Tag: compositional intent

Evan Chambers: You Must Change Your Life

Conducted at the composer’s home in Ann Arbor, Michigan
November 2, 2012—12 p.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Molly Sheridan
Poster image by Myra Klarman
Transcribed by Julia Lu

In conversation, Evan Chambers conveys his ideas using words in a strikingly similar fashion to how he delivers them in music: honestly, intelligently, with neither fear of open emotion nor of making a sharper point than his laid-back demeanor might at first lead you to expect. As he speaks about his familial roots in folk music, his love of poetry, and the responsibility he feels as an artist to acknowledge broader social, political, and environmental challenges, a portrait of the composer emerges that reveals again how incompletely shorthand genre descriptors and professional biographies capture art and artist.

And so it was that we moved from the tag of “folk-inspired” composer to discussions of the brutal side of traditional music and the power it holds over audiences both native and foreign. A commission from the West Point Band became more complex once it was revealed that music that digs around in the messy pits of conflict and loss and death inspired both the request and the resulting piece. Chambers is a composer well versed in electronic music, yet a strong advocate for making a deeply human connection. He is a musician firmly rooted in his Midwestern community, but just as genuinely entrenched to society’s broader concerns. Through it all, he is listening and incorporating his experiences into his life and work. It leads him to quote Rilke:

There’s that poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” right, and the last line is, “You must change your life.”  So we have these aesthetic experiences, these moments of awareness, and even if we don’t know how, we have to change somehow and that imperative drives the process.  It’s an imperative—you have to do something with that, the rhetorical you has to do something with that.  I have to do something with that.  You have this tremendous enthusiasm to make something out of it, to express it somehow.

And so he has, that we might follow.



Molly Sheridan: I know that you tell a story about listening to The Thistle & Shamrock some years ago and undergoing something of a musical conversion experience. And I want you to tell that story again! It is a great entryway into some of the things you’ve done. But I’m also interested in what goes around that story.  Where were you in your music making before that point? Did this inspire a sudden sharp shift or were you already questioning some things and this was sort of a way towards an answer?

Evan Chambers:  I might start crying! [laughs] It was a really emotional experience. My parents were 1950s folk revivalists.  They weren’t professionals; they were just people who loved the music.  My dad played the banjo and the guitar, and he actually “collected” folk songs.  He had notebooks full of songs and all the old Sing Out! magazines.  So my earliest musical experiences were him banging on the guitar and singing with his head tilted back at the top of his lungs—really physically committed performances.  It was a hootenanny kind of atmosphere, people getting together and singing together, and those were the happiest times. When my dad was singing, the family was happy.  It was just this joyous thing in my childhood.  But he also was interested in classical music.  He loved opera, and he played the violin.  He would bang through the slow movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with a cigarette between two fingers on the bow, and he’d stop and smoke.  So I had these two kinds of things going on.

I started music late—I really got into it when I was a junior in high school and went completely gaga for classical music, just buried my head in the trough for many years. By about 1988 or ’89, I was in between degrees, living here in Ann Arbor, working at the original Borders store back before they went bankrupt. I worked on Christmas Eve, and I was driving to Cleveland to see my true love—who is now my wife—for Christmas.  They’d given us a little glass of champagne at Borders before we left, so I had a little happy feeling. I remember I was driving past Toledo, which doesn’t sound romantic but, you know, it’s Christmas Eve and the snow is falling and I’m free from work! I turned on the radio, and it was The Thistle & Shamrock, and there was this group called the Tannahill Weavers, a Scottish group, singing “Auld Lang Syne” in the melody they said was the original one that Bobby Burns intended.  It was like getting punched in the chest.  I just had to pull over—tears streaming, and all of that—because in that moment, I reconnected with some of the energy of that childhood experience.  I always tell my students, if you can find a way to put what you’re doing now together, or to bring it into sympathy with, synchrony with, your earliest musical experiences, then that releases a lot of energy because it’s like being in touch with your roots, honestly. I guess that’s a simple way to say it.

I wouldn’t say I made some kind of conscious decision to change direction. It was like a heart opening, honestly. I started to learn to play the fiddle, and I started working to find a way to integrate that kind of folk music, community music making and energy, into music that I was writing.  Which was a little bit hard at the time—I encountered some resistance.

MS:  I was going to say, these days that kind of thing might be quite accepted—not arbitrarily smashing genres into concert music in a fake, impersonal way, but actively mining all musical experience.  But I imagine that there might have been some push back at the time you were exploring this, either from people you were studying with or your colleagues.

EC:  Yeah, it’s hard to say sometimes exactly what that is.  As a student, I can say that a lot of us felt kind of trapped in the 1980s vocabulary.  There was a lot of octatonic music. I felt like, at the time, there were a lot of people forcing dissonance into what they were writing.  Nobody instructed us to do that. I was studying with Bill Albright, for example, and William Bolcom taught at my school, and those guys were shining examples of how to move between Boogie Woogie, ragtime, the popular music styles of the early 1900s, and contemporary classical tonal and rhythmic techniques.  But somehow the students weren’t getting the memo.  There was some peer pressure to be a certain way.  I’ve looked back on it and I’ve tried to analyze: Was it the teachers?  And I think it was more us; it was more the students than the faculty. We were repressing ourselves in some way.  But I was lucky that I had the two Bills—as I like to call them—because they were both very supportive. They helped me and encouraged me quietly, especially Bill Albright who I was studying with.  I brought him a string quartet that was all Irish jigs and reels, and he said, “Great! I’m happy about this!” I was a little nervous showing it to Gunther Schuller—who actually liked the piece, too, and programmed it at his festival in Sandpoint.  So I feel fortunate in that way, even though I personally had to struggle.

