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Interview: HOCKET

by Arielle Chiara

The LA-based chamber music group and Emerge project, HOCKET founded by pianist-composers, Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff talk toy pianos, artist collaborations and contemporary music for Folio. 

Arielle Chiara: Can you briefly describe the conceptual background of your practice for us and how the project came to be?

HOCKET: Thomas and I are both composer pianists and met in graduate school at USC. We both quickly discovered that we have a passion for commissioning and premiering new compositions and decided to team up as a duo performing new works for piano duo. We started working together in the Fall of 2013 and the first concert was April 2014, so this is our fourth full season. It is very important to us that the pieces we perform have a life, so we make sure that each piece we commission gets multiple performances. This allows us as a duo, and the composer, to live with the work for awhile and give it its best performance possible. 

We were pushed into the same area as people who play piano, I think we both had this similar approach and desire and we decided to start a new music ensemble together. We didn’t really know it was going to be a piano due in the begging, we thought it would just be us starting to play something and maybe work with chamber groups and build from there, but when we were on stage one we were like lets start off with a piano duo, first thing we did, and then we did it and we were like ‘well, this seems pretty good, we’ll stick with this.’ We got to the point where we were both just so on the same trajectory as far as what we wanted out of it and what we were doing with it that it was like, well, if you add another cook to the kitchen it gets messy.

AC: What is the significance of the name HOCKET for your project? I understand that it is a musical term which describes the breaking up of a melody between different instruments or voices, how do you see this as an active term describing or functioning within your practice? 

H: Exactly, hocket, which is a term used mostly for renaissance and modern music, means when two or more voices interlock to become a single line. This is at the heart of much of the music for piano duo. The piano duo is one of the few established duos where both players play the same instrument. So, this really means that when we perform, we are one larger sound, voice, and instrument together. So, working together to create one idea is at the crux of what we do. 

AC: Your main focus is piano, both individual and four-handed as well as toy piano, but from what I understand in performance you have also employed technologies including iPads, toys and various noisemaking objects. Can you tell us about these gestures and how you see them contributing to your music? 

H: Thomas and I love variety. For the same reason that we wouldn’t want to program only one composer for an entire concert, we also like to use more than one instrument on our concerts.   Any way to give composers more to play with sonically is exciting to us. We use melodicas, toy pianos, handbells, harmonicas, any inside the piano techniques, and other percussive bells and whistles. We love the challenge and think that it gives us, the composer, and audience a more exciting endeavor on which to embark. The iPads are incredibly useful for us as a performance tool and we read our music off of them exclusively. With our bluetooth pedals, which we activate with our feet, we no longer have page turns! This enables us to never have to move our hands from the keyboard. 

Sometimes we find that if you have a full concert that is just piano it can get tiring for the ears. We like making noise, making sounds. If it has keys on it absolutely we will play it, it doesn’t matter what it is. Piano is a percussion instrument too in a way, its very different but there is a lot of overlap. We have worked on a few pieces without piano but the one with Vicki was definitely the furthest we have ventured from the keys. Normally its mostly piano with the addition of other elements.

We recently performed with Vicki Ray doing a surprise encore with her for her Piano Spheres concert. Vicky is such a powerhouse in the new music piano world here, we both have known her a long time and we’ve both worked with her, we went out to Massachusetts for the Bang on a Can music festival, and she’s a faculty member there, so thats where we worked more closely with her. Since then we have been doing stuff with her here and there, we played with her on People Inside Electronics concert last Fall, and also the LA PHIL’s Noon to Midnight. So this single piece we performed once in Pasadena last fall, its a 3-person percussion choreography piece amplified slabs of wood, where each piece of wood is hooked up with contact microphones and you are making sounds and symbols with your hand in particular rhythms. Its incredibly visual and we just loved it so much when we played it with her last fall so she asked us to come in and do it again for the encore for her last concert. 

AC: The level of coordination required for many of your performances is astounding. Can you talk a little bit about the process of producing this rigorous collaborative work? 

H: There is an innate sense of physicality with a piano duo, especially when we play four-hands. Often, our arms get twisted up like pretzels, and much of our rehearsals end up being discussing choreography. We have to know where each person is moving in order to get to where we need to in the smoothest, quickest, and most musical way possible. Because we play other auxiliary instruments, too, this adds a different type of physicality and choreography. Seeing live music is so visual, and it is important to us that each movement you see us do on stage is part of the music and helping support a musical argument. How a piece is physically begun and finished has a strong impact on the music’s first statement. We practice and discuss this sort of idea for each piece we play at length, always striving to best communicate what the music asks.

AC: Of all methods you employ in generating your music are any particularly challenging or rewarding? 

H: The first rehearsal of a piece is always so exciting. Thomas and I will have practiced separately, but putting it together and hearing the full work the first time through is so thrilling. We also really love working with the composers. Any chance we can get to hear something from the composer that maybe wasn’t totally clear on the page is so fun to workshop with the composer. It’s something you can, obviously, only do with living composers and it’s why we’re so excited to commission new music.

We are both composers and we have each written two pieces for our group. I think when we started the group we wanted it to be important to our identity that we are composer-pianists, so we do both, and part of our identity is that we write for our ensemble. Its not unheard of but its also not super common to have composers in the groups, or that everyone in the group would be a composer as well. Also we are actively trying to commission pieces from other composer-performers and were trying to bring about this initiative where composer-performers write a piece for themselves to play with us, so if you are for example a saxophonist and composer you’d write a piece for saxophone plus us and then play it with us. We love working with other instruments and disciplines, adding to our ensemble and bringing other people in when we can is really fun. Another thing I would say as well is that there are pieces that are not written for two pianos that we would like to arrange for two pianos, there are orchestral pieces that would be really cool to be rearranged into a piano duo.”

AC: Are there any influences to your work that you would like to mention?

H: Definitely Donald Crockett, who runs Thornton Edge, the contemporary ensemble at USC. His ensemble is where Thomas and I met and our roles in that group have a lot to do with who we are and what we do today. We also were fortunate to each do summer programs with Eighth Blackbird and the Bang On a Can All-Stars, two new music ensembles who we both look up to immensely. How these groups carry themselves, perform, work, and play has phenomenally affected us as a group.

AC: What upcoming events can you tell us about? 

H: We’re really excited to be premiering a piano four-hands and two toy piano concerto with Kaleidoscope on May 12 & 13th! Donald Crockett wrote us this piece and we workshopped it with him this past Fall. We’re thrilled with this result and can’t wait to bring it to life in a couple months. We’ll then be touring it to USC, Oberlin Conservatory, and Aspen Music Festival all throughout next year. Additionally we will be doing a residency at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, playing 3 faculty works, an alumni piece, and a piece by us as well, along with lectures and workshops.