Author: Molly Sheridan

Van-Anh Vanessa Vo: Old Sounds / New Music

A 19th-century French composition and an 18th-century Vietnamese traditional instrument can create a strikingly engaging current musical story together, and as Van-Anh Vo (who often goes by Vanessa in the States) performed Gnossienne No. 3 on the dan bau, playing up the instrument’s haunting moans, the audience sat transfixed. Satie’s well-worn melody suddenly pulsed with fresh life.

Vo speaks with moving passion about the impact of American diversity on the evolution of her musical voice since she emigrated from Vietnam in the late 1990s. An award-winning traditional performer and educator in her native country, Vo has found a particular freedom in the myriad genres and styles of music that surround her here—an influence that has filtered into both her musical ideas and the instruments and techniques she uses to communicate them. “I think I find great opportunity as a musician and composer here,” Vo explains. “I can do what I want. I can follow my inner voice—what I hear in my mind and what I feel I need to express.”

On the heels of the release of Three-Mountain Pass, a recent collection of her compositions and arrangements, Vo traveled across the country from her current home in the Bay Area to present many of the tracks during a performance on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Out of a suitcase and a few modestly sized bags, she set up a small orchestra of traditional Vietnamese instruments (the dan tranh, dan bau, and dan t’rung) plus the hang, a modern piece of Swiss percussion. She moved easily from one to the next during her set, explaining to the gathered audience the folktale references and classic Vietnamese poetry that often inspire her compositions.

Vo performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Vo performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Indeed, Vo’s energy and enthusiasm for musical creativity seems to transcend any particular instrument and instead feed off a fundamental sonic curiosity, as well as a desire to reflect on her cultural heritage and share those sounds with new ears. It’s a dialog that has led her to collaborations with musical neighbors such as the Kronos Quartet. “I see how things can be done and they help me to open even wider,” Vo says, noting the confidence such collaborations have given her to try new extended techniques such as using a violin bow on her single-string dan bau or plucking very close to the bridge of the dan tranh—a forbidden zone in traditional playing. In return, she has also passed on some of the non-notatable slide and phrasing aspects of Vietnamese music as Kronos worked on her Green River Delta.  The project was a success; in the end, she says, her teachers back in Vietnam suggested that perhaps she had swapped these four American guys with native players.

This spirit of collaboration has also led her to work with instrument makers to redesign the dan tranh to allow for faster and more flexible retuning during performances, but the modifications also meant she had to readjust everything about her playing. She admits that it “was really challenging, but you learn to conquer it. That’s the best thing maybe to happen to me.”
Interestingly, Vo draws strong connections between American jazz and the improvisation involved in traditional Vietnamese music—at least to a point. In other ways, however, musical life in Vietnam felt very conservative. Vo also recalls feeling censored by what the government felt was appropriate to play in concert.

Ultimately the distance has allowed Vo to appreciate the culture and history of her native country with a deeper awareness. “It is very important that you know who you are and where you come from, so I know that my roots are in Vietnam,” Vo acknowledges. “But the tree has to adjust to the new environment and bear the new fruit, otherwise it will die.”

Sounds Heard: Erik Friedlander—Claws & Wings

In the wake of Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize win last week for her remarkable short stories, I have been reminded to be more attentive to the small details in life, the intensely personal moments that are also—sometimes shockingly—quite universal.
It’s a particularly excellent frame of mind to be in when approaching Claws & Wings, cellist Erik Friedlander’s latest release with Ikue Mori (electronics) and Sylvie Courvoisier (piano). The album is dedicated to Friedlander’s late wife, the choreographer and writer Lynn Shapiro, who passed away in November of 2011 after a long battle with breast cancer. In interviews, Friedlander has been quite forthcoming about the role music played during that struggle—music being a place that he could escape to, a place he could control. An injury to his left hand right after her death sidelined him for months, further challenging him as he grieved. When he was ready to return to playing, he was still in a place of loss, but ready to wrestle with the experience of mourning and moving forward through music—work which appears on Claws & Wings.

Knowing all of this biography, it’s admittedly tempting to tape a lot of implied meaning over top of the music, but I found those concrete narratives to quickly fade into the abstract musical landscape, the image as messy as love, as complex as life. But the music does move like a dancer in my mind’s eye, and holding onto the idea that this album is a sort of mental pas de deux certainly suits it. The album’s opener, Frail As a Breeze, which is broken into two parts/tracks, sets a tone that is cleanly spare but not chilling—gently whistling electronics, meditative piano lines, the cello answering with sections of pizzicato. The swirling lines of the second part carry themselves with an ear-turning beauty and grace that slips some into the ominous, tearing and scratching at certain turns.

Several shorter tracks cohesively follow, each full of fluid and breath. In Dancer particularly, the electronics keep the sentiments grounded, the reflection never turning saccharine, the cello and piano ever committed to maintaining forward motion. Indeed, as the album moves toward its close, it becomes clear that there will be no explosive displays of emotion. Friedlander’s scoring will glimmer and glide through Swim With Me and refuse to settle until the final moments of Insomnia, but even in Cheek to Cheek (an original, not a Berlin cover) which closes the disc, the distinct optimism is tempered, the journey not over but turning towards the bittersweet.

You can listen to Friedlander speak about his wife and the work on this album during his All Things Considered interview “Returning to Music, Tested by Loss.” He’s also curating/performing at The Stone in New York City all week (October 15-20) and will premiere Claws & Wings on October 16 at 8 p.m.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

How We Learn Now: Education Week
Index of Education Week Articles















Whether it’s been years since you last sat in a lecture hall or only just this morning that you put a child on the school bus, September will probably always carry with it thoughts of the classroom. Yet despite these traditional specters, how we seek out and process new information has clearly evolved in the digital age.

While maverick music makers who build their art well outside traditional institutions were certainly not invented in 2013, advances in technology have multiplied and publicized the myriad routes students may follow. In parallel to the ways we’ve seen the boundaries of genre blur and meld, education and career paths have been derailed and resurfaced; others have completely gone off road.

So how do you get to be a new music composer or performer today? How do you connect with the music and grow as a listener? Fresh learning methods have opened up exciting possibilities when it comes to advancing music education and introducing new ears to new work, so this week (September 23-27) we’ve invited our regular contributors plus some special guests to each pick up a thread in this huge concept and tell us about a piece of this story that’s important to them.

While I don’t expect that any of them will dismiss the idea of music education completely, they may advocate for learning that occurs outside of traditional intuitions or that continues long after the graduation cap is airborne.

This, of course, isn’t the first time we’ve poked around under the hood of educational issues here at NewMusicBox. In recent years we’ve chronicled Detroit’s fight to save music in the public schools and examined how we measure learning among music school students. We questioned if education debt was really worth it and what kind of teaching methods are best for those who decide to invest in it.

I expect that lots of new ideas will be thrown around this week, and it’s my hope that you’ll be inspired to add your voice to these discussions as well, using whatever 21st-century messaging strategy you most prefer.
For my part, I’ll sign off with this YouTube video. Now, I’m not much of a performer, nor did I complete any advanced work in the sciences, but thanks to the internet I’ve been schooled by someone who clearly has both well in hand. So thanks, A Cappella Science Guy! You’ve illustrated the importance of music education even when it comes to STEM subject excellence: Sonic proof of concept for any naysayers, as far as I’m concerned.

Kenneth Kirschner: Pirate This Music

Before Napster was even an idea living in Shawn Fanning’s dorm room, composer Kenneth Kirschner saw something idealistic and beautiful in the notion of sending his music out into the world in a way that was freely accessible to everyone.
“I’m not telling you to copy other things,” Kirschner clarifies. “But I am telling you to pirate my music because I think it’s important.”
Screen shot from
When you visit Kirschner’s über-minimalist single-page website, you get a clearer sense of how central this outlook is to his work. Since its launch in late 2002, new pieces have been posted upon completion (older works have also been added, rounding out the breadth of the catalog) and all are freely downloadable (as MP3s and, since 2010, FLACs). Each work carries a date in a hazy cornflower blue font as its sole identifier—it’s the date that the piece’s concept “crystalized” for Kirschner, a filing system that he characterizes as “a disaster that I love.” The track’s total running time is the only other detail listed. No program notes are offered, no composer bio included. Scroll all the way down the page past the last (which is to say the first) track, May 19, 1988, and you get the only information on the music’s creator on offer here: you can email him, follow him on twitter, or sign up for the mailing list.
The lack of explanatory material about his music on his website is quite intentional. Kirschner wants listeners to focus on the end result and is uninterested in seducing them with detailed notes about his compositional process because “if you don’t like what you’re hearing, the methods have already failed.”

Considering all he’s keeping under his hat, the fact that all the work is available at no cost suits Kirschner. “If you can download it freely, then you can take a risk with it,” he points out. “And I think, being an experimental composer, it’s about encouraging a listener to take risks.” This obviously begs some personal financial questions, and Kirschner is very forthcoming on this point, explaining that he works part-time in an unrelated field as a freelance copy editor. “I basically do just enough work to get by and support my music while giving myself the maximum amount of time and freedom. It’s a tricky balance, and there are definitely tradeoffs.”

To source the building blocks for his compositions, Kirschner works with live instrumentalists, coaching and recording sounds with them. He’s also comfortable enough at the piano to produce what he needs, and isn’t afraid to knock out some of his own percussion as well. Field recordings and sample libraries round out his sound palette. From there, it’s a process of improvisation and chance procedures to build up musical material, and then a lot of editing at a desk in his Brooklyn home until the final piece takes shape.

What electronic music gives you the ability to do is to obsessively edit everything. You have more control than you ever should have. And you can take chaos and take chance and take unexpected events and capture them and let them become an essential part of a composition. So you’re not composing intentionally a lot of the time, you’re reacting to what’s happening with the technology and what’s happening with the parameters that you’ve set up.

When that obsessive editing is complete, the file is posted to Kirschner’s website. A few record labels, including 12k, have put out collections of his work, though the CD covers often carry the printed suggestion that “this music may be freely copied.” While he does occasionally perform live, Kirschner is adamant that the recording is the work. He doesn’t create scores in the traditional sense, associating printed music with a certain anxiety. “I’ve always felt I had some very basic form of musical dyslexia,” he explains. “Notation was very intimidating to me. It was something I could never connect with and I could never have become a musician in any sort of serious sense if I had to go that path.”
Coming of age at a time when synthesizers and drum machines and four-track recorders were at hand, however, meant that he could create music in a way that worked for him and he wasn’t blocked by tools that he just couldn’t use.

I’ve always known this is what I wanted to do. I was fortunately very clear on this since I was twelve or thirteen: that I want to do this kind of music, I want to do it in a certain sort of way, present it in a certain way, distribute it in a certain way, have it philosophically structured in a certain way. And I’ve stuck to that program.

In many ways, Kirschner sees it all as a grand experiment in objectless, abstract music. “I think it’s a cool thing to try and see if it works.”
“And by ‘trying it’,” he concedes, his laugh filling the room, “I mean my entire life.”

Sounds Heard: The Disquiet Junto

Dear Members of the Disquiet Junto,
This week’s project focuses on the spatial aspect of sound. The instructions are as follows

Rework Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography

It is Franklin’s own Junto Society that provided the name for this association. Image courtesy

On Thursday night, I get an email from the Disquiet Junto group on SoundCloud. It’s a homework assignment I know I will not complete by its Monday deadline, but one that fascinates me nonetheless. It’s also one I know will result in the creation of many tracks of new music built by others.

