Radio Radiance Composers Answer Texted Questions

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Francisco Núñez conducts Young People’s Chorus of New York City
in the Radio Radiance recording-for-broadcast by WWFM

On April 19, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City conducted by YPC

Artistic Director/Founder Francisco J. Núñez premiered of four of the newest commissions in its Radio Radiance series before a live audience at the 92nd Street Y.  At the session, hosted by WNYC’s John Schaefer and recorded for broadcast by WWFM The Classical Network, audience members texted questions about the music for the composers to answer live. The composers — Thomas Cabaniss, Susie Ibarra, Kevin James, and Toby Twining — have all graciously agreed to answer texted questions not addressed on the 19th  here for the YPC blog.


Was it hard to make these sounds?  

There are three kinds of vocal sounds that open the piece; vocal percussion (or beatboxing), singing, and electronically processed singing. Beatboxing is so common nowadays among young people that getting the choristers to imitate a bass drum, snare and cymbals with their voices was pretty easy for them. The singing consists of some made-up syllables (“cha-ya-ka,” for instance) that I thought had the crackling sound of fire, and the processed singing allows the music to echo and reverberate longer than regular acoustic singing would. It’s almost as if you are singing into an echoing cave or canyon. 

Where did u get inspiration to make that piece?

In a funny way, the first inspiration is the commission. Francisco approached me, and without his request, the piece wouldn’t exist. But once I agreed to do it, I began to search for an idea that would be right for the chorus and could involve an interesting use of technology. At first, I paused on some wonderful Ted Hughes poems, but eventually remembered a poem about fire that I had come across and loved. It was a kind of catalog or list of qualities of fire, and I thought that the repetition would be especially appropriate for a piece that incorporates looping.  

Host John Schaefer interviews Composer Thomas Cabaniss

Why did u chose the name Celestial Fire? 

I didn’t. That’s the title given by the poet Yannai. I do like it, though, since it sums up the relationship between the sacred (celestial) and the physical (fire). I think it’s interesting to imagine what transcends our everyday experiences, and music is a great medium for doing that. 

Audience member texts a question

How challenging was it is to determine what to sample…..and loop? 

As a composer creating a looping sequence, you are thinking of several things. It’s kind of like designing a crossword puzzle. You need to think of lines that sound interesting alone (think: the words that go ACROSS), and you need to make sure that other lines connect vertically (think: DOWN). It takes some trial and error and a bit of conscious design, but if you like how it all goes together (harmonically), then the puzzle is done and ready to be solved. The listener is always the person who gets to solve the puzzle!


How long did it take you to write the lyrics?

Once I understood that I wanted to use the story about a false alarm with the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), the lyrics came quickly. I suppose that’s partly because many of them come from common radio/TV-speak, like “We interrupt this program…” and “Don’t touch that dial!”—which I heard frequently while growing up.

What inspired you to write this piece?

Good question. Inspired is a big word, as I would understand it. The opportunity to work with YPC and Francisco was inspiring (I’m a singer too, and have a son and daughter who sing—I love young voices and feel excited about sharing experimental music with young people). The musical materials in WICBM inspire me—especially in its use of a special way of tuning called just intonation, stretched in new ways to create new harmonies (YPC split the usual SATB into 23 parts to make ginormous chords!). 

Composer Toby Twining and Francisco Núñez
at Radio Radiance rehearsal

As for the subject matter of the lyrics:

Though I’ve become less sensitive to it over time, the flat, dire tone followed by obnoxious bleeps of emergency broadcast tests on the radio have always unnerved me. They scared me as a kid in elementary school and the hypocrisy and futility of warning about nuclear missiles became clear to me as a teenager (who’s going to survive, ducking under our school desks, or once we emerge from the school gym?).

So I was keen on narrating this slip up by the EBS that happened in the Sixties as a form of political satire—music is a political force, whether or not we are aware.