MS:  If it wasn’t coming from the top, so to speak, what was driving that pressure among the students? Why was that the vibe?

EC:  I don’t know. I had one teacher say, “What the fuck is this?  This is fucking Renaissance music.  Don’t do that.  Give me a real piece.”  So there was that.  I had some really important people in my life who I learned tremendous amounts from, but it was still hard. You have Bill Albright saying, “Good, I couldn’t be happier about this,” and yet somehow there’s still internal turbulence. I guess when you’re young and you’re still learning, you’re still forming not just what you can do technically, but also who you are, how you think about things.  You’re forming this worldview and this aesthetic.  It’s hard to figure out where your attention goes.  The negative inputs and the positive ones kind of vie for attention in a lot of ways.

MS: That “folk-inspired” influence, though, carries its own pressures and mischaracterizations. I think the impression might be that this is something that’s somehow quaint or cute, but in reality, of course, folk music can be quite raw and direct, and sometimes quite dark. The influence doesn’t necessarily equate with a watered-down cartoonish approximation of a genre overlaid on concert music.

EC: When I first started writing folk-influenced classical compositions, I worked to overcome the pervasive idea that folksongs were somehow quaint, naïve, or innocent. To me, they are instead powerful, sometimes gritty, bitter and ironic, full of the sadness and longing of life, and I always try to go beyond the texts and musical surfaces to translate a feeling for the expressive values of a participatory whole-body experience.

I have a student now, Tanner Porter, who is writing a setting of “Barbara Allen.” It was one of my father’s favorite songs, and might get dismissed as a polite old chestnut, but it tells a story that is full of hurt, suffering, unrequited love, illness, and death.  In the end even hard-hearted Barbara Allen realizes she can’t bear what she has done—a tragic cautionary tale that might serve to warn us about our own lack of compassion in this world.

It seems clear that at present we are at a very serious environmental, social, and economic crisis point, and for me it all boils down to a crisis of compassion. Things are too dire for us to just keep working to get ahead within the existing system—the existing system is literally killing the planet, and it’s our own hard-heartedness that leads us to tolerate war, homelessness, and the destruction of the living world. We need more of anything that can break through the silent acceptance of what amounts to a gradual apocalypse, that can break through our chauvinisms to instruct us about our real place in the world, that can help us wake up and open our hearts even a little bit. Folk music from our own culture has the potential to remind us about who we are and what truly matters in part because it can bypass our defenses with its familiarity and get straight into our bodies. And if one of the things music can teach us is how to move, then our encounters with traditional music from other cultures can teach us to move in a new way. Both offer us an experience of the transformation and reconnection that we so desperately need in our society.

MS:  That all said and appreciated, I don’t want to give the incorrect impression that your work sounds like you’re soundtracking a Civil War documentary. This is something bigger. The “folk music influence” is a neat biography tagline, but your catalog is of course much broader than that.

EC:  When I started out, it’s important for me to note that I was an unrepentant modernist.  I loved the avant-garde. I was ecstatic when I first heard Messiaen.  In high school, I drove myself downtown to the Dayton Public Library—which seemed like going to the moon, even though it was, you know, 20 minutes away—and I would go to the bin that had the Composers Recordings Incorporated recordings. They were records still. I would check out everything that they had. Then, the next week, I’d go back and get everything else.  It was just thrilling to find the experimentation with sound and the dissonance. There was a composer, Dane Rudhyar, who you don’t hear very much these days, but he had some string quartets with the early incarnation of Kronos that just set my hair standing straight up. That was really important to me.  So it’s true, even though I’m influenced by folk music, it’s more the energy almost than the sound, right? Like I talked about my dad—the physical commitment to sound, this kinesthetic UGGGHH of a moment, trying to get that into the performers’ bodies so that the audience can feel that release and that energy.

I’ve also been influenced by a lot of different kinds of music.  I was really involved in studying ethnomusicology as a graduate student, and my wife is an ethnomusicologist.  So, for example, she took me on a fieldwork trip to Albania shortly after the Communist government fell, back in the early ‘90s, and I had, again, these experiences that were just—I think we all have them, right?  I’m tempted to call them conversion experiences, but peak experiences, peak listening experiences where everything seems to drop away and you’re just left vibrating with the music.  In Albania, I had some experiences like that, so that I feel like it’s my responsibility almost to integrate them into my own singing because they’re so important to me as meaning events and not just as sonic events or cool licks to steal. So even when I’m writing a piece about polka, I figure I’m trying to get inside how it feels to be in it, not writing how it sounds to listen to it.  The same thing with folk music or Albanian music or Sufi Qawwali music—all of which I’ve tried to integrate into the way I sing.

MS:  How does that end up happening in real terms?  I’m asking you questions I know you might not be able to answer in words, but it kind of begs the question: you have an amazing musical experience.  It’s touched you; it’s become part of you.  You want to put that out there, not copy something else, so what really is happening?

