Featured Composer

Douglas Anderson revisited

Douglas Anderson is among one of the first composers to have written a work for Eight Strings & a Whistle. Commissioned in 2000, his Chamber Symphony No. 3 has received numerous performances since its premiere. Our recording of it was released by Ravello Records in 2016 on Douglas Anderson, Chamber Symphonies 2, 3 & 4.

In 2011 we launched our first website. At the suggestion of our wonderful designer, Carol Lasky of Cahoots Design, the site included a Featured Composer page, the idea being to give our audience greater access to the composers we perform through interviews with them. Doug was the second composer to be interviewed for that page. Ina had a wonderful in person discussion with Doug over lunch. Fast forward to 2019, when Doug presents us with a completely different type or work – one that draws from his early and everlasting love for Dixieland, bluegrass and jazz. He says that the piece began as an experiment: “what would be the result of applying a twentieth-century variations techniques (think Schoenberg or Babbitt, rather than Mozart or Beethoven) to Arkansas Traveler? A blue grass band typically does variations on the tunes they play, but within that style; what happens if a drastically different stylistic approach is taken?” Ultimately Doug came up with a set of variations and decided that they would work best if the work would start with the variation that least resembled the original tune, and then have each following variation get closer to resembling the tune and end with the tune itself. And so, Douglas Anderson’s Reverse Variations on Arkansas Traveler was born. But there is more: Doug remembered that traditionally players often tell jokes between the variations, so he gave us the option to perform the work with us telling jokes. We have had the opportunity to perform Reverse Variations on Arkansas Traveler several times in the last six months or so. While in Cuba, we elected to perform without the jokes for obvious reasons. That said, the jokes are back for our upcoming performance on Friday, November 22 at the Tenri Cultural Institute and we hope to see you there! For tickets please visit here! In the mean time, I am thrilled to be sharing a second Featured Composer interview with Doug Anderson. Enjoy!

SG: Ina’s first interview seems like a lifetime ago. We have performed Chamber Symphony No. 3 so many times since then and our recording of it was released on Ravello Records in 2016. The world certainly has changed a lot since then, but we are still doing what we do and all  four of us are a bit older, and, hopefully, wiser and musically more mature.

If Ina were to ask you the same questions again, would you your answers be the same? What would you change or add? Or eliminate?

DA: It’s interesting to look at that interview, and my responses. One thing of the things that strikes me, at the end of the interview, are my comments about writing for an audience of diverse people: those who have a lot of technical musical experience playing or listening, all the way to those for whom music is just a pleasant sound environment to have around.  I continue to have that as an overarching goal of my composing.  This piece, so different from the Chamber Symphony 3 I wrote for you in 2001, still attempts to reach all sorts of listeners.  The jokes help.

SG: In your program notes, you mention that composing these variations on Arkansas Traveler began as an experiment with applying 20th (21st?) century compositional techniques. You also mention your fondness for bluegrass music. Your variations are quite different than Chamber Symphony No. 3 and much of the rest of your chamber music. They are lighter and in some ways texturally more transparent which makes sense to me given the folk nature of bluegrass music. I really love that you embrace this characteristic. It’s quite different from what is “Douglas Anderson” – Care to comment on that?

DA: This goes back a long way: I began my professional life in music as a jazz musician at the age of 12.  By the time I went to college at 17, I had realized that as much as I loved jazz I also was attracted to other musics as well, among them bluegrass music (which seemed similar to a type of jazz I played, Dixieland music-another love).  I always loved the way a simple tune would be the take-off point for far reaching and exhilarating improvisations.  At the time I wrote the Chamber Symphony No. 3 for you, I also wrote (within a couple of years each way) a chamber opera (Medea in Exile), an internet opera (The Moon Moth), a jazz radio play (The King of Jazz), and some other chamber and orchestral music.  So I was working in a lot of different directions all the time.  As my compositional career led me along these various ways I was alert for opportunities to go in other less ‘academic’ or ‘formal’ directions.  Before I wrote Reverse Variations on Arkansas Traveler, I had written a piece for violas in four parts (Ina was the instigator of this one) called Some Thoughts on ‘The Rights of Man’, based on an 18th century fiddle tune by that name.  So this piece is another one on that path.

SG: Can you expand on why you through reversing the variations would be more interesting? Did the first variation come first when you were composing? What was that process like – did you come up with a bunch of variations and then decide which order to string them together, modifying each one so they became progressively closer to the theme? Or was the concept of reversing them more planned out than that.?

DA: Part of the genesis of this piece was very much what you mention- an experiment in process.  I had the idea of taking a simple very tonal melody (most of what I write is atonal, often but not always serial), and rather than doing variations using the traditional blue-grass or jazz or even Classical (i.e. Mozart, Beethoven) technique of keeping the chord progression and varying the melody, I wanted to try something different.  Inspired by Brahms and Schoenberg and Stravinsky and Babbitt and even J. S. Bach, I wondered what would result if I dissected the melody for non-melodic connections: for instance, creating a rhythm from the imbedded appearance of a particular pitch within the melody.  That’s just one example of several I came up with, each (at first) just an experiment to see what’s there besides the obvious. 

