I think we became familiar with Mark Winges’ work fairly soon after Eight Strings & a Whistle was formed. Our introduction was through a work entitled Dusk Music II, for alto flute, viola and cello. It was my excuse for purchasing my first alto flute and I will always be grateful to Mark for this!
We have revisited Dusk Music II many times over the years, including performing it at a 9/11 memorial in 2001. Throughout all this time, our relationship with Mark has been via email. Mark lives in San Francisco and it seems we were never able to make our paths cross. That changed this past Fall when we were invited to perform at FeNAM (Festival for New American Music) at Sac State in Sacramento and Mark wrote Loki’s Lair for us to premiere on a program of all American composers there. We met Mark for the first time at that premiere and then had dinner at his lovely flat very close to the infamous Haight-Ashbury district after the second performance two days later.
We were so excited and curious to meet Mark. His emails were often uproariously funny, and we had also enjoyed listening to other works of his on his website – I love the colors and the sense of openness and space he often creates with both sound and time. Dinner was a wonderful and memorable evening. We laughed, ate and drank as though we had known each other forever.
Mark’s music has been described as “an extraordinary adventure into the realm of possibilities.”(Robert Commanday – SF Classical Voice) Loki’s Lair uses alto flute (of course) in addition to c flute. “Like its owner, the dwelling has a mischievous air. The rooms sometimes have curved walls or odd angles. The eyes of the portraits may follow your movements as you walk down the hallway. The furniture is nice enough, but something about the fabric choices combined with the shadows seem to play tricks with your eyes. The door you thought opened to the side yard leads instead back into another curved passageway. The whole time you’re there, music plays in your head, unbidden. It too is slightly quirky. Lines that seem to be a simple unison melody aren’t quite so. A passage whose direction seems straightforward has an unexpected shift in register, or it becomes unclear whether it’s the viola or the cello that has the tune. Two instruments play similar patterns, but they never line up. The music stops. You find yourself back outside, facing the little drawbridge, without remembering the last few steps that got you there. “ (Mark Winges)
Loki’s Lair has gotten several performances since November. In fact, we like it so much that we recorded it on June 6 at Big Orange Sheep Recording Studios so we can include it on our next release. Ina will be blogging about that soon – be sure to visit our website frequently for updates!
The timing seems perfect for Mark to be our next featured composer. I always enjoy putting questions together for these interviews, and am delighted that I can hear Mark’s voice and sense of humor in his answers as much as I have learned more about him and his work.
SG: Who are your favorite composers? Which do you feel have had the most influence on you and why?
MW: That’s always such an interesting question! There are “favorites” that I love listening to, and there are “favorites” who are great people to steal from. The list changes over time, and is somewhat influenced by the kind of things I’m presently working on (or have in the pipeline). Bach is in both categories, and is always at the top of my list. Haydn, Debussy, Dutilleux and Miles Davis also fall under both headings. Haydn and Miles are both skillful at setting up expectations and thwarting them in a very satisfying way (albeit with very different materials and means). I also get influenced by wonderful things I hear in pieces by my colleagues.
Earlier on, Bartok, Lutosławski, Ligeti and George Crumb were in regular rotation on my turntable (dating myself with my use of that term). Bartok’s formal inevitability sharpened my musical thinking. The others were strong shapers in how sound worked for me, especially Crumb’s amazingly precise sonorities. I return to Zappa a lot: partially familiarity and partially because I enjoy angularity of his melodies. I also find some of his improvised work absolutely killer.
Some faves in the “love listening to” category include Johannes Ciconia, Victoria (some of the best whole notes in the business), Brahms, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Jeff Beck, Bill Evans and Snarky Puppy. When living in San Francisco, listening to the Grateful Dead is required by law. So there’s that.
SG: What made you decide to become a composer?
MW: I think it kind of decided me. At a certain point in my piano studies, around 11 or 12, I think, I started improvising and also wanted to explore the kinds of sounds I was hearing on records I was checking out from the library. I also knew I wanted to study organ. Knowing about Bach’s life, I thought composing was part of the organist’s job. I discovered I really enjoyed the process: putting little dots on paper was oodles of fun. Hearing the result was kind of fun too (I used to get my performer friends together to read music I’d written) and a good way to overcome the social awkwardness of a nerdy beanpole kid with thick glasses. Besides, I hated sports.
SG: What led you to Stockholm for your studies? Please elaborate on your experience there.
MW: At a certain point, I felt the American roots of my music (see above list: Zappa, Miles, etc.) were right in front of my face, but I wanted to get closer to the European side of my music. I had a significant letter exchange (with stamps and envelopes and everything!) with Ellsworth Milburn, who had been my undergrad composition teacher, asking him for recommendations. He had met Swedish composer Arne Mellnäs a few times, and suggested I approach Arne about studying with him. I contacted Arne, and it worked out wonderfully. Arne was a mentor and coach as much as anything, which was just what I needed. The relationship continued over the years (sadly, he died in 2002). I used to visit him regularly, both in Stockolm and a couple of times at his summer home on Gotland.
The musical scene in Stockholm seemed quite active to me. I went to a lot of concerts (easy to do when “just” hanging around composing). Henri Pousseur was guest lecturer at the Musikhögskolan for several weeks while I was there. Thanks to Arne (who was still part-time at the school), I was able to attend Pousseur’s lectures and have a couple of lessons with him. There was also hang-time with other composition students, the inevitable pizza-fueled conversations, playing recordings of each other’s work, etc.
I also fell in love with Stockholm. I think it’s an attractive city. It’s surrounded by water, its hills have their own beauty (very different than San Francisco), has good museums, public spaces and is a good walking city. I also really enjoyed living in a place whose history went back much further than anything on the west coast of the U.S. Or anywhere in the U.S. for that matter.
SG: How would you describe your musical language?
MW: Hmm, well, my website says “Clarity of expression, a sense of forward motion, formal designs, and a belief that sound and gesture create their own meaning are important elements in all of his works. His music is freely chromatic, sometimes with tonal centers, and includes regular, propulsive rhythms as well as more complex irregular patterns.” Since we know the internet is always right, I think we’ll have to accept that description.
SG: Are there any specific qualities you seek to achieve in your work?
MW: Probably the most important quality I seek is avoiding boredom (that’s true of my life as well). Above all, I try to write music I would enjoy listening to (because if I don’t enjoy its sound, how can I expect anyone else to?). But the aim of my music varies somewhat by genre. In vocal music, text (if any) shapes the work. Sometimes it’s a faithful representation of the text, sometimes a reflection / musical commentary on the text. I like to revel in the sound-world of a particular ensemble, especially in instrumental pieces. I like to heighten what is inherent about a specific combination of instruments (and sometimes, performers): like what does the sound of a percussion ensemble really do that’s different from, say, a string quartet. Or a trio for flute, viola and cello.
SG: Can you please describe your process when you compose a work? Has that changed over time?
MW: It varies. For some pieces, there are pre-composition verbal notes to myself, drawing of shapes on paper, and general doodling in my official composer’s notebook. Sometimes there’s only a little motive or sonority sketching on a page of staff paper. For shorter pieces especially, I jump right in, beginning at the upper left and writing until I get to the lower right. I work a lot at my desk, although there are times during the composing process where I’m running back and forth to the piano (which is at the other end of my flat) to make sure what’s on the page is really what I’m hearing in my inner ear. Although maybe the running back and forth is just because I don’t otherwise get enough exercise. I started out being really macho about the rightness of my inner ear, and not checking things as much. The results were not uniformly pleasing. So over time, I’ve accepted that my ear is indeed fallible some of the time. One thing that hasn’t changed about the process is my stopping to conduct a section or phrase once it’s down on the page. That allows me to feel the unfolding in real time, and I find that helpful. Fortunately, the windows of my study don’t face the street, so passersby won’t see this person gesticulating at some imaginary being.
SG: We first got to know your work through Dusk Music II (for alto flute, viola and cello) which was composed in 1989 and is a memoriam for Robert Mapplethorpe. You composed Loki’s Lair for us in 2018, just about a year ago. Many of your works are inspired by poetry, both new and old, or mythological figures or Gods. How do you come to these sources?
MW: I think anyone who composes vocal music reads a certain amount of poetry. I often find myself thinking of musical correspondences when reading it, even if I’m not looking for a work to set to music at that particular time. So it may not be completely “inspiration”, but rather just familiarity. Mythological figures are deep, rich archetypes that can be re-examined again and again to tell us things about ourselves. Even in abstract instrumental works, they can suggest mood, a dramatic journey or a shape. So, for me, the fact that I’m drawn to them and think about them means they’re going to come out in my music.
SG: Is there some sort of common ground in the material that inspires your work?
MW: It’s difficult to generalize, because I can’t get far enough away from my own work to see the rug that really ties the room together. Maybe a sense of fantasy and a sense of play in its broadest sense.
SG: Your sense of humor is notorious to those of us that know you – there are hints of it on your website, our email exchanges make me laugh out loud and your posts on Facebook are hilarious. I can hear this side of you in Loki’s Lair – but then again, Loki was a bit of a trickster himself. How, if at all, might this side of you have influenced your work – in either its content or your approach to it, or in any other way?
MW: You know, that’s a very serious question. One explanation of why things are funny is the way expectations are set up then thwarted. That approach can be applicable to music. I definitely exploited it in Loki’s Lair, because it seemed so naturally to relate to the subject matter (Loki). Another piece of mine that has a sly kind of goofiness is ShapeShifter, an instrumental quintet. Like Loki’s Lair, a bit of funny seemed appropriate to the piece.
I can probably recite reams of Marx Brothers dialogue because I’ve seen their movies so many times. I enjoy stand-up, the novels of Christopher Moore, and the absurdities I see riding public transportation. Some of it just sticks. So like poetry, favorite composers, a sense of fantasy, and other enthusiasms we’ve discussed so far, there’s funny stuff just sitting in the pantry behind my eyes. So when it seems to fit what a piece is doing, I’ll let it out. When it doesn’t fit, when I’m writing a piece that deals with deep, serious, weighty philosophical matters of great importance, it probably still sneaks out a little, if for no other reason than, well, “Hey, dude, lighten up”.
SG: Tell us about the chamber choir, Volti. You have been an advisor and composer for them for quite some time and have developed several projects with them, including a staged work for unaccompanied treble choir and mixed choir entitled Pandora’s Gift. What is it like to be able to have a long term relationship with a group like this? What kind of things have you been able to achieve that other wise might not have been possible?
MW: The short answer is that at least 50% and maybe up to 90% of what I’ve been able to do musically is because of Volti. First there’s the simple fact that as resident composer, there’s a regularity of performance opportunities, year after year after year. Second, the development of a true musical partnership between a composer and a performer (in this case, Bob Geary, the conductor of Volti) allows the whole to really become more than the sum of its parts. For both of us. He has challenged me – Pandora’s Gift is a perfect example. I had no idea I would or even could write a major stage work like this. I’ve been able to experiment and build on the previous pieces, whether they are wholly successful or not. Artistic partnerships are rare. So much of a composer’s activity is solitary. Certainly for me, having that regular input from Bob and the Volti singers makes me a wider and more aware composer.
The advisor portion of my job is also integral to my development as a composer. I have input to the repertoire process. My job is both reactive (reviewing scores / interest from composers) and proactive (seeing what’s out there that might fit Volti). Having to constantly review new scores has made me wider and more inclusive. It has also made me more aware of what it takes to make a program that is interesting to the listener: a contrast of surface styles and approaches to text, finding music that performers can be passionate about (and that doesn’t overtax, a special concern of vocal music), and being inclusive of the whole composer community. We also have two others on the artistic committee: executive director Barbara Heroux and artistic advisor Sid Chen. Their contributions to planning and the discussions I’ve had with them have increased my awareness on many levels. Even though Bob is the artistic director and sets the tone for the group, the collaborative approach makes all of us better musicians.
SG: If I remember correctly, you are also an organist. Has this influenced your approach to composing or your musical language?
MW: Yes, I still play the organ. Mostly as a substitute / fill-in or 2nd organist when one of my colleagues needs someone to play while they conduct. Its sound certainly shaped my inner ear when I was younger, although not exclusively so: I played oboe through high school and put in few years as an electric bassist. It’s not really approach or language, it’s all the things one must do if one wishes to perform. I still learn new repertoire from time to time (although for the first few weeks when I’m learning one of my own pieces, I mostly want to kill the composer).
More than performing, it’s practicing that keeps me in touch with the process of bringing notes to life. I find that thinking about what a performer actually does, and being able to feel time unfolding the way a performer does, to be very helpful as a composer. After all, people aren’t given a score after they buy a ticket and told, “Here, read through this score and have a meaningful artistic experience.” It’s the air vibrations in real time that cause the piece to exist. Some familiarity with the process of creating the vibrations is necessary and helpful for any composer. Besides, as an organist, I sometimes get to play really loud. And that’s really fun.
I think many of us benefit by making the line between composer and performer a little less rigid. I know you, Ina, and Matt have made arrangements. Maybe written exercises or pieces for your students. I’m sure that having to shove notes around on the page gave you musical insights that are different than what you get as a performer.
SG: What do you think the role of the arts and new music is or should be in today’s world?
MW: I honestly don’t think about it much (I’m more fond of bagels than roles.) I’m passionately absorbed in my own tunes, and I assume that artists in any genre are equally so, telling the stories and making the connections they deem most important. That we are living now means our artistic creations will of necessity also be of now.
I recently set a text by the Irish poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama, part of which reads:
Let us look up and out and around. The world is big and wide and wild and wonderful and wicked, and our lives are murky, magnificent, malleable, and full of meaning.
I think that’s a pretty good starting point for figuring out one’s place in today’s world.
SG: What is your view of music being composed in our life time?
MW: A combination of “wow, amazing stuff” and “you young whippersnappers get offa my lawn”. I can only speak to what I actually know/hear/read about. Of course, I feel closer to some types of music than others. But no matter how you slice it, the diversity of voices and multiplicity of stories being told feels very positive to me. If you can’t find something you like listening to (and something you really don’t care for), you’re not really listening.