EC:  Whoa. This gets into the most intimate, the most non-verbal…how do you synthesize an experience into your life?  How do you take an understanding that opens your heart and your mind and then integrate it into how you act every day?  We don’t know, but we do it. We don’t have a system for it, but we do it.  I mean, I guess honestly, the only thing I could say about that is to quote Rilke.  Saved by the bell! Saved by Rilke again.  There’s that poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” right, and the last line is, “You must change your life.”  So we have these aesthetic experiences, these moments of awareness, and even if we don’t know how, we have to change somehow and that imperative drives the process.  It’s an imperative—you have to do something with that, the rhetorical you has to do something with that.  I have to do something with that.  You have this tremendous enthusiasm to make something out of it, to express it somehow.

MS: There’s also a stream of electronic sound through some of your work, but is this a multi-stranded braid you’re developing through your work, or are these different boxes that you’re drawing out of but keeping distinct?

EC: It’s interesting. Sometimes I’ve been told it’s a good thing that my music doesn’t fit into one category, and sometimes I’ve been told it’s a bad thing.  I think it all sounds like me, honestly. Electronic music was one of the early thrills for me, too.  My parents had a reel-to-reel tape deck, and I “invented” tape deck echo.  I didn’t study it, I just learned that if you do this to this switch, and do this to this switch, and go Pakown, it goes Pakew…kew…kew…kew. That pure joy in sound was so important. Then, when I started studying electronic music, the kind of physical gesture that you can create when you don’t have to use just these muscles to make the music go into the medium you’re storing it in, really that was another thing that helped me release some energy into the music.  I have this idea that music can be kind of like psycho-spiritual Rolfing or deep tissue massage or yoga, where you get into people’s bodies.  If the music has these physical tensions and releases and pushes and pulls built into it, then you can, in a way, inflict those symptoms on the audience.  If you can cause tension and get into that place, you can also then release that for people.  So, electronic music had a real physicality about it that fits with that for me.  And I taught electronic music—I still do—so I’m around those sounds and that medium a lot and think in those terms.  But I’ve been doing it less and less actually in terms of my own composition in recent years.

MS:  It does seem to me in a sense though—and I’m curious what you would say to this—that there’s a kind of parallel between the folk music and the electronics. You’re getting off the page.  These genres seem like opposites on the surface, and yet to me there is an underlying parallel there.

EC:  Yeah, I think there is. Folk music influences the electronic components of my sound, and even my acoustic pieces are deeply influenced by electronic music.  I mean, I cut my orchestrational teeth in a tape studio, cutting tiny pieces of tape that are like five millimeters long to put on the beginning of a ding. So you really come to see how sound is put together, both in time and vertically in terms of timbre. But also, I guess I find that being able to put the physical energy into the taped music is very similar to the kind of physical commitment you can put into folk performance.  And I do want to bring that together in the middle.

MS:  I would also argue that electronics today are in some sense taking the place of what folk music offered, in terms of perhaps a lower bar to participation—the perception at least.

EC: But I think it’s important to remember that the technology, the way it is now, really puts lots and lots and lots of steps between you and the making of the sound.  That’s why I’m much more interested in the live performance, DJ thing where they’ve got record players to play and things to physically control. The sequencing stuff on a laptop—you can end up separating yourself from the physical performance so much that it sometimes loses that sense of every sound being crafted and touched by human hands.  That’s what I love about live music, and it can be a quality of electronic music, too, if you hand craft every note and shape every sound and every timbre.  Then it has this wonderful living feeling, but if you throw things onto a track and leave the same effects on the whole time, it tends to flatten out and be a kind of machine music that I can see the value in, but it’s not my style.

MS:  You yourself have been in the performer’s chair, so you have first-hand experience of delivering these kinds of physical performances. But when you’re at your writing desk, how much and in what ways does that experience filter into the music you write?

EC:  You know, you start out when you’re young, and honestly, for me, the thing that drove me was just that adolescent angst that builds up in your gut and has to get out.  So, the physicality of performance comes in—your hands have to make it, you have to almost squeeze that sound out of the instrument and push it out into the world. Composing is not just collaborating with an eventual performer.  You are the performer in that moment that you’re writing.  You’re thinking about the instrument.  You’re thinking about what position you’re putting the player in, often trying to maneuver them into uncomfortable positions actually, to, again, model a symptom for the audience, to create a pattern of tension and release in the people who are listening and attending to it.  So I don’t think about the music as subsisting in the notes on the page or some rarified autonomous object that is in the world, but not of the world.  To me, it’s not pure proportion or a kind of platonic ideal, the composition.  The composition is a recipe for action.  I’m very focused on the action part of it, so that is performance.  I’m composing that in, I hope.

MS:  I want to talk a little bit about place and your work. It’s not as if your career is limited to this lovely campus, but you have invested a lot of your energies here: first with school and later with teaching, lots of performances with ensembles in the region. Your work is played all over, of course, but there’s also a rootedness and a connection to this place that you’ve taken care to cultivate.

