Our Featured Composer
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 Dorian based 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.sion premieres 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