If this sounds intriguing to you, you can join in at any time—anyone can participate, no application necessary. There are just a few rules and simple guidelines to ease everyone into the party.

Even for those who don’t want to wade in and create music themselves, with 88 projects already completed, the curious listener has a cavernous library to select from (and ample shared process notes from each track creator to get lost in). More files are being added each week.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to select for you any kind of “best of” representative mix from this project, but for anyone intrigued by the sonic ideas this type of exercise can generate, your spelunking down the Disquiet Junto rabbit hole is sure to be rewarded. When you stumble on something special, please share it in the comments!
Drowning in options, I decided to start with some personally intriguing assignments and work from there. We begin at the beginning, a very good—if chilly—place to start. Access the full assignment details and track notes by clicking through to each file’s SoundCloud page.
Assignment #1: Ice Cubes

Assignment #6: Remixing Archival Edison Cylinders

Assignment #8: Rework Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography

Assignment #56: Make music from the sound of the tick of a clock.

Assignment #57: Use sounds from the Phonetics Lab Archive at UCLA to depict emotions.

Assignment #82: Create a minimal techno track using elements of a Haydn string quartet.


Quick Questions with Junto founder Marc Weidenbaum

Molly Sheridan:
You win the gold star for the most creatively stimulating homework assignments I have ever encountered. What took the Disquiet Junto from neat idea to actually happening project?

Marc Weidenbaum: Thanks! That’s super generous of you. The enthusiasm of the participants, who come back week after week, is what has made the Disquiet Junto happen: their music, their ideas, their energy, their generosity. I’m afraid to say that had the first project not been so warmly received—40-plus participants joined in, if memory serves—I might not have had the nerve to do a second. Instead, we hit the ground running, and we haven’t stopped since, one week after the next.

MS: Let’s quantify this image. Can you throw some fun numbers at me—number of participants since the project started, number of tracks, hours of music created, number of plays and comments gathered—that sort of thing? How many people does it take to run this machine or does the machine provide the tools on its own?

MW: Sure thing. Here are some numerical accountings of our goings-on, as of September 4, 2013:

  • 2,533: number of tracks currently live in the Disquiet Junto group page
  • 372: number of musicians responsible for those 2,533 tracks
  • 87: number of weekly projects
  • 71: number of tracks submitted to the most active weekly project
  • 18: seconds in length of shortest project (a mini-suite based on the Vine app)
  • 4: number of days from project announcement (Thursday) to deadline (Monday)
  • 4: number of live concerts thus far (one each in Chicago, Denver, Manhattan, and San Francisco)
  • 1: number of moderators (that is, it’s just me)
  • 0: number of weeks we’ve taken off

MS: You’re the Junto founder/moderator, but are you also an active participant?

MW: I believe I’ve only participated in the Disquiet Junto once, for a project called “audiobiography,” the 60th, back in March 2013. I don’t really make much music, myself, in the direct sense, though I think the projects themselves count as a kind of music-making, in a meta sense. I do fiddle with music at home. I play with iOS and Android apps—at some point I may even upload some super minimal rhythmic work I’ve been up to. I used to make pause tapes in my teens. I had two turntables and a mixer until my kid was born. I do a lot of push-button, straightforward reworking of existing material—like, I enjoy running instrumental hip-hop through the Automaton plug-in from Audio Damage. But I think of much of that as “active listening” more than as music-making. And with only a few exceptions, the Junto projects have been way, way beyond my meager ability level. This whole thing comes out of my experience as an editor of arts/culture journalism and of comics, both of which I have done a lot of: I assign work I could not myself accomplish.

MS: While I haven’t participated myself, it’s been my impression that the restriction provided by the assignment is key but that discussion of the employed method(s), a sort of “show your work,” is also central. There’s an outsider input and public process to the music making. Even though we often talk about the digital cocooning that new technologies allow, this is a reversal of that in some ways through technology—bringing others into what is often normally a private creative space for just one artist.
MW: Yeah, I agree entirely. I think three key things are essential to the Junto’s success. The restraints and the deadline are big, but so too is the knowledge that not just an audience but an audience of peers is at the ready: to listen, give feedback, befriend, collaborate with. As for the “through technology,” as you put it, absolutely: this project exists specifically as a means of utilizing the SoundCloud interface. I’m not saying it would not have existed otherwise, but it exists as it does to make the best use of that virtual public space as SoundCloud both intentionally and unintentionally happened to have designed it.

MS: Where does the Junto project, both the structure of it and the work coming out of it, stand in relation to other music in the 2013 landscape? It strikes me that it touches so many current anxieties and obsessions: remix culture, social media, transparency, collective action, crowd sourcing.

MW: One person’s anxieties are another’s enthusiasms. The Disquiet Junto is the most “fluid” and “immediate” work I have ever done, and I think fluidity and immediacy are common factors in the various phenomena you list. A key distinction I’d add is that the Junto is often as much about sound as it is about music, or about music as a subset and/or adversary of sound, and about both sound and music being a means to explore ideas non-verbally.
MS: The concept has since moved offline through some concert organizing and such. I haven’t heard a live event, but I can see how that might generate some conceptual tensions. Is the Disquiet Junto bigger, or at least about more, than the sum of its online parts?
MW: I like to think that the SoundCloud Disquiet Junto presence is a home, not a family. The Junto members can go other places from time to time and be a family there, too. Those can be virtual places, like YouTube and Vine, and they can be physical places, like concert halls and art galleries.

MS: No one is making any money here, correct? No albums made and sold, created content shared to varying degrees (depending on the assignments and the participants). Considering its collaborative nature, can things like ownership and revenue generation co-exist here or is this space not for those end goals.

MW: Some small amount of money has been made here and there, though making money is at best a quaternary aspect of the Disquiet Junto. We charged a small ticket price at some of the concerts, though others were free admission. Some people have released some of their tracks commercially. SoundCloud gets money from those who elect for a higher grade of account. More likely the projects have refined and expanded the skills of the participants, myself as moderator included, and that experience perhaps has helped people economically elsewhere. As for the Creative Commons matter, we have not engaged with some projects because of financial concerns—for example, there was a cool band that did an open remix project, but the band stipulated that it retain the full, rather than shared, copyright of the remix, and that seems unfair, so I didn’t proceed with it. Though I’m still thinking about it. Did I mention this is all fluid? See, while making money is not a focus of the Disquiet Junto, commerce—the exchange of ideas, culture, technology—is.

Sounds Heard: In the Mood for a Melody (Piano Person Edition)

Piano Sounds Heard
Perhaps it is the drama surrounding the Steinway sale that has put me in a piano state of mind (my last Billy Joel allusion, I promise), but this week three unique keyboard albums caught my attention.

At the top of the pile was Little Things featuring the toy piano talents of Phyllis Chen. While of miniaturized stature, the instrument’s impact under Chen’s fingers is full-sized; any misapprehension that this music is simply a novelty exercise on a child’s plaything is quickly curbed. The disc’s seven compositions—some concentrating on the instrument alone, others incorporating electronics, recorded vocals, and/or additional percussive sounds—span a compelling range of sonic worlds that dazzle with their creative use of the toy piano’s unique timbre, the distinctly audible key strokes, and variously employed extended techniques. While often playful, to my ears each piece avoided any coy winks at cuteness that the instrument might encourage. Angélica Negrón’s The Little Things, with its expanded palette of additional instruments and electronics, is a particular disc stand out.

Concentrated from another angle, Cold Blue’s release of Jim Fox’s Black Water as a CD single allows listener attention to cleanly focus on his 18-minute work for three pianos (each part covered here by Bryan Pezzone). Borrowing its title from a collection of short stories Fox was reading at the time of its composition, the work tracks a nearly relentless shimmering movement that explores the full range of the keyboard. When the lines do linger a bit in a particular area of tranquility, the mood easily turns reflective, but the bulk of Pezzone’s work across the three piano parts keeps ears pulled forward, the notes a school of silvery fish rapidly outpacing any ominous predators floating in the shadows.

Bonus points: Where thoughtfully curated collections are fascinating, hodgepodge albums with no clear through line often frustrate my listening enjoyment. I found that this singular presentation significantly strengthened my engagement with the work and easily encouraged repeat listens.

Rounding out this case of innovative ivory pressing is Timo Andres’s album Home Stretch, a three-work collection of pieces that allow the listener to view the pianist/composer’s musical mind from several intriguing and overlapping angles. In performance with the Metropolis Ensemble under the direction of Andrew Cyr, the disc opens with Andres’s own Home Stretch, a piece that embraces a colorful intricacy in the piano line rather than flashy showmanship and encourages a joyful interplay with the orchestra. Andres’s Paraphrase on Themes of Brian Eno and his completion/recomposition of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 (Coronation) both showcase musical dialog of a slightly different ilk. His take on the Mozart in particular really held me up by the lapels. As the disc’s liner notes illuminate, here Mozart gave himself plenty of room to improvise in the original score (and neglected to specifically notate much of the left-hand part). Andres fills in with materials of his own invention, stretching the paths this way and that and inviting in his own ideas and influences with one hand, while holding Mozart’s in his other.

Admittedly, the exercise may not be for everyone—one friend called it “the ultimate act of hubris”—but adore it or despise it, at the very least it’s likely to fuel some animated post-listening thinking.

Mozart / Timothy Andres: Piano Concerto No. 26 “Coronation” – 1st Movement.
Movements 2 and 3, plus Paraphrase on Themes of Brian Eno, are also available on the Metropolis Ensemble’s Vimeo channel.

Sounds Heard: Daniel Wohl—Corps Exquis

There’s something a little magical to my ear in Daniel Wohl’s New Amsterdam release Corps Exquis. The music included on this nine-track album showcases a seamless marriage of acoustic instruments and electronics that opens its mouth and sings, up close and personal, in a language that retains its vibrant human energy even while being processed and polished by Wohl’s electronic hand. For a record carrying a title harkening back to a surrealist parlor game, the fact that the tracks follow a somewhat twisted path, one to the next, comes as par for the course. Yet mental exercise aside, I found this music endlessly interesting without ever being “challenging” in that way that sometimes holds my ears at arms length with locked elbows.

Much of the album conjures a sort of poetic intimacy, inviting the listener to experience all manner of fantastic and strange places. The addictive 323 is expansive and beat driven, a camel caravan of rocking movement and color. Neighborhood, also sizable in sonic scope, adds the extra hands of So Percussion into the mix to conjure a radiant sense of sun-on-your-face pleasure. On the other end of the spectrum, in Cantus, something like the echo of church music is filtered through—and perhaps eventually held down and drowned beneath the surface of—a pool of water. Ouverture then traces a sharp percussive line that forms over a reverberation of sound, a foggy memory just beyond grasping.

The turn-on-a-dime twists of Plus ou Moins explore multiple floors of sound, expanding and contracting, racing ahead and then pausing to ruminate on all the sonic elements available for the taking in the acoustic junk drawer. (The bubbling water is a stand out.) Insext, however, follows a scrambled beacon; rather than digging in, its digital signal glides across, skating over rich surface textures.

