Christopher Theofanidis: Wider Than a Concept, Deeper Than a Sound

Christopher Theofanidis: Wider Than a Concept, Deeper Than a Sound

Christopher Theofanidis is a composer focused on the big picture. Whether scored for a full compliment of choral and orchestral musicians or a more conservative troupe of chamber players, his music carries aspects of his expansive approach to life and listening. Read the interview…

Written By

Molly Sheridan

In conversation with Molly Sheridan
at Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut
September 29, 2010—2 p.m.

Transcribed by Julia Lu
Condensed and edited by Molly Sheridan
Audio/video presentation and photography by
Molly Sheridan and Alex Gardner


Christopher Theofanidis is a composer focused on the big picture. His music is rooted in expressing life as he experiences it. A moment alone can spark a bassoon solo, a question of spiritual faith can be unpacked in a score. “I think that the trajectory has really been about freeing myself, in terms of musical language, to the point where I can really take a humanistic approach to other things that I’m interested in,” he acknowledges. “The music became a by-product of my approach to living more than it did anything else.”

That music almost wasn’t a product at all. Like many young students weighing their career options, he was seriously considering enrolling in business school after completing undergraduate studies at the University of Houston in 1990. The richness of musical experience on offer at Eastman won him over in the end, however, and a Ph.D. from Yale rounded out his education. After going on to teach at Peabody and Juilliard, he returned to Yale as a faculty member in 2008.

Although many people first encounter Theofanidis’s music through his astoundingly popular orchestral work Rainbow Body, which won the 2003 Masterprize competition, he has resisted the idea that he is trapped in any groove cut by holding such a calling card. A steady flow of music has continued to pour from his studio, music that whether scored for a full compliment of choral and orchestral musicians or a more conservative troupe of chamber players carries aspects of his expansive approach to life and listening. His ideas are full and lush, purposefully organic in their development and richly textured in their execution.

Ahead of him are two opera projects—Heart of a Soldier (2011) for the San Francisco Opera and Siddhartha (2014) for the Houston Grand Opera—which though he gracefully declined to discuss in detail at this stage in their development, seem well matched to his musical instincts.

“Although the trappings may be different from Rainbow Body‘s harmony or sonority, the sensibility of unfolding things in a storyline is still very important to me,” he explains. “It still makes sense to me. And as long as it does, I follow that.”



Molly Sheridan: As I was preparing for our interview, I noticed that this early recording of your work on Albany came out in 1995, and then this one on Telarc which includes The Here and Now, a huge piece commissioned and recorded by the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus, was brought out exactly a decade later. When you think about the composer that you were in 1995, you probably had certain ideas about the road ahead, and the composer on this second disc may have followed that road, or may have changed course. How are the expectations of the Chris Theofanidis of 1995 connected to what really happened?

Christopher Theofanidis: When you start writing music, you’re so self-conscious about what you’re doing, and you’re trying very hard to grasp onto anything that feels like solid ground. For me, at that time, solid ground was strangely people like Bartók and Prokofiev. I mean, I had no knowledge of what was going on in contemporary music; just stuff that I heard my father playing as a pianist when I was growing up. And so I was trying to figure out how to make music work through those things. Fast forward ten years later, and I’ve lost a lot of that concern for solid ground. The things that drive the projects tend to be extra-musical for me. So I think that the trajectory has really been about freeing myself, in terms of musical language, to the point where I can really take a humanistic approach to other things that I’m interested in. Not just the music.

MS: What did it take to get you to that point, to win that freedom?

CT: I think first you have to go through school to get to that level of freedom. And then, when you get out of school, you have to reorient to the things that are actually deeply important to you without anybody else telling you what’s important. Because your network of people is no longer there saying, “This works. This doesn’t work.” You have to figure it out for yourself.

When I got out of school, strangely, I had more time for reading and things like that, and so I read a lot more poetry. I read a lot of things that I became very interested in, and that then started to drive my own personal motivations for doing things and sometimes became the launching pad for pieces of music that I was writing. The music became a by-product of my approach to living more than it did anything else.

MS: What kept you motivated during that period?

