Adrianne Munden-Dixon, Anna Heflin and Carrie Frey at Oracle Egg in LA; Feb '24

In Conversation: Carrie Frey and Adrianne Munden-Dixon

BK Scholes St Studio May 8 for ancient/future/nature/spacey vibes

In Conversation: Carrie Frey and Adrianne Munden-Dixon

BK Scholes St Studio May 8 for ancient/future/nature/spacey vibes

I am perpetually inspired by NYC violist/composer Carrie Frey and Montreal-based violinist/composer Adrianne Munden-Dixon individually and as a duo. Carrie was one of the first people I met upon moving to New York – we grabbed coffee as she helped me navigate the opaque world of freelancing and our friendship has developed from a bratsche-basis to that of collaborators. In addition to admiring them as artists, people, and for their curatorial sense I'm a big fan of the violin/viola duet aesthetically. Until recent years there has a big gap in the repertoire for this duo but the existing works celebrate the friendship somehow inherent to the instrumentation – namely the Mozart duets. It's an instrumentation I've been drawn to as a composer, I've written two violin/viola duets, and am grateful that Carrie and Adrianne have beautifully championed and repeatedly performed my As Above, So Below on engaging and kaleidoscopic programs. More than that, I'm really happy to see the myriad of works developing for this duo and it's a pleasure to ask some questions to Carrie and Adrianne that we didn't have time to chat through on their California tour this past February.

Anna Heflin (AH): First things first you have a concert in Brooklyn at Scholes St Studio (375 Lorimer St; donation based at door NOTAFLOF) on May 8 featuring music by Theo Haber, Kristofer Svensson, inti figgis-vizueta, Marcos Balter, and pieces by the three of us to round out the evening! Can you share a little about the curation of this program?

Carrie Frey (CF): As usual it’s just stuff we like to play and listen to, but maybe if I had to pick a theme, a sort of ancient/future/nature/spacey vibe? We just recently recorded inti and Marcos’s pieces for a new album Adrianne has coming out on Neuma! So it’s nice to be able to play those live, and we’ll be touring them more. Theo’s piece is a zany mix of meditative and interactive and has this speculative history element. Kris’s duo is gorgeous and spare, and compared to that inti’s piece is pretty maximalist but I think they share a similar inexorable trajectory to their progressions. Yours also has this ineffable quality that’s made even more otherworldly by the video element! And Marcos’s trio and mine [with cellist Julia Henderson] share a sense of close ensemble interaction, where we are tightly intertwined.

Adrianne Munden-Dixon (AMD): Each of the pieces on this show feel like they really immerse the listener in their own worlds and are meditations on a particular idea. They all deal with harmony and resonance in unique ways and I have so much fun playing each of them with Carrie and listening to how our instruments interact. 

AH: Can you tell us a little about your compositions on the May 8 program?

CF: We’ll be doing my trio (which also exists as a quartet - one of my more convertible pieces), Seaglass/Pebble, which as usual is inspired by one of my favorite sci fi novels, A Desolation Called Peace. A big part of ensemble playing is imagining yourself in someone else's body (their bow arm, their fingers), so the piece plays around between individuality and togetherness – a theme that the book explores through a range of situations involving an alien fungal intelligence, a VR mind-meld, and an implant that places compatible ancestors in your brain. 

AMD: Part of my musical practice is improvisation and I’ve found myself drawn to moments of stasis recently. Maybe I’m enjoying sitting in one thing for longer than I used to or maybe I just have less undirected energy these days with an 8 month old baby – it’s probably a combination of these. Part of the duo I’ve written for me and Carrie explores timbre and texture, which I’m often preoccupied with, but at a slower pace than is typical for me. I also like to give freedom to the performer to play with timing and leave plenty of room for choices that can be made in the moment as a group or individually, one of my favorite parts about playing chamber music.

AH: I realized that I don’t know your duo's backstory! How did you meet and when did you start playing together?

CF: Well, we were at Aspen together in 2012, but the first time I remember meeting and certainly the first time we played together was this Aeon Ensemble gig playing a DJ Spooky quartet at a UN Climate Change event. I just felt very supported by Adrianne’s playing, so later that year when Julia Henderson and I were talking about which violinist we should ask to play piano quartets I thought of Adrianne. That was in 2016. If anyone for some reason wants to do a deep dive into our origin stories and albums, we did an excessively detailed interview with Dave Ruder a while back!