An attention-grabbing track on the second half of the album is Fluctuations, with a droning timbral character that sent me Googling for electronic bagpipes to see if they had been invented yet. They have, of course, but the samples I heard produced nothing as complex as this five-and-a-half-minute exploration of a quasi piper’s tune built out of melodicas, bass clarinet, violin, cello, and electronics.

Limbs, with its weighty piano line setting the tone, makes it easy to imagine the arms and legs of the title wound in heavy chains, the music shuffling, occasionally tripping, across the aural space in the company of Jacob Marley. Finally, the album bids adieu with the bittersweet sighs of Corpus, for which the multimedia creative collective Satan’s Pearl Horses created this video:

The wordless vocal contributions of Julia Holter and Aaron Roche on select tracks in addition to the guest appearance by So Percussion definitely add a special color to the proceedings, but the TRANSIT Ensemble holds up the core of this music, delivering vibrant performances throughout. I suspect, however, that in addition to composing the music, it is Wohl’s demonstrated skill in programming and sound design that truly makes this music fire (plus loud bonus applause to the recording team). Much that has already been written about this album, including its own accompanying PR, focuses on that favorite trope of genre-less-ness, which the music may very well warrant of you’re looking at it from that angle. But to my mind one of the strengths of the record is that it never once draws any attention to that kind of banter. It doesn’t have any surface cracks betraying a nervous merger to make excuses for.

Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Corps Exquis is that I couldn’t stop listening to it. The tracks are a parade of bright lights and glimpses of secret corridors, all passing by long before they wear out their welcome.

Stacy Garrop: With a Story to Tell

In the garden at the Church of the Ascension
New York, New York
April 17, 2013—2 p.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Poster image by SnoStudios Photography

Stacy Garrop is a composer of remarkable balance and discipline. Her composition catalog neatly covers all manner of ensembles, and her subject matter has ranged from Medusa to Eleanor Roosevelt. She may not be one to aggressively sell her music at cocktail parties, but she won’t shy away from cold calling performers from her desk the next day. She teaches her students to identify their weaknesses and figure out how to manage them. It’s a lesson she applied to herself first, pinpointing personal composition hurdles and designing neatly efficient ways to combat them.

When we met during rehearsals for her choral work Love’s Philosophy in New York this past April, she moved between performance preparation with the singers in the Church of the Ascension sanctuary and on-camera conversation in the venue’s garden courtyard, fielding questions about her music and her career with an easy confidence but a notable lack of pretension. Those character traits are perhaps what attracted her to the Midwest, where she now makes her home. Though raised in California, her education brought her to the University of Michigan, University of Chicago, and finally Indiana University. She eventually settled in Chicago, where she now heads the composition department at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University.

Stacy Garrop is also a composer with stories to tell. The role of narrative—whether indirectly or overtly applied to the final composition—is a central factor in her typical working process. In it, she had found a way to shape and chart the sonic image she wants her music to ultimately project to the world beyond her studio.

When all is considered, Garrop appreciates that it’s a mix of many factors that have contributed to the music she makes and the success she’s achieved, but ultimately it hinges on what she is willing to do for the work herself:

I think you not only have to have the discipline to write and to get back to people and to be on top of your website, but you also have to be disciplined about chasing down opportunities. You can’t just sit back and think that maybe a publisher will do that for you, or maybe your recording will get out there and, miraculously, everyone will want to do the piece. I just don’t know if one competition or one recording or one piece can change your path all that much….In general, these careers are slow building. They’re one step at a time, and you have to be organized to make that happen.

They are steps Garrop keeps taking. The evening following our interview, the Voices of Ascension performance of Love’s Philosophy won her The Sorel Medallion in Choral Composition.


Molly Sheridan: You’ve spoken often about the place of narrative in your work, so I thought we might begin by discussing how important that is in terms of your working method, and how vital it is for you to communicate that to the audience. Are you demonstrating that storyline to them in the music and the program notes, or is that simply a private part of your own working process?
Stacy Garrop: As a composer, I’m both a visual and auditory person. The visual part likes to see a story in my head—like a movie, basically. It’s not that I’m a movie composer, because I’m far from it, but I feel like if I can tell myself a story, and have myself follow that story as I’m writing, then that narrative will help me guide the shape of that piece. Sometimes I think it’s important to the audience: If it’s about Medusa, I want people to understand that Medusa is going from being lovely to being hideous. But other times the narrative is just mostly for myself. So I have a piece called Frammenti which is basically five miniature movements, but each is based on an abstract idea. For me, what was important was the narrative within each movement—Is it going to get louder? Is it going to get softer? Is it going to get boisterous?—whatever those characteristics were. In that case, I don’t care if the audience gets it or not. That’s not the concern of the piece.
MS: I heard you speaking about the working process surrounding Becoming Medusa in a promotional video, and you mentioned sketching it out and thinking about it narratively in a way that I would imagine a novelist might. What is your working process in that case?
SG: I do like to use charts a lot. In years past, especially when I was working on Becoming Medusa, I had a picture where she was half beautiful and half ugly. I put that up right in front of me as I composed. But I also have a line graph that basically shows tension along the y-axis and time along the x-axis. If it starts with Medusa being ugly, because it’s a foreshadowing, then I’ll have a big spike on my chart and that might say “introduction.” Then I get to the A material, and the tension is now very low. So I can track and write out the form of the piece before I actually start putting notes down. But usually I try to put a few notes down—at least get motives, some idea of what I want to play with. Then that starts to suggest more and more of a shape to me. Usually by the end of the first couple of days, I have the shape down, and more often than not, when I go back and look at it [after the piece is done], I’ve actually attained that shape. Earlier on, I wasn’t so good at that. But now I seem to be doing much better.

Garrop explains the graphs she uses while composing.

Garrop explains the graphs she uses while composing.

MS: What are you actually thinking about when you’re in that very, very early process and you’re making shapes and charts?
SG: The worst part of composing for me is the beginning of a piece. I can’t get settled. If the apartment is messy, I have to clean it. I feel like I have to get my mind in order. And if there’s anything distracting me, I’ll use that as an excuse to run away from the paper. But what I have learned over the years is to just get myself to sit down long enough to brainstorm on a blank sheet of paper—not even manuscript paper, just written ideas about what I want for the piece. So for Medusa, I wanted to tell the story that she starts off the piece as a beautiful woman, who then taunts a goddess. Then the goddess turns her into the gorgon that we know. That’s a slightly different story than the Medusa that we know about from the movies. That gave me enough to say, okay, this is what I’m going to do in words. Now I can sit down at my keyboard and start just noodling around and see what kind of ideas I can come up with from there.
MS: Because your attraction to words is coming up again, why not use words? Why use music to tell these stories?
SG: Actually I’ve started to try to write short stories. I take the El to and from work every day in Chicago, and it’s about a 45- to 60-minute train ride. I absolutely love science fiction short stories, so I started trying to write them. It’s really hard to have that kind of control over words. I have that control, I feel, over music, but not at all in words. So right now it’s a really fun, but kind of scary, side venture. I did try writing poetry much younger in my life, until I discovered Edna St. Vincent Millay and then realized I had nothing on her. That was pretty much it for my poetry days.
MS: But you do feel comfortable writing music?
SG: Yes, once I get past the problem I was describing about not knowing how to get started. Another thing that I do to really help with that is I have what I call a “minute a day” challenge: Every day when I’m starting a piece, I have to write a minute of music. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be bad. It just has to be a minute of music. And that way I feel like at the end of seven days, I’ll have seven minutes of music that I can choose from and start to say, “Okay, that’s a good idea over here, but that’s terrible”—and we just throw that part away. But that gives me some choices. Usually I start that within whatever genre I’m working in. So for instance, right now, I’m working on a piece for the Lincoln Trio, and I’ve been looking at a lot of piano trios. I’ve been looking at Joan Tower’s Trio Cavany and Aaron Kernis’s Still Movement with Hymn, which isn’t actually a piano trio. It’s a piano quartet. But I’m writing a 25-minute piece, and both of those pieces approximate that length. So I’m looking at their ideas, and then I’m brainstorming about what it is that’s important to me that I want to put in there.
MS: You’ve mentioned that you’re a visual person, and I know that somewhere you said that your studio was the mostly brightly decorated room in your home. What do you like to surround yourself with when you’re doing this work? You mentioned pictures and charts, but is there more to that visual comfort zone for you?
SG: My husband and I finally were able to get a condo. It was really great because we’ve been in apartments for so long where you can’t put any paint on the walls. So I painted my studio purple. Then, in addition to that, I went to a lot of colonies back when I was in my early 30s, and I kept meeting all these artists. That’s where I really started getting the visual interest going. So I started collecting pictures, both from trips I was taking and from colony experiences. I also began trading CDs of my music with other artists at colonies. So I’ve had visual artists draw pictures for me or paint something, and all the artwork I’ve collected is sitting on one whole wall of my studio. I also go to a lot of art expositions and things like that. I mean, I can’t really afford the art itself, but artists tend to make these little postcards that have a picture of their artwork, so that goes up on my wall, too.
I also have done pottery for ten years, and I feel like doing pottery helped me think about process in a whole other way. It’s the same thing I got out of going to artist colonies where you sit down with a filmmaker or a writer, and you talk about their process. Then you start to see, wow, they’re using a different language, but they’re also talking about how you get from point A to point B and in a way that’s convincing. Pottery has also taught me a lot about patience. If you are at all trying to force a piece to happen, you’re going to nudge the clay, and then it’s going to be forever ruined. So I think that kind of patience actually has helped me back in the composing world: To just take a deep breath, do my thing where I write a minute of music a day at the beginning and know at the end of that week, I am going to have options. I think all those things are processes that let me know that I don’t have to go with my first impulse. I can really take my time and find the ideas that I feel very strongly about.
MS: That’s a very tactile thing to engage with, too. I suppose composition can be, depending on your working methods, but it’s not quite the same thing.
SG: I think composing is such an isolated thing. Obviously, we have our concerts with performers and all that. But the creation itself, the process for me is sitting in a room by myself, working at my piano. So to be surrounded by 20 other potters and hearing all these conversations going on as you’re trying to work, it’s the utter opposite experience of being a composer. Also, it teaches you that it’s okay to mess up. I think we all get to a level in our careers where we feel that it’s scary to mess up. If we mess up, someone’s going to notice and they’re going to write a review that isn’t positive. In pottery, I feel like I can just mess up all the time, and no one will ever know. I just stomp it back down into a lump of clay and try again. So it’s given me some freedom that I don’t have in the musical world.
MS: What is your musical background? You were a pianist originally, right?
SG: I did play piano, although I was never very good. I can admit that. I sang in choirs starting in third grade and all the way through my master’s. I absolutely loved singing in choirs. I was an alto, and I think that’s why I write such good, juicy bits for altos in choir pieces, because I always felt like we got cheated. I also played saxophone in marching band for three years in high school. So I started off doing all that, but then in my junior year of high school, there was an AP music theory class. The teacher was a jazz trumpet player, and he said one night to go home and write a piece of music. I’d never before thought that anybody wrote music. I was pretty naïve as a kid. I’ll admit that, too. I mean, I know I was naïve because I thought all the history had already been written. But in this case, the minute he said go home and write a piece of music, it was like this door opened that had always been shut. Suddenly there it is and you’re looking at a whole new room, and all these colors are there. I just didn’t want to leave it. So, after that assignment, I just started writing more and more pieces. Then a friend of the family hooked me up with a composer in the Bay Area, and I studied privately with him for the rest of high school.
MS: Voice is obviously something you’ve spent a lot of time with, but overall something that stood out to me about your catalog is that you’re a very balanced composer. You have all the bases covered. It’s a very neat though broad package.