CT: I think everything is driven by curiosity, at some level. For me, when I was in school, I was very curious about what everybody else was doing. All these post-minimal ideas, spectral music, anything you could think of was part of that curiosity, and I was trying to weigh whether or not it worked. I wouldn’t describe it as a painful or hard process or anything like that, but the idea of having tools and all that stuff needs to be worked through before you have a sense of really playing in the sandbox, which is I think the ultimate goal, in a way.

MS: When I opened your CV, it was of course impossible to miss the long list of orchestras you’ve worked with. Has orchestral music always been the primary sound palette in your head, or was it simply a product of the opportunities that presented themselves?

CT: I think everybody when they’re, you know, 18 years old, wants to write an orchestra piece. There’s just something really wonderful about that idea. In my case, a lot of it was circumstance. I didn’t set out with the idea of writing a lot of orchestral pieces. With Rainbow Body, a series of things happened that put that piece out there, and then that led to a lot of other possibilities for my writing orchestral music. I love solo piano music as much as I love the orchestra, honestly. You can make music from kazoos interesting and beautiful. But I think circumstance does drive a lot of that. I remember Chris Rouse talking about how, early on, he wrote several pieces that caught on like fire in the percussion world, and he was asked to do more, and more, and more. And he had to deliberately steer his career away from that so that he could keep it kind of broad. It is tempting. People keep asking you to do pieces, and you’re happy to have the opportunity. But at the same time, for your own artistic fulfillment, you’ve got to keep it interesting.

MS: I think about that a lot with you particularly, because early in your career Rainbow Body became so popular. It was your calling card, whether you liked it or not.

Images from Theofanidis’s studio

CT: Right. The mixed blessing of having a piece that actually gets performed a number of times is that people expect that for your next piece and the subsequent pieces. It was Penderecki’s problem in the ’60s. He tried desperately to extricate himself from that very narrow thing that he was defined as. Of course, that was one component of his personality, but it wasn’t the only thing.

I don’t feel like I need to do things a certain way because of loyalty to some idea of style. My natural tendency is towards a storytelling kind of narrative structure. So although the trappings may be different from Rainbow Body‘s harmony or sonority, the sensibility of unfolding things in a storyline is still very important to me. It still makes sense to me. And as long as it does, I follow that. But I think most of the composers I know, if they start to get tired, are self-aware of what they’re doing. They want to shift; they want to turn a little bit. That happens whether or not you’ve had a piece that gets done a lot or not.

MS: Regarding your own work, that shifting and turning happens within a certain sector of contemporary classical concert music. With all of the possible sound options available to you, what about that palette speaks to you so strongly and attracts you to using those tools as a means of expression?

CT: I read an interview with John Adams many years ago that really affected me. Somebody asked him a similar question, like, “Why are you still writing for the orchestra?” And he said, “Well, I know it’s like the Titanic; I know it’s going down. But I just can’t help but think about all those great buffets, and the beautiful scenery, and that kind of thing.” I’m paraphrasing, but that was the idea, that the variety is so great. There’s so much that you can say in the medium that you don’t feel the limits, you feel the possibility of it. I think that’s the point with anything. You could ask the same question of pop music, of course. It’s partly the vision and the way you see the medium as a potential for what you’re doing. I don’t need revolutionary breaks in what I’m doing, but I need additional steps in my own sense of growth. That’s enough for me. That’s good for me. I think that that’s the thing that keeps me focused. I see a million possibilities in the orchestra or in the opera. It’s not to say I wouldn’t try other things. Every once in awhile, I throw in something, like the heavy metal in the Cows of Apollo piece that I did a number of years ago. I really enjoy things if they have a motivation behind them, but not just for random reasons.

MS: Can you look back over your shoulder at your evolution and point out where those steps occurred? Are they attached to concrete moments or experiences?

CT: I think you can point to individual pieces like that, but you can also point to individual moments. There are a number of ways to look at yourself. Looking at individual pieces, the first time I saw Ligeti’s Lontano, for example, I mean, strange as it might be to say, that piece really influenced me profoundly because I started to see, “Oh, so he’s saturating areas that have a feeling of major and minor, but are not exactly those chords there. They have a kind of voicing and a particular saturation of sonority that gives the inference of that feeling.” I really responded well to that, and I started to think more expansively about harmonic language—at least in my own way of seeing it. I’m not saying that anybody else would necessarily perceive it that way.