SG: Do you have any advice for aspiring composers?
MW: I can only state what works for me. First, listen to a lot of stuff. Without a wide listening experience, one can get too self-referential and develop a too narrow a voice. Second, compose a lot of stuff. Leaving the sounds locked up in one’s head, no matter how great the sounds are, isn’t really being a composer. One has to put dots on the page (or vibrations in the air if you’re in a non-notated tradition), and the more one does it the better one gets at doing it.
Mark Winges was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and currently resides in San Francisco, where he is composer / advisor for the chamber choir Volti. He was also composer-in-residence for the San Francisco Choral Artists for the 2012 / 13 season. He is a graduate of the College-Conservatory of Music – University of Cincinnati, SF State University, and has studied at the Musikhögskolan in Stockholm, Sweden. His principal teachers were Ellsworth Milburn, Henry Onderdonk, and Arne Mellnäs. His works have been performed by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, the Verge Ensemble, the American Modern Ensemble, Earplay, Eight Strings & a Whistle, Works-in-Progress: Berlin, the Empyrean Ensemble, Volti, the Piedmont Children’s Choir, the San Francisco Girl’s Chorus, the Pharos Music Project (NY), The Crossing, Carmina Slovenica (Slovenia), the Guangdong Choir (China), Aarhus Pigekor (Denmark), the Marin, Berkeley and Piteå (Sweden) Symphonies and many others.
His Loki’s Lair, written for Eight Strings & a Whistle was featured on the Festival of New American Music at Sacramento State University in November, 2018. 8SW subsequently gave its New York premiere at the Tenri Cultural Institute, and is recording the piece for CD release. Of a Rose, a setting of a 15th century carol text, was premie(red by the San Francisco Choral Artists this past December. Recent large-scale works include Breath & Hammers, a concerto for piano and wind ensemble, which was premiered in October, 2017 by pianist Blaise Bryski and the Cornell University Wind Symphony, conducted by James Spinazzola; it also received a performance at Yale University during the College Band Director’s National Association Eastern Division Conference in March, 2018. His Pandora’s Gift, a 35-minute staged work for unaccompanied treble choir and mixed choir, set to a libertto by Denise Newman with choreography by Erika Chong Shuch, lighting design by Allen Willner and costumes by Katherine Nowacki was premiered to great acclaim by Volti and the Piedmont Children’s Choir in May, 2015.
Mark is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, where he has had multiple residencies. He has also had residencies at Fundación Valparaiso, in Mojácar, Spain (2010) and the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, IL (2013)
For more information please visit Mark’s website.
Ina, Matt and I are very excited to introduce you to our first ever 8SW Composer Competition winner, Jorge Amado. Jorge is currently a student at ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte) in Havana, Cuba. His submission to the competition, Eidos II, is a very well crafted, powerful and energetic example of the potential future of chamber music. Eidos II is the second of what will be a set of independent pieces for diverse instrumental ensembles. Its title, a Greek term that means “type” or “species,” is a reference to the diverse possibilities with the instrumentation of chamber ensembles. The piece is greatly influenced by Afro-Cuban rhythms and the folkloric ensembles used for Santería ceremonial music. Please do join us at the Tenri Cultural Institute on November 16, 2018 for the World Premiere of Eidos II. For more information please visit here.
Jorge is a delightful, humble and very gifted young man. I find his generosity of spirit and his love for music to be apparent in this interview.
Suzanne: Who are your favorite composers? Which do you feel have had the most influence on you and why?
Jorge: Honestly, I do not have a favorite composer. They each have unique characteristics that appeal to me, from their own musical language to their personal historical context. How Shostakovich and Khachaturian could create such good music despite the social and political limitations in which they lived, for example, always amazes. In my earlier compositions for violin, my points of reference were J. S. Bach, Eugene Ysaye and Béla Bartók, thanks to their significant contribution to the “sonata a solo” genre for violin. However, many other composers have influenced my way of composing since then. I believe that a composer can never forget his identity and roots. Presently I am inspired by the music of composers like Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Tan Dun; With regard to Cuban composers, I feel that those who have influenced me the most are Leo Brouwer and my composition teacher Juan Piñera.
SG: When did you become interested in composing and why?
JA: I began composing at the age of 9-10, when my piano teacher, Dr. Claudina Hernández, assigned me the task of composing a work, which would be submitted for evaluation in an exam for Cuban works. This sparked my curiosity in composing and it became a sort of hobby. At the age of 17, I took the Carlos Fariñas composition workshop, which is taught by my current professor, Juan Piñera. Professor Piñera polished my way of thinking about composition. I think this new musical facet enriched my performance skills and improved my interaction with audiences. Nowadays, composing is like another instrument that gives me the joy of being able to play.
SG: We know you are a serious violinist. Do you find it difficult to balance playing the violin with composing?
JA: For playing the violin, like other instruments, you need to dedicate time and daily practice, and for composing, you must listen to a lot of music and then analyze it. There are also projects involving other media, such as arranging and composing for audiovisual media or theater, which nourish me. These are projects that also take a lot of time, and the day only has 24 hours. To find the balance between the violin and composing is not difficult. The challenge is to save time, and to find space and time for everything.
SG: What kind of impact does being a violinist have on your composing?
JA: Composing has enriched me as a performer, and the violin has helped me with composing. It is a bilateral relationship that has opened many doors for me. As a violinist, it has allowed me to know many masterpieces, from solo to chamber and symphonic music. These are means that allow me to study works in depth, and to study what works and what does not. Also, understanding the process has given me greater interpretive understanding, as well as experience dealing with rehearsals, nerves on stage, etc. These are resources that I draw from and utilize when I compose: like when music should have a peak moment, when it should be calm, and others. But, as I explained before, being a composer has given me many resources for performing as a violinist. They are like bridges that connect and allow me to pass from one side to the other.
SG: Can you tell us about your compositional process? What inspires you – and how do your pieces come into being? Does it start with a melodic idea, a rhythmic one, or a visual image – or some sort of broader concept?
JA: This is a very interesting question, because I am still figuring this process out. Usually, it is very linked to my moods; depending on how they are, that’s how the work will be. It starts with an essence, something that can mix melody, rhythm, and then it develops when I start to write. I do not rely on elaborate concepts and rarely rely on an unwritten narrative. I do not attempt to musically retell an experience, yet an experience might motivate me and inspire music that does not necessarily have a relationship with that experience.
Weekdays are the most productive for me, because I keep my mind busy and I listen to a lot of music in the hallways of my university. When I listen to music, I am not necessarily referring to instrumental music. It could be the birds that fly between the foliage, the contractors working on the restoration of the university that sometimes work to a rhythm, or sounds in the atmosphere that invade my home, like the cars horns and the loud sounds of buses and other things.
SG: In your program notes about Eidos II, you explain that “Eidos” is a Greek term meaning “type” or “species” and that it is a reference to the diversity of musical instruments that can be combined in chamber ensembles. The term “Eidos” can also be further defined as “the distinctive expression of the cognitive or intellectual character of a culture or social group.” In your notes you also write about the folkloric traditions that inspired the piece, and in this sense it seems that this extended definition is fitting. Was that your intention?
JA: I became inspired by platonic philosophy in 2015, when I delivered a lecture related to philosophical musical language based on the elements that propitiated the cosmological formation of the universe (this work obtained third place in the scientific philosophic event of my university). I found out that the term “Eidos” acquired a philosophic meaning in the Theory of the Forms and I conceived the idea for Eidos I at this time. Later, I learned about the etymology of the word, its pronunciation, the context in which it can be used, etc. through a student from Cyprus who studied at my university. Although it might link closely to the hypothesis which extends to the social groups of humanity, it was not intentional.
SG: How is Eidos I different from Eidos II?
JA: The most significant difference is that Eidos I is for clarinet quartet. I was composing works for violin, violin and piano, violin duos, etc. at that time and wanted to create something different. Most of it is written using an asymmetrical rhythm, something very unusual in my compositions. Since I was happy with the results, I decided to create a set of pieces for different ensembles. Eidos I was composed in 2017 and received an honorable mention at the Musicalia contest sponsored by my university every year.
SG: In 2015 you were part of a group of Cuban students who took a trip to Chicago as part of a cultural exchange with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. Please tell us more about this experience. Did you have a chance to go to a lot of concerts/hear a lot of music while you were there? What was your impression? -Did you hear any new music – by this I mean anything written in any genre but by a living composer? What are some of the similarities and differences between what young composers are doing in Chicago and Havana?
JA: It was incredible, I still remember it as if it were yesterday. When I was there, I could not believe it. This was my first trip and the cultural shock was very strong. Chicago is a city that is frequently featured in American movies and television series and I was reminded of them while I was there. The opportunity to meet and share music with North American musicians was astonishing. Artists are sensitive to everything, but to be able to share what you love is something else. I was able to participate in a concert performed by the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (CJP) and directed by Orbert Davis at Roosevelt University.
I also remember a frustrated desire when I went by a theater and saw an announcement for a concert of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with no other but Zubin Mehta at the podium. I was not able to attend because my visa expired the day before the concert. Regardless of this disappointment, everything else was wonderful: the orchestra, the musicians, the management team, and the family of the conductor. They are all great people.
I did not have a chance to interact with young composers because the agenda was so tight. After my trip, I dedicated a composition titled Reunion (Encounter) to CJP, which the orchestra premiered in November 2016.
SG: In your bio you mention being a guest speaker at events that appear not to be related to music. Can you tell us more about these interests? Do they influence your composing in any way?
JA: It was an event at which I delivered a lecture on a famous Cuban violinist from the nineteenth century, Claudio Brindis de Salas. I presented at the Escuela Nacional de Artes (middle school level,) as part of a workshop named “Afropalabra” (Afro-word,) sponsored by the Casa de Africa (Africa’s House). This institution is dedicated to highlighting the contributions of black personalities in Cuba. The connection with this violinist was shaped before I was born. My maternal grandmother had a spiritual bond with him to the extent that my maternal uncle studied the violin. I apparently followed in his footsteps. I think my interest in composing works for violin inspired by my family history became stronger as a result of my research.
SG: What is life like in Cuba for a young composer? What kinds of opportunities, other than entering competitions, are there for young composers to get their music performed?
JA: I believe that there are many talented young people with strong interests in composing in my country. I am not referring only to those who have formally studied it, but also to students who demonstrate a good level in their work without having studied it. My teacher offers a composition workshop to music students of all levels, from elementary to higher. His students develop confidence in their own work without being afraid of what it is considered correct or not. If a composer begins at a younger age, he/she will have a lot of time to find his/her own way of thinking about music, and I am very grateful for this.
Since Cuban popular music is more recognized internationally than its concert music, there is a strong desire in Cuba to develop concert music more. My university posts information about national and international contests and encourages students to participate. Such festivals as Casa de las Américas or the Contemporary Music Festival also support the participation of young composers.
SG: Do you think there are any common elements that are currently influencing young composers such as yourself in Cuba?
JA: I don’t think there is a common element among young composers here. Even though they may have the same teacher, students do not necessarily all follow the same aesthetic trend. They are all influenced differently and compose using their own language; some are based on intuition, others on calculus, etc. This has allowed for a community of diverse musical opinions that generates debates that converge and exchange in a bilateral way.
SG: What kind of music/which composers are you listening to at the moment?
JA: Currently, I am listening to a variety of musical genres that are different from what I do: from film and video game composers such as Howard Shore, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer and Jeremy Soule to Brazilian popular music and traditional Asian music.
SG: What will the next steps be once you have completed your studies at ISA?
JA: I really do not know what awaits me exactly because there are so many things I’d like to do. I want to continue working, studying and learning new things. I would like to explore orchestral conducting. I have wanted to do this for a long time. I feel that it is a very wide-ranging specialty that could help me develop musically as well as personally. I would also like to study music abroad, but if it is not in the future as I dream, I would be happy if I could teach composition at my university (ISA).
Jorge Amado is an up and coming young Cuban composer and violinist. He is the first prize recipient of the 2018 8SW Composer Competition for his work, Eidos II for flute, viola and cello. Jorge has been recognized for his work by competitions such as the Instituto Superior de Arte – sponsored by Concurso Musicalia (First Prize in 2015 and 2018, two honorable mentions in 2017 and one in 2018), the Concurso de Composición “Harold Gramatges” sponsored by UNEAC (First Prize, 2015), the Alfred Schnittke Competition and Composers’ Forum (Ukraine, Finalist, 2016). Additionally Jorge’s work has been presented in several festivals including the Festival de Música de Cámara (Havana, 2015), the Festival de Música Contemporánea de la Habana (2016 and 2017), the Austin Chamber Music Festival (USA, 2017) and the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival (USA, 2018). He has composed solo, chamber and vocal works, including both acoustic and electro acoustic pieces. His orchestral work, Reencuentro, was premiered by the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic in Chicago in 2016.
As a violinist, Jorge has performed with orchestras such as the Orchestra of Cuban Radio and Television, conducted by Miguel Patterson, the project Chicago-ISA’s orchestra, conducted by Orbert Davis, and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (2015), also conducted by Orbert Davis. Additionally, Jorge has performed in concerts and workshops presented by Casa de las Américas in Havana, as part of their Composition Awards concerts. He has participated in the recording of two albums, sponsored by the AHS and Colibrí Productions.
In 2015, Jorge participated as a speaker at the XIX Scientific Workshop on Social and Cultural Afro-American Anthropology and the VII Meeting of Orality “Festival Afropalabra.”
Jorge is currently a student at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), majoring in Composition with Maestro Juan Piñera and Violin with Maestra Carmen Amador. He graduated with a specialization in Violin and Music Theory from the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA) in 2016, where he received honors for his comprehensive academic and civic achievements.