Garrop with the the Capitol Quartet after the premiere of Flight of Icarus March 2013

Garrop with the the Capitol Quartet after the premiere of Flight of Icarus March 2013

SG: I think that was maybe more a result of the schools that I went to. The first was University of Michigan, and they had a really good percussion program and very strong saxophone program. That’s also where I saw composers writing for orchestra and I began experimenting with string quartets. I went to the University of Chicago after that. That was a research school and I really didn’t have as many performances. I discovered that I was probably a happier person if I’m at a performance school. So, I got my master’s, and I went on to Indiana University. They had six orchestras, choirs everywhere, and, once again, they had a strong saxophone program and a strong percussion program. So that really helped open some doors that otherwise I might not have considered. All the saxophone writing I had done is because of the saxophonists that I met, especially Christopher Creviston who is teaching now at Arizona State University, Tempe. We were students together at Michigan, and he asked me to write a piece. Fifteen years later he found me and said, “Do you remember this piece?” And from there, that’s led to a commission with his current group, Capitol Quartet, for saxophone quartet.
But I do feel like I try to be balanced. I want to have orchestra, choir, and chamber, and in particular within chamber, I want to have piano trio and string quartet and saxophone music at all times. I really do want that kind of diversity. The problem I feel like is that there are certain pieces I want to be writing and I’m not necessarily getting the opportunities to yet. For instance, solo piano. I can’t believe out of everything I’ve done, I only have two solo piano works. There was one more at one point, but I didn’t think it should last the test of time so I destroyed it. But other than that, it really is quite funny that I’ve gotten this far without more solo repertoire.
MS: I was curious about another aspect of your works list because there is one piece from ’92 listed in your catalog, and you can the count on one hand material from the late ’90s, and then this huge body of work explodes from there. I’m trying to do the math on your age and where you might have been at that point in your education. Did something concretely shift for you in there, artistically or circumstantially?
SG: It’s funny you noticed that because I feel like, as a composer, I have a sliding scale of what I think works. I call it seeing the holes. When you’re writing a piece, you think it’s perfect. You’re thrilled. Maybe four to five years later, you start to see the holes in it, and realize, okay, that’s not as strong. Maybe it can be two years. But as I was going through school, I was changing and evolving so quickly, that the seeing-the-holes period was only about six months to a year. It really started lengthening after I finished my training or was getting close to finishing my training in Indiana. So what I took out were almost all the student works.
The reason why the one from 1992 is in there is because it’s my first string quartet. I didn’t want to eradicate it. I’ve gone on and I’ve written three more string quartets, and you can’t call something number two if there’s no evidence of a number one. And honestly, for a student piece, it’s not that bad. So I’m okay with it being out there. Actually, that piece helped get me onto a concert series that helped change and shape my entire career. So it’s not bad to have these student works out there, as long as you’re okay with it getting performed. There have been a few other pieces along the way, like the piano solo I mentioned. It took about a year to realize that it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, and I should just remove it from my catalogue. So I think for me, the test of “Am I getting better as a composer?” is, “Do I have less of that happening? Is my catalog staying steady, or am I taking things out?” So at this point, I think I’m doing pretty well.
MS: I was wondering if that was the direction you were moving or if there was a danger you could just become increasingly hypercritical of yourself.
SG: I’m really not that worried about it. There are certainly a lot of areas that I’m very comfortable in now, like the chamber world and the choir world especially. Orchestra writing is always a little trickier because you try to get the balance as well as you can between the woodwinds, the brass, and the percussion and everything, but it takes going to the rehearsals to really start to sort out what’s really going on. But I feel like now, if I know I’m writing badly, I stop myself much sooner. That was my mistake years ago. I wouldn’t do that one minute a day trick, I would just go with my first impulse and, more often than not, I knew along the way that something was wrong. But it was too late. The commission was due, etc. So, what I’ve done is start each piece with just brainstorming for a week. No pressure to just delve into it. That really helps, as well as having a big buffer zone on commissions. If a commission deadline is, let’s say, September 1, I will actually have that score due a month or two before that in my own calendar. Then I have the pressure that I need to make the work happen, but if I’m unhappy with the piece, I know that I’ve got the time to fix it.

Garrop lecturing

Garrop lecturing about various Chicago artists and their websites.

MS: Every time I speak with you, I take away the impression that you are a very disciplined person, both in building your career and making your art.
SG: I feel like going for the doctorate really teaches you how to organize your head. I think that’s the biggest thing anyone can learn going through school. All the time I’m telling my students, you have to figure out how your mind works, and then figure out where your strengths are. If you know where you’re weak, like you’re a procrastinator, you’re going to have to work around that. So I feel like for me, the challenge of all the years of school was figuring out all those issues, so when I graduated, I could really hit the ground running as a professional.
In addition to being organized, as much as I can be, I took on some campaigns earlier in my career. So I wrote a choir piece. I would cold call 30 choirs, and I would send out a recording and the score. I did campaign after campaign like that, but they paid off. It only takes one person programming that piece to then lead to four more commissions. So I think you not only have to have the discipline to write and to get back to people and to be on top of your website, but you also have to be disciplined about chasing down opportunities. You can’t just sit back and think that maybe a publisher will do that for you, or maybe your recording will get out there and, miraculously, everyone will want to do the piece. I just don’t know if one competition or one recording or one piece can change your path all that much. I mean, granted if you were to win something like the Pulitzer or the Grawemeyer, perhaps. Or even the MacArthur. But I think in general, these careers are slow building. They’re one step at a time, and you have to be organized to make that happen.
MS: You don’t strike me as a particularly aggressive self-promoter. So, for you to have started cold calling ensembles in such a strategic way is unexpected. Where did the idea even come from?
SG: The funniest part is that growing up in California—not that California has anything to do with it—I was just very laid back and shy. I guess in my undergrad years, I learned to make friends with musicians. But it wasn’t until my doctorate that it finally hit me: If I was going to take control of my career, I had to do it myself. No one else was going to do it. There was one defining moment where I put this all together. I was staring out my window and realized I could keep staring out that window forever, or I could get off my rear and start making phone calls and get a recital together. And I went with option two.
The campaigns though, I think it’s because I watched too many people in academia who had wonderful music, but it wasn’t getting out there anywhere. And I would ask, “Well, what are you doing about it?” And they would say, “Oh, you know, just getting it published,” or “Just getting it recorded.” It didn’t seem like that was the best strategy for me. I would need to start to push it out there further. I didn’t go to any East Coast schools, and I wondered perhaps if I had, if maybe some more connections would have been presented. But nonetheless, I felt like, okay, I can do this. I just looked at Chorus America, ACDA, the North American Saxophone Alliance. You look at some of these big websites and see who their members are. Chamber Music America is a particularly good one for that. Actually, I did a campaign in the last year or two using Chamber Music America. I got [a list of] all their member string quartets and piano trios, and I sent them all information. This time through email, since now it’s become more acceptable.
MS: You have written a lot of text-based or text-inspired pieces, which makes sense to me considering your narrative interests. It surprised me when you said Edna St. Vincent Millay’s work squashed your own poetry ambitions, because you’ve actually set a lot of her work!
SG: It started because one of the very first artist colonies I went to was the Millay Colony in Austerlitz, New York. While I was there, I was working on a piece for saxophone and piano called Tantrum, but I came across a book of her poetry, of course, and thought, since I’m here, I should give it a whirl. I began reading her sonnets, and they were just so eloquent—14 lines long and having a rhyming verse, but still relevant today. I just thought, okay, I would love to do some massive project, where I set—I think I was aiming for originally about 30 of her sonnets. As the years went on, I think I wrote one sonnet set per year from 2000 to 2006. I got around number 17 or 18, and I finally had to call it quits because a very wise conductor, Christopher Bell of the Grant Park Chorus in Chicago, said to me, “You should really set something other than Millay. You should have more in your portfolio.” And he was right. I was just so thankful that he was blatantly honest with me. Composers need to hear that honesty every now and then. And that’s when he said, “You really have to get past the Millay and move on.”
It’s been really tempting to try to go back and finish the project. I had actually paired up a bunch of sonnets into particular sets. So there’s a set about love, and there’s a set about war, and so on. Maybe someday I’ll go back and visit that. In the meantime, I’ve done other big projects involving text. One is The Book of American Poetry. That’s about an hour of music, and it’s four volumes of poetry. Each volume contains five poems by five different poets. I set the first ten for baritone and Pierrot ensemble, and the second ten are for mezzo and Pierrot. But then I’m also making piano arrangements of all of them.
MS: You’ve done that in a few places, right, offering options on work to give it a broader life?
SG: Yeah, I wrote it for Pierrot ensemble because it was for the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. They had a competition, and I won and they said, “Okay, what do you want to do?” I said, “I want to do a Book of American Poetry.” Once they understood the scope of my project, they were on board. But then I discovered that it’s really hard to get Pierrot ensembles together elsewhere with baritones. So to give the piece more life, my husband is doing the piano arrangements for volumes one and two, and I did the arrangements for volumes three and four.
I’ve done it the other way, too. I wrote a piece called In Eleanor’s Words, about Eleanor Roosevelt; that’s a big song cycle. It started off as a piece for piano and voice, but then David Dzubay at Indiana University and I were talking, and he said, “I’d love to have you come out for a residency. What pieces would you like to have done?” And I said, “How do you feel about an orchestration of In Eleanor’s Words?” So that’s when I created the larger version. That’s also when I discovered that it’s much easier to go from large down to small than it is from small out to large. At least for me it is.
MS: In all these examples of your interest in stories and setting text, it strikes me that these are not your personal stories, but very often items of historic importance or mythology or poetry. What about that speaks to you so strongly?
SG: I wish I knew. I mean, some of these things happened because of commissions. In Eleanor’s Words was a commission by Tom and Nadine Hamilton. They’re residents of Washington, D.C., and they commissioned a piece in honor of Tom’s mother who had been in public service all her life and who liked Eleanor Roosevelt. Since I teach at Roosevelt University, it made sense to put it all together, and what do you know? Out comes a piece. I think that it’s easy for a composer to just see what the flow of the commissions are and to just go with that, whereas if you really have your own agenda, you have to start to force that every now and then. So in the case of the Millay sonnets, I felt so strongly about that project. When I did that cold call many years ago, where I sent out my music to 30 choirs, Volti in San Francisco was the choir that answered. They not only performed the piece that I sent them, but they commissioned three or four others over the next decade and many of those were the Millay sonnets. I said to them, “I want to do Millay. I want to do this big cycle.” And they said, “Great! Let us help you out.” So it’s great to have commissions, but it’s also great to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve and make sure that you work that into your commissioning schedule, if you can.