The two other things were Steve Mackey’s Indigeneous Instruments and Jacob Druckman’s Aureole. Steve Mackey because I realized that music is dance, essentially, and movement. The way the music moves, it has a physicality, and that can be communicated in the music. Similarly, Jacob Druckman has that physical, gestural nature to it. It becomes a kind of propulsive force in moving music forward. So, those two things really influenced me also in terms of specific musical things.

In terms of career-type of things, I suppose my residency with the California Symphony was hugely helpful because I got a lot of feedback directly from the players. I learned how to work with an orchestra. They were really nice to me at that time when you think you know everything, but you’re scared as hell because you think they’re all making fun of you behind your back or something. So it was a great way to start to feel comfortable working with large ensembles. Barry Jekowsky, the conductor, was brilliant at nurturing people who were coming up but didn’t quite have their footing yet. There were a lot of those throughout my life, I would say.

MS: As I worked my way through the extensive audio sample library on your website, the work taken as a whole sounded very big and lush. And I’m not only referring here to the orchestral and choral works, but even something in the character of pieces such as the flute duo, which is not something that I would have anticipated. What qualities do you seek to foster in your own musical voice and what marks its character to your own ears?

Images from Theofanidis’s studio

CT: For me, the binding glue between the different pieces is that essentially an ensemble, or even a solo player, is an organism. And the music moves as an organism does. So if you have a massive orchestra, lumbering in quality, you have to do things to make it graceful, proportionately to the movement, and make it move in a way that makes it beautiful. That’s different from a two-flute piece to a string quartet to an electric guitar ensemble or whatever it happens to be. Each of those things as an organism has its own mechanics, its own logic, and part of composing is finding out what it is. I’m very aware of that when I’m doing it. Again, it comes back to movement, and dance, and gestural motion. It has a different scale. Also, larger ensembles tend to be more like public oratory. You’re speaking to people who are slightly at a distance. Things read differently. You can’t micro emote in those things, you know. Whereas, if you’re singing lieder, you can. You place things very deliberately and carefully. Understanding that as a starting point is something that I feel really close to in my concept for pieces that I’m working on.

MS: You’ve mentioned at a few points the importance of storyline in your work. Would you speak a little more about how that folds into your process?

CT: I think it comes actually from a general humanistic way of thinking: the transformation of emotions; how you care about something. If it’s a melody or person or whatever it happens to be, it happens over time in a way that makes you care about them more, or hopefully deepens your understanding of them. And that’s where the storytelling thing comes into play for me. It’s something to hang the flow of time on that makes sense. It creates meaning and depth for me.

MS: What about your real life process, if we were to peek in through the window to your studio?

CT: Probably half the music I’ve written is pumped up on caffeine. That’s one thing I would say is a constant force, especially if I’m writing in the morning or the early afternoon. But apart from that, a lot of it is just singing through things and making sure that the line flows. I try to play every day through everything that I have on a piece up to that point to start off with so I really have a clear sense of the line and shape of the piece. Just to remind myself where I’m at and where I want to go. But apart from that, it’s chicken scratch and singing.

MS: You don’t find that you over-edit the first part by starting over at the beginning each day?

CT: I don’t. Once something feels right, it usually stays that way. There are times when I go back and I’ll tweak an eighth note or something. Things like that do happen later on in the process. Or in the case of the opera I’m working on now, I might excise a half a minute of music or something like that. That happens, too. But for the most part, if it feels right over a day or two, I have a sense that that’s the way it should be.

MS: You shepherd your work all the way through publication. What made you decide to oversee it all and maintain your own publishing company?

CT: It was practical. Early on, nobody was really that interested in anything I was doing. Rightly or wrongly, when I was a student, I really wanted to be with Schirmer or Boosey and Hawkes, and that didn’t pan out. There were a couple of other people who were interested that were running smaller houses and I thought maybe I should do that, but I’ll hang on a little bit longer. Eventually I realized that with a little help, you can actually do it yourself and it turns out to be much more interesting in some ways. You keep track of what’s going on and you keep the money, which is not small. So it’s a good thing.

MS: You think you’ll remain on that path?

CT: I think so. There’s really no reason not to at this point. Part of it is a juggling act of making sure these parts get from here to here. And then once you’ve got that down, it’s okay.

MS: Does it take up much of your time?

CT: Oh, I have good help, which makes a difference.