At first I wasn’t even thinking of a piece; but as these experiments developed it became clear that I had enough material for something.  I decided the best way to present these thoughts would be as a theme and variations, but as the variations began to come together it seemed clear that it would be more interesting to start as far away from the melody as possible, and gradually come towards it.   So in actuality I wrote all the variations separately, then had to decide on their order, which is what you have.

SG: You know, telling jokes and then having to play each variation is not as easy as it might look – just sayin’. That said, including them seems to fit so well although I think it is important to note, that the jokes must also be style specific and convey the light heartedness and “folksiness” of the Arkansas Traveler tune. Do you know the history of joke telling in the bluegrass version?

We are looking forward to seeing you at Tenri on November 22nd – Maybe you can tell a joke or two as well that night!

DA: So, the jokes:  I had heard this tune played many times live and on recordings, and often interrupted by jokes.  I don’t know the genesis of that, except that bluegrass and country and even jazz performance is often much more informal and relaxed than a lot of concert music, and often involved humor and other commentary- think of Louis Prima, or Salt Peanuts by Dizzy Gillespie, or any number of country and bluegrass pieces.  There’s a recording of this tune with the traditional jokes (actually one of our favorite family car-trip songs when the kids were young) by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, which maybe people should listen to for background on my version. 

As my version came together as this set of Reverse Variations, I wondered what would happen if between the variations there were jokes?  And then the question arises: what jokes?  The traditional (city traveler meets Arkansas country person); new music jokes; something else?  I then went around asking musicians for jokes about new music (Matt and Ina, who teach where I teach, were frequent targets of these questions early on) – only to discover that there aren’t really any such jokes.   I asked a friend who write my lyrics (Andrew Joffe) if he had any ideas (he came up with a series of music critic jokes).  I researched on the internet, and eventually decided to put all these options out there and let the performers decide, based on who their audience is on a given day (I guess like a stand-up comedian has to do).

And then the question: who would the performers be?  As I was experimenting, it was all about the process and what would result, without thought of performance or even instrumentation.  But as things came into focus, and I decided to include the jokes, 8SW seemed the obvious choice.  You three are fun and funny people, adventurous programmers, and great performers, so I wrote the final version with the trio in mind.  I’ve seen you play so many times, and you always introduce pieces with little verbal introductions, so I know you’re all comfortable talking to your audiences, and seem to enjoy it.

I did think about the difference here: that stopping between the variations breaks the performance focus, and it would be a challenge to perform.  But your last 20 years have proven that you guys are game for all sorts of challenges, so I thought you’d be perfect for this. 

SG: Awww – thank you!

To read Doug’s first Featured Composer Interview, please visit here.

Douglas Anderson is a composer, conductor, educator, and producer who has been active in the New York area for 45 years.  He studied music and psychology at Columbia University, where his three degrees culminated in a doctorate in music composition in 1980. His professional career began as a jazz musician at the age of 12, and he performed widely in the Eastern U.S. before moving to New York to attend college. He made his professional conducting debut at the Beacon Theater on Broadway, leading the Boston Ballet in a run of Peter and the Wolf (1973).

Dr. Anderson’s compositions include chamber works, orchestral works, concerti, vocal music (including synthesized voice), electronic music, radio drama, jazz, film, and musical theater, as well as many choral arrangements. Important categories of works include song cycles (My Year, My Life and Cassandra Songs), chamber symphonies (on a CD entitled Douglas Anderson Chamber Symphonies 2, 3, & 4 released on Ravello Records), and a series of engaging works for solo instruments. His music has been heard around the world for decades, notably on Voice of America radio abroad, and nationally in radio dramas broadcast on NPR’s The Radio Stage: Romance Concerto, The Sound of Fear Clapping and The King of Jazz.  He composed music for an Internet opera on SCIFI.com entitled The Moon Moth. Theater works include four operas to librettos by Andrew Joffe: Faust Triumphant, Medea in Exile, Through/In, and Antigone Sings. Dr. Anderson’s chamber opera Faust Triumphant was premiered in 1995 at the International Faust Festival and was revived in a production in 2016 by the American Chamber Opera Company. He has been a guest composer at the Bar Harbor (Maine) Music Festival and an Eight Strings & a Whistle featured composer. His music has been presented in a retrospective concert by the New Renaissance Chamber Artists and he has been a composer-in-residence for A Potpourri of Song, in Brooklyn, NY.

Dr. Anderson is a Ravello Records Artist. His work can be heard on Douglas Anderson Chamber Symphonies 2, 3, & 4, released in 2016 and on One at a Time, released in 2018.

Dr. Anderson is on the faculty of the Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY, where he is Professor of Music and was for 14 years Chairman of the Music and Art Department. His composition teachers include Mario Davidovsky, Harvey Sollberger, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Chou Wen-chung, and Charles Wuorinen.

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