Photo by Don Fogg

World premiere of Garrop’s Songs of Joy and Refuge by PEBCC’s high school mixed voice choir Ecco, conducted by Clifton Massey on March 23, 2013.
Photo by Don Fogg

MS: Where did you get this business sense? It seems like you have a really smart way of approaching your career, and I’m curious where you learned this.
SG: I don’t really know. I think part of what happened is I saw how other people handled their careers. For instance, there was a guy at Michigan when I was there. He was very talented musically, but he also had this incredible gift to be able to walk up to anybody and sell his music to them, to basically say, “Hey, I’ve got a performance tonight. You should go hear it.” He would walk up to performers he’d never met and hand out his music. I tried to emulate it, and I just felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t do it. It was not in me. About 12 years ago, as I was getting out of school, I just made the decision that if it took me a little longer to have a career, then that’s the way it was going to be. I’m not the person that’s going to be really in your face all the time. So that’s where I started getting very good at campaigns, and getting good at having a web presence, and doing a lot of business through email. If someone emails me, I answer within 24 hours. So all those parts put together I think eventually started to fill out the bigger picture. Sometimes I do wonder, maybe my career could have moved a little faster if I’d been a little bit more aggressive, but I would not have been comfortable doing that.
MS: Yeah, but on the other hand, you clearly have found what does work for you.
SG: Right, but I think it took all that experimentation back in school and trying to emulate the behavior of others to realize, “Oh, I can’t do that,” or “Okay, that worked.” I think it was observing that really helped me figure out what I wanted to do.
MS: Very early on you mentioned specifically that you’re not a film composer. I was curious about that. For as diverse as your portfolio is, and as much as you love exploring storylines, I don’t believe there are any film scores or video games in it. In a way, that seems like it would be a natural affinity, but you stayed away from that.
SG: It’s not so much staying away as it is that I really haven’t stumbled across the opportunity yet. I have to admit I know a little more about video game music than I should. My husband plays these games, and I realize the music is getting quite, quite advanced. I would love to go into writing movie music, but I’m in Chicago. I’m not on the right coast. Although I do think it would be hard for someone like me. The things that interest me the most in music are form and tension and relaxation. So if there’s not a strong formal structure, then I’m not happy with the piece. What can be hard about writing for movies is that you’re constantly having that formal structure ripped out from under your feet. If you have to extend it by five seconds or they don’t like a theme that you wrote and you have to rethink it overnight—that can be hard if you’re used to having final, set structures that you really feel good about. So, I’d love to explore it someday, but you know, sometime in the future. Not any time soon.
MS: You mentioned not being on “the right coast.” How important is Chicago to you? What made you decide to build a career and life for yourself in that place?
SG: People used to say to me when I was in school, “You should pick your last school carefully, because that might be where you end up.” And I thought, “Ha-ha, that’s really funny!”, but I actually did end up in the Midwest. All my schools just circled the Midwest area.
I feel like Chicago has been really good for me. In the last 15 years, maybe even the last 7 years in particular, there’s just been an explosion of ensembles. So we have new music ensembles. We have choirs. We even have a new opera company that has formed. It’s a great time to be in Chicago. So for someone like me, it’s been a perfect city to not have to go to New York—no offense to New York. It’s a great place to visit, but I’m more of a Midwesterner I would say at this point.
MS: That’s interesting because you came from the West Coast, right?
SG: I’m from California, and I have to admit, every time I go home and visit it’s like, “Why did I give this up? It’s so beautiful out here.” The weather is nice almost the whole year through. But I think at that time, there weren’t enough composition teachers in the West Coast area. Almost all the schools I looked at were in the Midwest or on the East Coast. I have also really enjoyed building a composition program at Roosevelt University. After going to two very large performance schools where there’s a faculty of five or six people, it was a little bit surprising to go into a program of just two people. But that also allowed me to shape it a lot faster than I probably could have if I had been at a major performance school. So my colleague Kyong Mee Choi and I have really tried to focus on giving opportunities that you might not get in a regular college setting. We bring in people like Timothy McAllister, the saxophonist from Prism Quartet, or Timothy Monroe, the flutist from eighth blackbird, and they do workshops with our composers. They sight read the works; they give feedback. We have a competition, and they choose a couple winners and perform the pieces on concerts at Roosevelt. We do the same with Gaudete Brass Quintet—all the students have to write little fanfares. We’ve been having the Vector Recording Project with the orchestra, so students don’t just get a piece read, they actually get it professionally recorded.
Particularly with continually rising costs for a university education, I’m asked by prospective students about the value of a college degree as a composer. In looking back over my own training, I couldn’t have learned all the skills I needed to outside of a university music school—my high school music training had been weak, and I had many, many skills to acquire before I could call myself a composer. I feel that attending a university as an undergraduate is very important to one’s development as a composer, as you get a complete, well-rounded experience over the course of a four-year program. Depending on what you wish to do next, you may have enough skills to exit straight into the real world and carry out a career, or it could be that taking the time to get a master’s first will help you obtain even more skills that you’ll find useful. People who wish to teach at a university need to earn a doctorate in order to have the credentials schools are looking for when hiring, but if you’re not planning on doing so, perhaps you don’t need to go any further if you’ve developed your skills far enough. So it is important to start thinking about what it is you truly want to do when you graduate. Is it to teach? Write music for movies? Start a new music ensemble and write music for it? Investigate what skills you need to attain your goal, and work on developing those skills while still in school so you’ll be ready to hit the ground running when you get out. Play to your own personal strengths. Hopefully you’ll discover a path to a career that will make you feel excited, enriched, and rewarded.
I think a lot of schools are coming around to the fact that they need entrepreneurship programs, and Roosevelt at the moment doesn’t have one yet, but I believe they’re moving in that direction. Nonetheless, I know a lot of us have integrated ideas into our courses. For instance, in my composition seminar last year, all my students had to get into groups of three or four and create new businesses. They had to have a mission statement, a five-year plan, a ten-year plan, and then had to have a website up or something to show that this is what they do. It was really exciting for me to see just how creative they got. It really taught me that they want to be able to put this together before they leave. A part of my job is to really give them professional opportunities that hopefully bridge the gap as they’re leaving the school. They are starting these conversations with professionals. They know how to build their own website, and how to write their own CV or how to go knock on doors and hand out scores. I’m hoping that gives them an edge—that they have not just the compositional skills, but when they walk out the door, they have the business side somewhat already going. Hopefully that will increase their chances of being successful.
MS: How do you make enough room for your own music and your own career in the midst of that work?
SG: It can be a bit of a challenge. I feel like I have to choose my commissions very carefully in terms of when I write what. This past fall at the very beginning of the semester, I wrote one choir piece, and then I wrote a piece for two trumpets and piano and then two art songs. That took me up to probably mid-January. Then I started a piano trio, and that was my downfall, because I got all those short pieces done while teaching—it doesn’t take as much concentration to do a six-minute piece here, or a five-minute piece there. But to do a 25-minute piano trio while teaching, especially during audition season, I learned I’m not capable of that. So that’s one thing: Strategize your year. The other thing is I don’t go into Roosevelt all five days. I try to go in just four, and some lucky weeks, I may just get in three, depending on how many meetings we have. But I find I’d rather work longer days downtown so I have a full day to compose when I’m off. I’m not the type of person who can just turn around after a long day of teaching and somehow have energy left to start composing. I can answer emails. I can send out scores. I can do that other business work, but I can’t actually be creative.
MS: Do you need a specific time of day or routine, or do you just need an actual day where you don’t have to separate the administration from the creativity?
SG: It is better if I just have a whole day, or a week, or a month, or a year. I think that’s why the art colonies were so fantastic, because it removes you from paying bills or anything else. You just sit and you compose all day. I have an 88-key synthesizer, but it’s right next to my computer. So if my computer is turned on and dinging at me as email comes in, then of course you stop composing. I’ve learned I have to just turn everything off. Pretend nothing else exists and just get myself into the space. I mentioned earlier, I think starting pieces is always the trickiest for me and I do a whole thing where I have to straighten up the condo and all that. But once I’m into the process, it’s really quite comfortable to move in and out of it. So I can get up and answer an email, or go get the mail, or whatever, and then come back and be right back into the piece wherever I left off. And that usually lasts up until I finish the piece.
MS: You mentioned the period when you were going to a lot of those colonies. Is that something you had the freedom to do just because of where you were in school or is that something you expect you’ll do throughout your life?
SG: I think I started going to colonies because one of my teachers, Claude Baker from Indiana University, said I should take a look at them. I applied to a few, and I actually got into the ones I applied to. So that’s when I just strung them all up in a row and colony hopped for the year after I finished my coursework but before I’d actually finished the dissertation. One of these was the Banff Center for the Arts in Canada. Another one was the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, where I got to meet Aaron Jay Kernis and we worked together. Then there was the MacDowell Colony and the Millay Colony, and other ones in between.
That’s where I just finally put it all together. When you’re in school and you’re reading books, you’re writing papers, you’re certainly obtaining the knowledge, but you don’t necessarily know how to apply it yet. I felt like that was the first time I learned how to take all that information I’d been collecting and apply it in whatever facet I wanted to. So for me, it was a really great eye opener. I think it gets harder though as you get more responsibility to be able to carve out the kind of time that you really need to go to a colony. I seem to have stopped going for the moment, and that’s fine. Maybe someday I’ll feel the need to go again, but I also have a home studio situation now, which is pretty quiet and which works very well. That hadn’t always been the case in past years. That was another reason to go to these colonies—to have the space and time where I really wouldn’t be disturbed.
MS: You’ll have to go back to the Millay Colony and finish the settings; it’s the perfect application.
SG: Well, that’s just it. When I started the whole process, I had no idea I was going to compose all these sonnets. So I really want to go back and actually write the final sonnets up there. That would be really cool. I think they have a policy where they don’t want people to return, but they do have these small residencies in January, where you can just go with maybe a specific project. It’s not necessarily the actual colony stay. So what I need to do is get my act together and put in an application for that particular type. The thing I regret when I went to the colony is that you’re supposed to get a tour of Millay’s house. It’s left pretty much intact from the day she died. But the day that we were supposed to go, the caretaker’s wife went into the hospital. So part of me feels like I want to go back and get that tour, man. I want to just confront whatever ghosts might be there and just say, “I set your poetry. Don’t be mad at me.”
MS: For as interested in narrative as you are, as a listener, I’ve never felt overwhelmed or emotionally manipulated by that aspect of your work. Instead it’s like being a third-party observer. Is the audience in your mind when you’re composing and is there ultimately a reaction you’re looking for, that you’re listening for in the lobby after the performances? Or is that not a part of your process?
SG: I think there have been moments where I’ve been genuinely concerned how an audience might react. Most of the time I’m not. I think that my language tends to be more accessible than not, so I guess I’m kind of lucky that way, or I’ve made the choice to be that way. But there’s a moment in my String Quartet No. 2, the third movement called Inner Demons, where you’ve heard four themes presented in a scherzo-trio form, and then they all begin to mix together and it’s chaos for about a minute straight. I was panicking before that first performance and wondering if people were just going to tune out or get disgusted. Will anybody do the ultimate “stand up and storm out” thing? When it premiered, I did see a lot of heads turn and people look at each other at that moment. But it passed. They all got through it. The rest of the quartet finished, and it turned out to be, I think, the strongest movement of that piece. So I feel like it was a really good risk to take. Sometimes you just have to not worry about how the audience is going to react.
What is interesting, though, is a lot of times people won’t tell the composer what they really think, but they don’t know who the composer’s husband is. So, there’s been many times where my husband has been circulating in the lobby after and he’ll just hear bits of conversation, and that gets hysterical. So that’s how I really get my feedback. It’s nice when people come up who are supportive, but I would love to occasionally get someone who says, “This part was great, but this other spot didn’t do as much for me.” It’s great to get past that first level and say where’s the feedback? I really need to shape this piece into something stronger. Because I do feel like the first performance is really just a debugging session. It’s not a perfect piece by any means. I’m lucky if I get it 95, 96 percent right. And it’s the second performance where you get it to about 98, 99 percent. And finally, by the third performance, that’s where I think it should be completely settled.
MS: Do you have any reservations about doing serious editing after the first performance?
SG: I will absolutely do it if it needs it. In the case of Becoming Medusa, it was [originally] a minute and fifteen seconds longer than it now is. There’s a minute in there, and another 15 seconds elsewhere, where I just felt that this is not doing anything for the piece. It’s wasting time, and it’s taking away from the rest of the moments. So I had to butcher it, but I think it made for a stronger piece. It is hard to do; it is hard to face up. I think it can also be harder the longer you wait. There’s a piece right now in my repertoire, and it needs a revision, but it was written so long ago now that it’s hard to rip apart. I’m no longer there as a composer. I don’t know what was important to me necessarily that I want to preserve, and what things I should put in that are important to me now in the re-write.
MS: Considering that evolution, when you look back, do you feel like the career that you’ve had so far is the one that you expected to have, either when you went into undergrad, or when you left your Ph.D. program? Have things turned out the way you expected?
SG: I guess the funny thing about me is, I knew I wanted to be a composer, but I didn’t really know what that would be. I knew I wanted to be successful, but I didn’t know what that would be. The one thing I was sure of is that by the time I was 30, I would be married and have kids. I turned 30, and I wasn’t married, and I didn’t have kids. So the one thing I was so sure about did not happen. In a way that freed me up—anything’s on the table. I can go out and do anything I want. I’m not sure if I’ve really attained all the success that I thought I’d have at this point, but I’m very happy with what I have achieved so far. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have more goals, and I have plenty of projects that I want to be doing. So I’m not quite where I want to be in the future, but for as little as I knew when I was getting out of school, I think I’m doing quite well.