EC:  There’s this tremendous local food movement; we don’t want our food to come from far, far away and be factory made, or made by people we don’t know.  There’s something tremendously rich about knowing the person who grew your lettuce. And for me, art and music have a lot to do with the sense of place. I’ve thought about what it means to be a composer from the Midwest, who lives in the Midwest and has a great love of the Midwest. People driving on the Ohio Turnpike or something will say, “Oh, this drive is so boring.”  But you know, if you look out in the fields when their corn is up, you can see the rows of the corn strobing as you go by, you can see down each individual row.  But it’s more than just even being able to take pleasure in those small details of the world around you.  There’s a tone to the kind of beauty that I think really deeply informs, or I hope deeply informs, what I do with my music.  And I think there’s a value in being rooted in a place.  I ask my students sometimes, What are you going to do when the power grid goes down? I teach electronic music, so they’re working on their laptops, and everything’s electric, so I say, That’s great, but make sure you have something you can do when the power grid goes down.  Because when it does, every single one of us is going to be needed to bring a local community and a local sound and a local activity because we won’t have anything else.  I like going to other places, but I really believe in trying to do something for this place.  I’m writing pieces about this river, and this environment, and these trees. I mean, that’s where I am.  I’m here. I don’t feel like it’s healthy for me to chase after imaginary people and imaginary places, in a way.  I want to belong in this place.

MS:  In an interview you gave in 2005, you drew some lines between your music and poetry: that it wasn’t a straight literal narrative, but it also wasn’t completely without meaning, and you used the metaphor of it being poetry. But that’s all you really said about it, so I wondered if you’d elaborate a little bit further on that idea.

EC: I do think of my music as poetry. A lot.  I spend a lot of time reading poetry, I love poetry—some of my best friends are poets.  [laughs] I have a good friend named Keith Taylor and one of the first collaborations I did with a poet was an electronic setting of his poem “Upper Midwestern Apologia,” which speaks about how people from outside experience the white pines here as “dismal bushes wrapped in ice, and the rivers that we mythologize as creeks,” and how many people “try to love this place but leave bitter, partially broken by our endless gray.”  So even from the beginning of my mature work, I was thinking about being rooted in a sense of place by devoting so much time and energy to that particular piece. I may not be the one to speak about what the process of making poetry is, but to me, what I think about it is, you take experience and match it with language and distill, distill, distill, distill down to this core that has everything packed and encoded into it. It doesn’t explain everything.  It doesn’t necessarily tell a story—or maybe my favorite kind of poetry doesn’t—but when you read it, it opens up like a flower.  And everything is in there.  All these intense interrelationships of sound and meaning and association are all woven together in this small offering that—I don’t like the metaphor of unlocking—but that opens for you when you read it.  And it invites repeated encounters, too, because you hopefully put enough in there that it can sustain you.

MS:  That makes me think of the text from your piece The Old Burying Ground. That isn’t poetry, per se, but the way language is used, there’s some mystery left in it. You could really let it fly in your own head.

EC:  Yeah, The Old Burying Ground came out of another one of those really incredible “smack upside the head” kind of experiences. I was at the MacDowell Colony and I was “called out of my studio” to go hang out at the cemetery with a friend who was going to do rubbings for an installation project—any excuse to play hooky. So I went and ended up reading the tombstones. In this particular place in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, the stones were just absolutely riveting.  It’s kind of amazing to think of a tombstone as being a real grabber, but the man who was the longest serving pastor in American history there, Laban Ainsworth, just really put some heavy stuff on them. I’ve never seen a tombstone anywhere else that had an exclamation point, for example.  In order to read them, you have to lie on your stomach—you’re prone, the words are very small at the bottom where they put the poems.  The guy could write, and he had a message, and when you’re laying face down on someone else’s grave, stern exhortations about how short life is have an impact.  So, there was already poetry there at the heart of that—his poetry, although he’s not directly credited anywhere.  But I knew that I wanted to not make it about that particular place.  I knew that I wanted to make it about, well, about what’s really one of the noble truths about human life, which is that we die.  And there is suffering around that.  Our culture tries to ignore death. Thomas Merton says that by ignoring death, by denying death, American culture actually multiplies it.  In any case, we are, each of us, individually deeply in need of facing this truth about our lives.  So in that piece, I had to generalize things enough that it could be present and past, and specific and personal, and also about the human condition.  One of the vehicles for that was contemporary poetry.  So I have those very old poems from the tombstones, and then I asked friends and people whose work I really admire to write poetry to go in between those, to keep changing the reference and frame and simultaneously turn little lights on between the movements and also put it in a contemporary context.

MS:  In a sense, your work Headwaters is somewhat the inverse of that, a composition that began as a piece about water generally but then focused on a very specific body of water.

EC:  Yes, that’s a place one, too. We were asked to do a large scale, multi-media video/dance/music piece about water, just in general.  And our group got together and decided that we would focus on our river, the Huron River, which is really just down the hill from my house. I go to see it every day. We were working with an environmental scientist, who is also a painter, and we grabbed another environmental scientist to go up there. We went walking around the headwaters of the river and then went to some of the early parts of the streams.  So we were trying to bring together the environmental message, because when you think about your river, you have to start thinking about its health as a being thing, as a living presence in our world.  But you want to try to find a way to do stealth advocacy. If you put in a bunch of facts and figures about the river while the music’s going by and things like that, it just—[shakes head no]. So it was an evening-length work and what we settled on was trying to come up with a way to point, like the finger at the moon.  The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.  The video and the music about the river is not the river.  But the least we can do as artists is use our face time with the audience to point to the things that really matter.