Please visit here to hear Jorge perform his Sonata No. 1 for solo violin. It will take your breath away. Want to hear more? Please visit here to hear a performance by the Fear No Music Ensemble of Jorge’s Triptico Cubano and here to hear a performance of his Sueños Ancestrales for violin and piano performed by Abel Rodríguez and Jelger Blanken.
I am very excited to introduce you all to the wonderful flutist and composer Pamela Sklar. Pamela has had an extraordinary career performing with the likes of Dave Brubeck and touring as a soloist with the ever popular Claude Bolling, just to name a few. We are honored that Pamela composed her work, Third Eye, for Eight Strings & a Whistle.
While she might not, I still do remember the first time I met Pamela. It was on a Metro-North train to Bronxville, shortly after I had graduated from college. I was on my way to my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, to perform on a concert of flute music that had been organized by my former teacher, Gerardo Levy. I was with Gerardo and a few other people who were performing on that program, and Pamela was on the same train. What I don’t remember is if she was playing on that concert with us, or if she just happened to be on the same train that day –– Funny, you’d think I’d remember the concert instead! I was struck by Pamela’s down-to-earthedness. She seemed so centered, curious about everything, open minded and confident in a way that was a pleasure to be around. Pamela and I have crossed paths many times since then, but I don’t think we really had our first substantive conversation until about ten years ago, when we were performing together on another concert of all flute music. Pamela and Matt toured for many years together with the New York Ragtime Orchestra in Maine and Japan and she knew about Eight Strings & a Whistle. I think by the time we started really talking at that concert in 2008, there was an established rapport between us. Shortly thereafter, Pamela starting coming to our annual concerts at the Tenri Cultural Institute. She has been such an enthusiastic supporter of our work and when we talk about what it is we are all trying to achieve musically, she still reminds me of that first time I met her on that Metro-North train.
Pamela’s Third Eye was completed and sent to us in December, 2017. Since Eight Strings & a Whistle was formed, we have been very lucky that so many composers have written such wonderful works for us. But Pamela is a FLUTIST, and for me personally, her wanting to compose for us was a very welcome addition to our repertoire. Third Eye interweaves the viola and the cello with the colors of the flute in a way that I love so much, creating a painting of tremendous beauty and spirituality with sound. We premiered Third Eye in March of this year at Bronx Community College. We plan on more performances next season – we’ll keep you posted!
In the meantime, please enjoy my interview with the wonderful Pamela – “La Reine” Musicalement, Flutistiquement, Jazzistiquement et Amicalement – as Claude Bolling so beautifully put it!
Suzanne: What drew you to composing? Can you describe how you sought to develop as a composer while maintaining a career as a flutist?
Pamela: I loved making up colorful characters and playing music as a kid. I was drawn to composing basically the same way that I just had to write stories as a child; about comic book characters I invented (Sky King, Onion Lad, for example), and the same way I just had to play the flute. I never studied composition formally but I did write some brief piano pieces during childhood, a flute duet later, and a brass quintet in college.
I was a performance major at Mannes College of Music in New York, and was very focused on my flute playing during the early part of my career. Composing was not a priority at that time. I came back to it in about 2009, when a colleague of mine heard something I’d attempted and told me that I should compose. He was forming a new composer-performer group and invited me to write a work for it. His best advice was, “Don’t judge. Just write.” He was sharing with me what his teacher had told him.
I began developing further as a composer while maintaining a career as a flutist without much particular planning or thought, actually. I always understood from childhood that I would be a musician, so writing for colleagues and groups is a natural extension of playing for me. Also, I’ve always loved playing chamber music, and I equally love composing for small ensembles.
Suzanne: What is your process and how has it changed as you have matured?
Pamela: For me, the composing process is aided by having specific people or themes in mind. A particular instrument and player, or a nature theme such as a setting, a climate, or element, for example, give me a mood, a feeling, impressions, imagery, and/or a dynamic. These integrate and enable me to combine energy, rhythm, tempo, pitch and colors which involve synesthesia. This whole process gives me greater musical detail and direction. I feel as though I’m maturing through – or almost maturing! – because of my writing! In any case, using some of what I learned in music theory classes and from what I hear and have written earlier changes some of my writing, but I’m not certain the process itself has changed much, if at all.
Suzanne: You and I started talking about you writing a piece for Eight Strings & a Whistle a few years ago, and then we revisited the idea this past Fall. How did you come up with the material for Third Eye? Can you describe your process a little bit in terms of how Third Eye came into the world and what inspires the musical ideas you choose to explore in your work?
Pamela: Third Eye was something of a distilled version of what I feel from the three of you when you play together, as well as the way your energy connects when you communicate verbally. You share a very focused, pure blend with a spiritual link. So, in terms of a theme/material I wanted to write something spiritual – something felt but not seen physically: like a third eye. I was practicing one day and suddenly just started playing a rush of notes. I quickly recorded them and realized this was the introduction, which needed to begin with flute. The realization of the title took longer than creating some of the music.
Suzanne: When I hear you play and listen to your recordings, I am struck by the variety of influences that both color your playing and your composing. You are such a versatile artist. While this is an interview about your work as a composer, I’d be curious to know who some of your greatest influences have been both as a flutist and as a composer. I would guess that the two sides of you come together often. Would you say that there is overlap in terms of how the various people you have worked with as a flutist throughout your career have influenced you as a composer?
Coming back to the influences I hear in your work, I hear the ethereal and spiritual drawn from Middle Eastern and American Indian senses of tonality, but I also hear influences in other works, which seem to draw from other parts of the world. And then, there are of course the distinctly American Jazz works – and I can hear how you draw from all of these to various degrees to create a whole. How do you work with this, how does it come together for you?
Pamela: Thank you, Suzanne. I believe I have more than two sides, which come together for me in ways that change and are like different traits ofone bigger thing –– almost like contributing strands of inherited DNA. It’s all music: styles, rhythms, instruments and grooves. In fact, I’m almost embarrassed to say that I never thought about any of these styles as being different from one another! Again, this all goes back to my childhood and coming from a musical family. My brothers both played keyboard in fantastic rock bands which rehearsed at our house, and I also heard a lot of other music they listened to such as the WHO, BB King, Zombies, Wilson Pickett,The Doors, Blood Sweat & Tears, The Kinks, etc. My parents had Classical music playing on the radio in the morning and evening, and they took us to orchestra concerts. I also had a well-known violinist cousin whose recordings we listened to. All of these styles were just like different dialects of the same language to me.
Working with musicians such as Larry Coryell, Bob Mintzer and Don Sebesky at different times influenced my improvising more than my writing. My greatest musical influences in general are equally my favorite composers and performers which are rather random stylistically and genre-wise. Classically they include Prokofiev, Verdi, Faure, film composers Bernard Hermann and John Williams. Non-classical musicians/bands range from the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Motown groups, Moody Blues and Hubert Laws (with whom I performed while touring with Claude Bolling). I love Native American flute sounds and Middle Eastern music, but these ancient cultures themselves are what fascinate me; many Native American tribes were very spiritual and connected with nature and animals, and their artistic and colorful styles, personal beliefs and philosophies offer us much to learn from. Likewise, Ancient Egyptian architecture, ornaments, symbolic ritual objects and fashion are compelling to me and I have great respect for some of their rulers who advocated for peace. So, I’ve drawn much musical inspiration from them.
Suzanne: What is your view of music being composed in our lifetime?
Pamela: I like a lot of different styles and I want to listen to more contemporary music.
Suzanne: One of the questions (usually the last one) we ask many of our featured composers is if they have any advice for composers who are trying to get started. I remember a conversation you and I had a very long time ago about our careers, or rather it was more about the stuff in our careers that motivates and excites us. You made a comment about how important it is to grow – I think you even said something to the effect of, “as long as you are doing something to help you grow/get better, then whatever it is that you are doing is worth the time and effort.” It’s clear to me that this is the way you have lived your life in music. What more specific advice in that vein would you give to a composer who is just getting started with that part of their life?
Pamela: I can only say that we’re wired to like, to need, to do –– or not do –– very specific things. So, if you want to be a composer (a musician, actually) then do what you must to follow your path. Find a way (or create it!) to continue growing, move forward; learn more about the instruments or voices you want to write for; make connections with others who are playing and writing –– younger or older. For depth and balance, take in historical references like dance, visual art, architecture, museums and read about places and events. (My favorite genre is historical fiction.) Also try to travel and be exposed to other cultures, even if briefly.
I completely had to do what I’m doing and never felt that it was a choice. It was a path, which lead me. This path was and still is very difficult at times. There have been sacrifices along the way, but I absolutely needed to persevere. If you must do something you truly believe in, then you must be certain that it’s right for you. Keep stretching and learning and growing. You must live in that world and take chances.
Pamela Sklar’s compositions are performed in concerts, workshops, schools, on broadcasts and themed programs in the New York area and elsewhere, including the National Flute Association Convention in Chicago and the International Double Reed Society Conference in New York City, both in 2014. Her two original recordings A Native American-Jazz Tribute and Silver Pharaohreceived high praise from American Record Guide, Jazz Weekly and several Flute publications, among others. Her quartet Chains of Love, based on a poem by Cervantes, was premiered in Madrid in 2017 and received its American premiere in New York City in early 2018. A copy of her score of Spell 166 for five flutes and organ is included in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
Pamela has been awarded seed grants for performances and a recording from New York Women Composers for her duo 2Flutes with Laura Falzon. New York-area ensembles that have premiered and/or performed Pamela’s music include Threeds, Englewinds, Double Entendre, Eight Strings & a Whistle, Northern Westchester Flutes, Women in Music and the Ramapo Valley Chamber Ensemble.
Pamela’s performance highlights include international tours as flute soloist with Claude Bolling, concerts with Dave Brubeck, Alan Hovhaness, Pulitzer Prize winner Karel Husa, TV appearances with tenor Andrea Bocelli, performances in orchestras for the GRAMMY Awards, jingles, films and recordings for many other artists including Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga and Paul Simon.
Pamela received her Bachelor’s degree with honors in performance from the Mannes College of Music. She has studied with John Wummer, Samuel Baron and Karl Kraber.
Upcoming performances include an original premiere for a Flute Gala tribute by the Hoff-Barthelson Music School and a program of original music by one of her bands Intuition Quartet. Upcoming recordings include 2Flutes’ debut Tapestry, and two more recordings of mostly original music by her two bands.
For more information, please visit www.pamelasklar.com.
A few years ago, one of Ina’s teaching positions included a chamber music class at The City College of New York. It was structured such that the students who signed up for the class got placed in one, maybe two or even three ensembles. The class time itself consisted of a combination of rehearsals and coaching sessions. It attracted a variety of instrumentalists with different levels of expertise and experience. Given the wide enrollment and range of instrumentation, Ina had to be creative in creating ensembles and assigning repertoire –– often including interesting arrangements of standard (and not so standard) repertoire.
Spencer Snyder signed up for Ina’s class in Spring 2015. He was working towards his Master’s in composition at the time. Spencer had started off in undergrad (New School) studying jazz as a drum set major, found his way to composing and joined Ina’s class as a pianist. It so happened that six, yes six!, singers had decided to take the class that semester as well. Ina was stumped – how was she going to be able to place all of them?
Fortunately, Spencer had made it known that he was a composer. Never one to waste a potential opportunity, Ina asked Spencer what he might have. Lo and behold, he had written, An Open Letter to Time Warner Cable, an unaccompanied work for five singers! I think the title speaks for itself – a good time was had by all, I am sure!
Fast-forward to the planning of our 2017 benefit. As many of you know we have decided to start a composer competition. Established composers have been so generous in writing works for us in the past, and it is time to start encouraging future generations. At our benefit, we wanted to get our donors excited about this project, and thought a short work by an up-and-coming composer might help. Ina immediately thought of Spencer and Red and White, which he had sent to us earlier in the season.
We enjoyed working with Spencer so much that we’ll be playing more of his work at our concert at the Tenri Cultural Institute on October 27 as well as in Cuba in November! We were also intrigued by what he had to say about his experiences in school and learning to compose chamber music. Given that we will begin accepting submissions for the 8SW Composer Competition this coming September, interviewing Spencer for our next featured composer article seems to be more than perfect timing. I hope you enjoy Spencer’s sense of humor and practical outlook on his budding career!
Suzanne: How did you become interested in composing? Please describe your experience with making the transition from being a drum set major to composing.
Spencer Snyder: Film scoring was my bridge into composition. I don’t remember why I suddenly became interested in it but it became a big focus of mine at Berklee. Once I transferred to the New School I continued pursuing it. I think I knew that I wanted to write concert music but I didn’t know enough about it. I felt as though anything I wrote would be invalid because I knew so little about the literature. Film scoring was easier because so much of what you have to do is laid out already in the film or in the director’s notes; “this scene is sad, make it sound like that one Postal Service song, can you have it by Friday?”
Compared to the creation of composing, drums were less satisfying as a creative vessel. I started feeling like my role was obligatory and my playing in one tune could be swapped for my playing in any other tune in the same tempo. Drums felt like the flour in the cake; and if I felt that way, whether or not it was true, I shouldn’t have been playing drums.
Because I was at the New School for Jazz, I was able to take classes at Mannes College of Music, part of the New School. The Mannes classes were sort of my gateway into more classically oriented music. Classical music was barely talked about at the jazz school. When it was discussed it was framed more as a curiosity, or maybe a quirky influence of a specific jazz musician. But there were a couple of experiences that helped push me over to the other side of the bridge. A friend invited me to see the American String Quartet play Ravel, and another friend lent me a recording of Boulez conducting Mahler 2. After Mahler, drums were just done for me. I bought every Mahler biography, every score, started learning German, and stopped practicing drums.
SG: You have mentioned that writing for non-standard instrumentation, such as 8SW’s, is what most/or a lot of composers end up writing for in the earlier stages of their career. Can you comment on your own process with this? Tell us about your experience learning to compose for more standard instrumentation as well as non standard instrumentation.
