Published March 15, 2022
Episode 27 features Seth Parker Woods speaking about the cello and its use in classical music and performance pieces, including the ice cello. At the University at Buffalo, Dr. Woods is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar (2021-22) hosted by the Center for Diversity Innovation. In this podcast he discusses the Fluxus movement, Black composers, and using music and performance to create pieces that reflect events and social issues such as police brutality and the emotions they cause. This episode concludes with a performance by Dr. Woods of two pieces: Bach’s Allemande; and Pierre Alexandre Tremblay’s asinglewordisnotenough.
Keywords: cello, music, performance art, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, classical music, Black composers, Fluxus, ice cello, contemporary classical music, Seth Parker Woods
The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy at the University at Buffalo
Podcast Season 4, Episode 27
Podcast recording date: January 21, 2022
Host-producer: Edgar Girtain
Speaker: Seth Parker Woods
Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org
Podcast transcript begins.
Edgar: Hello, and welcome to The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy podcast. I'm your host, Edgar Girtain, and today, it is my pleasure to present you a very special guest, Dr. Seth Parker Woods, who is a distinguished visiting scholar at the University at Buffalo's Center for Diversity Innovation.
Seth is a cellist, and it is his interpretation of the Allemande from Bach's first cello suite that you hear playing in the background. At the end of the program today, you'll have a chance to hear the work uninterrupted, and you'll also get a chance to hear Seth's performance of Pierre Alexandre Tremblay's asinglewordisnotenough. So, stay tuned for that. Without any further ado, here's Dr. Seth Parker Woods.
Seth, or Dr. Seth Parker Woods, as you know, the themes discussed on this podcast generally revolve around law and social policy. I have a feeling that many of our listeners, while they probably know what a cello is and what kind of music it generally plays, may not be, like you and I, so indoctrinated by the world of contemporary music.
I know you've collaborated with a considerable number of A-listers from the pop world, like Lady Gaga, Adele, and Lou Reed, to name a few. But I get the sense that you're an individual who is very deep into the world of experimental contemporary music. You grew up in New York City. You taught at the University of Chicago and were an artist at residence there. You did your doctoral studies at the University of Huddersfield, which for the uninitiated, is something to the world of contemporary classical music like Nashville is to country.
So, to begin, maybe you could tell us, what is contemporary classical music? And moving beyond that, where and how does it interface with society at large?
Seth: Thank you for having me, first and foremost. Well, what is classical music? I think that's a question that everyone's been trying to ask for a long time.
Edgar: Also, not even contemporary classical music, like, classical music in general.
Seth: Just classical music in general. Sometimes, I don't try to prescribe to labels. I think a lot of artists of the past, and I think the present, they're creating. They're making music, they're expressing themselves, and they're trying to tell the stories of their time now. And in some situations, also the stories of that, which is now past.
The cello in and of itself, I'll go back to that. What is the cello? The first kind of remnants of what we now know as, in the modern cello world, goes back to the 1500s, the late 1500s, really where we start to see them. One of the very first instruments that is coming out of what we call the Vial family, like Viola da Gambas, multiple versions of that. But for me, we have multiple periods in time that we have multiple composers, especially if we think about the Western classical world and classical music where we're dealing with counterpoint in harmony, multiple voices moving in either parallel or non-parallel lines, with a wide variety of settings, whether it's solo, chamber music, orchestral. But where do I put it? How do I describe it in a way that can make sense for a lot of people?
We're telling stories. As a friend of mine says, "They're writing songs." And, which, in a way, if you want to really dumb it down in that way. But for me, I have tried to find a way to, kind of, just express myself whether that is creating works for myself in collaborations with other, other composers, other choreographers, other makers, I should say, in that way and do it in the best possible way that I can.
