Dr. Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff, the duo otherwise known as HOCKET, commissioned 50 composers to join them in their new project called #What2020SoundsLike

The UCSB Department of Music not only didn’t cancel its annual Summer Music Festival in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, it’s actually using the event as something of a forum to address the situation. At least that’s the approach taken by HOCKET, the Los Angeles-based new music piano duo featuring first-year UCSB faculty member Dr. Sarah Gibson that will spearhead this weekend’s online version of the five-year-old festival.

HOCKET, which Gibson formed with fellow composer-pianist Thomas Kotcheff in 2015, commissioned 50 composers to join them in their new project called #What2020SoundsLike, an ambitious attempt to capture the year to date that has seen unprecedented mental, emotional, physical, and sociological stresses. The composers were invited to musically respond to 2020 with miniature works written for piano duo that are being recorded and released weekly on HOCKET’s social media (@HOCKETensemble) going back to mid-June and running through September.

The duo’s live-streamed performance of a selection of the pieces will include a contribution from current UCSB graduate composition student Raphael Radna, who is serving as artistic director of the 2020 festival that was founded in 2016 by then-composition grad student Federico Llach as a celebration of local artists and a forum for composers and musicians to have an opportunity to connect with the community. Among the other artists appearing in the multifaceted festival that spans instruments from more than a millennium are multi-percussionist/vocalist Miguelito León, who will offer a live-looping solo performance; computer-collaborating UCSB composition alumnus/pianist Marc Evanstein; the Nesta Steel Drum Band; UCSB carillonist Wesley Arai; and the ensemble Gamelan Sinar Surya, plus a demonstration of Medieval and Renaissance instruments from UCSB’s collection by composition grad student Matthew Owensby.

Gibson, meanwhile, has relished her time in Santa Barbara even though the academic year got cut short in March. That’s because 2019-20 marked her return to town for her first extended stay since she spent the summer of 2009 as a collaborative piano fellow at the Music Academy of the West. Coming back a decade later to teach in both the College of Creative Studies and the Music Department – where she also has taken over direction of the school’s much-lauded Ensemble for Contemporary Music – has been a satisfying full circle experience even if COVID has gotten in the way of completing her first year on campus.

She talked about #What2020SoundsLike, and her time at MAW, over the phone from her Los Angeles home earlier this week.

Q. How did this project come about?

A. Thomas and I were just trying to figure out how we could make music together during this time, which led us to decide that, just for music-making purposes, we would not social distance. We chose to trust each other and just bubble up with him and his fiancée and me and my husband. So that let us rehearse together for the last few months, which led to the idea to see what was happening with other musicians. We were excited to get some new music to work on, but also because we were really curious to hear creative responses in real time from composers. We asked them to create either 15, 30 or 45 seconds work for us. Obviously, it’s really hard to have such a short time, but it’s been amazing to get their responses. The composers are finding small things or internal things to share, or outward political statements, or choosing anything under the sun. HOCKET also uses things like toy pianos and doing things inside the instrument, so the palette is expanded.

How did you choose 15-second increments?

Initially so we could learn the pieces quickly and get them out very quickly on social media, but also because we’re all online so much more than normal and fatigue sets in, even 10 minutes long felt like a big commitment. So we didn’t want to ask people to focus on their screen for more than a minute. It feels almost like an escape in that way.

How much can someone express in 45 seconds? Maybe just the beginning of a single idea? It seems like it could be frustrating?

Sure, but parameters for composers can also be really helpful. As a creator, a composer and as a performer, looking at a blank page can be terrifying. But if they tell you that you can only use these three pitches, it gives you somewhere to start. Keeping it short gave them some freedom and you have to be really sharp to have a focused idea that really pops. It has been really fascinating to see how they turn out. And because we gave them rolling deadlines and have made all the videos, the ones that are coming in later have seen the composers responding and thinking more about those aspects.

There’s one we’ll play in the concert this week called “Distance” by Joel Thompson in which he wrote it for us to be six feet apart on two different piano benches. I play the top part of the piano only with my left hand and Thomas plays the bottom part of the keyboard only with his right hand. So we’re as far apart as we can be. It’s a fascinating visual experience on the video, capturing what this time has been like.

What has been the most surprising or moving aspect of the project for you?

One thing has been this sense of getting the composer’s voice in a very focused manner so that even in half a minute or less, you can tell it’s them. There’s also been a palpable feeling of empathy from the composers where we are seeing this side of what they’re going through. Maybe it’s how I’m interpreting things and it’s not necessarily that they’re saying this is how I’m feeling when they present the piece, but there’s a sense of connection and emotional awareness in the interpretation that is quite powerful.

The project isn’t finished yet, but how did you cull which pieces to perform for the UCSB festival?

We definitely wanted to premiere the six works we got from UCSB grad students, and then, because we are recording it live, to have a flow with the staging we selected pieces that have similar instrumentations that we could just move from one to the other. We wanted to get as live as we could, even though we won’t be in a hall with an audience.

I can’t help but marvel at how much work is going into something that, hopefully, is somewhat ephemeral in that it might lose the hook if things ever return to normal, right?

We’re making an album of all of the work, so that will last, and I certainly can imagine that we’ll play this as a concert multiple times whenever we can. What we’re going through has been so unprecedented in so many ways that I think audiences will have empathy for these sort of musical responses and feel an attachment to help to this creative outlet in a way that one might not normally be as universal. But even if we play it only a few times, it’s been poignant and feels completely worthwhile to be doing it. 

Can I close by asking you what stands out from your time at MAW? 

Jonathan Feldman was utterly amazing, one of the most incredible teachers I’ve ever had. He taught me things in lessons every day that I still draw on today. My sight reading skills got so much practice, and thinking about it now, I’m thinking that has really been helpful in having to learn six new pieces every week for this project. I learned so much repertoire and got to play with so many different instruments: tuba or trumpet or the cello or whatever it might be, so I got to understand the instruments in a different way. I wasn’t just reading a textbook about how to write for them – I’ve played with them, I’ve rehearsed with them, and I’ve heard them talk about what is difficult or facile or truly playable in the standard repertoire so I could use that in composing. It was a great summer.

(UCSB’s free Summer Music Festival takes place Saturday-Sunday, August 22-23. Visit www.music.ucsb.edu/summerfestival for schedule and programming details and live links, or see the virtual concerts on the UCSB Department of Music’s YouTube channel.)


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