MS: I know we almost lost you to business school early in your career. Are you fulfilling a bit of that dream through your self-publishing work?

CT: I feel like I’m a big picture person, but the details get past me quite a bit of the time in terms of management things. So had I been a businessperson, that would have been the worst decision of my life. It was very close. I’d applied and the whole thing, but had I gone that direction, that would have been disastrous. I think part of it was not being totally aware that music was really a living art. I grew up in Houston, but my sense of what music and new music was, was extremely limited. For a long time I had the kind of church-choral tradition, and Bartók and Prokofiev. That was what I knew. I just didn’t know that there was a lot of other stuff going on out there until I actually got into Eastman and started to see the bigger panorama of what was going on and the possibilities. My wanting to go to business school was largely driven by that. Once you feel it as a living art, suddenly you become totally obsessed about how to do what you want to do, and it becomes vital. I think in a lot of places, it may not have quite that vital thing for people, and if you don’t have things to stimulate you, you don’t necessarily go in the places that you could.

MS: And you found that at Eastman?

CT: That’s right. Joe Schwanter and Chris Rouse were there, and those were great models. There was the enthusiasm of Sam Adler, the kind of obsessive theoretic stuff that was happening which I thought was really amazing. And you could see people who really, genuinely loved those things and were pursuing them to the farthest extent that they could. To have that in your field of vision empowers you in a way. It makes you feel like, well yeah, I can do my own thing too. Which I think is the point.

MS: You mentioned the early influence of choral music and that made me think about spirituality and the role of that in your work. It seems as if spirituality is definitely a force in your music.

Images from Theofanidis’s studio

CT: I think it is. I always get nervous speaking about anything that’s metaphysical, but it’s dealing with things that you can’t quite touch and you can’t quite imagine—which for me is largely spiritual matters—to the extent that dealing with things which are not concrete is in the music. I very much feel it that way. In the same way that I feel emotion, and emotion is very similarly elusive. It comes out in the music. Spirituality and religion is an ambition, too, in a sense. I mean, it’s what you hope for. Not good or bad, it’s just the thing that motivates you to do something. I think that there’s a lot of that in creating music, too. What you’re hoping to do is ambitious. So that’s how I think of spirituality in my own music. It’s kind of idealism.

MS: How much of a through line do you maintain from piece to piece?

CT: After a few pieces, you step back and you can see bigger patterns and shapes emerge. I think that you can start to understand bigger things about your work from looking at many pieces like that. In the moment that I’m writing something, I’m trying desperately not to think about those things. I’m really trying to keep it real and focused on what’s motivating me in that moment. But if I do look over what’s happened, I see where my motivations have shifted over time. The things that I want to dedicate my time to are different.

MS: Do you let things just happen as they may, or do you force some of these shifts?

CT: One of the things that comes up a lot, and in new music in particular, is the idea of a clean break or revolutionary turnover with what you’re doing. For me, the idea is to take steps toward where you genuinely know that you want to head and go towards that in whatever way it may be. I’m very aware if I start to make a move in my own music that feels stagnant to me, relative to what I’ve been doing. So, that wanting to sweep away stuff from the past is still there. It’s just happening more incrementally. I don’t get quite the adrenaline charge out of just lopping off the head of what I’ve been doing and moving on, as some other people do. People have different chemistry make-ups and needs that way.

MS: What is the impact of your teaching on your creative life and philosophies?

CT: Being around people who are trying to figure things out, basically, is a great stimulus. That’s why they’re in school, particularly in graduate school. They really want to get better at what they’re doing, and that is a great environment to be in because you can’t help but be influenced by that. It keeps your mind active.

It also reminds me that there are a million different ways to make music work. If I just take the 12 people here, you know, in the program at Yale, and you look at each one, it’s like wow—I would not have thought of that. That’s pretty interesting. They have a different way of getting to something which is real for them—and great! It reminds you that it’s a really broad thing, and your little slice of the idea of the way music is is just that. It’s humbling, and it’s a good thing to have that in your field of vision. Hold your judgment a minute. See if this works or not.

And part of it is also psychological. When you’re working with a student, you’re trying to understand what it is that makes them tick, what their values are for making the music happen. Do they see it the way somebody else might see it? And that helps you to also think about the way you perceive your own stuff versus the way somebody else might see it.

MS: How does that compare then to working with performers?

