The emotion stored up inside of me

Adolf Alzuphar

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Yesterday, today, tomorrow, the next day is yaz lancaster’s Hildegard commission composition. The piece explores two poems by Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy, “Outside The House” and “Monotony.” 

The Hildegard Commission highlights outstanding women and other marginalized genders in the early stages of their composing careers, supporting them with a commission, mentorship, and access to a network of leading working collaborators. The winners of the 2022 / 2023 commission focused on sound art exploring the poetry of Cavafy and their compositions were presented at National Sawdust. 

lancaster is both a poet and a musician. They feel that their practices as a poet and a musician are mostly different, but in both cases they use a lot of fragments. They keep a notebook in which they write down what they consider to be “random phrases,” and over time, they look for connections between them. 

lancaster adapted Cavafy’s poems as fragments into their composition, exactly how they write their own poems.

“Outside the House” is a levitating poem. “As I stood gazing at the door / stood there lingering outside the house / my whole being radiated / the sensual emotion stored up inside me.” It can be read as a flight of spirit while living the words of the poem “Monotony,” that “the same moments find us and leave us.” 

Photo by Jill Steinberg at the Hildegard Commission Concert in March 2023

Yesterday, today, tomorrow, the next day is composed for a fascinatingly full ensemble. Flute, clarinet, violin—which lancaster plays themself—cello, piano, vibraphone, and mezzo-soprano; fixed media, field recordings, synthesizers, samples, and other electronics.

Walking around the same parts of their neighborhood with their dog and finding the familiar made anew on these walks resonated in the words of Cavafy’s poetry. Repetition is central to lancaster’s compositions and had been before the commission. The Hildegard piece was written in modular notation, which features different blocks of time in which performers cycle through written-out ideas. Cellular notation repeated over time is a practice of repetition. 

"Walking around the same parts of their neighborhood with their dog and finding the familiar made anew on these walks resonated in the words of Cavafy’s poetry."

For lancaster, composing the Hildegard Commission was musically about both self and others. lancaster writes collaboratively with performers, asking them what they like to play. Knowing basic range, technique, and idiomatic ways of writing reinforces this collaborative process and allows them to write for a wide range of instruments. 

Rehearsals with the group that would be performing the composition were focused on how to play together and how to transform sounds together. Working with mentor Miya Masaoka was a further collaboration, “another set of eyes on their work,” lancaster says. Masaoka is a composer, sound artist, and musician; she is currently a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and Luciano Berio Rome Prize Fellow in Music Composition. She helped lancaster articulate the hierarchy of gestures written onto their modular composition, such as noting that “this gesture should be played more than this next one,” lancaster says. 

Photo by Jill Steinberg

Masaoka shared scores with lancaster and helped them with the philosophical underpinnings of their composition. speaking about philosophers of the everyday, of routine. She recommended The Practice of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau and a Critique of Everyday Life by Henri Lefebvre. 

lancaster planned to use National Sawdust’s Spatial Sound System for an elaborate mixed media component of their composition, though they settled for a much simpler version. 

The complexity of Yesterday, today, tomorrow, the next day is sure to manifest the many ideas that went into lancaster’s practice of composition and performance. From writing to philosophy, it all went towards developing a voice as fearless as it is articulate. 

About Adolf Alzuphar

Adolf Alzuphar is a music critic. He also contributes to The Brooklyn Rail, and to the LA Review of Books.