I mean, we’re filming this just after one of the largest, most destructive storms [Hurricane Sandy] in the United States, and we’re living in a time when the environmental, social, and economic issues are so serious.  We’re at such a crisis that we’ve got to do something, even if we feel like it’s not enough.  So we treated this piece as a way to show the place and, in a way, educate [the audience] to love the river.  Because if you love the river, you’ve got to get right with the river.  If you love God, you got to get right with God.  If you love Allah, you got to get right, you know.  So that was the idea.  We tried to give people an aesthetic experience around the ideas of the health of the river, and the river itself, and then hope that they carry that out with them the rest of their lives. I wrote a song called “Where is the River,” and hopefully it’s catchy enough that they’ll leave thinking, “Hmm, where is the river?” Well, it’s everywhere.  It’s beneath my feet.  It’s in my veins.  The river literally flows through us.

MS:  Is this where your work typically comes from, a desire to communicate a kind of message that’s bigger than, or that at least reaches beyond, the notes on the page?  Do you ever sit down and write a piece of music purely with just aural inspiration, or are you usually starting with something more topical and then using music to talk about it?

EC:  It’s the absolute music and program music divide.  This gets to the notion of poetry again; that’s why I would classify myself as a poet-composer. I suppose I have written pieces of music that don’t try to message the way that you might put it.  But I write a lot of music where I’m trying to get something right; I’m trying to get at something.  There’s this idea that there’s something real, and then you put it to music. It’s not fair to music, because that means that music isn’t the real world, and the whole world is the real world.  But I do think of myself sometimes as a translator between experience and sound. I’m trying to put the physical experience of sound into some other kind of experience.

There’s a story behind how Outcry and Turning was born.  I could tell you that story.

MS:  Let’s talk.

EC:  Well, there’s this subcategory of works now where composers are all having to—at some point—write something about 9-11. My version of that is I was writing a piece for the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings—they’re members of the Detroit Symphony—and right in the middle of it, 9-11 happened and the piece just took this turn. At that time, I couldn’t turn it into a memorial kind of piece or anything, but I certainly had just wrenching feelings about it. I had to try to put that in somehow. I’d written several pieces that are related to Sufi Qawwali music and right after 9-11, the backlash against Middle Eastern people and the whole culture of Islam broadly defined across the whole globe was so huge.  So I decided to put a little prayer in this by making it a piece that’s overtly about Sufi music, which I’ve spent some time with but I’m no expert on.  It’s, again, one of those things that’s changed the way I sing and the way I experience music.

That piece got played in Chicago at a conference and there were some things in the program notes about this, and after the concert, a guy in a military uniform came up to me. I thought, oh god, here it comes.  I’m going to get it now—like I’m fraternizing with the enemy, and how could I do that. It turned out that that was just a pure spotlight on my chauvinisms and my prejudices, because the guy came up to me and said he wanted to talk to me about commissioning a piece.  Then we had this long discussion about the limits of military power in the 21st century.  He was a conductor of the USMA band—now they’re going by the West Point Band—and it ended up they played a large piece of mine called Polka Nation and they commissioned this piece, Outcry and Turning, which I wrote as the wars were beginning in Afghanistan and Iraq. I had to say something about this.  It was another one of those things where you could just see the death and destruction that were going to be visited on the world.  All of us have experienced the pain of grief and suffering, and we’ve all, on some level, felt that this cannot be—some loss or death or disaster—and we have to cry out.  So I ended up writing this piece about the wars, but also about our own individual losses and grief and suffering, for the USMA band.  They played it beautifully and they recorded it, and I then I revised the piece and we recorded it just this past week with the University of Michigan band.

MS:  Why the revision? A practical or artistic consideration?

EC:  Well, you can imagine, because it’s called Outcry and Turning, in the outcry sections of the piece especially I was going for something that really hurt: really dissonant, really packed orchestration, really irregular rhythms that lope constantly, push against the beat, and I think I overdid it a little bit.  The piece worked; I think it worked very well.  But I think it would only have worked for the highest level of professional players, and I wanted to try to make it a little more accessible to university bands.  So I had to make some adjustments in thickness and dissonance, so that it could sound more easily. I had lots of very close half-step dissonances in high trombones, for example.  I love that sound.  Just bzzzzzz. I stepped back from that a little bit and tried to make it a little easier to get into people’s bodies, so that you could hear where your part fit into the whole, and also feel where you sat on the beat a little more clearly without trying to change the way it felt for the performers and without changing the music too much.  So that’s the kind of adjustment I was making.

MS:  So to bring it back around to where we began, but having covered all the ground that we have now: There are the common shorthand phrases for your work, things such as that “folk-inspired composition” tag, but then you also have the official bio, which list awards and commissions that have been important, career highlights and such. Still, what words would you choose if these were not already the engrained ways we talk about composers? If you were simply free to express something about yourself and your work that is meaningful to you, what would it be that identifies you as an artist?

