Tag: compositional process

History Of The World

The internet is full of articles that deal with contemporary composition in a very broad and abstract way. My articles for NewMusicBox are no exception: while I’ve talked about some specific works, it’s always been in service of more general points about borrowed material, relevance, and the politics of cross-cultural influence. So for the last article in this series, I’d like to zoom in and talk about how these issues played out in one of my own pieces.

I wrote World about a year and a half ago for the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players. I’d heard great things about Stony Brook’s piano and percussion studios, so I took the opportunity to write for the now fairly standard instrumentation of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. I knew I wanted to focus on the marimba—an instrument that has always struck me as somehow ancient and futuristic at the same time. And since almost everything I write has to do with cultural symbolism in one way or another, I started by asking: What does the marimba signify in American culture?

If you’re the kind of person who likes listening to a piece before you read about it, now would be a good time:

The first associations that came to mind were minimalism and TV news themes. I’ve thought for a while that there was a secret connection between the two. In particular, there’s one passage in Music for 18 Musicians that sounds remarkably like news music.

There’s also the 1991 theme for WABC 7 Eyewitness News, the opening of which wouldn’t sound out of place in a minimalist piece from the late 70s or early 80s.

(I assume that this connection is partially the result of Steve Reich’s widespread influence outside the new-music world—but I also have a theory that the presence of syncopated repeated-note figures in news themes originated as an imitation of a telegraph machine transmitting Morse code.) So World starts off with a passage that’s meant to sound like the ten o’clock news if it had been written by Reich circa Tehillim, with a little help from Bartók:

In TV news themes, the mallet percussion is often synthesized, which gave me the idea of splitting the ensemble into “real” and “artificial” sides: marimba and piano vs. electronic mallet percussion and synth keyboard. But the next association that came to mind landed me right in the political quagmire I talked about in my last article: both wooden percussion instruments and electronic imitations of them are associated with 1980s pop exoticism. The most iconic example is probably “Africa” by Toto—but you see the same thing in “It’s Nearly Africa” by XTC, “The Sheltering Sky” by King Crimson, “Listening Wind” by Talking Heads, “Mulu the Rain Forest” by Thomas Dolby, and “The Dreaming” by Kate Bush. These songs depict a variety of different cultures, and their attitudes range from Talking Heads’ anti-colonialist provocation to XTC’s blunt primitivism, but they all involve American or British musicians using a particular set of timbres as a symbol of far-off lands.

The thing is, I actually find some of these songs quite evocative. “Africa” in particular has been growing on me steadily over the years, for reasons I can’t quite explain (though it might have something to do with the prominent iii chord in the opening riff). Of course, that’s easy for me to say: it’s not my continent being exoticized. But I think it’s more complicated than that, because there’s quite a bit of art that I like even though it treats people like me pretty badly. I loved Infinite Jest, for example, despite a handful of passages that use just about every transphobic trope around as a comedic device. And I’m a fan of horror director Dario Argento despite the undercurrent of misogyny running through his work. In fact, what I like about the “world music” trope in 80s pop music is very similar to what I like about Argento’s movies: it’s all about the lush, enveloping atmosphere. (In the former case, it’s probably also because these sounds were constantly in the background during my early childhood. In fact, one of my first musical memories is an ad for Whatchamacallit candy bars that draws on a similar sound palette.)

I’ve also noticed that a lot of people dismiss this kind of faux world music not on the grounds that it stereotypes or exoticizes people, but on the grounds that it’s “cheesy.” In my experience, that judgment is almost never backed up with any kind of rational critique; usually it means “it’s considered uncool to admit to liking this.” So when I hear something dismissed in that way, I’m immediately drawn to it, both because I don’t like aesthetic prejudice, and also because things that are deemed “cheesy” can easily take on a surreal, alarming or even frightening quality. You can see this phenomenon—which I’ve sometimes referred to by saying that “cheesiness is the new dissonance”—at work in a lot of David Lynch’s films.

So here was this “cheesy” music that was conceptually related to my plan for the piece. I wanted to put it into a new context that would allows its merits, including its potential for strangeness, to be heard more clearly. (Some people might see this as trying to “improve” pop-cultural materials by putting them in a so-called “high-art” context, but I actually think of it more as trying to “improve” contemporary classical music, which could use a corrective to its often overbearing seriousness and self-importance.) The question was: could I create that lush world-music atmosphere without drawing on any actual non-Western cultures? Could I throw out the stereotypical bathwater while keeping the evocative baby?