Images from Theofanidis’s studio

CT: Teaching is kind of psychological work, and with performers it’s like athletic training or something. The idea for me of working with performers is kind of as much about getting the feeling of the music, of the metabolism of the music, into their bloodstream as I can. Sharing with them my feelings about what I’ve done, and then getting them to be a physical representation of that music as much as anything. This might be a strange distinction, but I’m not really usually terribly heady with performers. It’s very concrete. So I see those two things quite differently.

MS: Looking at either line, do you see changes coming down the pike that other people who are not constantly interacting in these environments might not witness? Is anything different or is it all the same as it ever was?

CT: I think it’s always changing. Things have become much more integrated and less genre distinct. Something which is interesting is interesting, after all. It’s not because it’s written for orchestra or for whatever ensemble. All the students who I’ve seen come out of here and also Peabody and Juilliard, all of them are doing their own things. They’re making it work in one way or the another. They’re combining theater and this; they’re doing detailed ambient music. Great. I mean, it works. My sense is that the shift has happened, or we’re right in the middle someplace, and that over the coming years, it will be less of an issue as it already is for the students now. People haven’t made uptown/downtown distinctions for the last 20 years. That’s a lost categorization. And similarly, I don’t think some of these genre issues are going to be an issue in the future. That’s what I think I see, but who knows.

MS: Has that had any impact on you in your own work? Maybe you feel this even more than they do?

CT: Yeah. The cultural shift over time basically empowers you more than you were before. You become less fearful that you’re doing the right thing. You go for it. I wouldn’t go out of my way to do some of these things necessarily, but if the moment presented itself in which it was the right thing to do for that project, I would. It’s a fine distinction.

I co-wrote a piece with my friend Mark Wingate, who did the electronic realization in the hall. It was so much fun to do that, and I was thinking, I feel like I can do something with him that I couldn’t do by myself in composing. I will continue to work with him in the future because of that. It wouldn’t have occurred to me before, but this collaborative thing can take you to a different place, if you’re open to it. I’m not going to be able to write ambient music, but if I find beauty in it, and I know somebody who can do that, I put those pieces together. Part of it is your internal, big editor being able to combine things that you see are interesting even if you can’t do them yourself, to see that these things work together. It’s the Phil Glass model. His brilliance is being able to bring together things that he thinks are really interesting across many genres and make them work.

MS: Does that play into your new operas?

CT: I’m a little bit hesitant to talk about it because they’re still being formed, but there are a couple of things in there.

We have this idea about opera. I mean, what was the video I saw recently? Who’s the rap artist who had that series?

MS: R. Kelly?

CT: R. Kelly, yeah. So he did that series of, like, short opera videos. It was so hilarious at one level, but it’s so brilliant at the other level. It’s amazing that opera companies haven’t quite picked up on that idea yet that you could just pick up people who have a knack for storytelling. You know, you could have a country western opera. An Eminem opera; I would love to see that. Get somebody to tell a long, full, engaging story, and learn how to tell the story well in their medium. I think there’s incredible possibility there. It’s just that you’ve got to get the right people involved.

MS: In a pairing that’s not so radical to the field, CDs and concert programs that you tend to appear on mix your work with pieces by Copland and Barber and Mozart. Theofanidis and…Brahms! Are you comfortable with that type of programming or is it an awkward fit?

CT: It’s fun. I’m not so often on the programs of new music ensembles anymore. I had more of those new music-y concerts earlier in my writing. To my mind, actually, it’s more of an issue of programming. People have increasingly limited ideas of programming, in a sense. They’re really interesting—better programming than probably ever before!—but just more narrow in terms of what an ensemble presents. And so the idea of putting a chamber piece of mine on with Lachenmann or something like that would seem preposterous to the groups that play Lachenmann. It’s just the way things have evolved. I think it becomes less and less probable that an ensemble will program on a wider spectrum stylistically.

Poster advertising an upcoming concert at Yale

MS: This is a very broad conversation we’ve been having, and I want to drill down a bit and talk about how an individual work, like your quartet Visions and Miracles which will be performed here in New Haven early in October, came into being and hooks into the bigger picture of you as an artist.