EC: I’ve been railing against composer bios for many, many years.  When I was a graduate student, for one of my “big” performances I wrote a bio that talked about, you know, that I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and that I had a dog named Socrates that I loved very, very much and that he had recently died. And I loved going for walks in the woods and spent a lot of time trying to notice things about trees and leaves. The professor said, “No, no, you can’t do that.  Come on, you won this award.  What else have you done?” I’ve been tilting at that windmill for a while. I have written my ideal bio.  I’ve also written what I call my anti-bio that I swear someday I’m going to publish. My colleague Paul Schoenfeld has done this.  He’s brave.  He put it up on the university website.  He and I were always joking that we were going to put our bad reviews in our composer bio and he has things up like, “An undeserved standing ovation”—The New York Times. I’m so proud of him.  So someday I’ll publish my own anti-bio on my blog or something.

But it gets back to our short life and our inevitable death.  The question that comes to the center is not what prizes did you win, but what do you want people to say about you when you’re dead—right after you’re dead, because after you’re dead for a while, we’re all going to be forgotten. What do you want your friends and loved ones and the people whose lives you have touched somehow to say?  And I think it would be something like, “I always tried to pour my heart out in every single piece.”

[long pause]

I think that would be enough.


Like most people who write music, I have invested a large portion of my life in learning the craft of composition. In order to create the best work possible, I have studied how different instruments produce noise and how their repertoire exploits those sounds; the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of works by a variety of musicians; and the influence of science, politics, and other arts on the voice of specific composers, among many other seemingly esoteric pursuits. Along the way, I’ve clued into many tricks of the trade, the sorts of sonic figures that inexorably elicit predetermined responses. Loud fast repeated notes with syncopated accents convey excitement while slowly evolving hushed harmonies suggest peaceful contemplation. Most composers can quickly describe several of these gestures along with pieces that exploit them to their utmost.

These stock figures became clichés because they work. Since we immediately recognize their efficacy, they tempt us to abscond with them and assimilate them into our own pieces. When we do this, they reward our efforts by evoking exactly the reactions that we intend, but when I’ve followed this path my resulting efforts have always felt less than adequate to me. These compositions objectively work, but to me they smack of plagiarism, feeling foreign to my personal artistic voice. And so I’ve tried to move away from the time-honored gestures towards more personal solutions.

Over the course of my creative career, I’ve discovered several individual artifices that are less widely shared but produce similar results. Certain performance techniques, harmonic progressions, and shifts in mood that define specific formal structures began to feel oddly detached to me, as if they were dropped in for effect from other works of mine instead of emanating from the heart of the composition itself. Other gestures—some birdcalls, other harmonic progressions and approaches to formal structure—seemed more essential to my personal voice even when they crop up in many of my pieces.

Recently, I’ve been trying to strip all the tricks out of my music. I’ve been attempting to lay bare the essence of my musical expression, to write exactly the sounds that need to be there without layering any of the personal or universal contrivances that I’ve often resorted to in moments of doubt. The resulting compositions feel much more personal to me, and also much more exposed.

Last weekend, I attended the premiere of a new work of mine for solo piano. In many ways, this piece represents the culmination of the first stage of this compositional direction: it obsesses over a single musical idea without resorting to any of my typical devices that assure listeners will find it interesting. It presents my basic ideas with all adornment removed, naked for everyone to hear.

I was shocked to find that I was more nervous than at any premiere in many years, even though I had worked with the pianist and knew that he would perform beautifully. My heart raced, my breathing grew shallow and fast, and afterwards I was a bit shaky for several hours. I attribute this to the vulnerability I felt in revealing the essence of my artistic thoughts, but I find it difficult to pinpoint from where this defenselessness emanated. Afterwards, I realized that my emotional state wasn’t affected by the positive or negative reactions of any individual (and I did sense strong responses along both tracks), nor from the collective audience. My fear seemed to arise from the thrill of danger itself, from the awareness that I was revealing aspects of myself that had previously remained hidden and was doing so in the most public way possible. It was like being unmasked.

In the end, I found this experience of artistic nakedness to be utterly exhilarating. I have never thought of myself as a thrill jockey, and yet I am very much looking forward to further adventures in this type of risk-seeking behavior.

An Experience Created by Rules

In The Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anna Anthropy defines a game as “an experience created by rules.” While the rules themselves can be simple, the interaction between them is generally more complex, and this is partly what makes games interesting. Anthropy uses the schoolyard game of tag as an example, which has an extremely simple set of rules and a huge range of possible situations not strictly dictated by the rules.

This got me thinking: By this broad definition, is a piece of music ever a game? Certainly some pieces of music seem to have game-like properties, proceeding according to an internal logic which could be expressed as rules. Phase shifting in minimalist music, in particular, has a similar relationship to simplicity and complexity, where you can understand the process and still be surprised by the musical results of that process.

Writing music, too, is often like a game. The exercise of four-part voice leading is certainly mediated by rules–or are they guidelines? Regardless, considered as a game, its reward structure seems to be broken, because you can follow all the rules and still generate a musically bland result. What makes a Bach chorale compelling seems to have an orthogonal relationship to the rules. Does this mean we’re missing some rules, playing the wrong game, or is it something mysteriously else that we should be considering?

Maybe writing music is more like simultaneously writing and playing a game: generating sets of rules, deciding if they are fun or not, accepting or rejecting them, and then starting over. When rules create beauty, you win!