In some ways it was easy; I could use the sounds of birds and water, long sustained synth pads, quartal harmonies, and minor triads in a major-mode context. If that sounds like it’s in bad taste, great! And how to frame the passage so that it might seduce people who would normally be skeptical of these kinds of sounds? Save it for later in the piece, and introduce its motivic material and aspects of its sound-world first, so that when it arrives, it seems like a revelation of something that was just under the surface the whole time: a door opening into the middle of a rainforest.

But something was still missing.

Now, a brief digression. Around the same time that I was writing World, I was thinking about how often I’d been hearing cut-up and pitch-shifted vocal samples in contemporary pop, rock, and electronica. The most striking example is the one that Skrillex gradually builds over the course of his song “Summit”—an entire pop melody constructed out of individually sampled vowels.

Others include Tune-Yards’ “Bizness”, Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)”, and Gotye’s “State of the Art”. As I’ve said, I’m intrigued when a single idea shows up in a variety of different contexts. But wasn’t obvious, at least at first, that this had anything to do with my plans for World.
What put all the pieces together was Deep Forest’s “Sweet Lullaby.”

If you’re not familiar with them, Deep Forest are a French “ethnic electronica” duo, and their work is especially problematic: they’ve been accused of extensively sampling traditional music from around the world without permission and sometimes without even crediting the original performers, and they’ve made quite a bit of money in the process. They also have a habit of talking about people in developing countries in a patronizing way: “Somewhere, deep in the jungle, are living some little men and women. They are our past. And maybe—maybe they are our future.” “Sweet Lullaby” doesn’t include that kind of commentary, but it is based on a recording of a traditional Baegu song from the Solomon Islands, which they used without the permission of either the woman who sang it or the ethnomusicologist who recorded it.

And yet here too, I find the music strangely haunting. And while I was trying to figure out why, I suddenly realized that listening to electronically cut-up syllables is a lot like listening to a song in a language you don’t speak—which meant that I could create my imaginary foreign culture by taking a page from Skrillex and building a melody out of pitch-shifted vocal samples in the climactic section of World. Not only that, but the artificiality of the cut-up technique would enhance the surreal quality already latently present in the “cheesiness” of the style.

And then I realized something else: several of the songs that had gotten me thinking about cut-up vocals were related to the ideas that I had associated with marimbas in the first place. “Summit” relates to minimalism through its repetition-based syntax, and, less directly, through the long history of connections between Steve Reich and electronic dance music, including the Reich Remixed album and the sample of Electric Counterpoint in The Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds”. And Tune-Yards is another politically complicated case of a white American musician being heavily influenced by African music—in this case, Congolese pop music. In other words, everything is connected:
World Chart
When I talked about complex tangles of interconnections between different artistic streams, this was the kind of thing I had in mind. So what does my attempt to translate that tangle into an actual piece of music sound like? Hear for yourself:

Troy Herion: Sonic Imaging

The concluding work on coLABoratory, the American Composers Orchestra’s April 5 Zankel Hall concert, was an extremely effective symbiosis of music and film called New York: A City Symphony by Troy Herion. Throughout its roughly fifteen-minute duration, audience members occasionally gasped or laughed—not a frequent occurrence at a performance of contemporary classical music. I know I was at the edge of my seat for most of it. And at the end, the audience gave the most resounding applause that I had ever witnessed following an ACO performance. So was that reaction due to the music, or was it because they were watching a movie? Ultimately, it was a little bit of both.