Audience member concentrating on a question

In this case, I hope the tinge of sarcasm and dark humor beneath the cheery surface reflects the crazy disconnect of the EBS messages. The slow chord in the middle of the piece is sort of a leap into another dimension (as though the missiles really hit their targets), but I now think it comes out of that flat, dire tone of the EBS signal itself (I’ve harmonized it). 


Were there certain images or pictures that you were trying to paint as you wrote “The City”?

There is a metaphorical image of a city dreaming itself back to stardust.  An image of an urban place where many things exist and are taking place as we continually scale out into and beyond the world and are reminded we are connected to a larger space in nature.

Other images come from the lyric of the poem written by Yusef Komunyakaa.

“Everything is dreaming.  Towards the stars

We’re only made of mystery.  Venus and Mars

Everything is dreaming.  Jasmine in the night breeze

The leopard in the tall grass.  The tiger seeing in the dark

Everything is dreaming.  First and last to enter the ark

Nighthawks looping in the air.  Fish in their nocturnal world

and a girl.  At the edge of a dream. Breathing to the sounds of traffic

Street lights drowning at the bottom of the sea. I become you and you become me.

The hero and the antihero. The wind in the leaves

Everything is dreaming towards eternity.”

For a composer who has done so much work with folk indigenous music and earth issues, why compose a work a city?

I have been fortunate to live my life at different times in both cities and rural areas.  I love and value the meaningful dialogue and relationship between both.  I love the rich culture of traditional and contemporary music and art. I’ve been inspired and informed by both. Earth issues are something at the heart of both cities and nature, both built in natural environments.  Cities are a great hope for future greener living. 

Composer Susie Ibarra


Was this piece inspired by synesthesia? [A rare condition that leads some individuals to hear colors and see sounds.]

This piece was not inspired by synesthesia. It was much more influenced by the physical experience of a kaleidoscope and its connection to the exuberant mind of young people.

For colors postproduction, are you talking about autotune, or something more complex and less ubiquitous?

Definitely not autotune (a piece of software that I personally believe should be banned from the universe – but that’s a different conversation). We’re talking about grabbing samples of the performance and layering them over one another with gentle manipulations such as doubling or halving the speed. The resulting audio serves as accompaniment to the chorus while they single the more melodic middle section of the piece.

Host John Schaefer asks Composer Kevin James
a question texted by an audience member

Is there something special or different about composing for YPC that allows you to include so many unique elements in the piece? Where did you get the ideas to pluck the piano strings and add in puckering noises?

Well, first of all, the YPC singers can do just about anything that fits into their vocal range. So I don’t have to limit my imagination when I try to come up with an aural universe for them to occupy. 

The concept of “extended techniques” is part and parcel of experimental music these days. The element of altering the sound of a single string on the piano was a relatively simple way to add a large degree of interest – musically for me, it represents the sizzle of that exuberant mind I mention earlier. The deconstructed sounds in the voices such as the popping were inspired by the way a small child often plays with individual sounds through isolation and exaggeration.

Graphic animators refer to an ‘uncanny valley,’ a point at which an animated depiction of a human is so lifelike that we find it creepy and unsettling. Is there an uncanny valley with digital approximations of the human voice, that we are able to circumvent by using instruments, or are sounds pleasing regardless of who/what produces them?

Well, in my mind, vocal expression is the most virtuosic capacity that each of us possesses. It’s the single skill that nearly every one of us practices tirelessly and endlessly all day every day for entirety of our lives. So while we can begin to approximate its sounds and intentions through digital means, there is a spontaneity and individuality of vocal mannerisms that make it much harder to bring to that point of “creepy quasi-realism.”

What’s the musical notation the choristers see for the “pop”?

Each of the sound effects is represented by a color coded letter embedded in an enlarged note head. So the “k” is, a red “K”. The hissing sound is a yellow “S”. And the popping sound is a green “P”.

Read more about YPC’s Radio Radiance here.