AMD: Yes, thank you for finally admitting we met back at Aspen Carrie ;) I remember being students together at that summer festival and ushering shows together to make some pizza and beer money, but I guess she made much more of an impression on me than I did because she doesn’t remember me from that time at all haha. That quartet concert was one of my first gigs back in New York after living in Pittsburgh for grad school and I remember feeling really at ease rehearsing and performing with Carrie. We want a similar balance of playing and talking in rehearsal, maybe erring on the side of more playing music/trying things out than talking about it, and that instantly made me feel a compatibility between us. 

AH: You’ve both had a big year as a duo and as soloists, individually releasing your debut solo records in ‘23 and touring as a duo in California in the spring of ‘24. There are some overlapping tracks between the solo albums – Carrie’s Seagrass (2023) and Adrianne’s Lung (2023). What is the relationship between your independent albums and your work as a duo?

CF: I was pretty inspired by Adrianne’s solo album process, she definitely played a part in my feeling like I could do it too. We had this set of two pieces we’d written for each other - Seagrass/Reed and Zastrugi – growing out of our years of playing together and admiration of each other’s solo playing, so it felt natural to include that pairing, and our versions I think are different enough that it’s fun for our mutual listeners to get to know both. The last time we were doing a similar tour in California, it was really interesting to get to sit back and hear the other person play. I’ve played my piece so many times, I love hearing what Adrianne brings to it and kind of cycling that inspiration back into my own performance. We were joking this time that if people want to hear the duo version of my piece they can just play both albums at the same time ;).

AMD: We have this feedback loop of inspiration because I was going to say Carrie was a big factor in me feeling like I could make a solo album and write pieces for us haha. Our albums are snapshots of us at a particular time, and since we’re such close collaborators, it makes sense that there would be a portion that reflects our relationship to each other. We wrote those solo pieces at the same time, in early 2021, and were sending each other sketches and recordings during the writing process. My piece Zastrugi is based on my personal experience living in vastly different climates and colored by pieces that live in my fingers as a violinist, but I was always thinking about Carrie’s unique playing style and sound when I was deciding on what was getting written down. We also each commissioned pieces by Maria Kaoutzani for our albums, who we have worked with as a quartet in the past, and so we share those sister pieces that relate back to the other’s album. 

AH: As a composer, I’m so grateful for the life you’ve given my duo As Above, So Below (2019) for violin, viola, backing tracks and video (video by Alberto Novello.) I wrote it for myself and violinist Emily Holden, but after recording it I swiftly prioritized composing over performance. So thank you for making it your own and sharing it. I think this opens up an interesting conversation in new music, which is the shelf life of a work. Do you have anything to say about performing a piece of new music multiple times post-premiere and why you choose this model? 

CF: I think it’s so important to play things over and over, both for the pieces themselves and as a way of developing and improving my own musicality and interpretation! I have pieces I’ve been playing since college (Saariaho’s Cloud Trio, for one) and I just get so much deeper into the piece and discover new things every time (or maybe care about different things!) - just like you would with, say, a Haydn quartet. It’s only through repeat performances that pieces really settle and you’re able to see more around and behind the notes and shapes on the page. We should give ourselves time more often to really listen and learn how the piece breathes with an audience and how it lives in the body.

AMD: Yes, like Carrie said it’s a totally different experience to live with a piece for a long time and through multiple performances, how you can move around in it and can change/bring things out/etc. and how people respond to it. I love having a relationship with pieces I play, and especially when you put so much work into learning something it’s a shame to only play it once and never get to know it in that deeper way. Sometimes the model of freelancing or funding as a performer of new music lends itself to having the premiere or a recording be the culmination of all the work and then the end of your time with a piece, but it really is just the beginning of understanding and knowing it. I feel this especially after the detailed work that goes into a recording. I heard a member of the Orion String Quartet say that after recording the Beethoven quartets, pieces they had already lived with for years and years, that they finally felt ready to record them haha.

AH: You performed some pieces from the upcoming Brooklyn program during your Los Angeles show at the fabulous venue Oracle Egg in February. Theo Haber’s you get what you pay for was thought provoking – it actually appeared in my dreams and I’ll write to you about it separately. Without ruining the surprise for audiences, I will set the stage. There’s Carrie and her viola, an electronic backing track, a piggybank mounted on a box, and a ritual-esque bowl (from my kitchen in the LA performance) with coins. At a certain point, audience members are invited to participate and their actions trigger sound. Without their participation, the piece ends. What changes in the dynamic in a small venue with this interaction, or lack thereof? I felt a heightened sense of dependence on the audience, a sense of playfulness, and a vulnerability resulting from the unpredictable. I’m curious to hear about your experience as the performer, Carrie, and how it changes from venue to venue.