Admittedly, it is not out of the ordinary for films to make us laugh or cry or to keep us completely riveted as we anticipate what will happen next. But often part of what makes the cinematic experience so effective is the musical soundtrack that accompanies the visual images we are watching on the screen. The most celebrated motion picture directors were extremely aware of this and chose the composers they worked with very carefully—think Eisenstein and Prokofiev, Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, or Federico Fellini and Nino Rota. In more recent times, it would be difficult to imagine Stephen Spielberg’s adventures being as quite as epic without John Williams’s exultant orchestrations or David Lynch’s narratives being nearly as creepy without Angelo Badalamenti’s deceptively serene harmonies. Peter Greenaway famously cut his films to the music that Michael Nyman wrote for them and, in that reversal of the usual process, further solidified the painterly quality of his work. Directors from silent era icon Charlie Chaplin to horror filmmaker John Carpenter occasionally created their own music for their films, further heightening how crucial the sonic element was to their particular cinematic visions, and French nouvelle vague pioneer Jean-Luc Godard’s approach to sound in his films has been so idiosyncratic that he has been frequently dubbed a composer in his own right as well.
Troy Herion, however, approaches this creative fusion from the other direction. When we visited him in his Brooklyn apartment, a pair of vintage keyboards immediately caught my attention as did piles of CDs. Other than an extremely well-crafted table, a large provocative painting on the wall, and an art object that was a cross between a camera and a can of soda (a gift from a friend), there was little evidence that this was the pad of someone who made films in addition to making music. Largely self-taught as a filmmaker but heavily trained as a composer (he has an MFA from Princeton and is currently enrolled in the Ph.D. program there), Herion’s interest in making movies grew directly out of making music. It was a way to further extend the possibilities of what music can be:

I definitely think of myself as a composer first. I’m a composer who works with sounds and images. I’m learning the techniques of a filmmaker, but I work 95% with the instincts of a composer….I start with the musical impulse and everything else comes from that, even though they end up affecting one another. If I have a musical impulse that makes me think of an image, then I capture that image and it’s different from what my imagination was. So the real image will then change the music that I originally thought of and it becomes this feedback loop….By doing it myself, things stay in this intuitive state….But I think that music can be really anything. It’s an attention to a certain type of balance, a certain type of consonance and dissonance of material….Anything can be a musical appreciation; it’s how we direct our attention.

The first large-scale manifestation of Herion’s concept of “visual music” is his Baroque Suite, in which a group of dancers filmed in a series of tableaux that evoke Baroque-style paintings is fused with similarly Baroque-inspired music, albeit scored for a band including synths, electric guitar, and drum kit. As a result, although its five movements sport such period titles as “sarabande” and “gavotte” and were derived from these centuries-old dances, the work feels very contemporary, particularly in its sonic kinship to neo-prog rock. A signature device in Herion’s musical language that comes directly from his immersion into filmmaking is to subvert expectations by playing with people’s familiarity with various musical genres.

One of the things I ask myself—I’m critiquing my work as I go forward—is, “Do I care what happens next?” Even though I don’t know what happens next yet. This is something that I think that makes syntax very important. If you’re working in a style, you have an expectation of what will happen next. But if you don’t have any syntax from a previous style that people have already become accustomed to—Baroque music or classical music or rock music or whatever it is you are using—you have to generate your own, generate some sort of momentum so people can predict what’s going to happen next and then you can divert or fulfill that….I’m influenced by cliché almost. I look for opportunities to set up a cliché on purpose. I’ll try to make something almost boring. Boring is when you know what’s going to happen next but it takes too long to get there. I try to find that point right before you tune out, but you have an extremely strong projection of what’s going to happen next. At that point I feel like I have a common experience with the audience, and that’s when I like to twist it. And I think that resembles a joke, but it’s really something that holds your attention.

Despite Herion thinking of himself as a composer who makes films, some of his recent films have featured the music of other composers. He and his girlfriend Elan Bogarin fashioned what could best be described as a music video around the pianist Michael Mizrahi’s recording of Marc Dancigers’s The Bright Motion. The Dark City, a poignant rendering of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (also created in collaboration with Bogarin and which was featured in The New York Times’s Metropolitan Diary), used Franz Schubert’s music.

“I’m interested in advocating for music,” Herion explains. “It was really exciting for me to take Marc Dancigers’s music and Michael Mizrahi’s playing and create a film around that that was interpreted by a musician and composer—I felt it was an analysis of the music visually. While I didn’t generate the music, I felt that I was very close to the music and I put on my composer hat [to think] about the deeper meaning of phrases. Those are the details that are often not prioritized by people who are just filmmakers and not musicians.”

New York: A City Symphony is clearly the most ambitious synthesis of his musical and cinematic ideas thus far. For him, the visual and sonic elements form a seamless whole and are really not intended to be experienced independently. Even his use of the term “symphony” is multidisciplinary. Though the term carries significant weight in music history and Herion’s symphony calls to mind such elaborate programmatic works as Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique or—closer to our own time and place—Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony, Herion is also very mindful of the tradition of “city symphonies” made by filmmakers around the world since the 1920s:

Using a term like symphony I realize is a loaded term. It means a lot of things in the musical world and I sacrificed a little bit of what it means in the music world for what it means in the cinematic world. A city symphony is a whole genre of filmmaking. Why did filmmakers in the 1920s call their films symphonies? Was it for the epic quality of their films, because they were associating that with the term symphony, or was it because they were trying to conjure a musical interpretation?

