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The Music

Douglas Anderson

Douglas Anderson

Commissioned in 2000, Douglas Anderson’s Chamber Symphony No. 3 was officially premiered in Merkin Concert Hall in New York, in May, 2001. During the summer of 2009 we performed it again on tour in Maine and then throughout the northeast the following fall, culminating with a performance at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York that November.

Douglas Anderson is a composer, conductor, educator, and producer who has been active in the New York area for more than 40 years. His compositions include chamber works, orchestral works, concerti, vocal music (including synthesized voice), electronic music, radio drama, jazz, film, and musical theater. In January, 1991 his music was presented in a retrospective concert by the New Renaissance Chamber Artists. Doug’s music has been heard in two radio dramas broadcast on NPR's Radio Stage: Romance Concerto, and The Sound of Fear Clapping. In 2001 he composed music for and performed in an Internet ‘opera of blood’ (the first internet opera) on SCIFI.com entitled The Moon Moth. His Chamber Symphony No. 4, for piano trio was premiered by di.vi.sion in May, 2011. Ina premiered “... mood, enough...” for viola solo in February, 2007. Doug is currently finishing Cassandra Songs for mezzo soprano and piano.

Doug is the conductor of the Downtown Symphony, the Director of The Putnam Chorale, and the Executive Director and Conductor of the American Chamber Opera Company. He is a Professor of Music at the Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY. He holds a  Doctorate from Columbia University and has studied composition with Mario Davidovsky, Harvey Sollberger, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Chou Wen-chung, and Charles Wuorinen.

Doug writes that “Chamber Symphony No. 3 is one of a series of Chamber Symphonies, each for a different type of chamber ensemble. They are symphonies because, like their larger orchestral cousins, they are works that create varied and multifaceted musical worlds. My intent here was to write another such piece, and give my friends something interesting, challenging, and fun to play. The melodies and harmonies in this piece are combined and recombined in a variety of ways to give me a variety of interrelated melodies harmonies and textures with which to create four main sections, movements if you will, connected by little cadenzas, with an introduction and a coda.”

Ina met with Doug over lunch recently to talk about his work, compositional technique and a host of other topics.


IL: Your piece has been part of our rep for a long time. I think you are the first composer we asked to write for us.

DA: When you asked me to write the piece, my question was, what else would you do on the program? I need to have a sense of what the programming is, so that even though the piece may not always be on a particular program it gives me a starting point. That’s the first thing. I wrote the piece in 2000 and finished it in 2001, probably in January. I remember coming down in the morning and composing. I lived upstate (this was not in the house I’m in now, but a smaller house) and my son was one. I would bring him downstairs because my wife likes to sleep late. He would crawl around and climb on me while I’d be working. It worked out. It is just wonderful for me to have a piece where it has been performed multiple times. And it does change. For the better, always.

My process for composing is to take a look at the instruments that are involved, in this case viola, cello and flute. The viola and cello are string instruments with four strings each. This we all know. I studied the characteristics of the instruments - the flute has a nominal low note of C, but most professional flutists can go down to a B, and a high note typically on the page is high F. So that gives me some pitches to start with. I also have to have some sort of idea of where I am going to pull my melodies from and where I’m going to pull my harmonies from. That’s where I used the pitch characteristics of the instruments as sort of a basis, because it kind of grounds it in an actual acoustic reality. Your strings on your instrument have not just the basic pitches and the potential chromatic or microtonal side of it, but there are also harmonics, which are a very distinct kind of thing. I make use of that to help derive a harmonic platform for the piece.

IL: Why do you call it a Symphony?

DA: A Symphony, to me, means a piece is its own world, in which a variety of things happen; a diversity of this and that. Haydn was the first, especially with his late symphonies, to create a little universe of itself. It doesn’t have to have every aspect of everything but it does have to have enough variety. Certainly other composers have expanded on that. When I call it a chamber symphony, clearly it is composed for a chamber group, but I am referring to the first Chamber Symphonies I encountered, which were Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony Nos. 1 and 2. Although interesting pieces, they didn’t quite create the whole world kind of thing. They were slightly different from that. So I am expanding beyond where I think Schoenberg went.

IL: There are two rows? We spent a certain amount of time trying to figure out the rows.

DA: Going to Columbia for grad school in composition and studying with Charles Wuorinen in particular, we were steeped in 12 tone composing but I realized as I was getting my doctorate that the larger audience experiences music as a gut reaction. In composing the first piece I wrote after my dissertation, Increasingly Physical, I had been thinking more and more of writing for that gut reaction. The difficulty in composing music in the 20th and 21st centuries is that tonality may be obvious, yet composers tend to want to do something different and there is no standard one way. Serial music, twelve tone music, allows composers to help hold the piece together harmonically, melodically. But you can also step away from the strict interpretation and take your rows and divide them into groups of 6, or 5 and 7 pitches. Then the music will sound similar in certain ways to perfectly tonal music. You have a bunch of pitches going around but it is not 12 pitches it is only 6 pitches. That’s the basic theory behind it. Turns out you can use any sets of pitches: I used the same row for about 8 or 9 years, and wrote tremendously different pieces because I was doing other things with the row, rather than simply having it be the row. I realized that I could use the same row to do all these things and that I could also make a row out of anything.