CT: The story to that was that I had written a string of pieces that were fairly gritty and dark. And somebody told me, “You’re gonna be happy when you’re ready to be happy.” He wasn’t directing it at me—he was just saying that this is the way things are—but I really liked that idea. I thought, “You know, I want to write a really up piece.” So I wrote three up movements for this string quartet I had been asked to write by Cassatt.

The ideas came from little fragments of poetry. One was from Nietzsche actually, who’s not necessarily the lightest person, but the phrase was “All joy wills eternity,” which I really liked. Mahler used that line, too, and thought that was an inspirational starting point for joy. Another one was something that Timothy Leary, the counterculture guru from the ’60s, Harvard professor run amok, had written on his vial of ashes when he died. He was cremated and he was sent up into outer space and dispersed among the stars, and on the vial, he had had written “peace, love, light, you, me, one,” but all one word. And that also struck me as a particularly great feeling for a starting point for a movement. And then the last one was from a medieval troubadour that said, “I add brilliance to the sun,” which also struck me as particularly fanciful. So all three of those movements started with the feeling of each of those phrases, and then spun out into the music. At the time, I was listening to Ensemble Alcatraz, which is a Bay Area early music ensemble, and they had released a recording of Spanish medieval music, The Cantigas de Santa Maria, that were like super fast twos and threes. I’m really averse to like the Greek, you know, dun- dun- dun- dun, dun- dun- dun- dun. I mean, that does nothing for me personally unless you totally speed it up. And then it becomes unbelievable, which is what these medieval Spanish realizations of that music were. They sounded brilliant. I picked up on that language of the really, really fast alternations of twos and threes that kept a constant surface and really up kind of feeling. And this piece came out of that.

MS: How does that process of creative thinking compare to what happens when you’re putting together a bigger work, such as a work for soloist and orchestra like your bassoon concerto?

CT: A lot of times, at least for me, it’s something that gets you up to an orbit of something and you figure out what it means later. So for instance, in that bassoon concerto, without going into gory detail, I wrote a solo kind of minute-plus cadenza, which is the way the piece starts, on a really bad day after quite a long, bad year. I was alone in a hotel room, and nobody knew where I was. And I just wrote the words, “alone, inward,” because that’s the way I felt, and then I started to write. What does that feel like? That’s all that it took to get the whole piece going. That one impetus to start was enough. It wasn’t about defining the whole piece by that, but it was just to get the first notes on the page, to understand how the music starts and where the beginning impulse is, and then to develop it from there. Sometimes when I explain the back story to my pieces, it sounds like that’s the thing. But that’s not the thing. That was the way that it was one night that started the piece, but it doesn’t mean that the rest of the piece goes that way, and actually it doesn’t. But there’s something to the starting moment that’s the spark that gets the piece to have a kind of identity.

MS: We started out this conversation talking about how the present would have looked to the Chris Theofanidis of the past. Looking back at that composer, is there anything you wish you could tell him, or that you tell your own students now as you guide them into their composing lives?

CT: Boy. When I was in my master’s program at Eastman, one of my kind of grunt jobs among many grunt jobs was bussing everybody around who was a visiting person there. One of them was Otto Luening, who at the time I think was 90-something. He had this big handlebar moustache, incredible guy. He got off the plane and he wanted to go straight to have a vodka with me. He was so interesting. He had taught at Eastman in the early 1920s. The first thing he said when he walked in is, “The carpets are still the same. They haven’t changed.” But he said something that I remember, which—because, I mean, he was involved in the invention of the tape recorder for god sakes, you know—he says, “The best advice I can give you Chris,”—and this was over the vodka, so I don’t know how much of it was the vodka talking and how much was real advice—but he said, “The thing that has allowed me to keep doing this is that all my friends dropped out of it. You realize how few composers there were when I was coming up? And most of them got discouraged at a certain point in their 20s or their 30s. They realized they weren’t going to have a stable financial situation for a long time. They changed professions. They got out. I stuck with it anyway, and I’m the last one standing.” And it is true, the first 20 years or so are pretty rough. You see your friends who have stable professions. They have children. It’s a little bit more unstable as an artist for longer. I mean, there’s no question, it can get there, but you have to create a community for yourself once you’re out of school. It doesn’t necessarily have to be all composers—probably shouldn’t be all composers—but it has to be something that will keep what you’re doing a vital experience for yourself. As long as you have something to say, you’ve got to try to say it. That’s the advice.