SS: I think it’s interesting that the topic of writing for chamber instruments effectively hasn’t been as formalized as other topics. A curriculum could be devised on how to teach it in a class, but it would be hard because the principles would be broader. In symphonic orchestration you learn things like typical doublings and how to arrange notes in the right order for a particular choir. It’s easy to break down the effects and the colors and learn how to use the choirs and the appropriate doublings. While orchestral writing is drilled into students, it is something only a tiny minority of composers actually get to do. Composing for non-standard smaller ensembles, on the other hand, are going to be the bulk of opportunities after school, but the process doesn’t follow typical orchestral rules.
Orchestration for small ensembles is hard to teach because of the varied nature of chamber music. You would have to have a class on string quartets, a class on ensembles featuring piano, a class on strings plus a single wind, etc. The coloristic choices of chamber music are subtle and less uniform and relegated to case by case. Appropriate couplings change in the context of something written for piano, violin, cello and flute, for example. How to use each voice effectively and how to have the piano part fleshed out with multiple voices but still have the other instruments participating in a meaningful way, is difficult to teach in the context of symphonic orchestration. Every voice is distinct. Having a multitude of lines becomes incredibly important. Private lessons are mostly where you get tips on how to negotiate these territories.
Everything sounds great when it’s played by an orchestra, but getting a satisfying sound out of something small is something different. You are no longer able to hide behind the power of 40 strings. The music has to speak for itself a little more.
SG: Tell us about your studies with David Del Tredici and any other composers who have influenced you.
SS: The foundation of my musical understanding was jazz so of course I do draw influence from it. I could circle the places in my scores that come from Wayne Shorter or Brad Mehldau. A lot of my rhythmic tendencies are lifted straight from Elvin Jones.
I got incredible and invaluable instruction from Del Tredici. It is immediately apparent that he is a master. His knowledge of the literature is staggering and he uses compositional devices with absolute autonomy. Del Tredici taught me how to be objective. He gave me more concrete instruction as well, (repetition, invention, orchestration) but most importantly he helped me understand the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of a piece of my writing.
SG: What compelled you to take Ina’s class?
SS: Ina’s class was the first time I had ever played chamber music, so through her and her class I got a lot of insight into navigating the actual interaction with the other players and what’s expected of me as a pianist. I wasn’t good enough at piano to have played any chamber music in my undergrad, and nobody was playing it anyway. I mainly joined the class because I wanted to experience that side of the music.
SG: Was it difficult to get readings or performances of your music as a student? How have you gone about that since being in school?
SS: Readings and performances in jazz school aren’t really a thing. It’s common to bring in a lead sheet to the ensemble you’re playing in, but that’s about it. Then at City College readings and performances weren’t really a thing because the department basically had no resources. Although at the end of each semester Del Tredici would get a chamber group together for a reading.
Performances post-school haven’t been that tough actually. Showing up to concerts, being cool with everyone, and organizing concerts yourself will at least keep you writing as much as time will allow.
Spencer Snyder (b. 1988) is an American concert composer from New York City. Spencer began his professional studies at the Collective School of Music in Manhattan. Then, after a brief stint at Berklee College of Music in Boston he went on to the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music where he completed a BFA in jazz performance. Most recently he earned his MA in composition from The City College of New York. He has studied with such distinguished composers as Conrad Cummings, Charles Fussell, Sonny Kompanek, and David Del Tredici.
Spencer’s concert works have been performed by The Manhattan Symphonie, Ensemble Mise-En, Eight Strings & a Whistle, The Mother Falcon String Quartet and many others. Upcoming premieres include a chamber opera with The Fresh Squeezed Opera Company and a piece for flute and piano by Novelette13. For more information please visit Spencer”s website here.
Merrill Clark composed Sinfonia Ternion Gestalt for us in late 2009/early 2010. It is a five movement through-composed work, centered around a lamenting non-vocal setting of William Butler Yeats’ The Second Coming. Yeats used Christian imagery in his 1919 poem, evoking post World War I, and Merrill uses his musical take on the poem as a means to reflect on our contemporary times. Sinfonia Ternion Gestalt is demanding, harmonically challenging and rhythmically intricate, and it intrigued and intimidated us at the same time. Never ones to be stopped by a challenge, we premiered the piece at the Tenri Cultural Institute in November, 2010. We chose to bring it back into rotation this season, including it in a program of works of varied styles, all of which make use of elements of the past to reflect the present. Please visit our Upcoming Concerts page for details.
One of the most exciting aspects of revisiting any wonderful piece of music, old or new, is hearing or discovering things you haven’t heard before and enriching your relationship with that piece. Asking Merrill to be our next featured composer has given me an excuse to explore with him what we have discovered during this recent rehearsal process and then share it with you. Learning about how the old European masters, traditional Indian music and jazz have found their way into Merrill’s musical language has been fascinating. Merrill is also our first featured composer to articulate thoughts about chamber music as an illustration of ways in which society can cooperate as a whole. I hope that reading this interview will inspire you to learn more about Merrill’s work, and come out to hear his Sinfonia Ternion Gestalt on November 18 at the Tenri Cultural Institute. For ticket information, please visit here.
Suzanne: What drew you to composing?
Merrill Clark: I’ve always enjoyed making things. Kinetic vibration sculpture narratives happen to be something I’m good at.
SG: How would you describe your harmonic language?
MC: My first great musical love was J. S. Bach. I heard my first real stereo at a party in high school. ‘Switched on Bach’ by Walter, now Wendy, Carlos. I was dumbfounded. I went to the local music store and bought everything I could find with that magic name on it. I got the Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin and tried to play them on guitar. I got the Inventions and Sinfonia and the 48-the Preludes and Fugues and tried to play the bass lines on bass guitar and the melody on guitar. I didn’t have over dubbing capabilities – or any recording devices at all – so I harassed every musician I knew to play Bach as duets or trios with me. I carried them with me everywhere even going so far as to put them inside my typing manual during class. (That was one angry typing instructor.)
I didn’t have piano skills so I learned to stack up and hear, by mentally arpeggiating, the harmonies in my mind. A skill that has served me well as conductor and composer. I then went to the library and started bringing home counterpoint text books. Goetschius, Kennan, Piston, Gradus ad Parnassum and eventually Taneyev, which introduced me to the concept of multiple subject fugues and stretto manipulation. The result was a disdain for homophonic music. (I have since recovered.) Even now when I want a striking harmony I will try to arrive at it as a confluence or convergence of independent melodic lines.
My harmonic language now is most often incidental to the structures I make. I am keenly aware of dissonance, which I use in more of a 16th century sense (although I don’t have much use for those rules of strict counterpoint which seem to me to be designed to prevent parishioners from dancing in their pews) and I think in intervallic tension flow, as I do in rhythmic tension flow, at the same time. So I have abandoned thorough bass, I guess. I can and do write well in consonances, if I choose to, without really establishing a mode or key.
SG: Please describe your musical influences and how they carry over into your work.
MC: I think it would be accurate to say that I have never heard music that I didn’t learn from and that didn’t change my musical boundaries and vocabulary in some way. When I listen I try to find universal principles – the things that are the same in music that is made in every culture. It is sometimes difficult to hear past the European/American paradigm that I grew up with, but I can find things to admire in almost everything I hear.
The most important principles I have formulated for my own work are:
1. Continuity of the center of mass in a musical structure. That is to say, making the ensemble a collective and the weight of its notes and rhythmic tensions move together in some kind of logical manner. A sub heading of this is what I have labeled “brake and wake”: When a mass changes direction or stops the Newtonian momentum (my term is “muta-inertial curve”) some part of the mass remains stationary (the “brake”) while the rest of the mass continues in the same direction until the tonal gravity acts on it and pulls it back toward the stationary mass. This model can apply to a single melodic voice as well. This principle, although probably intuitive for most musicians, is fundamental to jazz. So-called “tail gate” trombone is an early example. When jazz players talk about “feeling” the music and “swinging” I am convinced this is a big part of what they mean. This principal is also found in the works of most of the classical and romantic era masters and those of my preferred 20th century composers: in the string quartets of Schönberg, Webern and Berg, in Bartok’s work, in Berg’s chamber concerto, as examples.
2. The drum is an organizing principle equal to the human voice. I have been fascinated by drumming for four decades now. It is an intellectual challenge of a high order to create musical environments and narratives with just a small handful of sounds. I always keep a music manuscript notebook handy to jot down ideas that come up at odd moments. A good percentage of those ideas are modeled on drum rudiments. My work, Trombonist from Hell, for example, started out as a rudimental drum figure that was expanded into a double fugue subject in complementary rhythms so a single player could play both simultaneously.I still teach that pattern to my drum students. (That pattern is LRRRLRLRRLRLLRLR – RLLLRLRLLRLRRLRL if you want to try it at home.)
3. The actions of voices in an ensemble should, most of the time, affect each other. For me two of the most perfect examples of this are a) in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in the third movement Elegia, when the high woodwind and low string descending scales repeatedly hit the heavy chords and the trumpets react to the impact, and b) in the Second Piano Concerto, at the end of the second movement, where the strings return to the choral style of the opening: the piano plays a trill and Bartok marked the strings tremolo. That kind of color and motion interaction is something I value greatly.
4. Music should have a viable social/psychological interface with its intended audience. The primal connection between the listener and music, before words and before melody, is the rhythmic content. And that means body rhythms; rhythms which range from the fastest movements possible to human fingers to the slowest music to which we can still pay attention, with the common denominator being a predictable pulse. As a young composer, I found that I wanted to connect as directly with listeners as I thought jazz related musics, such as African and Hindu derived musics, did. As I became semi-proficient at twelve-tone composition, about 25 years ago, unlike many composers of the Schönbergian stream, I made a decision not to abandon pulse or thematic development.
5. Musicians spend a lifetime in the practice room learning to make their instruments sound good. A composer should respect that. I try to give them opportunity to display their laboriously acquired skills, and, perhaps a result of my jazz background, where written melodies were regarded as no more than suggestions, I also try to leave some room for interpretation. That makes me a traditionalist in some sense.
I may ask a player to make a harsh sound but it will always be for some kind of musical effect.
SG: In addition to being a composer, you are a pianist, recorder player, guitarist, bass player, have studied the tabla and percussion. Can you elaborate on how these particular experiences have influenced your work as a composer?
MC: Glad to. That is all by design. My recorder playing keeps me in touch to some degree with wind playing and phrasing. My bowed bass playing connects me to the rest of the string section. My piano playing in jazz keeps me in touch with what Stravinsky called “the wisdom of fingers.“ My piano playing as I explore the classical and romantic piano literature gives me little glimpses into the musical thinking of some of the greatest musical minds that have ever lived. My guitar playing, my first instrument and first instrumental love, exercises my ability to reduce ideas to their simplest form- essential skill for any composer. My drumming studies (toying with Persian drumming right now-it’s amazing stuff) keep me connected to the body rhythms I mentioned above and are the closest I come to meditation and transcendence. The fact that I am able to teach everything I’m interested in privately (what institution would put up with that?) keeps me almost in shape on all those instruments and connected with the physical aspects of playing. The teaching, 5 year olds to adults, keeps me connected to what listeners can be expected to assimilate and digest.
SG: How might playing the tabla influence how you write for the flute or strings?
MC: Indian music is a big influence on almost everything I write. When I want a line to stand out, be a ‘solo’ for the player, I use two main devices (aside from the traditional European tricks – contrasting dynamics and colors, separate registers, contrasting phrasing etc): One is to use polyrhythms so that all the attacks are done by that instrument alone rather than in unison with another instrument. The other is to use the Indian principle of Tehai: a series of temporary rhythmic “tonics” are created which are out of sync with the underlying pulse of the Tal, (what we call the meter or cycle) and the final rhythmic tonic coincides with the “sum”, or first beat of the Tal in a very satisfying conclusion to the phrase group or the entire performance. This is a basic and ubiquitous structural component in Indian music. Both devices give similar effect. With Tehai, however, it is possible to be much more irregular and asymmetrical.
SG: Are there things apart from music that have influenced your work?
MC: Indeed. My first compositional success was a piece for Jazz band that included what I called a “geodesic canon”. The meter was 9/8 divided 3/8 + 3/4. The canon treated the large bar and small bar the same so it seemed to balloon – shrinking and expanding. (What can I say? I was 19. I understand Fuller better now.)
I am influenced by film, computer graphic art (I love G Force. Hat[s] off to Andy Meira. Genius), architecture, Joseph Campbell, Zen, Gurdjieff and Ouspenski, Picasso, Dali, Van Gough, Manet, Pollack, Escher, Mandelbrot, Poe, a large raft of science fiction writers, dance, biology, philosophy, informal logic, astronomy, sculpture, history, language, physics….pretty much everything I’m interested in finds its way into my music at some juncture.
SG: To us, Sinfonia Ternion Gestalt flows outward quite organically from the central Aria movement. How did you arrive at setting Yeats’ The Second Coming for this central movement? What made you decide on this particular poem?
MC: That is an excellent observation. Redemption seems to be a theme that I keep returning to lately. In writing the Sinfonia the idea actually hit me midway through the first two sections when I was thinking ahead to how I wanted to feature your playing. I was also thinking about chamber music as a conduit for the preservation of civilization and as a civilizing factor in society. In a flash I decided to use the phrasing and emphasis in the Yeats poem and to name the movement Aria. So I guess in a way it did grow organically or perhaps just subconsciously.
SG: What is your view of the music being composed in our lifetime?”
MC: I’ve already spoken to that in a previous question somewhat. I would add that it’s a wonderful time to be a composer as long as you don’t expect to make a lot of money at it. We have fingertip, instant access to music from all over the planet. Traditions that are centuries old and the newest fantastic explorations of the best composers on the globe are ours to draw on. I listen for a couple of hours before breakfast most mornings. It’s always a feast for my ears. A violist friend of mine some years ago placated me when I was apologizing profusely for not knowing some staple of the string quartet literature by saying: “There will always be new music to hear. I find that comforting.” My sentiments precisely now. It used to be a truism that only the best examples of any artistic style would survive and thrive and the rest would disappear. Now in the age of the Internet, everything remains. Who am I to say one artist or one style or any one tradition is superior? I like what I like not because I want to impress anyone but because it pleases me to listen to it.