What about listening to music? Some composers embed secret data in their musical materials, like the A-B-H-F motive hidden in Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. From a narrative gameplay point of view, solving this puzzle is extra satisfying because it contains an emotional revelation about the life of the composer (A.B.) and his semi-clandestine affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (H.F.). But this game, too, is kind of broken, since you’re unlikely to make this discovery from listening alone. It’s really only possible through research and score study, which isn’t accessible to most listeners. However, you can certainly enjoy listening to the Lyric Suite while blissfully unaware of these undercurrents, as generations did before Berg’s motivic agenda was revealed. So, there’s a kind of disconnect between music-as-music and music-as-game that seems unbridgeable.

Nonetheless, I think that certain aspects of my composing have been informed and enriched by my experience with games. One thing games excel at is exploring issues of choice or player agency. I think about listener agency a lot, and ways to give listeners multiple valid paths through a piece. This is hard, and I’m not sure it’s even something music is very good at! A great deal of music seems to be more cinematic or novelistic in its aims, subtly or overtly guiding you to particular emotional points of inflection, which might be roughly analogous to narrative peaks and valleys. I’m not knocking this approach at all–it works!–but I’m always looking for ways to make music a more ludic experience, where the listener is presented with choices. (And I’m interested in narratives, too, that have that ambiguity.)

The danger of this approach is that the result may come off as thematically confused or oversaturated. Games are always negotiating this trade-off. Some opt for a more cinematic experience, with a linearly constructed series of set pieces, while others are more like a sandbox where players are free to explore. But I find myself often dissatisfied with the pure sandbox experience; on some level, when engaging with a work of art I want to be guided by a strong authorial voice.

In music, counterpoint is the most obvious way to introduce multiple paths while maintaining that authorial control. But establishing equality between the voices in a contrapuntal texture is difficult; at any given time, one voice usually dominates. Textural or stylistic counterpoint, where two or more “complete” musical settings are simultaneously or subsequently juxtaposed, is another way to bring about a kind of ambiguity. It also introduces what I might call “counterpoint of meaning,” for lack of a better term. When Charles Ives’s Second Symphony quotes “America the Beautiful” in the midst of an otherwise unfamiliar musical landscape, are we meant to take it sincerely or with a dose of bitter irony?

This game, too, requires culturally transmitted information–we have to know the tune–but at least that knowledge is easier to come by.


I don’t feel like writing anything this week, much less this column. Last Monday, a very dear friend of mine was murdered while returning home from choir practice, and ever since then, everything just feels wrong.

Peter Marvit

Peter Marvit

I feel most sorry for those of you who never had the opportunity to meet Peter Marvit, because he was one of the very best people I have ever known. Equal parts compassionate, funny, and intellectual, Peter was loved by an incredible variety of people from all vocations and walks of life. His outfits alone—which were based around Hawaiian shirts with obliquely matched loud, wide, and short ties—literally brightened up every room he entered, but belied the incredible depth of empathy and intelligence that he brought to all of his conversations.

A scientist by vocation and a member of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, Peter was the best sort of music lover. He went to great lengths to seek out new experiences, and wanted to approach the most interesting art works on their own terms. No matter how obtuse and difficult the presentation, Peter was able to find the core values being expressed. I loved talking with him about his listening experiences because he generally would couch his opinions as the sorts of questions that would teach me to hear the music I love in new ways, and that often would drive me to reevaluate my own assumptions and biases. He also was the sort of friend who would trek from Baltimore to Philadelphia or New York to hear a premiere, where he would happily ensconce himself in the front row in order to concentrate deeply on the sounds with unwavering attention.

While I mainly want to hole up and to shut out the world until the pain subsides, I’ve been obliged to attend to those many aspects of my life that simply can’t wait. Classes need to be taught, meetings attended, and students advised, among the myriad other duties of my day job. In addition, I am finishing a piece that I must get to the player by the end of the month, and so I’ve found myself forced to sit down to face my own music.

I was quite surprised to discover that the only time that I’ve been at peace for the past week has been while composing. For me, this music that I’m writing appears to encompass the gamut of my emotions—the loss and also the fond memories of the friendship that was important enough to mourn the loss. At the moment, I’m finding that those things I am unable articulate in words can appear freely in the tones themselves. It’s possible that no one else will hear these sentiments, but the process of encoding them into this new work has begun my healing process.

Peter Marvit with Sparklers

At times, my conservatory classes have segued into discussions of why we pursue music at the highest level and how this activity fits into society as a whole. We innately grasp the power of art or we wouldn’t be there, and yet it can be surprisingly difficult to describe the vise-like grip in which music holds us. As I search for my own answer to these issues, I no longer feel as though I’m groping in the dark. If the act of creation can provide solace even in the face of a tragedy as immense as this one, then it truly is a powerful undertaking, one to be treasured, as essential as any other thing that provides sustenance.

Narrative Drive

A few months ago, I went to a concert to hear a piece by an old friend of mine. Although I hadn’t seen him in several years, our shared experiences from a summer music festival secured a bond that we happily renewed over music and drinks.

He reminded me of a dinner from our student days at which I had, according to him, pontificated at length about how I was drawn solely to music that told a story and that evinced a strong narrative drive. After vociferous protestations that he couldn’t possibly be talking about me, because I certainly would never have ruined a quiet repast with blathering about wonkish musical ideas, I finally accepted that his memory was probably accurate. I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past several months tracing the steps on this aesthetic journey because not only did I have no recollection of this conversation, but the views that I had espoused seem very different from my current predilections.