The piece itself has three parts, except the third part sort of divides in half.

IL: I remember we told you we thought there were four movements.

DA. That was exciting to me and I realized you’re right. From my point of view, structurally I’m writing three movements but the end of the third movement is in two parts because they are so different from one another. However it is the same pitch business. That was interesting. I learned things just by hearing you do that. You were surprised to hear that I thought there were only three.

IL: What kind of reaction are you expecting from the audience the first time they hear one of your works?

DA: I’m expecting that nobody in the audience is going to hear it the way I hear it. My general thought was always, when people say they like something or don’t like it –– whatever they say –– what I always want to know is why. What is it you like or dislike? That’s when I get the best answers. What more than one person said to me about Chamber Symphony No. 3, is that they felt it in their gut. I thought, oh good, that’s where I was aiming. They couldn’t really describe what that gut feeling was except that it did sort of get to them physically. That’s good, that’s what I meant. What’s interesting about Chamber Symphony No. 3, is that you guys have played it so much that you now play it smoothly. You know what’s coming, you know how it fits together whereas when you are learning a piece it is hard to know that.

So that’s a wonderful thing, but what is really great is that you guys do spend the time and get to know the piece. I’ve heard you do other people’s new pieces so I know this is not just me. You guys do take a lot of care and you sort of get into the head of the piece. Let me give you an example: in the first movement, there’s a part where right after the introduction Matt plays this solo thing and until he is familiar enough with the piece he doesn’t know how this fits in and sets up what’s going to happen. The first few performances he was, I don’t want to say tentative, but trying things out, trying to make it work. After doing it a few times, he figured out what he’s got to say and how to make sense of it. That is what his job is. Later on in the first movement there is this place which is meant to remind everybody of the little bit at the beginning. It’s like the cello almost interrupts and says: “hey wait a minute, remember this?” It’s hard to do that in any piece, and especially with an unfamiliar style or language, but once you get a sense of what you are saying then you can pronounce the words with slightly different accent, you can play around with it.

That’s what is really great for me. You play it for a while, you have it on your program for a certain amount of time, take it out of the repertoire and then bring it back. That is what is really cool, each time you take it out again, put it back in the rep, it’s an old friend, it’s something you are familiar with, comfortable with, but you guys have changed, you’ve played other pieces in between. Maybe you notice other things to bring out. Certainly when we were up in Maine (Bar Harbor Festival, 2009) you played it like you were really having fun with it.

IL: What do you think of the state of modern music today, generally?

DA: I think we are at on the cusp of a new mega era right now with the Internet. The growth of the printing/publishing industry and the rise of the middle class early in the Baroque period created a market for instrumental music for middle class people who wanted to get music into their homes. So in the 1600’s this happens and western civilization goes through a phase which is unique in human history. You have a large number of educated people playing musical instruments or involved in music and so you have a very sophisticated audience during the 1600, 1700, 1800, early 1900’s. They all know form and texture. They are playing music in the home and have first hand knowledge even if they are not professional musicians. That starts to end mid 20th century as recording became possible and you didn’t need to be able to play an instrument in order to have music in your house. Now we have a new generation not as conversant with music. We also have the rise of the Internet, which means that music of any type is immediately available. You can go and purchase for 99 cents the most incredible playlist and people do. You have that possibility which means you can get anything from anywhere. The fear I had 20 years ago was that all the great musical cultures were starting to get mixed in with Western pop music. I was so bummed out about that because there is so much great, totally interesting stuff from all over the world. There is no reason that everybody needs to be westernized. Because we have the Internet we can still have everything and everything in between. It is going to be a whole different kind of marketing system for music. I haven’t quite figured out exactly how to benefit from it.

IL: I don’t think any of us has.

DA: As a composer I can flip between this that and the other thing and create a world with a lot of variety. I’m writing for people who, like the most intimidating professors I had, were counting 12 tone rows. I’m writing for them and I’m writing for the audience member who doesn’t: the music sort of washes over them and they don’t have any clear sense of technically what is going on but they know that it gets them in the gut.

IL: I think that ultimately that is what you want. You want to be able to appeal to everyone who has open ears. I don’t necessarily want to play for people who have a score in front of them and want to dissect everything. But it is exciting if people want to hear it again.

Thank you Doug, it was a pleasure talking with you.

DA: It is always a pleasure.