SG: Do you have any advice for young composers trying to get a start?
MC: Do it if you love it. If you want to make money, learn to create virtual reality environments or become a stockbroker. Write something every day no matter how short or trivial it might seem to you. The only way to be good at this is to do it for a lifetime. Don’t limit yourself to a single style but do find your own voice. That is what has value.
Merrill Clark has composed many works in a wide variety of genres, including the musical theater piece Sanctuary commissioned by Joseph Papp, a six-hour operatic mini-series Dorianbased on Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, and two Bass Concertos. Recent works include The Sorceress Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin, premiered by violinist Hlif Sigurjonsdottir in New York City and in Iceland in 2016. Ms. Sigurjonsdottir’s recording, Dialogus, features the sonata and was nominated for CD of the year in Fanfare Magazine. Prime Divisions for piano trio was premiered by the di.vi.sion piano trio in New York in 2014; the trio’s recording, di.vi.sionpremieres The Music of Merrill Clark, featuring Prime Divisions and Eighth Avenue Tango, was released in 2015 on Albany Records.
Merrill has collaborated with Brazilian violinist/violist, Eliano Braz in a concert of original music, which premiered Retrato do Eliano, written specifically for Mr. Braz, at the Fazioli Piano Salon in New York City. His long-standing collaboration with German trombonist Dirk Amrein resulted in a series of works for trombone: Trombonist from Hell for solo trombone (2008) which has enjoyed over 67,000 views on YouTube; The Wild Hunt for Alphorn, Piano, and Electronics, premiered in 2009 in New York City; and Bone Shredder for solo trombone, premiered in Germany in 2013.
Merrill received his early training at the University of Utah, where he studied with William Fowler, Joyce Newman and Ramiro Cortes, and graduated magna cum laude in 1978. He later studied with film composer, Pat Williams, contra bass virtuoso, Lisle Atkinson, tabla master, Samir Chatterjee, and Latin percussionist/arranger, Louis Bauzo. At the age of nineteen he was Winner in Composition of the American College Jazz Festival which resulted in his conducting a concert of his works at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, and the publication of a work by DownBeat Magazine. In 1985 he received a grant from Meet the Composer to present a concert of original compositions at Manhattan’s 13th Street Theatre, featuring jazz violinists, Brenda Vincent, and John Blake, Jr. Merrill has resided in New York for the last 34 years and maintains a private teaching studio. His book, Mastering Blues Keyboard, (1997) is published by Alfred Publishing Company.
Photo: Peter Gannushkin
Peter Jona Korn’s Aloysia Serenade, Op. 19 is one of the works included on Albert’s Window, our recent release on Ravello Records. We began performing the Serenade long after Korn had died, and our initial research revealed very little other than a website dedicated to his work. The website put Ina in touch with Korn’s wife, Barbara, who was able to pass on some information about the piece: the Korns had been close friends with Hollywood composer, Ernest Gold and his wife, Marni Nixon. The men started calling each other Aloysius, and their wives, Aloysia. The term was then bestowed upon various people who became their close friends, including honorary Aloysia, Doriot Anthony Dwyer, the principal flutist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and to whom the Serenade is dedicated. Dwyer was looking for a work to compliment Beethoven’s Serenade in D Major, Op. 25 for flute, violin and viola and Albert Roussel’s Trio Op. 40 (also on Albert’s Window) for flute, viola and cello. Dwyer’s request inspired Korn to compose a lengthy four movement work. Completed in 1953, the Aloysia Serenade was premiered in Boston in 1957 by Dwyer, Joseph De Pasquale and Samuel Mayes, also principal players with the Symphony.
As an ensemble, our habit with bringing new works into our repertoire is to perform them repeatedly throughout the course of one season, then temporarily put them to rest with the intention of bringing them back into our programming at a later date. We have revisited the Aloysia Serenade many times and decided to include it on Albert’s Window since it is one of the few works originally for flute, viola and cello that has not been composed for us. While we have printed parts for this work, we have never been able to find a score – something one would need for recording purposes. It was in the search for a copy of this score in 2013 that we learned that Barbara Korn had passed away, and were put in touch with Heidi Crumpacker and Tony Korn, Barbara and Peter Korn’s children.
Preparing the liner notes for Albert’s Window prompted further research. I was able to get a hold of a copy of a book published about Korn in the Komponisten in Bayern series (published by Hans Schneider in 1989.) I also discovered an entry for Korn on IMBd , listing him as an uncredited orchestrator for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World. I already knew that Korn had spent many years living in L.A., yet this was the first and only film credit I could find. There was no mention of this in any other biographical information I had come across. I found it difficult to believe that he could be friends with Ernest Gold and living L.A. for so many years and not be more involved with the film industry.
As I began to read more, I learned more details about Korn’s philosophical beliefs and why, in some respects, his life took the course that it did. Barbara Korn’s early correspondence with Ina indicated that her husband had been criticized for not joining the avant garde “circus” and that he “prophesied that the era of experimental music would one day come to a dead end and composers would find their way(s) back to the realm of tonality and clarity….. These views, openly held, made his career in Germany quite difficult…”
Reading further about his life, I learned about how early Korn left Germany for Palestine, his student- teacher relationship with Stefan Wolpe, and his life in the U.S.; although a Jew, he did not experience the horrors that many others did and for this reason his move back to Germany was not as much of a negative emotional issue for him as it might have been for others. I came to understand that he perhaps had no reason to embrace the turn contemporary music took in reaction to fascist restrictions placed on composers, and why openly voicing his opinion about that turn towards atonality potentially posed some serious professional risks.
The liner notes for Albert’s Window, however, did not seem the appropriate place to explore these details. While the interviews we usually post on our Featured Composer page are with living composers, our relationship with the Aloyisa Serenade has relevant ties to the present and I thought it would be worthwhile to give these details an outlet here. Our interviews are another means through which we can take a more direct approach to exploring a composer’s work and I am grateful to Heidi Crumpacker and Tony Korn for taking the time to answer my questions. They have experienced Peter Jona Korn differently than the rest of us and can offer a different perspective. Korn produced a tremendous body of work that includes orchestral, choral chamber works as well as works for the stage. He also wrote extensively on the state of new music during his lifetime. I hope Heidi and Tony’s responses will pique your interest and prompt you to seek out more opportunities to hear or study or perform his music.
Suzanne: Despite his studies with Stefan Wolpe and Arnold Schoenberg, your father rejected atonality and the twelve-tone technique, and ultimately leaned toward a classical-romantic language. He was much criticized for his views on the purpose of music and not joining the avant-garde. He believed that music flowed best in the broad mainstream of tradition and should be written for the concert-going public to enjoy as opposed to academics.
Tony Korn: Just because you study with the pioneers (or at least proponents) of atonality etc. doesn’t mean you have to adhere to their philosophies. Or even like their music. My father railed against “theoretical” music and its inability to express or even mean anything.
Heidi Crumpacker: I know this became a big controversy. As a musician I think your ears and your brain function as they do – you can study other things, but you are just wired one way. And he heard life in the conventional tone realm. He wouldn’t have been interested in writing (even if he could have) music that wasn’t going to be performed. He was a fairly logical thinker and that would have made no sense. He did feel that he was never properly recognized for his body of work – which is actually quite impressive. But he alienated so many people – many of them quite influential – along the way that he was shut out of many performance venues in Germany in later years.
SG: Your father founded and led the New Orchestra of Los Angeles from 1947-56. As far as I know, the orchestra performed many contemporary works, including his own. While it existed before you both were born, I am curious if your father ever spoke with you about this time and how it might have been a vehicle through which he could nurture and get the he music he supported out to the public.
HC: There were many studio musicians in L.A. in those years who longed to play “real” music and were willing to rehearse for free. I don’t know if the orchestra couldn’t be maintained but we left for Europe the first time in 1956, which is when it was disbanded.
SG: Your father’s book Musikalische Umweltverschmutzung (Musical Pollution) was published in 1975 (Breitkopf & Härtel.) It was controversial and caused quite a stir in the music world. In this book, your father voices his opinion against the trends of post war composition – the music of Schoenberg, the 12-tone system, the avant-garde. The book’s publication had some negative repercussions for him professionally. Do you remember this time? Did he ever speak with you about it?
TK: Of course the book was controversial. It was meant to ruffle some feathers. Some folks love it, others (his targets) hated it, of course, but that was the whole idea.
HC:Musikalische Umweltverschmutzung is a current project of mine. I would like to get it translated. I think it would make an excellent university resource for a 20th Century Music History class. I don’t know why he felt compelled to stir this particular pot, but he enjoyed the fallout. His post as Direktor was secure, so he could take chances to voice a controversial opinion.
SG: It was not only these trends themselves that your father spoke out against, but also the condemning attitude towards those who defended tonality. I recently came across some satirical articles your father wrote for Hi-Fidelity magazine in the 1960s. He expresses his point of view with an acerbic sense of humor. It not only confirms much of what we hear when we play the Aloysia Serenade, but it also makes me think he probably was a man who could really make people laugh in general. Am I right?
TK: Yep, my dad’s sarcasm could be ruthless, and as much as he could infuriate his “victims”, he would equally make his allies howl with laughter.
SG: Do you know anything about your father’s work in the film industry? When I first began reading about him, several years ago, I found it odd that he had been living in L.A. as a composer and yet there was no information indicating a connection with the industry. Now one can easily find reference to him as an un-credited orchestrator for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World. Are there any other such projects that you are aware of?
TK: My father struggled with the thought of commercialization. He would have no doubt loved the income, but and was very much against “selling out”.
HC: Work in the film industry was beneath him. He felt “serious composers” should not be pursuing this avenue. Too bad – his best friend Ernest Gold wrote the music for Mad World and Exodus and became very wealthy while we still lived in a 2-bedroom rental in West L.A. Hence the “un-credited orchestrator” – Ernest giving him a helping hand??
SG: What memories do you have of professionally significant moments in your father’s life?
TK: I do remember my father’s appointment as director of the Richard Strauss Conservatory in Munich in 1967 (I believe), and the performance of the Psalm vom Mut (Psalm of Courage) by the Bavarian State Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch, which was a significant success.
HC:Probably one of the most definitive events was the premiere of his opera Heidi in Frankfurt.
SG: Can you tell me a bit more about your own lives with your father. You were very young when he made the decision to move back to Germany. What was that like for you? Did you live in both the U.S. and Germany? Ultimately you both have made your lives here in the US. Can you elaborate a bit on this and how you came to this decision?
TK: Our family life was pretty interesting, to say the least, being surrounded by so many complex and active people whose pivotal experience had been WWII and everything leading up to and following it. Moving back to Germany didn’t matter to me, since (as you rightly point out) I was very young. I was born in 1960 while my parents still lived in Germany. We moved back to the U.S. while I was still and infant, then moved back to Europe when I was four. Both my sister and I have American spouses, and the rest of our families live in the U.S., so those were the main reasons we settled back here. It’s really that simple.
HC:We moved to Europe from L.A .in 1956 – first to London, then Austria, then Munich. Tony was born there – but in those years a naturalized American had to be physically on U.S. soil every 5 years, so we came back to LA in 1961 – Tony was one year old. It took several years to get enough money together to once again move back to Europe – Austria to Switzerland to Munich in this loop. I later went to college in Paris, then to San Diego State University. Tony went to Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. Both of us came back to Germany later on – we overlapped some years – but then I had to return to the U.S. with my husband, whose mother was ill and needed him closer. My mother’s family (our cousins) lived in Oregon, so we moved there, and Tony and his wife later settled in that area as well. My husband and I kept moving over the years – New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona – Costa Rica 2006-2013 – and now in Florida. Tony and Bonnie are well-established in Washington State.
SG: What do you believe your father’s legacy is? How would like to see that fostered and supported?
TK: Well, my father was a remarkable man who had lived during a remarkable time in history. All eulogizing aside, I would cut to the chase and say that he should be remembered as a romantic composer with a keen sense of social justice. I would quite simply like his music to be played.
HC:The music is solid. Some of it is university-level performance possible. I am inching toward “Friends of PJK” or something like that to introduce and promote Musikalische Umweltverschmutzung in the classroom and any of the works into the music program. Any introductions to anyone in any music department anywhere would be helpful!!
Born in Berlin, Peter Jona Korn (1922-1998) was granted a visa in 1936 to study at the New Conservatory in Jerusalem. He was 14 years old and the youngest among a group of twenty German-Jewish students who had auditioned. He studied with Stefan Wolpe there for two years and emigrated to the United States in 1940. Korn attended both the University of California at Los Angeles as well as the University of Southern California. His most influential teacher was Ernst Toch. He also studied with Hanns Eisler, film music composition with Miklos Rózsa, and, very briefly, with Arnold Schoenberg. While in Los Angeles, Korn remained active as a composer, conductor and teacher. Korn moved back to Germany in 1967 permanently, when he became Director of the Richard Strauss Conservatory in Munich. For more information please visit here.
Many years ago, in fact far longer ago than I care to remember, I had a teaching position at Turtle Bay Music School, a community music school in midtown Manhattan. Although I left Turtle Bay a long time ago, I am still in touch with several students I taught there and one faculty member. That one faculty member is Octavio Vazquez. Octavio accompanied many of my students at Turtle Bay on the piano, helping them prepare for auditions, competitions and recitals. He was new to New York, via Maryland and originally from Spain. This was at the same time that Eight Strings & a Whistle was getting started. Of course, we were in search of repertoire, and I asked Octavio to compose a piece for us. The result was what ended up being the first movement of his Trio for Flute, Viola and Cello. The second and third movement were completed in 2003, a few years later. It is a technically demanding work, angular and harsh at times, while conveying a deep sense of loss or even despondency at others. Octavio tells me that those years were a particularly emotionally charged time for him, sadly marked by a series of personal losses.
