Nico Muhly includes SFCM alum’s piece in Soundbox Series

Lukas Janata headhsot

Lukáš Janata’s “Flux” receives its world premiere on San Francisco Symphony Plus on August 12.

Earlier this year, San Francisco Symphony commissioned “Flux” by Lukáš Janata (MM ’19) to be featured as part of their Soundbox series curated by Nico Muhly. The piece receives its world premiere on the Symphony’s streaming platform on August 12. All the works on the program are produced in collaboration with choreographer and dancer Emma Lanier.

Below, Janata reflects on the series, the meaning behind “Flux,” and his time studying composition with David Conte at San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

What is San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox series?

SoundBox is a unique new twist on an established concert organization: a place where an endless variety of music engages with an informal setting full of drinks and laughs and where all the visual immersiveness endorses the visceral experience of the event. It’s proof that even a colossus with a long-standing tradition can be flexible and inclusive, constantly willing to develop. As the official SoundBox’s description says: “you really don’t know whether you’re in a cathedral or an underground club, or both at the same time.”

Even as the pandemic shifted the way music organizations around the world programmed, this particular series was almost predestined to be different. With his inauguration as the new SFS Music Director, Esa-Pekka Salonen embraced this new reality and developed a visionary digital series available on sfsymphonyplus.org, the SFS’ new streaming platform. So, all the visceral experience shifted into a carefully prepared massive audio-visual production available on demand.

The SoundBox series is like watching a musical movie.” - Lukáš Janata

Can you tell us a bit more about your “Flux”? What inspired the piece?

“Flux” is a work for chamber orchestra and choreography. It reflects and challenges the individual perception of time that is so different for everyone, especially during social isolation. Its interlocking morphing gestures ought to create a seamless borderline between what is the foreground and the background. The freedom for an ear to gravitate toward small gestures or follow a larger arc reflects time's relativity. While the time passes strictly metronomically, the independent musical lines join in the common flux of chaotic moments that sometimes achieve to crystallize in such sought-after togetherness but often do not manage to keep together for long. They become either interjected by another gesture or are simply cut off, much like the feeling of many of us being at the sea of thoughts, both positive and negative, without the ability to see the horizon on the main course.

Collaborating with the choreographer and dancer Emma Lanier confirmed for me the basis of my piece; how each of our perceptions of the music's embodiment of time's capriciousness differs. Hence, giving the freedom of choice to which musical aspect is drawn as an inspiration for the motion.

I think it is surrounded by a fascinating company of music by Nico Muhly, Meredith Monk, Orlando Gibbons, and Inti Figgis-Vizueta.

The genesis of the piece is so convoluted that it’s more for a wine & cheese (or coffee & cake) talk.

How was your piece selected for the series? Was there a submission process or was Nico Muhly familiar with your previous work?

Esa-Pekka had introduced his vision of a round-table think tank of eight diverse yet collaborative partners, wherein their first year of such collaboration, each of them curates one of the SoundBox series. One of the eight was Nico Muhly. Nico and I met through our wonderful mentor John Corigliano, and he then decided to commission me as he liked my work, and wanted to work with someone that is part of that universe and lives in San Francisco. He then submitted his proposal to undergo the standard selecting/approving process.

You graduated with a master’s degree in composition from SFCM in 2019. How did your experience at the Conservatory impact you as an artist and human being?

Enormously. Progressing from a small northern-Czech village to living right next to the San Francisco City Hall; a place so frequently civilly active and an epicenter for many movements—one would have had to be entirely dull not to be affected as an artist. Such a drastic change of an environment where the beginning challenges of moving into a new country were counterbalanced with so much support and a friendly environment taught me a great deal. What I also learned about this milieu was that when one has a good vision, people generally are here to support it and not undermine it. SFCM is a great example of how a strong vision can have a say in a larger structure.

As a foreigner, it is always a challenge to make such an investment worth it. There’s this constant time-ticking bomb when if it blows up, you go back, or you have to start looking for alternative solutions, and then you get to the question: Why did I come here in the first place?
I questioned it myself many times but have always found the answer: and that impacted me both as an artist and a human being. I’m not particularly eager to romanticize the composer’s creed, but the urge to create is something one can’t live without, and when this creative approach is omnipresent in one’s life, the answer is clear, and the impact is profound.

What was the best advice that you learned from your teacher in the composition program?

Like for many, one of the most crucial reasons I chose SFCM was my dear mentor David Conte, who taught me and unraveled many things about me, helped me grow as an artist, a human being, and an educator. David really helped me understand what my role in music and my relationship with composition are. Ultimately, it is not about the direct advice that our teachers give us, but an educated artist learns how to navigate and be inspired indirectly by observing, accepting, discussing, and filtering all that our more experienced mentors have to say. Having David allowing me to grow with freedom while overseeing the shape of my path and standing firmly on the discipline of a profound artist was the best I could get and what I needed the most at the time.

What would you tell prospective students about SFCM?

You’re about to become part of an institution and community of incredible potential. Make it worth it. While the environment generally can give you much leeway, don’t get lazy; allow yourself to be challenged, be open-minded, proactive, observant, and always do the extra work. But most importantly, be kind, and let your actions speak for you rather than any self-aggrandizing or, on the contrary, self-disparaging words.

Be aware that your time here needs to be treated carefully. It is easy to get lost within a larger structure and stop seeing how one thing leads to another; finding the connecting dots, helping the needs of the community and establishing life-long friendships is so congruent with your actual work towards your desired degree. Know why you choose what you choose, and never hesitate to challenge your ideas.

SFCM is a very quickly evolving institution of visionary approaches, and frankly, you can be an active part of it, which is great and unique about this particular society. David made a wonderful choral setting of Walt Whitman’s poem “Facing West,” portraying what the peoples of San Francisco may symbolize: Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound. At SFCM, the positive, entrepreneurial spirit is ubiquitous and deep-rooted, and while it sometimes may be easy to become tunnel-visioned, don’t ever mistake the forest for the trees.

Watch “Flux” and the other pieces curated for Nico Muhly’s Soundbox series on August 12.