Edgar: Okay. Yeah, that's great. Thank you. So, a recent article in Chamber Music Magazine, that you had sent me, mentions, that you frame your performance of Moorman's 1972 work, Iced Bodies as a "Elegy for those affected by police violence and the manifold injustices of the American legal system." Can you tell us a little bit about that work? Because it's a really interesting work that I think people would like to hear about. And how does your interpretation of it communicate that message? I don't know if you said that over something that the editors in the magazine put in.
Seth: No, they pulled that directly from me, but I think they kind of misconstrued a few things here, so let me set the record directly straight. The original work is from 1972 and Moorman is referenced there. We're speaking of Charlotte Moorman, the cellist and founder of the New York Arts Festival that ran from the 60s to the late 1980s. A muse to many great artists and composers, but also really heavily known in the world of visual world, but also the Fluxus movement that had included Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, George Maciunas, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The work from 1972 in collaboration with the conceptual artists, Jim McWilliams. That original work was titled Ice Music for London and premiered in the summer of '72 at the Roundhouse, which still exists to this day.
In 2016, I moved back to the States after many years living in Europe. And in that time, I settled in Chicago. So, during this period in time, I started to meet performers, conceptual artists, just people from all across the cultural sectors, but also activists. And in meetings with them and talking about what was happening in Chicago, just trying to get my feet wet with where exactly I am, I started to really hear about the injustices a lot more, but also, as they were related to mental illness in a lot of the documented cases that were filed against the police department, the judicial system in Chicago. And in that year and a few years prior, and some of the polls that had been done are just data that had been collected, about a three-year span, $28 million had been pushed towards settlements in many of the cases that are also linked to schizophrenia as well, amongst many of the victims in these cases. Something's wrong here. Obviously, this is a lot of money that has been used.
Now, I don't want to say to coverup, but definitely to smear over and to deal with the cases. And then of course, there were all of the publicized, as we were seeing on social media in 2016, which is also the same, I'm coming back at the same time. This is at the end of the Obama administration. And now, what would then essentially start to be the beginning of what would be the Trump administration. So I'm coming back at a very interesting time in US history of politics. And I wanted to figure out what is it I could say, or what is it I could do that could create a commentary on this as we're seeing the very beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement, but then we're also seeing people really organizing and trying to hold more people accountable and just make sure that many people's voices are being heard across any and every sector, and realizing that it's not an American problem. We're just even more vocal about it in some situations.
Edgar: Well, the rest of the world sees our problems in a way, with more visibility.
Seth: Exactly. So what ended up becoming through my time in Chicago and realizing that Moorman's entire archive is at Northwestern University in Evanston, so just north of Chicago's city proper, in the Special Collections Library at the McCormick Library. And so, I had a chance to work with the curators there because at that time, they were preparing pretty much the largest retrospective that ever existed for Moorman and all of her work and collaborator she'd worked on - worked with in all of the years that she was very much so active as an organizer and also as a performer.
So from that, and talking with other people that knew her and reading interviews and getting the chance to meet Jim McWilliams, many hours long phone calls with him as well to really understand what was at the heart of the work and from the many different iterations from 72 to 78, with performances both in the US, as well as abroad. I essentially then began to create Iced Bodies as a tribute and ode one to the police brutality, to those torn and tattered bodies that were left on display in the streets, but also as we saw them being documented on cell phones and being streamed across the media, but as well as an ode and tribute to those suffering forms of mental illness.
Edgar: And the piece is for a traditional cello? A regular cello?
Seth: No. It's for an ice cello.
Edgar: An ice cello?
Seth: An ice cello. So essentially, it's a sculpture. It's not hollow, it's completely solid, frozen. And myself and my colleague, Spencer Topel, we built the very first few prototypes and then we used our official mold that we would use to build all the cellos from that point on. I'm actually leaving on Monday to go build another one. It was developed at Dartmouth College. We did it there with our ice labs and the theater and School of Engineering in the Plastics Division. So this cello has a series of microphones and speakers embedded inside of it. The original cello or cellos – celli - that were created with Moorman from '72... Well, actually the very first one was created by the composer and sound artist Annea Lockwood. She was one of the co-curators for what was then the ISIS festival in London that presented Moorman for that concert. And that was just made out of ice cubes and water, and they froze it inside of a soft case cello bag.