Octavio’s Trio has been challenging and enormously satisfying. You’ll be able to hear us perform the work in its entirety at our annual concert at the Tenri Cultural Institute on November 20, 2015. For more information please visit our Upcoming Concerts page.
Although there have been stretches of being out of touch, Octavio and I have remained close friends since those days at Turtle Bay Music School. I am very happy that he agreed to be our next featured composer and even happier that we can share a little bit about him with all of you. Enjoy!
SG: Why did you decide to come to the United States? Did you make a conscious decision to stay once you were done with your studies, or did it just sort of happen?
OV: When I left my native Galicia to study in Madrid, in 1989, there wasn’t a single orchestra in the country (now there are two excellent professional orchestras and a growing number of very competitive community orchestras). Later on, when I finished my studies in Madrid, I wasn’t fully satisfied with my education thus far, nor with my professional opportunities in Spain at the time. I happened upon the Schirmer’s Guide to Music Schools Throughout the World, that -curiously- featured the USA prominently. I was admitted to the Peabody Conservatory, and soon after I received the Barrie de la Maza Foundation Scholarship, which allowed me to come and study in the USA.
After graduation, I received a full fellowship from the University of Maryland, where I completed my doctorate. I was looking forward to moving to a big cosmopolitan center and finding my way in my professional field. I thought of NYC and London. I visited both and NYC somehow seemed to me more of a cosmopolitan city in the sense of ‘universal’, more ‘country-less’ if you will, packed with new-comers like myself open to new experiences. A place full of unimaginable possibilities. It also helped that many of my fellow Peabody graduates felt similarly and moved to the city at about the same time. So I rented a U-haul, packed my few worldly possessions, and drove to Manhattan with nothing but a three-month sublet. That was an adventure.
SG: How does being Galician have an impact on you as a composer?
OV: As a country, Galicia is an ancient, mysterious, multi-cultural, beaten up, slowly-recovering place to be from. I’d say there is a general underlying feeling of both spirituality and skepticism (the skepticism mostly geared towards worldly things). My family being originally from the Highlands, I spent much of my childhood in a pre-industrial (or quasi-medieval) environment, and have seen since very rapid, if often very debatable, change. I have witnessed the self-inflicted, senseless destruction and loss of much of our material and cultural inheritance.
As far as composing, other than some specifically Galician pieces, such as the Galician Folk Dances, I have not made a point of writing ‘Galician music’, whatever that may mean, but just music. And yet everything has an influence. Everything we come into contact with may very well affect what we do (or don’t do) to varying degrees and oftentimes in unpredictable ways. Traumatic events that deeply affected my grandparents’ and parents’ generations, and were never discussed at home and even less in public, have made it somehow into my composing, and very forcefully too. Other pieces I’ve written are intimately linked to much earlier events, even centuries or millennia ago, and yet I feel them as if they were happening now. The question might perhaps be better left to someone else, someone with the perspective that more distance affords.
SG: Which composers have had the greatest influence on you?
OV: The list is far from unusual, but that’s just the way it is: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and many more who are well known to everyone. I will never forget the shock when as a kid I first heard part of Mozart’s Requiem, I instantly became tremendously nervous and was completely overtaken by the music. More recently, I’d single out Shostakovich and Scelsi. All of them to me are closer to each other than they are to their contemporaries. They share a closeness beyond style and circumstance, the fellowship of those who have amply transcended themselves and brought back the wonder and the magic of the great spirit, of the divine, so to speak.
SG: How would you describe your compositional process and how has it evolved over the last 10-15 years?
OV: The process itself never changed. What has evolved over time is my inner ear, my capacity for inner listening, my ability to better write down what flows through. That evolution is partly technical, partly psychological, partly spiritual. Composing is a bit of a paradox: by not doing, by getting out of the way, by fully focusing on mindless listening one can reach out (or in, or beyond) and become a vessel for that wonder that is music. But then one must remember it long enough at least to write it down, and the process of writing anything down involves a bit of analysis: what time signature was that?, what chord?, what counterpoint? Just a tiny bit of analysis, enough to take dictation. Ah!, but the simplest dictation can get in the way.The analytical mind has a knack for disturbing the not-doing state. So there you go, it’s a balance. For me it can sometimes be a bit like remembering a dream.
An image that I often use is that of finding a bed sheet half-floating in the water while out at sea. I grab it by a little corner and nail it to a rock that sticks out of the water, so that I can come back to it at any later time (this means I write down as much as I can at the moment). It’s like these rocks are sticking out of a sea, and the idea that is exposed to the air is only a small part of a whole piece of music that is already fully composed, mostly hidden under the surface of the water. I can fathom it there, the whole thing, attached to the bit that is nailed to the rock. Then comes the part when I pull the whole thing out of the water, wet and heavy as it is, and that’s a lot of work (and that’s when most of the writing happens). So when I compose something it isn’t like I am starting from nothing. It is more like hauling the already-composed piece out from under the surface of the water, wringing it, spreading it out on the beach so that it dries, and then ironing and folding as need be (that’d be the publishing part).
SG: You are quoted in Wikipedia as being primarily interested in the “…emotional impact [of your music] and direct communication with the listener”. In your notes about the Trio for Flute, Viola and Cello, you say that you were going through a very rough period emotionally. The writing is beautiful and compelling, and clearly conveys a complete loss of hope. You wrote the Trio over 10 years ago and you do seem far more optimistic these days! What or where do you draw from for the emotional content of what you aim to convey now?
OV: Hmm.. like I mentioned before, music finds me, not the other way around. Or maybe we bump into each other. After a piece ‘comes to me’, and often while I’m well into writing it, I can usually tell what it is about. Some have been related to historical events, some have been ‘portraits’ of people that I have encountered and become very close with, some have to do with archetypal life stories and the quest for spiritual realization, and some might be a tad more autobiographic, like the Trio, although somehow I don’t think those are the majority at all.
So who ‘composes’ the music? I sit there, you know, and listen. And if and when Music speaks –– in the form of a piece, which is alive just as we are –– then I write it down, as well as I can.
SG: Your music gets performed quite frequently and you have received countless positive reviews and accolades for your work from all over the world. Congratulations! Getting ones music heard is, I think, one of the more daunting necessities of any composer’s career. Can you describe your experience with this?
OV: I have been extremely fortunate to collaborate with wonderful performers from early on in my career. As a pianist myself I was part of many early performances, and I am also very aware of what makes a piece ‘grateful’ from the point of view of the performer, its ‘quality-price relationship’, so to speak.
Beyond that, music is to be heard, and to have, potentially, hopefully, a deep emotional and spiritual effect on listeners. They are as essential as the performers and the composer; it is the combination of all, their combined focused attentions, that make possible for this spiritual force we call music to flow through and manifest in the world.
SG: It is important for any artist to remain active in some way or another. We are always trying to stretch and grow whether we are performing or not. You do always seem to be working on a commission, but how else do you remain active as a composer? What reenergizes you, what inspires you?
OV: I often travel to premieres and other significant performances of my music, and work closely with conductors, soloists, and ensembles during the rehearsal process. Working with my composition students is another way. It’s a small wonder to see their inner connections develop and manifest. I also perform myself, although not as regularly as I used to. As a church music director, I conducted, performed, and improvised extensively on a weekly basis –– that intense performing activity is something I miss.
SG: In a recent conversation, you made reference to how you worked all the time when you first came to New York trying to get yourself established. It is very difficult to get to the point where one can feel a little secure and maybe even relax a little. What would your advice be to younger composers who are just getting started. And how might that tie in with your view of new music today?
OV: What I always ask young composers is, why are you doing this? You see, being a composer is something utterly irrational. It’s a horrible career choice, rather unjustifiable from a materialistic perspective. But so is falling in love. One doesn’t (usually) fall in love with the reasonable choice, but when it happens it happens. It’s clear and powerful and one has no saying in it. So my advise to them is keep that connection alive. Remember it, nurture it. Don’t forget where and why it all started. Listen to that voice and heed it, wherever it may take you –– even if it’s away from music altogether. You never know. The process is mysterious, like the water of a river flows to the ocean in the easiest, fastest possible way (convoluted as it may seem), so does the inner voice guide those who listen. Those who listen will hear.
So is too my view of music, today and ever: What’s original is not what is new –– for what is new anyway?, and what value is there in newness for the sake of it? What is original is what comes from the origin, the inner source, what is genuine. What is true to what one hears, and not made up or constructed following this or that external fashion.
The music of Octavio Vazquez has been performed throughout the US, Europe, and Asia, in venues such as Carnegie Hall, the National Auditorium of Spain and Cologne’s Philharmonie. Octavio has also written for film and collaborated with world-music artists as an arranger, orchestrator and producer, most notably with Grammy Award winner Cristina Pato. His orchestration of Negro Caravel for Ms. Pato’s CD Muller was nominated for the 2011 Spanish Music Academy Awards. He has received grants and commissions from notable organizations and artists such as Hilary Hahn, the Verdehr Trio, the New York State Council on the Arts, New Music USA, Galicia Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Galicia Symphony Orchestra, Meet the Composer, Fulbright Commission, and the Chi-Mei Foundation. His works have been recorded for many labels such as NAXOS, Marquis Classics and Bohemia Music, and by radio stations such as the Spanish National Radio, New York’s WQXR, and the Chinese International Radio. His music is published by the Conwell Publishing Group of New York. A graduate of the Adolfo Salazar Conservatory, the Royal Conservatory of Music of Madrid, the Peabody Conservatory, and the University of Maryland, Octavio has given lectures and masterclasses at many institutions such as the Manhattan School of Music, Mannes College, Johns Hopkins University, University of Maryland, Salisbury University, and Texas Christian University (USA), Carlos III and Complutense Universities (Spain), the XXXVII Congress of the International Viola Society (South Africa), and the Next Renaissance Conference (Netherlands). He teaches composition at the Nazareth College of Rochester, NY, and at the University of Santiago de Compostela. For more information please visit: www.octaviov.com.
I am very excited to be posting this next featured composer interview with Scott Brickman. Initially, all we knew about him was that Dr. Brickman is the music faculty of the University of Maine at Fort Kent. Mysteriously, he was never in Fort Kent when we performed in the area. But over the last three years, we have come to know Scott and his family, shared many meals, beers, laughs and even run a number of road races together. Well, Ina, Scott and I have run races together while Matt cheered us all on.
We are thrilled to have already had so many opportunities to perform Scott’s French Suite and to be performing it at our upcoming concert at the Tenri Cultural Institute on November 21. We are equally as thrilled to be collaborating with the wonderful pianist Beth Levin performing and recording a quartet Scott has composed for Eight Strings & a Whistle and piano along with three other pieces of his for flute and piano, viola and piano, and cello and piano. The recording will also include French Suite. We will be sure to keep you up to date about this recording, in addition to our debut recording, slated for release by PARMA Recordings in January 2016.
Scott composed his French Suite for Eight Strings & a Whistle in 2012. As many of you know, many of our tours to Maine include playing concerts in the most northern part of the state. This area is one of the few Franco-American areas in the United States, and Scott therefore made a conscious effort to draw influences from a variety of musical sources when composing French Suite. Each of the first three movements features one of the instruments of the ensemble as a melodic leader, with the other two in an accompanying role. The first movement is in 3/4 time and the meter of each subsequent movement increases by one eighth. The pitch material of all of the movements is based on 12 tone rows, whose first six pitches are a subset of the octatonic scale. The first movement resembles a Sonata form, the second is a Romanza, and the third movement is tangentially influenced by rock and roll. The finale is very jig like and treats the trio as equal members of the ensemble.
It has been very gratifying to see this work change and grow since we have begun performing it. Please be sure to join us at the Tenri Cultural Institute on November 21 to hear it and meet Scott.
In the mean time, happy reading!
SG: Why did you choose to become a composer?
SB: My older brother played drums in a Rock Band. He was 13 yrs. older than me – from my Mom’s first marriage. So, there were a lot of guitars, basses, keyboards and drums around our house when I was a preschooler.
My father loves music. He would have liked to be a musician, but WWII and family finances and attitudes interfered. When I was around 10 yrs. old I became interested in the Beatles. I tried taking guitar lessons, but in retrospect my teacher wasn’t attuned to young people. A bit later my Dad started buying a collection of classical LPs that were available at our local grocery store. He bought me a piano as an early 8th grade graduation gift. I started taking piano lessons, getting interested in classical music, and my music study progressed.
At this time, my musical interests were understandably split between rock and classical music. The Beatles and Beethoven. Sometime around the age of 12 I saw a televised concert by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. I think they played Schoenberg, Ives and Stravinsky. I though this music was great because it created a connection between what I was hearing in Brahms and Sgt. Pepper. The grocery store LPs were themed by composer. The Beatles wrote their own songs. Naively, I assumed that all musicians were also composers. So, I began to write music. I also listened quite a bit to WFMT, classical radio in Chicago. This was around 1976. There were bicentennial commissions, a Columbia boxed set celebrating Aaron Copland’s 75th birthday, a Charles Ives centennial had recently passed; all of these were very inspirational to a young, aspiring composer.
I was extremely fortunate to have a great high school musical experience. I went to a run of the mill public high school in Chicago. However, we had three full-time music teachers. I played violin and viola in the school orchestra, piano in the jazz band, and had two years of AP Music Theory. In 1982, the year I graduated from High School, an organization called Urban Gateways sponsored a composition contest for Cook County Students. My Fanfare for Wind Quintet won, and was performed by professional musicians at the Chicago Public Library. I was hooked.
SG: Do you have a specific process when you compose?
SB: The impetus for my work is ordered 12-tone sets. That Fanfare I wrote in High School, it was a 12-tone piece. When I was in graduate school, in the early 90s, I began working with octatonic hexachords. Octatonic derived sounds attract me. So pitch, melody, harmony and counterpoint, are my primary concerns.
I get my ideas from a whole slew of different places. Other pieces of music obviously, other genre of music; sometimes, reading about music or talking to people about music gives me ideas. Recently, as I’ve been more able to have some perspective on my music, even my own older compositions sometimes give me ideas for new pieces.