The other tradition that Herion had to make peace with was New York City itself. Originally from Philadelphia, he’s only been living here for the past three years. At first, being a relatively recent transplant made conveying New York City seem too daunting a task, but eventually his enthusiasm for his adopted home took over and it shows. New York: A City Symphony captures simultaneously the overwhelming grandeur and non-stop energy of this town in ways that only a handful of other pieces of music do—scores by Gershwin and Bernstein, perhaps, or Charles Ives’s Central Park in the Dark.

“I was nervous when I was making the piece,” Herion confesses. “I’d go back between being very confident—that’s a really great shot, I nailed it—and then another part of me would be like, ‘How dare I comment on that! I’ve only been in New York for three years; I don’t have enough New York cred to get into the dirt here.’ But there is a whole culture of New York which is immigrants. Everybody’s an immigrant to some extent. So I focused on the idea that anyone is a New Yorker as soon as they get here. Nobody cares how long you’ve been here. If you’re taking up space, you’re a New Yorker almost. And the other thing I tried to focus on was how impressive New York is when you haven’t lived here so long that it starts to melt into the common experience. It’s spectacular to your senses—the architecture, the sounds, the activity; it’s almost maddening if you pay too much attention to it, so it’s in our interests to tune it out a bit. But I tried to say, ‘Let me keep this heightened awareness for as long as possible.’”

That heightened awareness of visual images as well as sound and how these two sets of sensory information can feed off each other makes Troy Herion’s creations some of the most interesting “music” I’ve heard (and seen) in quite some time.

Advocacy and Communication

I had something of an epiphany about how the various parts of my life relate to each other last week when I gave a presentation both about my own music and my writings and talks concerning the music of others for the composition seminar at Yale University. The more I’ve thought about that epiphany, the more I’ve wondered if it has larger implications for how artistic experiences are created and communicated to others.

As a writer and speaker about music, I have pretty firmly established my working methods as being advocatorial rather than critical. I’ve long believed that my own opinion about a piece of music (or anyone else’s opinion for that matter) is far less important than the piece of music itself and the person/people who created it. I tend to distrust the received wisdom culled from arbiters of taste (self-appointed or otherwise) only slightly less than my own personal taste which can all too often get in the way of experiencing the ideas of another creator on his or her own terms. So I’ve endeavored whenever I write or talk about something, or whenever I talk to someone about his or her work, to try to describe the work rather than to evaluate it and, in conversations, give the creator the opportunity to speak on the work’s behalf.

This kind of openness might perhaps seem antithetical to the process of composing music which is, after all, a sharing of one’s own personal musical aesthetics with the world. Undeniably there are specific musical ingredients that I feel pretty passionate about and which I therefore explore quite a bit in my own music—microtonal intervals, repetition (whether actual or perceived), vocal melodies that are based specifically on the pronunciation and meanings of the words sung, permutational patterning (whether based on themes, scales, or tone rows), oddball rhythms (particularly quintuple and septimal time), metric modulation, and even occasional indeterminacy. At the same time, though there’s a lot of theory behind much of what I compose, I try my best to always make whatever technique or process I explore clearly audible.
At Yale last week, a student asked why it was so important to me that my music communicate so directly even though it sometimes incorporates somewhat esoteric techniques and processes. And then it dawned on me: when I write about other people’s music, my goal is to advocate for their music; when I write my own music, my goal is to advocate for whatever techniques I’m exploring. When I set texts, my goal is to advocate for those words. For me, it’s actually all the same thing. The more music I hear by others, the more ideas I’m inspired to pursue on my own and the more I pursue certain of those ideas the more I want to ask others about them. Isn’t this what we all do, either as creators of or respondents to artistic experiences? Everything emanates from listening.