So, when you see these iconic photos of Charlotte playing this ice sculpture thing, that's the original work. So it looks almost nothing like an actual cello, but that was the concept. And it was something that came very much the last minute. At that time, Moorman was scheduled to perform another work by Nam June Paik, famed composer, sound artist, media artist in that period in time, and also one of the founders of the Fluxus movement and collective. But one of the TVs that she was performing broke, so they were not able to do the piece. And there's a telegram that's in Charlotte's archive that dictates Jim McWilliam. Her writing to Jim McWilliams, Jim McWilliams sending back a note as well, giving her instructions on what to do because very much it was a last minute work. And thus began the journey of the ice cello.
But I found in the period of moving from '72 to '78, McWilliams and Moorman tried to amplify this cello, this concept, conceptual cello, the idea of it and added like a - like a little pickup and looked into a guitar amp and put it underneath the floor on which she's performing. So this gave me a lot of ideas based on a lot of other work that I had been doing, and essentially, created this sculpture, which would be the performance, but also, Spencer and I would attach a series of transducers. So kind of like sound exciters to glass shards and then distribute those through the space that essentially encapsulates me as well as the audience.
So, essentially Ice Bodies becomes a performance installation that is about two and a half or three hours in duration and ephemeral. So by the end of the piece, I have played and destroyed it with a series of tools and ice carbon tools that I have. So you see it in this whole formation over time, I deconstruct it until what's left is essentially shards of ice. And as Jim McWilliams likes to say, electronic guts and lots of water.
Edgar: Like the bodies of the victims of police brutality. Beautiful. Something I neglected to mention earlier is that you also do a lot of traditional and classical music, right? You don't just play on ice cellos, you play the regular cello, right?
Seth: I have wooden cellos.
Edgar: Your repertoire includes quite a bit of music by Black American composers, like late George Walker, who despite his Pulitzer Prize and his son who was a virtuoso, violinist composer, is far from the household name that many of his contemporaries were. Why do you think that is? And do you think that Black composers have struggled to find a place on American stages? Or is it just that there are fewer of them or something else going on? What do you think?
Seth: I think there's a lot of issues there, many layers. There have been composers of color, Black composers, Afro-Latino, the wide gamut forever. They've been here. There are gatekeepers. And people have been writing music. And yes, George Walker, I knew and worked with, he won the Pulitzer for string, which originally was a string quartet, which was then expanded and re-orchestrated for string orchestra, which is absolutely a stunning work. But then, there is a wide birth of works for solo piano, for multiple chamber ensembles. Of course then, there's also concerti, including the two cello concertos.
So, it's a wide catalog of music. And in most of those works, when you listen to many of them, especially the ensemble works, they were not recorded by American ensembles or even conducted by American conductors. They were all done in Europe, and I still don't understand it, so it's kind of been part of my life's work to really try to bring back. And I've done some two part podcasts and series for really - aimed towards cellists, really - to bring them into the world that is George Walker. And I've talked with many other cellists that had worked on the sonata or only were playing one movement of it, the slow movement, which is that one of the most amazing slow moves for cello, just in the entire repertoire, it's stunning and also heartbreaking in a way. And he really understood the instrument.
And I feel like there has constantly been a struggle, and, in some ways, I feel like some feel that the idiom that is classical music doesn't belong to us, and there is a Eurocentric complexity that is inside of America, but especially inside of culture. And I don't know the answer to how to change those things or to realize that there also is a large canon of the American classical music and the composers whose voices and stories have lived inside of that genre. And Walker being one of them. His sister also being one of them as well, also an amazingly accomplished pianist as well.