CF: Wow, I’m so curious about this dream. To be honest, I was really worried about this one! What if the audience didn’t want to get up, what if they didn’t figure out the timing, what if I had to just stop and everyone was like, well, huh. But in both of our California performances the audience somehow managed to immediately find the optimal level of interactivity. Obviously there were people present (like you) who kind of knew what needed to happen and were able to be sneakily encouraging, but I think something about it brings out a sense of fun and mystery for people that makes them tune into kind of an intuitive sense of what the pacing needs. 

AMD: I, too, am very curious to hear about this dream…

AH: A lot of your repertoire incorporates electronics, and you tour it. And it’s a big range of electronic setups – this particular piece of mine is press + play but there are other pieces on the program with live electronics. How can composers best set up their performers for success when incorporating electronics, especially in a tour scenario?

CF: It’s really hard because even if your electronics part is totally foolproof, sometimes the fix is like, “you just have to restart Max and then press the button” or, sometimes the laptop gets cranky when it’s sitting still too long. Neither of us is a real whiz with this stuff (correct me if I am wrong Adrianne!) so I always want the setup to be as minimal and clear as possible, and it also helps if the composer can give some guidance on which elements might be in need of troubleshooting - there will almost always be something! I was really proud of us for managing to pull it off on this tour, because it really was the first time we had done this many pieces with extra-acoustic elements, and we had it well figured out by the end. It helped that our setup was pretty compact - just a computer, interface, XLR, and then the mic for Adrianne and the contact mic for me (plus props of course).

AMD: The minimalist set up is key for me, whether I’m performing locally or on the road. I’m not a troubleshooting whiz like Carrie said, but I like to know what problems might arise from a particular piece or tech requirement and it’s definitely a lot easier to do that if there aren’t too many components. Max is always the most finicky in my experience, and a well organized patch with a clear description makes it easier to fix the inevitable problems that often arise with that program. It also helps things run smoother if there’s a good balance between what the performer has to do with their instrument and what they’re doing with the electronics, like how many times and when they’re pressing a pedal. There are some pieces I’d like to play more but it’s hard to program them because there are like 150 samples I need to trigger while playing violin and turning pages or hire someone to do it for me, find time to rehearse it with them, etc. If composers can streamline those aspects for performance purposes it will get their pieces played more and by more people.

AH: How do you maintain a long-distance collaboration with Carrie in NYC and Adrianne in Montreal? Does this situation mentally help you prioritize your rehearsal time when you’re together?

CF: It takes a lot of planning, but it also gives us a good excuse to hang out and have a work-cation every now and then. And I think it helps that we do play pieces multiple times so we’re not usually performing an entirely new program. This most recent tour we had to keep to a really efficient rehearsal schedule, so we both came prepared in order to just focus our time together mostly on tuning, which you can’t do alone in the same way. It helps that we have a history of playing together, so we don’t have to relearn each others’ cueing styles and ensemble playing can be pretty instinctual. We have some really cool commissions coming up next season that might require more intensive prep time together, but luckily I love being in Montreal!

AMD: I think the duo configuration is much easier to maintain long distance than a more complex ensemble like a string quartet, and Carrie is the perfect partner for it because she’s so communicative and flexible and also loves to travel. It always feels easy to get back into playing and on the same wavelength as her after time apart, but I really miss casually hanging out and playing and having time to waste together like when I lived in New York. I love living in Montreal and being part of the vibrant music scene here and how child-friendly ensembles and the city have been, so it feels like the right place for us right now even though I really miss my friends in NY. I’m really grateful Carrie has trekked up here to rehearse and I’m excited to go back on tour in the fall (hopefully Quinn won’t be teething again next time!).

AH: Are there any other future concert dates, affiliated or separate from the duo, that you’d like to plug? 

CF: I’m pretty pumped about two upcoming shows with my string quartet, The Rhythm Method: on May 23rd, our annual Broad Statements mini-festival at Mise-en_Place in Greenpoint, with sets by Kavita Shah, Mobéy Lola Irizarry, and Doyeon Kim, and premieres of new works we commissioned from Victoria Cheah and inti figgis-vizueta; and on June 6th at JACK in Brooklyn, our 10th anniversary season ender, celebrating the release of our album Pastorale with New Focus Recordings.

AMD: I have some shows around Montreal this summer, including one for Suoni Festival on June 21. That festival always brings great musicians from all over to Montreal for a few weeks in June and I’m excited to be part of it but also to be able to see so many performances close to home. There are some shows in the works for later summer, tour planning for the fall, and I have an album coming out later this year, so I’ll be focusing on getting those things rolling after our May 8 show. I’m also looking forward to just enjoying summer outside with my son after a long Montreal winter.


More posts from this author