Then on the train ride back from New Haven, I started reading New Zealand musicologist Christopher Small’s seminal 1998 book Musicking, which is a scathing attack on how orchestral music is performed and listened to. Though Musicking had been on my reading list long before Small’s death in September 2011, I was not quite prepared for the book’s intensity, especially after a wonderful day at Yale that helped me clarify my approach to music. Here’s a sample of Small’s argument:

“What for members of the audience may at its best be a transcendental experience of communication with a great musical mind, for the orchestra members may be just another evening’s work and even, for some, a time of boredom and frustration. Whatever the event may be celebrating, it does not seem to be unity, unanimity or intimacy but rather the separation of those who produce from those who consume…”

Earlier in the book he decries concert hall construction that ensures a separation between performers and audience and a seating arrangement that makes it difficult for attendees to do anything else besides merely listen to the music. Though I was somewhat baffled by the first concerts I attended back in my early teens, I very soon grew to love how the format allowed for a really deep absorption of sonic information that was not constantly interrupted—either by someone asking you to buy a drink or other attendees loudly having a conversation which makes it extraordinarily difficult and at times impossible to fully process the music being performed.

I have not yet finished Musicking and will probably have more to say about it. I’m now up to the chapter titled “Summoning Up the Dead Composer” which I’m sure will be a doozy. As a composer and an advocate for the music of other composers, primarily those who are still alive, I have quite a few issues with the culture of orchestral music concerts which are all too rarely concern themselves with the music of the here and now. That said, I wouldn’t want orchestras and large concert halls to go away—quite the opposite. I want them to let more of us in!

Small was hardly the first writer to make this analogy, yet I find it particularly troubling that someone so attuned to the importance of music in human society (as he proved himself to be in his first chapter) would come to the conclusion that unimpeded listening is a form of submission that is ultimately bad for people. A similar argument could be made for us not looking at paintings or reading books (including his). Ultimately, taken to its logical conclusion, such an argument would have us never pay full attention to anyone else. I fear all too many people are encouraged not to pay sufficient attention to others these days which has resulted in a world where political discourse is often reduced to binary echo chambers.

On Saturday afternoon, however, I found a pleasant refutation of experiential immersion as subjugation during an exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Art and Design (MAD), a place I had never before visited. What got me to finally attend was an exhibit devoted to perfume. (Readers might recall how my attending a performance of the Scent-Opera—a collaboration between composers Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson, “librettist” Stewart Matthew, and perfumer Christophe Laudamiel—triggered a summer-long exploration of perfume that led me to think about music somewhat differently.) MAD’s presentation, which unfortunately closed on Sunday, might offer the next step toward refining that line of thinking.

MAD Perfume Exhibition

Is sticking your head inside one of these indentations to experience a perfume an act of discovery or submission?

The exhibition consisted primarily of an empty wall with twelve indentations for visitors to stick their heads in to smell twelve specific perfumes created between the years 1889 and 2010. A brief text about each of the perfumes was projected onto the empty wall but only for short periods of time. I found it impossible to read each of the blurbs in only one go and had to wait for them to re-appear. Similarly, an introductory text appeared and then disappeared on the floor. (A side room offered a monitor displaying video interviews with the perfumers, as well as vats of each of the twelve perfumes on display in the main exhibition; visitors were allowed to dunk paper into the vats in order to smell the perfumes for a more extended duration, though even when smeared on paper the perfume will fade.) By turning the process of reading the texts about the perfumes into an experience as fleeting as smelling them, MAD created a remarkably apt way of describing the ephemerality and elusiveness of olfactory perception. Of course, music is as ephemeral and elusive, perhaps even more so in a live performance which you can’t even stick your head into again to rehear.

MAD Perfume Exhibition 2

Even if you save the paper on which you were allowed to blot drops of perfume, they will eventually lose their scent.

During the hour I was at the exhibition, I witnessed people of all ages willingly sticking their heads into those indentations with curiosity and delight, though it was an even more submissive act than sitting in a concert hall. Then again, it was very instructive to watch and listen to the videos and hear perfumer Ralf Schweiger enthuse about the aroma of sloths, reveling in how they smell like hair and dirt, only then to confess that much as he likes their fragrance, including it in a perfume is problematic. As he opined, “You can’t push the envelope too much because people won’t like it.”

Again I was reminded of all the sounds we love as composers and how we attempt to include them in our music either fully conscious of or completely oblivious to how they will be perceived by others, depending on our aesthetic inclinations.

Attention to Detail


I’m sure the trippy psychedelia resulting from the reflections of the Christmas lights the Law and Order crew installed in one of my windows was not the effect they were going for, but I enjoyed seeing it when I returned home in the evening.