SG: Can you tell us about the composers and styles that inspire you? Perhaps also expand on the styles of popular music that you love so much and why.
SB: My musical influences at first were the pre WWII modernists, both Americans and Europeans: Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok (thanks to Ernie Kovacs), Ives, Varese (thanks to Frank Zappa), Ruggles. Later I became interested in the post war modernists: Boulez, Cage, Feldman, Berio, Stockhausen, Babbitt, Shapey, and Xenakis. Since then my influences have understandably varied and expanded. Crazy as this may sound, I am often influenced by music that I genuinely do not like. In fact, one of my pieces was a “refashioning” of a piece I heard and really detested. Over all, I find I still genuinely like modernism. I joke a lot, but seriously, there’s nothing I enjoy more than sitting down and listening to Luigi Nono or Mario Davidovsky.
As for pop music….maybe because so much of my time is spent with vernacular genres, I find I don’t love it as much as I used to. My tastes are very quirky. I’m a big Weezer fan. I also love Sondheim.
SG: Chet Biscardi was one of your teachers. I studied contemporary music performance with him at Sarah Lawrence College and remember him quite fondly. He was a great teacher and role model. What was it like to study composition with him? How did he influence you?
SB: Chet was great. I worked with him when he was in residence at Wisconsin writing his opera Tight Rope. He was the first “real” composer that I felt took me seriously. I worked with Yehudi Wyner (Chet’s teacher from Yale) at Brandeis University as a graduate student. It’s odd, but both Chet and Yehudi are very different composers than I am, yet I feel I really learned the most from them.
SG: What else in life influences and inspires you?
SB: Baseball. I had great teenage years that revolved around music and baseball. I’m lucky in that baseball has come back into my life. In 2006 at the invitation of the former High School baseball coach in Fort Kent, I began to throw batting practice to the High School team. My oldest daughter played four years of varsity softball in High School. In 2009 I initiated intercollegiate club baseball at UMFK. Though the club is inactive, I’ve been able to jumpstart girl’s softball at the college. And, as you know, I may be playing baseball in a Canadian Men’s league next year. So, I say baseball because it reminds me of the music learning I did as a teenager. I like to think I’m a life long learner. I’m a more experienced composer now. Let’s hope I’m also a smarter pitcher.
SG: I’ve written a bit in my intro to this interview about your French Suite as well as a second work you recently finished composing for us plus a pianist. We’re looking forward to getting started on it. What can you tell us about it? What inspired it?
SB: Hearing Eight Strings & a Whistle inspired it! Also, hearing Ina play my viola and piano piece was very encouraging. The piece is in 5 movements. Movements 1, 3 and 5 are short, angular and dramatic. The 2nd and 4th movements are longer, more lyrical, and meditate on a single idea. Subconsciously, I suspect that hearing you guys play the Erlkönig arrangement inspired the last movement.
SG: I have noticed that while you may be a university professor you are very involved musically with the community in Fort Kent as a whole. You often work on musical productions that include students from the high school or others outside the University. I just love that you do that – you have the potential to effect and influence so many people with your enthusiasm and love for music. It’s another way to keep this art form relevant and alive. Can you tell us a bit about what that is like for you?
SB: Well, it’s certainly not what I imagined myself doing! I imagined I’d be a theory prof somewhere, grade my part-writing homework and go home. Again, that fantastic diversity of music activity I had in High School has come back to benefit me with my current job. It’s nice in the sense that musically, I get to do a lot of different things. The obvious draw back, is that I’m not able to really polish any one activity. However, to an extent the musical theater collaborations with Fort Kent High School are coming closer to an activity that has more of a focus.
SG: What are your thoughts on new music in general?
SB: My thoughts are like what John Reed supposedly said when he witnessed the birth of the Soviet Union: “So this is what a revolution looks like. I never imagined it would look like this”. Ok, I know this will sound like SNL’s Deep thoughts with Jack Handy, but we never know what the future will look like. Not that I thought about this in 1976, but, I could at the time never have imagined minimalism, the move to multiculturalism in the early 1990s, Arvo Part, etc.
When I teach music history, we talk about style periods lasting for either 75 or 150 years. If this is generally the case, then 1975 would be a boundary. However, I suspect that economics and technology have more of a stake in music history as drivers of style change. Then, music technology may be the significant change we experienced in and around 1975. I could never have imagined, in 1975 with my upright piano, LPs, and staff paper, that 25 yrs later I’d have a polyphonic electronic keyboard, download music and produce my scores digitally.
New Music – enjoy the moment!
SG: What do you think the role of the arts and new music is or should be in today’s world?
SB: Ultimately the arts and new music should be ornaments for Mets and Rangers games. HAH! Wouldn’t that be awesome? “The first 15,000 fans at today’s Mets-Phillies game will receive a recording of Suzanne Gilchrest and Beth Levin playing Scott Brickman’s Wind Power for flute and piano.
Ok, music is a social act. Music and the arts should bring people together; help them celebrate their diversity and minimize their differences. I think of all the wonderful people I’ve met through my association with Eight Strings & a Whistle, and, of all the great times I’ve had. To quote Maine’s motto, that’s “The way life should be”. That’s the way it should be for everyone.
Illinois native Scott Brickman was educated in the Chicago Public Schools and holds a B.M. from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. in Music Composition and Theory from Brandeis University. Scott studied with both Chester Biscardi and Yehudi Wyner, whom he regards as his most important and influential composition teachers. Since 1997 he has taught at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, where he is Professor of Music and Education.
Scott composes both acoustic and digital music. Recordings of his music appear on the New Ariel, Capstone, SEAMUS, ERM and PARMA (Ravello) labels. His music has been performed in Europe, the Middle East and North and South America, by ensembles such as the Windy City Winds, Wisconsin Arts Quintet, Oakwood Chamber Players, Lydian String Quartet, the Auros Group for New Music, the New York Miniaturist Ensemble, Basso Moderno, Tower Duo, the Strung Out Trio and Kiev Philharmonic, as well as artists such as pianists Jeffrey Jacob, Jenny Cruz and Deborah Nemko and soprano Nancy Ogle.
At UMFK, Scott has served two three-year terms as Chair of the Arts and Humanities Division, and is currently serving as Chair of the newly created Arts and Sciences Division. Scott is an active member of AFUM, the Faculty Union of the University of Maine System, as well as the Maine Education Association, of which AFUM is a local. He has been a member of the Wisconsin Alliance of Composers since 1984, which, as an undergraduate, he helped found. Scott was recently elected treasurer of the New England Conference of Music Theorists, and has been the co-chair of Region I of the Society of Composers since 1999.
My initial contact with Martin Rokeach, who lives near San Francisco, began while coaching a chamber work of his for one of my classes at NYU. Not long thereafter, Marty started sending me other pieces he thought would be of interest. I found all of them to be rhythmically lots of fun, alternating between eeriness and sheer joy.
One day, Marty sent me a recording of Sleepless Night, scored for flute, violin, cello and guitar, composed for the Cygnus Ensemble. I completely fell in love with this work. Listening to it really did feel like a sleepless night here in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The sounds you might hear, the quiet, the thoughts that run through your head – all of it. I had already asked Marty if he had anything for flute, viola and cello and no, he did not. I gave the recording to Ina and Matt and asked them to listen to it. We agreed that having a piece of Marty’s in our repertoire, would add to the variety of styles that we perform and give us a unique language to work with. Thankfully Marty was interested! The score for Going Up? arrived on Christmas eve in 2007. The work received its premiere at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space in May, 2008. You can hear sound clips in our Listening Room and in our MPBN interview in our Video Room. I think that we have revisited and performed Going Up? more often than any other work composed for us. In a few weeks, we will be performing it again, while on tour in Maine, Massachusetts and upstate New York. We’ll also be performing it on May 17 at the Queens New Music Festival. It seems as an appropriate time as ever to ask Marty to be our next featured composer. I am delighted that he has agreed! Enjoy!
SG: What were your earliest experiences with music? When did you become interested in composing?
MR: As is usually the case, elementary music teachers and parents were vital figures in my development. As early as the fourth grade a friend of mine and I wrote some songs together. We weren’t exactly Lennon and McCartney, but we wrote a song about cowboys. The school’s music teacher was very encouraging and our classmates even sang the song periodically. Ah the thrill of success! Honestly my earliest experiences weren’t all inspiring. I played violin at school in 5th grade and when the parents came for a demonstration the string teacher had a girl play a few notes to demonstrate proper bowing technique. She then had me play a few notes and said to the parents: “Notice how stiff his upper arm is? That’s what we try to NOT do.” My first public embarrassment as an artist. But it was the 60s and folk music like Peter, Paul and Mary, the Limelighters, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan were becoming so popular. I became familiar with it from my big sisters, and the guitar was central to the style. It seemed like the coolest instrument someone could play. I was nine years old and my parents rented me a cheap guitar and signed me up for lessons at the local music store. I practiced obsessively and became quite good. My Mom now says she was just trying to find something to keep me occupied through the summer, she had no idea it’d be the start of a career.
SG: Which composers were your earliest influences?
MR: Like most guitarists I came to classical music late. I’d been playing folk, blues and other popular styles and didn’t learn to read music until my senior year of high school. It was that year that Beethoven became my first “love,” later on Bartok and Coltrane. To this day I’m still influenced by the power and drive of those three giants.
SG: How would you explain your compositional process? Where do you get your ideas from? What inspires you?
MR: Composers are asked this question often and it’s a tough one to articulate. I sense that non-musicians want us to say composing is a 3-part process: 1. I had an experience in my life 2. The experience made me feel a certain way 3. I then set out to convey those feelings musically. But I think for most of us composers, certainly for me, it isn’t so simple or straightforward, because my imagination is more interesting than my diary. For me a composition begins with a purely musical idea not directly connected with a specific experience from my life. It might be a melody, a chord, some kind of striking musical figure. If the idea is melodic it comes while I’m far from a guitar, piano or computer – walking, showering, shaving or making the bed are fertile activities for birthing melodies. Harmonic ideas, i.e. chords and what to do with them, come while I’m at the guitar or piano. Whatever the nature of the idea, it’s usually raw at first, not well formed, and I reject lots of them before deciding something is worthwhile. Then the really awful part of composing commences – the beginning. Each and every piece I write I feel like I’m floundering at first, wasting time, chasing ideas up blind alleys. It’s a little like smelling delicious food nearby but not being able to find it and take a real bite. I often feel incompetent at this point but have learned to ignore the feeling and plunge forward. At first I sketch, sketch, sketch, and don’t want to begin the formal composing of one measure after another until I’ve accumulated a rich body of sketches. It’s always a relief after I’ve developed enough substance to feel like I’m on first base. The fun part of composing is when I’m deeply into a piece, after its own personality and trajectory have surfaced.
When I started composing Going Up? for Eight Strings & a Whistle my wife, daughter and I were spending time in Cape Cod. I was walking somewhere (the beach? in town?) and an ascending, scale-like melody came to me. It appealed, though I wondered if it was too simplistic. But as Bartok said, simple ideas are often the most pliable so I ran with it. I had no computer or staff paper with me on the trip so I sketched as much as I could in my head (occasionally stunting conversation with my family, unfortunately) and developed various ideas on what I could do with the tune, including introducing it with the pizzicato cello. As mentioned above, walking or showering or shaving is a great way to work on ideas conceptually, but when a LOT of specific pitches are required it’s most efficient at a computer. It’s like a playwright taking a walk to figure out where Act 2 of a play should land, but the exact words more easily come while at the word-processer. So it wasn’t until I got home that I worked out the sketches with all the notes.
Some great art is inspired by the workings of nature or the cosmos (like the music of Crumb or Messiaen), some comes from the sacred. Unconsciously what inspires me is almost always so old-fashioned it would bore many a composer – the ups and downs of being human. But I convey the human drama not from my diary but my sketchbook.
SG: As I recall, you are a guitarist. How does that affect your approach to composing?
MR: The spot where I compose is about ten feet from my piano. I often have the guitar right at my side so I can pick it up and try something without getting up. Being a guitarist has really helped me understand the workings of all string instruments. However, I do wish I were a more competent pianist.
SG: I learned of you and your work through your piece, Can’t Wait for violin or flute, clarinet and piano. Shortly after we began corresponding, you sent me Sleepless Night. I brought the recording to Ina and Matt and told them I wanted to ask you to write a piece for us. I love Can’t Wait, and I especially love teaching it, but Sleepless Night spoke to me on another level. Does knowing how much someone loves a specific work of yours influence your approach to writing a work for them?
MR: Though I love it when people love my music and wish it happened all the time, it doesn’t really influence the nature of a commission. If someone said “Please compose a piece like that other piece you already wrote” I couldn’t do it. Every good work of art, like every human being, is unique. I just write the best piece I can and hope whoever commissioned it is happy.
SG: I am listening to Running at the Top of the World for trumpet and piano just now, and it strikes me as “unmistakably Rokeach.” What beautiful writing (and playing)! I hear the rhythmic energy that I identify with your work, how you play with silence, your dark side as well as your playful side. What are the qualities you seek to achieve when composing a new work?
MR: Another tough question and my answer may appear generic: I want each piece to be lively and/or beautiful and/or dramatic, driven by seductive, intriguing musical ideas, and always affecting. In both short and long works I try to achieve an emotional range, with tension between contrasting moods. I want each and every pitch to feel right, and not create the sense that if players accidently hit a wrong note it’d make no difference. I hope listening will be memorable enough and gratifying enough so audience members won’t forget a piece by the next morning. Of course, people differ regarding to what extent I achieve these lofty objectives.
SG: Who do you admire of today’s composers? And what are your thoughts on new music in general?