There's so many, but I feel like more attention is finally coming, or at least it's that people are finally waking up and giving a platform, finally opening the doors and allowing us to really show. When I was growing up, I would give an example, you know, I didn't meet another cellist of color, let alone a Black cellist until I got to college. That's a long time. And I started it when I was five years old. That's a long time to see no one that looks like you, that may - MAY - possibly have a story similar on how they came to the instrument, how they came up through their own, whatever the pedagogy was for them, their stories and their narrative and their journeys with this instrument or not.
I had to look to opera singers. So Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, and Denyce Graves, these were my heroes at the time because these are people I saw that looked like me, that were doing the music in which I was studying and, you know, hoping to become professional at it, that were on the stages. And they were on the CDs and they were on the posters, but where were the string players? They'd been there the whole time. It's just they weren't being put into the rooms for more to see. And that is changing a lot. And especially the generation younger than me, I'm seeing there's so many more in orchestras and initiatives that have really been created and supported and backed for decades now. And you're seeing a whole new crop and wave of amazing musicians. They're finally getting their due. Yeah.
Edgar: As I mentioned in the introduction, you are one of a select handful of distinguished visiting scholars who have been invited to the University at Buffalo by the Center for Diversity Innovation. Can you tell us a little bit about what you've been up to here at UB and what plans you have with the center?
Seth: Yeah. So the Center for Diversity Innovation, each year invites a series of distinguished scholars. Most of them, I guess, to date have been in the humanities and the arts. So, you get a wide variety of historians, archivists. Sometimes you even get an economist. Well, it's not in humanity, but meaning it's kind of outside everything. But you also get theorists, you're getting musicians, you're getting conceptual artists, a wide variety. So, really across the board. And it's been quite amazing to see the work that my peers, my cohort, that which they're doing. And it's linguists as well, that are focusing on work and gesture and, kind of, politics and hierarchies in South American countries as well. It's really… they inspire me every day.
So the work that I have undertaken, well, a large part of the work, I should say, that we do in general, has really become a face, a face for those of color, but also those that are not of color to have another set of mentors to work with, whether it's in their direct field or not. So, within my kind of mentee circle, there are a few that are musicians, but others that are also conceptual artists, others that also have a minor in architecture or that are doing double major in economics. Others are in media studies. It's quite amazing that it's not that they're coming to work with me because I'm a musician or an artist, many of them are coming because of global world views, having lived outside of this country. Or maybe sometimes they're first generation undergrad students or first generation graduate students or preparing to finish their PhD or masters and what is next, how do I prepare for that, or getting a second lens on their dissertations and their senior projects, or their masters thesis.
And we can provide that because I've gone through all of that, as have all of my peers as well. And so, they work with us throughout the entire year that we're here with them. Some of them have weekly meetings with us, others have biweekly or as they need it. We take field trips, we have dinners with them, lunches as needed and just serve as a support system for them, and also, a force of representation on the campus.
Edgar: And the people who can participate in this program are who? Undergraduate? Graduate? Faculty?
Seth: So, it's all students. So it can be undergraduate, graduate, I think graduate and postgraduate. But masters and as well as PhD. I have quite a few PhD students, so do many of the other colleagues within my cohort as well. So, anyone from any of the fields can apply. Yeah.
Edgar: Okay. Where can people hear your music?
Seth: On the radio and on the airwaves as they say. But where you can have a more focus, direct place you can find it would be on my website, sethparkerwoods.com. There's also many films I've directed with my work that I do, whether that's the contemporary classical, the classical, as I like to call it, the inherited rep from before.
Edgar: Inherited rep, that's a good one. That's a good one.
Seth: I mean, it is. So you can find that on Vimeo or also YouTube. So, quite a few outlets.
Edgar: Just by typing in Seth Parker Woods?