In the this-is-so-completely-random-but-is-yet-another-example-of-how-weird-my-life-is department, last week Universal Network Television LLC paid me $200 so they could install Christmas lights in the windows of my apartment. An episode of Law and Order Special Victims Unit was being filmed outside the building where I live and the production crew wanted to plant various visible cues everywhere to suggest the holiday season. I normally never decorate at home, but my inner bah-humbug is easily assuaged by a monetary payoff and admittedly the cash is particularly handy this time of year. Still, I’m amazed at this level of detail and the amount of care that went into something that will probably only appear on screen for a very short amount of time. They actually started setting up shop for the shoot, which took place all day Thursday, on Monday, making sure that cars would not be parked there on the day they were shooting, making various cosmetic alterations to my building to make it look like a housing project instead of a co-op, etc.


By affixing a sign by the entrance of the co-op apartment building I live in, the Law and Order production crew transformed it into a housing project.

I’ve long been intrigued by Orson Welles’s obsession with minutiae during the filming of his second motion picture The Magnificent Ambersons from 1942—designing a set that included a house with walls that could be rolled back in order to shoot continuous takes and, my all-time favorite, constructing an entire block of buildings which only appears in the film reflected through the windows of buildings across the street. Welles’s over-the-top approach and way-over-budget production costs wound up getting him sacked by the film’s producers before the film was completed; they wrestled control from him and ultimately completed it themselves. The lesson I’ve always taken away from this cautionary tale from the annals of Hollywood lore—as well as from the similar story of Brian Wilson’s inability to complete The Beach Boys’ 1967 album SMiLE—is to work within a reasonable set of limits and to know when to let something go.

In my own music I’ve long been fixated with various issues that go beyond what most people consider reasonable limits—explorations of microtonal tunings, unusual metrical configurations and tempo transformations, non-standard instrumentation, etc.—and have also had problems with letting certain details go. For me, the details are sometimes the most interesting part of the process, even if they don’t make the least bit of difference to most listeners. But it’s not so much that I’m interested in creating stuff that most people can’t hear. Rather, making sure all the elements fit seamlessly together is extraordinarily pleasurable, akin to the delight of completing an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, solving a Rubik’s Cube, or (as I can only imagine since I’m terrified of needles) knitting a scarf or a sweater. Coming to the conclusion of such a process, when everything seems to be all lined up correctly, is somehow its own satisfaction. For me, hearing a performance that captures significantly more than just a fleeting essence of the processes I used in the creation of the music is the icing on the cake.

Somehow seeing the depth of care that the crew for Law and Order put into making sure everything was just right made me reconsider the caution I had internalized from the Welles and Wilson sagas. I seriously wonder how many people watching that television episode will notice the Christmas lights in my window, but it’s beside the point. Having them there presumably makes for a more complete visual narrative. And the same is true for music that is crammed full of specificities but whose universal perceptibility is doubtful. You may not be able to hear all of what’s in there, but you can intuit that there is some kind of carefully considered manipulation of sonic materials going on. One of the poems by Stephen Crane that I set in the song cycle I recently completed contains the line, “nine and ninety nine lie.” For my realization of that, I included a progression of 108 deceptive cadences. A series of metric modulations constantly changes the precise tempo indicated by a quarter note, but it all stems from a basic quarter note value of 108. For another poem which attempts to define truth, A = 440 (which is regarded by most musicians as the absolute truth but wasn’t always so), is sung only once, when truth is apparently clear. I know that these are things that few people, if any, will hear or even care about, but including them in the piece led me down compositional paths that I think ultimately served the poems appropriately and led to what I believe or at least hope is effective music that transcends the methods used to construct it.

Similarly, those Christmas lights in my window, while undoubtedly not the key to solving whatever mystery plot unfolded in the episode of Law and Order filmed outside my apartment building, were significant enough to the creators of the show that they spent days arranging for them to be installed and paid me a couple of hundred bucks to boot. Now if I could only get commensurate remuneration for every one of my metric modulations.


And wouldn’t it be nice if cars were always moved an appropriate distance away from wherever our music was being performed.


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.

Finished Business?