MR: The first question is easy: Osvaldo Golijov, John Adams, Elena Ruehr, Jennifer Higdon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Kevin Putz, Frank LaRocca, Robert Greenberg, Don Freund, Justin Dello Joio, Harold Meltzer and so many, many others. The second question is harder, as my thoughts on new music in general are conflicted. On the one hand there is such a range of musical styles, such enormity of talent, and so many excellent works being created it’s exciting and adventurous, much more so than in the seventies and eighties when I entered the profession. On the other hand, many new-music concerts are very unmemorable. I ask myself why and am not sure of the answer.
SG: What advice would you give to an aspiring composer?
MR: Take a lesson from every piece you hear. If you love it, like it, are bored by it – ask yourself why. If you like a piece ask yourself if you’ll remember it tomorrow morning. Keep your mind and your ears open, but don’t confuse liking a piece of music with loving it. Don’t confuse finding a work interesting with loving it. This sounds easy enough but in fact it’s challenging, as music departments and composition factions so often create cult-like thinking. Make a list of those new works you really and truly love and analyze each one’s qualities. In this way you learn not only from your composition teacher but the best composers.
Marty’s music has been performed throughout the United States and in more than twenty foreign countries. His works have earned honors in over a dozen national and international composition competitions, and he has been commissioned to write music for numerous soloists and ensembles including Eight Strings & a Whistle (NY), Music Teachers Association of California, Cygnus Ensemble (NY), the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (San Francisco) and most recently, a trumpet sonata for competitors in the 2012 Ellsworth-Smith International Trumpet Competition. Marty has been a featured composer and speaker at the Sion Conservatory of Switzerland, Hartt Conservatory of Music, New York University and Wichita State University, and concerts devoted exclusively to his music have been held at Washington State University and Western Carolina University. He teaches at Saint Mary’s College of California, and is one of the founders and artistic directors of Berkeley’s contemporary music concert series, Composers, Inc.
Our annual concert at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York City is coming up on November 22. One of the pieces included on our program will be Conversations by Australian composer and bassist, Robert Davidson. In short, this work is a beautiful and joyous celebration of life.
We got to know of Rob in our usual way: through Ina’s wanderings on the Internet. When we begin relationships with composers in this way, there is also almost always a funny side story. Ina graciously agreed to share a bit here about her adventures in research and initial contact with Rob.
“For many years, I taught viola group class. Choosing pieces for this class was always a challenge. I needed to find a piece challenging enough to spend three to four months working on but not so hard the students couldn’t perfect it.
Having run out of ideas, I trolled one of my favorite web sites, the Petrucci library. Under viola ensemble, I found a number of works by the composer Robert Davidson. I had never heard of Rob, but his music looked interesting and most importantly, it was free to download. After a great deal of thought, I chose Message Ground, a round in two parts, with a ground (repeating) bass line to be played by the cello. In his liner notes, Rob writes that the ground was taken from a popular song.
My students worked hard on the piece and as the performance came closer, I asked our cellist Matt to record the ground bass, so they could rehearse with it. He dutifully did so, repeating it over and over again. Neither of us could place the familiar line.
A few weeks later we were out to brunch. All of a sudden Matt looked at me and told me to listen. What was playing on the sound system? Message in a Bottle, by the Police. That was the base line for Message Ground!
Eventually my students performed Message Ground. It was a big success and the audience loved the piece. I put Robert Davidson’s name in the back of my head, wondering if there would be a piece for our trio and a year later, we found Conversations.”
We are very excited to have Rob as our latest featured composer. Happy reading!SG: How did you become interested in music? What/Who were your earliest influences?
RD: I have very early memories of loving music. I had a cassette tape that I listened to obsessively from the age of 2 – it had on one side Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach and on the other The Essential Beatles, a popular compilation. These were my father’s choices. He also nightly bounced me on his knee to records, and tells me I was very enthusiastic. Those records were mostly things like Tijuana Brass, but also a lot of Tchaikovsky and Bach.
My independent interests really arose in my teens, in the early 80s, especially in (the contemporary) punk/new wave music, but also in older music, especially The Beatles, Queen and, oddly enough, Henry Mancini. I had an obsession also with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, having been first exposed to it at a screening of Fantasia when I was 8 or so.
I started my first band at 11, playing versions of Beatles songs, and music from Mary Poppins and other Disney films alongside songs by David Bowie and other 70s artists. My biggest musical education really came from working out the parts of Beatles and Queen songs, learning to play the various instrumental parts. I had some formal training at that time, on piano, but didn’t seriously learn instrumental tuition, on double bass, till I was 17.
SG: Did you start off as a bass player and then become interested in composing later?
RB: I started composing my own piano pieces and songs at 8 or 9, long before I thought of the bass. The way I got into double bass was via punishment – I had been at high school without my electric bass and some of us wanted to have a jam session, so I naughtily “borrowed” a double bass from the orchestra room at school. The music teacher caught me and for punishment I had to play in the orchestra and take lessons. I loved it so much I never stopped.
I started composing by modifying my piano lesson pieces by Mozart and Bach until they became my own, and by writing little songs. I soon moved on to writing Beatle-esque songs, and then by late high school had a wonderful teacher, Denise Jones, who encouraged my scored compositions. At 16, I composed an orchestral work which won the Australian Broadcasting Corporation composition prize, receiving multiple performances. That was such a wonderful experience that I’ve never stopped composing since.
SG: Conversations was composed shortly after you returned from seven months of travel, which included studying music in India and then Europe and the United States. How did you become interested in Indian music and what led you to Kerala?
RD: One of the big things in India was the intense focus on small ensemble music, with a huge melodic focus and little harmony and counterpoint (in the classical and folk music.) I totally loved that, but I was really ready for some counterpoint when I got back, so started writing very contrapuntal, conversational music.
I was led to Kerala by loving the music (I was introduced to it by an Indian friend at my church) and the way dance, drama and music all combined. While there, I was hanging out with a fellow artistic seeker, Lee Breuer, the successful New York theatre director. We had a lot of late night conversations while at all-night theatre events in the open, around enormous fires in the Kerala manner. He persuaded me that I should follow my heart and be a composer (I was headed into a musicology career, studying Indian music), and to do that I should hang around with the composer I admired the most in the world. That turned out to be Terry Riley. I knew someone, Sarah Hopkins, who had his number, so I called him and asked if I could come and spend time with him, he said yes, and I had a wonderful year in California staying at his ranch in the Sierra Nevada, alternating with staying in the Bay Area and travelling up twice a week.
SG: Please describe your experience in the United States and working with Terry Riley.
RD: I stayed for most of 1995 in the Bay Area and at Terry’s place, being his secretary while there to earn my keep. I edited a lot of his music, and just basically hung out in a sort of apprenticeship situation, which was marvellous. Terry has a very disciplined practice – getting up early to sing for an hour, then piano improvising, going for walks, composing, and so on. It’s why his music is so rich – it flows out of dedicated, performance-based connection with his music. He encouraged me to start my own ensemble, which I did when I returned to Australia, and Topology, the resulting ensemble, has grown into a key organisation in Australia’s contemporary music scene.
I also totally immersed myself in the scene in the Bay Area, going to the Other Minds festival, going to two or more gigs a night of a huge range of music, visiting galleries, getting to know many composers and artists, and gate-crashing composer courses at Mills College in Oakland. Then I did a similar thing in New York, staying at Lee Breuer’s place in the East Village for a couple of months. I had a great time meeting many of my heroes, including John Adams, John Corigliano, Steve Reich, John Zorn, Phil Glass, Lois Vierk, La Monte Young, Tan Dun, Cecil Taylor, Joan La Barbara, and many many more. It was inspirational, and encouraging. I loved the maverick nature of so many creative people in those scenes, and found that there was richness spread all over the country – I encountered amazing scenes also in Iowa, Minnesota and elsewhere. I wish I had more time to explore all over the country.
SG: Did you also work with other composers in the US and in Europe at that time?
RD: Yes, I actually also went to London and spent time with Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, John White, Howard Skempton, Michael Parsons and many others of the old experimental tradition in British music, also maverick, but in a more eccentric style in some ways – a different flavour from US experimentalism. I had the privilege to meet many other interesting composers and musicians, including Harrison Birtwistle, Thomas Adès (then just starting his career), Brian Eno, members of Björk’s band, and all sorts of excellent performers.
SG: How have all of these experiences influenced you?
RD: Mostly by encouraging me to stick to my guns and do what I really want to do – write music with melody and counterpoint and emotional authenticity, connecting with audiences in a specific scene through working with specific musicians and on specific projects. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since – creating all kinds of projects in my own town, with musicians I’m committed to (especially Topology), spreading out by touring, and by connecting with awesome musicians such as Eight Strings & a Whistle.
It was a pat on the back to be oneself, not to feel constrained by any fashions or “rules”, but to make the music that was in my heart, with emotional honesty. For me, this means direct, melodic, often quite joyful-tinged-with-melancholy moods, but with some odd bits of quirkiness. Basically putting myself out there in musical form – making my personality into a sonic object, that I hope others can identify with.
SG: I had a chance to watch some of the videos on, your group, Topology’s website. As a member you are active as a performer, composer and educator and your involvement with it seems like it must pretty intense. Can you tell us more about the group, and its vision? I am not only interested in the group’s musical diversity and flexibility, but also its involvement and influence on music education. Can you expand also a bit on the state of music education in Australia today?
RD: We have a pretty complex vision, but it focuses on creating authentic, surprising music through strengthening communities. We do a lot of collaborating and love to spread that quite far regarding genre, working with people of different backgrounds from ourselves (we’ve worked with Aboriginal Australian, Indian, Indonesian, Chinese, jazz, pop, metal, classical, electronic and many other musicians to create new works and put on shows). We do a lot with education, because that’s part of our vision of strengthening communities – we work with young people the same way we work with professionals – just collaborating, treating people as they are, with everyone being stretched and learning. We play alongside students, performing their compositions and they performing ours, and developing new works together. It varies depending on the needs and desires of the students, the school (where one is involved) and the project.
Music education is pretty diverse in Australia – we like to challenge the top-down approach that is rather widespread, and try to encourage drawing out of students existing musical knowledge, which is formidable, and often beyond ours in genres they’re interested in. We foster diversity and acceptance amongst the students, so they can be more effective in supporting each other (I love seeing a metal-loving student making helpful and detailed, perceptive comments on another student’s country-and-western song, for example, as happened not long ago). I’m convinced that Ken Robinson is basically correct in the idea that kids have creativity educated out of them – all little kids are making up songs all day long, and they rather need to remember how to do that rather than learn how to be more like adults. That said, they can learn a lot of critical and technical skills and we like to help them with that – but often the first thing they need is just a reawakening of their creativity that has been latent. That comes out well in a collaborative approach.
SG: I read that you are undertaking research into links between language and music. Could you expand on that a little? Although Conversations was first composed in 1993, does it tie into any of this?
RD: Yes, I do a lot of finding melodies in spoken language. Conversations is indirectly linked, because the melodies in the piece were developed by my reading out loud passages from the Psalms. The slow movement, for example, is directly a setting of Psalm 61 in the New International Version:
“Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe.”
I listened to my own intonation in reading these passages and the melodies came from that. I’m very interested in ways that musical expression are related to spoken expression, and in emotional communication.
SG: I found the quote below on the Australian Music Centre’s website page about you:
“I enjoy music that celebrates the body as well as the mind, that responds to how our primate brains operate. We’re living in the most exciting musical period ever, and I’m thrilled.”
I love this! In your notes about Conversations you write about the wide range of sources you drew from: Hymns from your Methodist upbringing, Bach counterpoint, Sibelius Harmony, Beatle tunes and rhythms of Kerala, are some of them. You write that you were approaching composition with a sense of openness at the time and that you attempted to allow your musical intuition full rein. This was in 1993. Would you say that this still holds true – and do you see this approach as a path to a celebration of both the mind and body?
Can you expand on this exciting musical period we are living in – what are your thoughts on new music in general?
RD: There are more people making more music than ever, and new technologies have allowed people to realise their musical imaginations without necessarily being virtuoso performers, even while the level of performance amongst virtuosos is higher than ever (eg. Yo Yo Ma, Hilary Hahn, Edgar Meyer, Yuri Bashmet, Mark O’Connor, Christian Lindberg, Robert Dick, Brodsky Quartet, U Srinivas… need I go on?). There are too many incredible young composers to name, writing fantastic string quartets, symphonies, electronic music and more. There’s more communication between musicians than ever, leading to incredible collaborations that are wonderful. There is so much amazing songwriting going on, and there are amazing operas (John Adams for example), orchestral works, musicals, everything – so much that it’s hard to see it, since nothing stands out obviously. I am in love with so much popular music today – Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, Sigur Rós, Fiona Apple, and a long, long list. People can sometimes tend to just look at manufactured auto-tuned pop and think that’s everything, missing the vast richness of today. And I haven’t even started on Korea, India, South Africa, Mauritania, and everywhere with unprecedented richness of music.
In the area of new classical music, for want of a better term, I’m thrilled at the renewed emphasis on melody, communication, unfettered expression, without a need for nostalgia or self-conscious handwringing – I love the diversity. The downside is there is not really a strong common language to communicate in, but perhaps that is still emerging.
Rob is Head of Composition at the University of Queensland School of Music. He studied composition with Terry Riley after studying Indian music in Kerala and before completing his composition PhD. He was a bassist in the Australian Opera, Sydney Symphony and Queensland Symphony orchestras, and has been featured as bassist at many festivals, performing chamber works with artists such as John Williams (guitar), the Brodsky Quartet and Ensemble 24. He has also tutored as bassist and composer at many conferences, including the Mt. Buller Chamber Music Summer School and the Australian String Association National Conference. He regularly tours internationally with Topology and other ensembles, and his compositions are frequently performed, recorded and broadcast around the world.
All of Australia’s professional orchestras and many leading festivals, soloists and ensembles have commissioned and performed Rob’s works: the Brodsky Quartet (London), the Australian String Quartet, Karin Schaupp, the Southern Cross Soloists, the Paul Dresher Ensemble (San Francisco), Newspeak (New York) and many more.
To read more about Rob and Topology, please visit: http://www.topologymusic.com