June 13, 2014
Student-Faculty Collaboration Blooms as Album Release
: At the Stockley house with "August Ruins" composer Peter Vukmirovic and cellist Paige Stockley. Photo by Dina Moreno.
: The working score of "August Ruins". Photo by Mark Bocek.
: Paige Stockley, February 19. Photo by Mark Bocek.
: Paige and Peter in the studio working towards the first album release. Photo by courtesy of the artists.
: Poster detail, "Music by the Sea" featuring Paige Stockley. Photo by courtesy of the artists.
: Paige prepares for the concert in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Photo by courtesy of the artists.
: Paige Stockley performing "August Ruins" at PARMA Festival's "Music by the Sea". Photo by courtesy of the artists.
: Peter congratulates Paige on her stellar performance. Photo by courtesy of the artists.
August Ruins, out on Navona Records, is a remarkable collaboration between former student, current alumnus Peter Vukmirovic Stevens and faculty member Paige Stockley — and a testament to what a Cornish music education can be.
A glimpse of what is possible at Cornish is available in the collaboration between composition alumnus Peter Vukmirovic Stevens (MU ’06) and faculty member and cello master Paige Stockley. The two have embraced something that is unique to the close-knit Cornish Music Department and taken it all the way to a recent performance at the PARMA Music Festival and two album releases on Navona Records. The story of August Ruins, Stevens’ five-movement piece for solo cello, is one of collaboration, community, grit, and above all, training. It’s a story of success, yet it remains only half-way told; it may take the two musicians as far as a Grammy nomination, probably further. Paige and Peter sat down on February 19 to talk about their work together and the part Cornish played in it as they prepared for the April concert in New Hampshire.
The Stockley house stands in the Eastlake neighborhood of Seattle, about one and one-half miles from Kerry Hall and the Cornish Music Department as the crow flies. On that chilly day in mid-February, the winter sun was streaming — hard, cool and white — through its old-fashioned windows and sheer curtains, throwing an almost other-worldly brightness into its spacious interior. Everything about the place was almost too idyllic, from the shadow-striped white enamel of the house’s arts-and-crafts features to Paige’s charming daughter to the story-book cute puppy dog nosing about the front hall. The dining room table was stocked with elegant cups of espresso and a box of chocolate-covered wafers. There was a hushed, gauzy surrealism to it all, like stepping into a pleasant, modern day painting by Vermeer. It was, in short, a perfect setting for having one’s preconceptions about the world of professional musicians turned upside down.
Anyone could listen to selections of August Ruins at Peter’s site (where it can still be heard) and be lost in the lush cello composition. As with all art, sitting in the audience or standing in the gallery gives no idea what it took to create the work you’re experiencing. Before sitting down at Paige’s table, listening to her and Peter talk about it, you would never have known that art so beautiful and effortless-seeming had been wrought in discomfort and even pain. It was shocking to hear that this elegant creation that has been the matter for two albums might never have happened at all, that it was born in fits and starts, that it required that money be scraped together, that it was not even pleasant to play at times, so technically demanding was it, requiring a lot of effort to “get it in the hands.”
The two began work on what would become August Ruins when Peter was still a student. They say that work like theirs gets going at Cornish because it is in the nature of Kerry Hall, home of the Music Department and the original home of the Cornish School. “It is a mysterious place,” says Stockley. “A lot of things that happen there happen in the hallways or the stairwell. Peter knows. You bump into people in the stairwell, and you say ‘Hey, can you play my piece tomorrow at noon?’” Such a meeting and such an invitation were the origins of August Ruins. Stevens says that he didn’t conceive of it as a five-movement piece from the get-go, that rather it grew organically. Stockley signed on just for one little bit, then there was another little bit, and then another, and another, until she’d signed on for the whole thing, a sprawling bear of a piece recorded in the studio last year and put out on the original album for Navona Records.
As she worked the various bits that would add up to August Ruins, Stockley says she had little sense of what it was like, so concentrated was she on the technical challenges of hitting all the notes it demanded. Stockley would not have undertaken this for just anyone. Peter Stevens had proven his training, proven himself as professional throughout the writing process. “He’s a true artist,” she says. “He believes in his own work. And that rubbed off on me as we went along. It’s not like I was sold the first five minutes. And my hands were killing me. It was not fun. Physically taxing.”
There were challenges for Stevens, too, other than the writing. Paige Stockley might be on the faculty at Cornish, but she is a professional musician who works constantly on the outside. Honor and form demanded that she be paid for her work. It was hard for Stevens, still a student when the collaboration started, but he managed to put together the right number of dollars at the right moments.
Stockley was, however, becoming increasingly invested in his work. “I was starting to think, like, this is pretty good. Peter was respectful, and I thought, ‘He’s listening to me, he’s nice. People like the music so far.’” She ended up cutting him a deal. “Paige was generous,” says Stevens.
Peter studied composition at Cornish, but he is also an accomplished pianist. In fact, he is the co-founder and artistic director of the Seattle Pianist Collective. It might seem a stretch, one might think, for him to have written August Ruins for solo cello. Not so: “I’m a trained composer,” says Stevens. “I write for everything from cello to symphony orchestra.” Nevertheless, the initial scores had to be matched to the realities of a hand moving on a cello’s fingerboard. This was work that needed the endless patience and feedback of Paige Stockley. The work copy of August Ruins bears testament to the hours and hours this must have taken. It is a bandaged, scribbled-over stack of tortured cuneiform with its own complex beauty, an awe-inspiring, mystifying jumble for those of us who read music only haltingly. It is not for nothing that on the lead pages of his work Stevens has inscribed “Edited by Paige Stockley.”
The results of this gargantuan effort were recorded a piece at a time at Jackstraw Productions in Seattle, mastered, and put out on an album by Navona last year. That release has sold exceptionally well, spending several weeks in the top 100 of classical album sales on Amazon, and — at this writing — it is on the number-2 best seller on Amazon MP3 in the “Modern and 20th Century Classical” category.
The original album’s success led to an invitation to headline at the PARMA Music Festival’s “Music by the Sea” north of Boston in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, this past April 19. The challenge for Stockley in playing the festival was far greater than anything before: rather than going into the studio and playing August Ruins a movement at a time, she played the whole thing at once for a live audience. It was a triumph. The festival wrote that “Stockley’s wonderful and gripping interpretation of Stevens’ intense, challenging, and expressive work provided the conclusion which the exceptional evening deserved.”
The performance in Portsmouth was recorded, and the new version, August Ruins Live, will be released by Navona Records on, appropriately, August 14. The record company plans to put the recording up for a Grammy nomination this fall.
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