While preparing for Great Noise Ensemble’s October 19th concert Irreverence, we asked mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen about her experience with new music and her methods for tackling complex musical issues. Megan is a tireless promoter of contemporary classical music for the voice, and will be performing with Great Noise Ensemble this week as a member of hexaCollective, presenting Armando Bayolo’s Sacred Cows.
GNE: How did you start singing new music, and what kind of challenges do you face when performing new compositions?
Ihnen: “Honestly, it is almost surprising that I even found new music in high school and college since I was studying in West Des Moines, Iowa and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Those cities are not necessarily known as hotbeds for new music activity. However, I had wonderful teachers and mentors that exposed me to the works of active composers. My true commitment to new music emerged when I started studying at Peabody with Phyllis Bryn-Julson. We would often sight-read challenging 20th & 21st century vocal works. I would say to her, “Phyllis, I can’t sight-read this – it’s not even standard notation!” She would just brush off my comment and say, “Oh, yes you can. You just do it.” Thus was born my Nike Just Do It™ approach to new music.”
“Complexity in both melody and rhythm are often the most challenging aspects of new music. Singers must approach a piece different than an instrumentalist because we are intervallic learners. Unlike a pianist, I cannot see my finger pressing the correct key. Unless one has perfect pitch, one must learn the vocal line from interval to interval. Singers also frequently shy away from new music because of complicated rhythms. hexaCollective is a well-rounded group that really appreciates the intricacies of rhythm especially the clave rhythms in Sacred Cows. The rhythmic unisons for the three ensemble voices can be particularly tricky as well. Let’s just say, a new music singer learns to make her metronome a very close friend and ally. When you can’t rely on other performances for the conceptual groundwork, you must really dive into the piece as written. The rhythms, text, and polyphony all give clues to the composer’s performance intentions. It is then up to the performer to make strong choices with those clues so to achieve the most compelling performance possible. Also, the really wonderful part of working with living composers is the ability to ask questions!”
GNE: What do you find so exciting about new works, and why do you find it so important to perform new music?
Ihnen: “New music has come into a clearing, so to speak, of styles and methods. The rigidity of certain schools of thought has passed and composers are able to write in so many different ways. It’s no longer anathema to write a lyrical melody; one may strive for complexity without shunning beauty. That makes this an especially great time for new vocal music. Believe it or not, people do not know the breadth of new music being composed right now. Working with Great Noise Ensemble and other new music groups in the Baltimore/D.C. area, I have found that it is extremely important to be the gateway for music lovers to find these pieces and working composers/performers in the genre. New music often touches on current social issues. For example, I will be performing Armando Bayolo’s Sacred Cows on this week’s GNE concert. One thing that I really enjoy about his piece is the tongue-in-cheek look at religious dogma that prompts us to take a closer, and perhaps more critical, look at our convictions.”