Sounds Heard: Amy Williams—Crossings: Music for Piano and Strings

Being a Suzuki-trained violinist myself, it’s rare that music listening inspires me to reach for a score, but that’s what I found myself wishing for while unpacking the layers of sound that comprise Amy Williams’s Richter Textures (2011). (I soon discovered that the composer has helpfully posted it to her website, and so I was able to explore the piece’s construction in more detail.) In this opening composition on her new Albany CD of chamber music, Williams conjures in sound the character of seven Richter paintings and the JACK Quartet brings them to remarkable life. The seven-movement work proceeds without pause, which further heightens the impact of the assured passing game the quartet members run throughout the piece. No examination extends longer than four and a half minutes, but each movement builds up a translation of Richter’s visual medium ranging from frozen to frantic. Williams employs a full bag of colorful string techniques to accomplish this, but none that show any evidence of pushing the players beyond their comfort.

In total, the music included on the disc spans some ten years of compositional activity, and Williams’s experience as a pianist and her work in The Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo has likely contributed to her sensitivity and skill when it comes to composing chamber music. Williams’s comments in the brief booklet notes highlight her interest in using points of inspiration not as material for quotation but as “a structural model, abstract reference or starting point for a particular compositional process.” (A sentiment which somewhat harkens back to Arlene Sierra’s comments on her own working methods.)

In some instances, her influences are seemingly audible, as in Brigid’s Flame (2009), a solo piano work composed in memory of Williams’s late father-in-law. The piece features a number of dense running piano lines which easily link up with the images of flickering firelight suggested by the title. The Brian Philip Katz poem that inspired the composition of Falling (2012) written for Ursula Oppens is reprinted in the booklet, but the sonic connections Williams draws out are arguably less directly presented and instead perhaps more personally infused into the slow drift of the music. Both brief works are performed on this recording by the composer herself. From here, the emotional tone of the album takes a sharp left as Jeffrey Jacob launches into the intricate, rapid-fire keywork required in Astoria (2004), a piece rooted in Astor Piazzolla’s Movimiento Continuo (Williams cites its structure, harmonic progressions, and rhythmic patterns as points of intersection) without being terribly obvious about it. It’s an addictive little gem of a piece.
The Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo performs the two remaining piano-focused works, the genesis of both traceable to the music of other composers. According to Williams, Crossings (2009) reaches back to Bach and Abstracted Art (2001-02) to the music of Art Tatum, but the leash of influence seems long and I suspect listeners would be hard pressed to make the associations if the composer hadn’t pointed them out herself. Crossings for four hands unspools along deliberately plotted steps, the exploration keeping largely to the upper register until well past the halfway point and the density only gaining serious weight in the work’s final minutes, Williams’s dynamic finally reaching the bolded and underlined stage. Despite its serious sounding title, Abstracted Art has a lot more play in the lines and isn’t shy about flashing the sass it has to offer.

Arriving at the closing bookend, the JACK is joined by Williams at the piano for Cineshape 2 (2007), one in a series of works inspired by films–in this case the split screen experiment Timecode. The instrumentalists work through the music, sometimes in a kind of soliloquy among the other players and sometimes in conversation with them, the development of various thematic areas punctuated by some startling moments of auditory aggression.

Across the disc, this collection of music stands in dialog with other creative work, whether in the form of stories, images, text, or other music. It is an intimate look inside Williams’s artistic influences, a portrait of what she has seen there and what she has taken away.

Robert Carl: The Time Keeper

At the composer’s home in Hartford, Connecticut
April 19, 2013—1 p.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Robert Carl’s music, to my ear at least, has always felt like the work of a particularly sensitive sonic observer of the world. Originally a student of history before he refocused his efforts into music, his interest in time, memory, and space are veins running through his compositions, his work more given to conjuring imagery than narrative plot. And whether inspiration is mined in the wake of a seascape or travelers on a speeding bullet train, the resulting music tends to carry a distinct organic beauty and rich, encompassing depth.

Read the keynote address delivered by Robert Carl at the third annual Westfield Festival of New Music, presented by the Westfield State University Department of Music on March 3, 2013.

Currently chair of the composition department at The Hartt School, Carl acknowledges an aesthetic genealogy that nods to names such as Ives, Xenakis, Shapey, Cage, Kramer, Ruggles, and Rochberg. But for a long time, he says, he felt like a late bloomer scrambling to catch up, something of “a spy in the house of music.” For whatever anxiety that might have caused him, he immersed himself in this world at all sides—a voracious listener dedicated to composing, performing, teaching, and writing about the music that has filled his head and encircled his life. This work has provided him with opportunities for insight yet somehow without the pressure of it second-guessing his muse. When the work calls for it, he simply puts that experience on the shelf.

I tell my students that one of the things that you have to do is to create forms of creative self-delusion when you write. You can’t think too much about the weight of history, or about the weight of the field, which is even worse, especially if you’re young. … [I]f you have an idea for a piece, and you believe in it, then at a certain point that piece becomes the only piece of music that’s ever been written. Honestly, I can feel that when I’m writing. I mean, thank god, I’m inventing music! And of course, it’s a delusion. Of course, I know it’s not true. But you can feel it in a certain deep way.

Ultimately, it’s a delusion that has allowed Carl to explore the great global diversity of musical experience while also providing a level of clarity and space to communicate in a voice distinctly his own.


Molly Sheridan: Your artist statement opens with the line, “My work has always been concerned with time.” That has a certain poetry and also concrete applications to music, of course, but I thought we might start by digging into what that really means to you and why that’s such a powerful focus in your work.

Robert Carl: It’s changed over time. I think in some ways the initial impulse was because my first love was history. All through my childhood and adolescence, I thought I was going to be a historian. That, of course, has to do with time and the sense of the past being present. So this feeling for the co-existence of all sorts of different moments in time has a certain poetic quality to me. Earlier on, I think I wanted to evoke that with different types of music and historical periods. There was more of an element of, well, never literal pastiche but a sort of intersection and looking for connections between very different types of musics.
With more passage of time, it became a little bit more abstract and at the same time elemental for me. I think part of that was just digging deeper into music and finding its own world. Of course, one thing about music is that it is time reconsidered, because when you have counterpoint, you’ve got different things going on at once to begin with. You’re going to have returns; you’re going to have premonitions and echoes of things that have happened. So long as you have memory, then that sense of it being a dialogue between events that happened at different places in time in the unfolding of the piece is also going on. Music embodies this in a very rich way. That was always there for me, but over time, it became more visceral.

I think the key was encountering Xenakis. I was not a private student of his, but I was in Paris for a year and just stumbled on his course at the Sorbonne. It turned out to be about six or seven people in a seminar room once a week, which was great. It was basically him describing his music. One semester was sieve theory, which involved stochastics and it demanded calculus, which I had in high school and actually passed, but I’d forgotten everything. I took notes the whole way through diligently. I still have them and if I really wanted to relearn calculus, I might get something out of it. That was sort of a loss. But the other semester was group theory, which essentially had to do with envisioning the form of a piece as a geometrical solid with points on it, then putting it into rotation and comparing where a point was at one point to where it was after the passage of time and putting these into different parameters of the music. In a sense, it was creating a form which was the envisioning of this object, almost this sculptural form, but from different perspectives in time. I started to see a connection, I guess, between time and space. That was for me the thing that blew my vistas open. After that, I think in some ways my music has become much more interested in space and spaciousness. Long sustained tones, big registral separations, large gestures—that’s sort of a surface metaphor for what I’m looking for. I mean, I also love pieces that now and then are incredibly dense, but it feels like the space of the piece is big enough to accommodate that density. The very fact the piece is as rich as it is and yet doesn’t seem clogged was a thing that I really felt was to be aspired to. That’s another way of getting at space. And, of course, it has to do with the way you play around with time. They go back and forth like that.

MS: That doesn’t really necessitate that you use particular sonic combinations. You might say technology would be an attraction, but you wouldn’t necessarily associate that interest with the flute, or the piano, or the orchestra, or any one thing. Are you particularly attracted to a sound world as a result of this?

RC: It’s a really interesting question. I admit, I’m very drawn to the orchestra. In some ways there’s not as much engagement there as I would like, but that has to do with practical things. But let’s redefine that a little bit: Orchestra. Let’s talk about large ensemble—a large sonorously and timbrally mixed ensemble. That, I think, is something that I’m drawn to precisely because it gives you yet another dimension to explore in space. All through my life, I’ve made electro-acoustic music. It’s not my primary profile, but every three or four years it seems I make an electro-acoustic piece of some sort. Now it’s almost exclusively using Max/MSP. If I have a particular idea I’m interested in that I want to explore, it’s a great sketchbook. I’ve been able over the years to make pieces that now and then open up possibilities, not just technologically, but actually in terms of compositional practice that will then work their way into other pieces, as well as being in these pieces.

When you start to combine electronics with the chamber orchestra, for instance, the sound can be as big as you want it. I have a piece that I just finished which has a fixed media part. It’s sort of a white noise Bolero called The Inevitable Wave. It’s essentially a ten-second wave that was stretched to ten minutes, and it has an accompaniment from the chamber orchestra that’s based on spectral analysis of the sound file. It’s sort of a tsunami, and that was the point of the piece. The thing is, though, that just having this interaction between those two sounds, it becomes a really satisfying blend. You can’t really tell what is what anymore. So in that sense, large ensemble with sort of a symphonic bent and an electro-acoustic component, that’s where I’ve found myself more drawn. But I’ll write for anything. I’m a gun for hire.