Seth: You will get some things, you'll get some hits. But my website will be a much more, kind of, condensed version of a lot of things, but there's quite a bit there. A lot of streams, especially in these last two years of the pandemic and shutdowns and concert cancellations and virtual concerts, so there's quite a bit of that, that is floating around now just because of this is where we are.
Edgar: Seth, it's been a pleasure. Thank you very much for coming and speaking with me today.
Seth: Thank you.
Edgar: There you have it. I'm Edgar Girtain, and that was Dr. Seth Parker Woods, cellist and distinguished visiting scholar at the University at Buffalo's Center for Diversity Innovation.
This has been the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy podcast, and you can learn more about the center on our website, buffalo.edu/baldycenter. We would also like to hear your thoughts about this podcast. Please tweet us @BaldyCenter, or send us an email at email@example.com. The theme music for this season was composed by Matias Homar, a PhD student in the Department of Music here at the University of Buffalo.
Okay, now for a special treat, we're going to let you hear some more of Seth's playing. The first piece, which you heard at the beginning of this program in the introduction, is the Allemande from Bach's first cello suite. It's the second part of a large multi-movement suite. Immediately following that work, we will then hear a work for cello and interactive electronics titled asinglewordisnotenough. And that's by experimental Canadian composer Pierre Alexandre Tremblay. Enjoy.
[Performance of Cello music plays from 21:12 to 38:24]
Edgar: That was Pierre Alexandre Tremblay's asinglewordisnotenough for cello and interactive electronics. Before that piece, you heard the Allemande from Bach's first cello suite. Both pieces were interpreted by Dr. Seth Parker Woods, the guest on today's show. You can hear more recordings on Seth's Bandcamp page or on his website, sethparkerwoods.com. I'm Edgar Girtain, and I hope you enjoyed that. Thanks for listening and take care.
There have been composers of color, Black composers, Afro-Latino, the wide gamut forever. They've been here… And I feel like there has constantly been a struggle, and, in some ways, I feel like some feel that the idiom that is classical music doesn't belong to us, and there is a Eurocentric complexity that is inside of America, but especially inside of culture. And I don't know the answer to how to change those things or to realize that there also is a large canon of the American classical music and the composers whose voices and stories have lived inside of that genre."
– Seth Parker Woods, PhD (2022 Baldy Center Podcast)
Hailed by The Guardian as “a cellist of power and grace,” Dr. Seth Parker Woods is a 2021-22 UB Center for Diversity Innovation Distinguished Visiting Scholar. He has established himself as an in-demand soloist, chamber musician, curator and educator both stateside in the USA, Europe and Asia. A fierce advocate for contemporary music and interdisciplinary arts, his collaborators have included the Atlanta and Seattle Symphony’s, Basel Ballet, Berlin Staatsballet, Ictus Ensemble, Tate Modern, Aldo Tambellini, and Adam Pendleton. His latest body of work and research revolves around intersections of interdisciplinary performance, acoustic ecologies, migration storytelling, as well as choreographic archiving, translation and performance. At present he is at work on his first monograph, ICED BODIES: A Performative Rebirth, which chronicles the evolution of his performance/sound installation with collaborator Spencer Topel. He is also developing new musical works for his solo show Difficult Grace, which serve as a commentary on The Great Migration, translation, acts of adornment and the human condition. In 2020-21, Dr. Woods was a lecturer in Cello Performance and Chamber Music/Artist in Residence at the University of Chicago.
See profile: Seth Parker Woods, PhD
Edgar Girtain is host/producer of the 2021-22 Edition of The Baldy Center Podcast. He is a PhD student in the music department at SUNY Buffalo, where he studies with David Felder. Girtain is a director of the Casa de Las Artes at the University of Southern Chile (UACh), and president of the Southern Chilean Composers Forum (FoCo Sur).He is an eminent composer, pianist, and writer of his own biographies. Girtain's diverse areas of work are often collaborative, cross-disciplinary, and international in ambition if not in practice.