At the time, I was obsessed with the idea of music as conveying meaning. Although I understood that it’s impossible for absolute music to be universally denotative, I always undergirded my compositions with a hidden yet specific story. I hoped that my beginning with a theatrical element would allow individual listeners to experience the music as a drama. By refusing to reveal the generating narrative, I hoped that each person who heard the piece would find a distinct story within the musical details.

With each new piece, I attempted to create a beautiful Aristotelian arc that would also have a unique structure. Over time, I began to realize that the surface variations between pieces disguised an internal anatomy that was shared across my entire output. Meanwhile, I kept finding myself drawn to preexisting music that deviated from conventional compositional designs. I became fascinated with songs containing unusual codas that shift the mood in unexpected ways and might end up doubling the length of the song itself. I returned over and over again to other tunes quilted together from verses, choruses, and bridges that don’t seem related to each other. I began listening to pieces that change subtly over great spans of time, and compositions that vacillate unpredictably between quiet repose and horrific outpourings. These seemingly anomalous works led me to reconsider my definition of what constitutes good form.

As soon as I began to think about form beyond the traditional models, I found a teeming mass of great art created outside of these molds. These abnormalities date at least all the way back to The Odyssey, which describes most of Odysseus’s adventures as a tale within a tale sung by the hero himself, a character we don’t even meet until Book V (of XXIV). Eventually, I realized that aberrant structures are truly normative, that the standard forms exist mainly as theoretical constructs and are rarely evinced in interesting and successful works of art.

This realization allowed me to liberate myself from my erroneous belief as to what constitutes good storytelling. Instead of forcing my ideas to follow from exposition inexorably to dénouement, I began to permit myself to create individual models that allow the materials to express themselves more fully and freely. The music still tells a story, but the telling doesn’t always need to be linear. I might enjoy the feeling of inevitability as one idea flows into the other, but I no longer slavishly adhere to logical development as the only way to create narrative drive.

The Silent Treatment

Whole Rest

This is something that rarely occurs in my own music.

Though I consider myself to be a huge fan of John Cage and found Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s essay “Some Recent Silences” extremely thought provoking, there are very few rests in any of my own musical compositions. I still remember showing some relentless scores of mine to the late Dutch composer Peter Schat and his being shocked by the absence of pauses in them, more in a negative way than a positive way as far as I could tell.

Chalk it up to the fact that I grew up in midtown Manhattan. It’s long been called “the city that never sleeps,” and I hardly ever did soundly. To me, silences somehow seem unnatural since I so rarely have heard them. I also never really learned how to be quiet. As an elementary school student, I was frequently reprimanded by teachers because I was constantly talking. About a decade ago, I made some attempts at practicing meditation; I was ultimately unsuccessful. To this day, I find it very difficult to sit still and shut up.

Of course, the lesson of Cage’s silence is that the absence of planned sound is by no means silent. Kyle Gann’s seminal book on the landmark “silent” piece, 4’33”, is tellingly titled No Such Thing as Silence. And the same argument could be made for the Cage-foreshadowing “In futurum” from Erwin Schulhof’s absurdist 1919 Fünf Pittoresken (which consists exclusively of notated rests), the post-Cage conceptual compositions of Sergei Zagny (in which sounds are suggested to listeners even though none actually occur), and all the other repertoire Rutherford-Johnson unearthed in his fascinating overview of a whole century of silent compositions. Perhaps even the 20 minutes of complete silence that followed the 20 minutes of a single tone played by a 10-piece orchestra for French avant-garde artist Yves Klein’s Symphonie Monoton-Silence is ultimately not completely quiet either, even if total silence was apparently his intent. Klein described wanting to provide his listeners with “the possibility of true happiness” as a result of being released from the monotony. But the release from that sound was also not silence, since the absence of the sound somehow allowed it to reverberate inside people’s minds.

The above video footage shows a 2007 performance of Klein’s Symphonie Monoton-Silence at the Vienna Modern Art Museum. It lasts a mere ten minutes and is missing the blue paint drenched models who slithered across canvasses during the work’s 1960 premiere at the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain in Paris, but it should nevertheless give you the idea.
I’ve experienced that phenomenon a few times following performances of music that involve a great deal of stasis. One of my favorite musical memories is the seemingly more-than-a-minute long silence that occurred between the end of the New York premiere of David Lang’s The Passing Measures and the audience’s resounding applause. I’m actually not exactly sure how long that pause was (I did not time it), but the conductor clearly held out for as long as he possibly could and it was exhilarating. A similar state occurred at the conclusion of a performance I heard of La Monte Young’s Just Charles and Cello. The audience was instructed not to applaud after Charles Curtis’s final bow stroke but rather to exit the space quietly so that the music would remain somehow. They did and it did.

So while I have long had a great appreciation for these cadential silences, pauses within pieces of music have been a bit more elusive. I’ll often notate pitches for a longer time than they can be held comfortably, being perfectly fine with the inevitable silence that will be needed to take a breath in a performance but not wanting to proscribe precisely where that silence will begin. However, last week during one of my 6:00-8:00 a.m. composing sessions, the only thing I wound up composing that entire morning was a measure of silence. It might seem like a small accomplishment, but for me it was probably one of the most difficult measures I’ve ever written.