Score pages posted on the walls of Carl's office

Score pages posted on the walls of Carl’s office

MS: Considering that, I’d actually like to read a quote to you, if I may. It’s from Kyle Gann in response to your Fourth Symphony. He writes, “I think it’s taken Robert a long time to clarify what is truly Carlesque in his music amid the Ruggles-like angularity (his dissertation was on Sun-treader), the Ivesian layering, the Rochbergian style schisms, the Shapeyesque pitch usage, and it’s been exciting to hear it emerge ever more clearly in each new work.” That’s a really neat and evocative packaging of your influences. But is it a true catalogue? And is it one that you still carry?

RC: Now we’re talking about aesthetic genealogy. I do think in large part that Kyle is hearing me pretty correctly there. I think the one thing that he’s not including is the Xenakis influence that I was discussing earlier. What actually has become more and more clear to me over the last five or six years in an overt way is the importance of Cage. When the centennial happened, I was actually shocked. It just didn’t occur to me that it was coming. But it gave everyone a chance to look and listen to the work, and really see it in context as a whole. The body of work is incredibly inspiring as music, and I think the permission that it gives to explore anything, and to go in any direction that you want to, has been a nice little shock or goose that I’ve gotten at this age. I think that’s now a part of my framework.

The composers I studied with were very important, and I didn’t always realize what the importance was. I wanted to study with Rochberg. I wanted to study with Shapey. I stumbled onto Xenakis, and it was extraordinary. But my first teacher was Jonathan Kramer at Yale. I mean, I’m interested in time, right? When I was a sophomore and starting to take lessons with him, I had no idea that this was his prime scholarly and intellectual interest. So I think I carry him in me too, that way.
But I think Kyle’s basically right.

MS: I know you consider yourself to be something of a late bloomer when it comes to composition. How did those teachers influence the path in music that you ended up following?

RC: Shapey was in some ways the only composer whom I felt taught me concrete technique. Anyone who came in as one of his students had to take a short course, basically a series of exercises where he taught you to, more or less, write his music. Of course, you’re immediately chafing at this. It was very entertaining—it was a highly personalized riff on serialism without it dealing with note count at all. It was mostly gesture, motive. He always talked about wanting something to be a graven image, as though an idea was written in stone. And he wanted to convey ways of doing that, and then developing it.

What it did show me was that you were able to take a sound, an idea, and then keep playing with it—the way of constantly reviewing a sound, a little bit like I was saying Xenakis performed, but in this case on a micro basis. He was able to give ideas for how you could continue to maintain the energy in an idea. If you do that in one line, and then you do it in another line in a different way, hey, you start to get counterpoint! So I felt like writing a phrase and creating counterpoint were the two things that I got from him. George Rochberg was a master of many different techniques. Interestingly enough, I look back on those lessons and I feel more like it was a constant kind of moral education and philosophical debate that was going on. He was always considering the fate of the world—what the flute does here, what does that mean in terms of Western civilization? I’m totally exaggerating, but he took it very, very seriously. Shapey was just much more nuts and bolts. I mean, he was a visionary—he was part of that head banging, post-Varèsian mindset, very macho in that way—but at the same, it all came down to the notes, whether they worked for him or not.

You asked about late blooming. Well, I had written a little bit of music at the end of high school and taken piano for a few years. When I was in elementary school, I quit and started back up toward the end of high school basically because I had an amazing French teacher who at one point decided just to give us a thumbnail sketch of the history of classical music from his record collection. That got me going. I got to Yale and I was a history major my entire time there, but I took a lot of music courses. I did get a real musical start at that point.

After I turned 50, I started feeling like I may have caught up. Up to about then, I felt like I was constantly scrambling to try to catch up on what I didn’t know. Of course, there’s always a million things you don’t know. Given. But I sort of became a composer, I think, before I became a musician. I was writing music before I had this fluency in musicianship and a confidence in musicianship that now I feel I do have. It took a long time to get there, and in a way, I felt almost like a little bit of a spy—a spy in the house of music. In a way, academia was right for me because I’m pretty verbal—I write, I like ideas—and those characteristics were things that helped to sustain me while I was working to compensate for that weakness.

MS: At what point did the electronics enter into this picture of you as a composer?

RC: When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I took the electronic course. It was actually Robert Morris, as I remember, who taught that. That was still when we were in the late years of analog electronic music. It was a studio in what used to be the ROTC building. There was a room that was dedicated to that, and they had a big ARP. They even had a spring reverb that was about as big as that wall over there where you could turn a crank to determine the amount of reverb that you’d get on the sound you were producing. So, it was actually something that, from the very beginning, I saw as kind of co-equal with any other type of composition that I did.

In Chicago, the first year I was there, I was Shapey’s assistant; I did the electronic studio afterwards. At the time, it was basically one of the doctoral students who would run the electronic studio and would show anything to any student who was interested. They had a Buchla, so I got to know another analog system. Things still hadn’t changed over. When I got to Hartt, basically within the first year or so, they got a Synclavier, which was a white elephant of a system that was like a predecessor of MIDI. It was a dedicated workstation. It actually had synthesis, and sampling, and sequencing, even a certain degree of re-synthesis and spectral analysis built into it. It was a kind of visionary thing, but—at least my experience with the one that we had there—it was always breaking. But I had electronic music experience, and so I had a conceptual framework, so they said, “Okay, you’re going to teach this course.” And indeed, the person who was originally going to teach it had a health issue, and I was brought in about four weeks into the semester and had to learn it on the spot, which is a situation that all of us know from a certain time in our lives when we have to just do things like this.

So, that became a kind of transitional wave into digital electronic music. I was never doing really hardcore programming, but the thing that I actually yearned for was finally met by Max, because there was a system where you actually could program things of enormous sophistication. I’d always been drawn to algorithmic music, in the sense of a strict process that will open up vistas that you couldn’t imagine otherwise, and finally that was possible. Though there’s plenty of stuff that can be very, very frustrating in terms of the object-oriented programming that you do, at the same time, it’s not all code.

Actually, in the course that I teach, just about two days ago I put a patch up on the screen. I said, “Everyone, okay, so this is your score identification. What piece is this?” And they were looking at it, and then one of says, “It’s I Am Sitting in a Room.” They saw it. They could read the patch like a score in terms of the process. That’s the sort of thing that I have dreamed of for a long time, and now it’s possible. I’m nowhere as sophisticated as a lot of people who work with it, but it serves a purpose for me.

MS: In your studio upstairs, you’ve posted the pages of scores that you’re working on up on the walls. They’re all in line, waiting to be performed or presented. There was one piece that caused you to mention that “as soon as I’m done, it’s done.” Was that one of the electro acoustic works?

Score pages posted on the walls of Carl's office

Scores waiting to be performed or presented

RC: Oh, I said I was going to record it. No, it’s actually that piece on the piano there, which is a set of bagatelles after Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird—which I know everybody else in the world has done, but since I actually live in Hartford and I actually go by [Wallace Stevens’s] house almost every day on my bicycle, I feel like I still have some rights to deal with it. I’ve always wanted to write a bagatelle set, and this became the way of doing it. I’m going to go into a studio and record it.

MS: Well, that leads neatly into discussing the influence of your being a performer of your own work on your own work.

RC: I’m an incredibly modest performer. I don’t mean modest in the sense of being shy or anything like that! My relationship with the piano has always been problematic. It’s ironic, because I think I have a bunch of pretty substantial piano music that I’m happy with. But thank god I have known through my life incredible pianists who can realize it, because I could never do it in a million years. I lack stamina—physical but also mental in terms of concentration. Great performers can go into that present moment where you’re playing the music, but you can actually see just as far ahead as necessary so that you can keep on top of it. I perform enough to know that, but everything that I have that I do perform myself, especially on the piano, is cannily organized to disguise my weaknesses and emphasize my strengths. If nothing else, it is a testament to me as a composer that I can do that and it sounds enough like real music that it can fool people. The pieces that I can play—and I have a little portfolio of them—they’re modest in terms of what the demands are. They’re maybe advanced intermediate. I can do it because I wrote it, so I don’t have the conceptual leap of going into somebody else’s world. Anyway, now that I’ve trashed myself as a performer, what I will say is that it’s incredibly important for me in terms of musicianship, in terms of just engaging in the act of making music and knowing what it is from the inside in a visceral way. I think it gives me much greater understanding of performers so that if I’m going to give them something really difficult, then it should be worth their while when they master it. If they master it, and it still feels grungy, then they shouldn’t have done it. I would like it to be sort of an athletic rush, if you can get it.

There’s a piece on the CD that’s coming out called Shake the Tree, which is for piano four hands, and John MacDonald and Don Berman do it. They are astonishing. I originally wrote the piece thinking, “I’ll write a piece for John, who is a dear friend, and I’ll make it so I’m playing the lower part. It will be easy for me, and I’ll play with John. Won’t that be fun?” Well, after about one minute of it, I’d already written myself out of that picture. I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is the most difficult piece ever written.” It is demanding, but they take it and they eat it for lunch. But what I got back from them was that they got a rush from it. So if I can do that, then that’s great. I think that does come from some degree of me forcing myself to sit at the keyboard and practice and constantly make mistakes.

Carl at the piano

Carl at the piano

The other thing is the shakuhachi, which again, especially in terms of traditional literature, I’m not sure I can for me even use the word “play” and “shakuhachi” in the same sentence. I have a very close, dear composer friend, Elizabeth Brown, whom I admire enormously as a composer and who I revere as a shakuhachi player. So if I say that I’m playing the shakuhachi, well, I’ve written music of my own that uses it. She’s actually played it. I know enough about it to write something that might feel as though it comes out of that tradition, but of course it has nothing to do literally with the tradition. The best thing about shakuhachi is that it’s really beginner’s mind because I’ve never had any expectation of being able to play at what would be a professional level for the traditional literature. At the same time, the shakuhachi [community] has a great attitude, which is sort of like, well, it doesn’t really matter what you play. Did you get the breath right, you know, did you breathe? So it has this nice compensatory thing that takes you outside of definitions of technique that you get very much in the Western classical tradition. It can be very meditative. And it gives you different systems of judgment.

MS: Meditative, yes, but your shakuhachi piece on From Japan did not make me feel like I was getting a massage at a day spa. You weren’t borrowing clichés, this wasn’t an instrument that you didn’t really understand added for color. The entire collection of pieces seemed to showcase not a particularly programmatic or narrative instinct, but perhaps more of a fundamental fascination with the sounds around you. I don’t know if that’s an accurate judgment of your creative impulse—you can correct me on that if I’ve misinterpreted—but I feel like it’s coming from a careful-listener perspective. What is it that gets you fired up?

RC: You’re right about listening. I listen to a lot of music. There are some composers—and I fully understand and sympathize with it—where too much music is like too much information. You just don’t want to be overwhelmed by other people’s music. I understand that. Yet, at the same time, I just get so much pleasure from listening to lots and lots of different things, all the time. It gets me thinking. It gives me ideas. It keeps challenging assumptions. The composer who is essentially my granddad, or great granddad, aesthetically is Charles Ives. One of the things that above all I love about Ives is that there’s no composer I know who went further in finding essentially seemingly irreconcilable things that he reconciled, or he made them live together. He found a way for things to get along together that shouldn’t. I find that a really noble and wonderful thing, and in a way, it’s kind of democratic and idealistically American. It’s really an aspect of the better qualities of this culture.

