Featured Composer

Mark Winges

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.

Suzanne

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.

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