Of course, I have another life as a critic. I got involved in it a pretty long time ago—at the time, it was like, wow, free CDs! Well, of course, that doesn’t have the same cachet now that it did then, though I still have a certain fondness for the artifact. But in a way, it helped keep me in touch with what was going on—not only in New York or in the States, but worldwide, which was very, very useful for me as an artist and also as a teacher. I’ve constantly been listening to music, and I somehow never get tired of it. That doesn’t mean I like it all, though I think I like it more than many people. If there’s something I really hate, I probably won’t review it. I’d rather be an advocate for things that I find satisfying or interesting.

You were saying that you don’t hear a particularly programmatic aspect to my music. I think that’s true. What I would say is that what motivates my music often is instead what I would call an iconic or imagistic quality. Not in the sense of Impressionism, though there will be things that can be like that, but if there is a motivating image for the piece, either in its form or in its character, I feel like I can then run with it. The piece for string orchestra I’m working on right now is a commission for the Wintergreen Festival, which is in Virginia this summer. I’ll be doing a residency there. It’s a set of variations that are a response to the fact that I’ve been in rocking chairs all my life. That’s an image—it’s basically sort of an inhalation/exhalation between pairs, a kind of large-scale rocking. Images like that can get a piece going and often they can be rather naïve, but they often end up embedding themselves in the piece so that they affect more of the structural aspects of it than things that are absolutely on the surface.

MS: In addition to your work as a critic, there’s also the book on Terry Riley and I’ve read a few of your lectures. Your career encompasses a lot of deep thinking about music that you’ve committed to paper for public consumption, in addition to the notes you’ve written.

RC: It’s great if anybody’s looking or listening. I think that’s a legacy of the side of me that might have been a historian.
The Terry Riley book was a chance to combine several different approaches to musical thinking and writing. It was a strict history in one sense. It had a lot of research and also oral history, but combined with analysis. I said, okay, I’m going to try to prove that you can actually do a serious analysis of this piece, which has always had this kind of hippy-dippy reputation. Totally unjustified. Obviously it’s endured and people see, I think much more now, just how wonderfully put together it is. At the same time, you could do an analysis of the score outside of time. Then you could compare it between performances, so you can see the different possibilities of it. Then there’s aesthetics—what are the ramifications of this type of music, the fact that this type of music is surviving and is actually ever-increasingly influential. All of that is incredibly stimulating for me.

I’ve always admired composers who were also writers. As problematic as he is, Schoenberg remains a remarkable force. Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music is just such an elegant little book. Essays Before a Sonata by Ives is cranky and it’s almost like your daft uncle who’s writing letters to the editor. And yet at the same time, it’s absolutely brilliant. For all of those composers, their way of thinking about things was influenced by writing.

MS: That being said, and that being fantastic—being immersed in the community and keeping on top of things, advocating and writing books—how do you keep the weight of that much history and music from becoming a cause of paralysis? How do you keep it from burying your own music?

RC: I don’t know. That has never really felt like much of an issue for me. Part of it is that over time, I do feel as though the music I’m writing is ever more my music. I tell my students that one of the things that you have to do is to create forms of creative self-delusion when you write. You can’t think too much about the weight of history, or about the weight of the field, which is even worse, especially if you’re young. Yes, there are tens of thousands just like you out there–go to it, good luck! You have to find ways of not being paralyzed by that. I think one of them is that if you have an idea for a piece, and you believe in it, then at a certain point that piece becomes the only piece of music that’s ever been written. Honestly, I can feel that when I’m writing. I mean, thank god, I’m inventing music! And of course, it’s a delusion. Of course, I know it’s not true. But you can feel it in a certain deep way. I will say that over time, I’ve felt like I’ve been making more and more discoveries for myself, and that sense of personal engagement and invention keeps its fresh for me. I don’t feel like I’m recycling.

The sense of history, important as it was for me, I did feel early on could be a trap in terms of writing music that was about the music I liked. I wanted to try to find a way to write music where it was truly its own self. It asserted itself, and I was basically the person who was cultivating it like a farmer. I plant seeds, I watch the crop grow, and I harvest it. That’s what I feel like I’m doing now. Kyle’s quote from earlier: anyone can look and can see all sorts of influences and DNA there. We’re all a mixture of other things. Our personality is not something which is ever fixed. Who we were a week ago is already different from who we are now, so there is this constant mutation that’s going on in everything that we do. So I’m not talking about having found some sort of absolutely essential core, but at the same time, I feel like there is a practice I have discovered, that I can return to and find some satisfaction. In that sense, it is a little bit like doing something like gardening. You can do this thing that is very elemental. It’s in the nature of being human and being in the earth. There’s nothing very special about it, but you’re still doing it to the best of your ability. And there’s something very special about it when doing it.

MS: I want to go back to your Westfield keynote. There was a line about common practice versus a commonality of practice. I wondered if you’d unpack the thinking that went into that a bit, because that integrates a lot of broad observations.

RC: When I say I think there’s the potential for an emerging common practice, anyone who hears that will think I’m just insane. The standard line is that, look, we have more types of music now than we have ever had before. Of course, that’s absolutely true. But it’s interesting in that, for instance, over the period of my life, I have gone from there still being a kind of cachet to classical music, which was then more or less wiped out by the predominance of “popular music.” Now what I see is that in fact the monolithic quality of popular music itself is fragmenting into a huge range of different niches.

At the same time, lots of things that have traditions are classicizing themselves. You can have somebody who is in maybe the post-Radiohead school, who sees themselves in a lineage that goes back to Radiohead and the Beatles and that sees this as a very concrete set of techniques and aesthetics, attitudes and expressive tropes. That is basically like any tradition, and yet we have many, many of these. So it sounds like, again, I’m digging myself into my grave right now, but as things get more fragmented, at the same time, no single thing is controlling it anymore. There’s more room for cross-fertilization/hybridization. That’s why I’m talking about commonality of practice. I see more and more dipping and borrowing—going back to that idea of reconciling the irreconcilable—from different approaches, techniques, and traditions. What comes out of it is ultimately an increasingly synthetic music where people who are involved in one type of music have less difficulty dealing with a different type of music than they used to. I see it in students. They might be in a metal band, but they’re really interested in the math rock aspect of it. That then takes them into serialism. Of course, with the communications technology, everything is linked. So there’s this sense of the whole intellectual environment that you live in now being a series of connections—a kind of net, rather than being anything straight lined or boxed off. That is becoming much more common intellectual practice—and I’m using the term intellectual in a very, very broad sense.

MS: You’re talking about “my students” and what the kids are doing. Do you feel like your music is part of that?

RC: You know, I would sort of think so. I don’t want to try to assume any mantle of youth or hipness, which would be kind of disgusting, but I feel a great empathy and stimulation from what I see going on in different generations. And I’m not trashing my generation when I say that. I mean, certainly composers who are in my generation—if I mention anyone, and I leave somebody out, it’s going to be unfortunate, but I’m just going to choose two off the top of my head. Elizabeth Brown, who I mentioned before, I think has an amazingly synthetic attitude toward different instruments, different world music traditions, and a deep knowledge of the classical musician that comes from her being a freelance flutist in New York for decades. All of that gets all mixed into her music in a really subtle and beautiful way. John Luther Adams—I’ll say this, he’s the only composer of my generation whom I’m envious of because I feel he actually beat me to doing in his music what I wish I could have done. Of course, I didn’t go live in Alaska, so I couldn’t have written this music. It’s a totally different personal story, but the vision that’s in his music is something that I’m deeply moved by and, as I say, creatively envious of. So there are two composers in my generation who I think are doing this sort of techno-aesthetic synthesis already, very, very well. And there are many, many others. So it’s a thing that’s happening at every generation.

MS: I also think it’s often easier to talk about changes in the field, and apply that to people who are still obviously developing. Sure, some people then get down in their trenches, but you don’t stop paying attention and developing just because you’re 40, 60, 80 years old. Even Carter kept evolving.

RC: You know, Carter is a great example, because to be honest, there are all sorts of pieces from all [of his] periods that I love. But Carter really took off when he turned 80. The music became so playful. There was a piece for wind ensemble that was almost static, like the Carter Feldman tribute. He stayed open, I think, in his own way.

I’m of a generation that really came of age musically in the ‘70s. One of the myths is that up until recently there were hardcore conservative serialists who were in control of everything, and then it was broken down by either minimalism or post-modernism, or some combination of those. There’s of course some truth to that, but the thing was that when I was a student, there was no dominant –ism already. There were more distinct -isms than there are now. But frankly, the dominant one, I didn’t encounter. Maybe it’s because I chose teachers who were pretty wacky and maverick-ish in their own way.

In my generation, there was always a lot more freedom and liberty. Now I will say, just go maybe ten years back [from my peers], you hear a lot more stories from composers about how if you didn’t toe the line in this or that way, you wouldn’t get a job or you would be denied all the prizes. Yet at the same time, how does that explain the existence of Ned Rorem, who has been quite successful his whole life and has never shied away from writing exactly the type of music that he wanted to write? There’s always a little bit of exaggeration of it being a life and death struggle between different aesthetics. But there’s no doubt that it is much more fluid. It is much more hybridizing. It is much more fragmented now than it was before.

MS: Reading your technical discussions of some of the explorations you are doing in your own fragmented area, particularly your application of overtones, I kept thinking quietly to myself, “yes, but it’s so beautiful!” It was interesting to reflect on your private inspirations and public outcomes.
RC: What it is for me is actually finding something that is natural. Here’s the thing, which inevitably becomes kind of controversial: On the one hand, we’ve always had a kind of essentialist argument about tonality. Bernstein, in the Norton lectures he gave at Harvard, talks about how there’s a grammar of music that’s fundamentally tonal. Of course, this can really rile everybody up because it can be easily used as a kind of club to force us into an essential kind of musical conservatism. So I’m skeptical of that. I wouldn’t want to give up Atlas Eclipticalis for that if I had to, okay? At the same time, I wouldn’t want Atlas Eclipticalis to rule, you know?

My feeling is that over time—and it comes partly from spectralism, it comes just as much from composers like Henry Cowell and Ives—there are ways of looking at acoustical phenomenon of sound and using that as a model to create sounds on different scales. I don’t mean scales like modes, I mean different scales of size. Hierarchies. And what you can get from it actually is precisely that beauty. It is also about space. You get the proper amount of space between the notes, both horizontally and vertically. I think that’s why this practice that I pursue feels satisfying to me, and doesn’t feel like it’s over-intellectualizing. It doesn’t feel like it’s forcing us into too cerebral a trap. As a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite. It feels like it kind of frees me up. The analogy that I use is basically a jazz one. I teach myself my own changes so that then I can improvise on the page as I’m writing. That’s really what I feel like I’m doing with this. So in that sense, if you find it beautiful, great. But I think that’s actually a by-product of the approach rather than something that’s being done despite it. It’s not so much like I feel like I’d better be rigorous in some way so people won’t laugh at me. No, this is what allowed me to dig deep enough to get to what I was looking for.