For the past approximately nine months, the main compositional focus of my life has been a song cycle based on the poetry of Stephen Crane. A 19th-century American author who died at the age of 28, he is known mostly for his 1895 Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage. Some adventurous readers have additionally tackled Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, an 1893 novel about life in the slums of New York City. While both of those novels are literary landmarks for their naturalistic approach, Crane’s poems (which he preferred to call “lines”) are deeply surreal, aphoristic, and at times border on inscrutability. Rhymeless and often only a sentence or two (when they were first published they were typeset in all capital letters), most of them are extremely contemporary sounding, so it did not seem a terrible anachronism for me to want to set them to music in the 21st century.


The final bar line in a piece of music is rarely the last thing I write.

I first had the idea for setting his poetry in early December, about a month after learning I had received a commission to write a song cycle from the ASCAP Foundation Charles Kingsford Fund. I spent the next couple of months scouring through Crane’s entire poetic output trying to figure out which ones would work set to music (particularly music I would want to write), how many I should ultimately choose, and then how the poems I chose would fit together to form a whole. To get myself further into Crane’s head, I also re-read both Red Badge and Maggie. I did not start composing a single note of music until March 25, at which point I had already identified the 12 poems I wanted to include in the cycle, as well as their order. While I frequently will create a structural framework in which to work and then start composing actual music somewhere in the middle, for this project I actually began at the beginning and pretty much completed setting the first poem for the cycle that day. But then I jumped to the fifth poem and, shortly thereafter, to the twelfth and very last song in the cycle. For the most part, all of the subsequent songs were created between the hours of 6 a.m. and 8 a.m.—the daily regimen I’ve put myself on to work on composition every day—although ideas sometimes came to me at other hours and I spent a few afternoons and evening testing things out on the piano. (For the sake of neighborliness, I opted against banging on a piano before sunrise.) Throughout the process, my original order for the twelve poems remained intact with only one switch. (The setting of the fifth poem inspired an idea for the setting of poems five through eight, but as they got fleshed out it made more sense to swap the order of six and seven.) Anyway, by last week eleven of the twelve songs were done, and late on Saturday afternoon I completed the remaining one, which is actually the ninth in the sequence.

I’ve recounted all this, including more details of the process than you perhaps need to know, because since Saturday afternoon I’ve been ruminating on what it means to complete a musical composition. Although all of the songs are done, in that I have composed them all and have engraved them all, I have yet to play through them all (physically singing and playing the piano or even via the MIDI protocols on my computer) for myself, let alone other people, and have not even printed them all out on paper. I have yet to present the score to the performers and work through all the minutiae of the piece; undoubtedly there will be a few changes here and there, and perhaps there are even some misprints in what I wrote. So is the piece actually done? And did I start composing it on March 25 or months before when I started compiling the texts? If I keep revising it up until the premiere (unlikely, but who knows), will it not be complete until the premiere? Some might argue (along the lines of that tree falling in the forest) that until other people hear it, it doesn’t really exist. Even in the extremely unlikely event that it was someday performed at Madison Square Garden, it would only reach a finite number of people unless it were also recorded and/or made available online. When should something enter history? And if by some unfortunate circumstance it never gets recorded and is not heard again after a poorly attended premiere, does it even qualify for becoming a part of history?

I ask these questions because musicologists get really obsessed about when things were written, as if that’s the only date that counts. Admittedly, I do, too—I keep extensive lists of when various of compositions were written as a way to remind myself that a clear stylistic zeitgeist is as much a panacea for anytime in the past as it is for the present. But time can be elusive. The debate about when Charles Ives composed certain pieces or which versions of the Bruckner symphonies are definitive (since he kept revising them) have been extremely contentious among certain scholars, but perhaps we give too much weight to the calendar. Ultimately determining a precise timeframe is not so cut and dried, nor should it be. Ideally, music is a living and ongoing process. While I’m not quite ready to consider my song cycle done and start working on another piece of music—though this will happen very soon—that piece will hopefully continue to evolve through others’ interpretations of it. After all, isn’t that what any composer would hope for?

Sebastian Currier: Reversible Time

A conversation at Currier’s Harlem apartment on September 6, 2012 — 2:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Considering how deeply composer Sebastian Currier has thought about time, and how important time is to music (according to him, “music is […] really nothing but time and air, literally”), his own relationship to time, at least in the chronological sense of music history, is somewhat ambiguous. While the myriad details that are crammed into his scores are reminiscent of the elaborate layers found in the Romantic music of the 19th century, and his detailed conceptualizations for pieces seem as thoroughly plotted as those of a post-War total serialist, Currier writes music that very much belongs to our own less certain times. It doesn’t fit neatly into any particular rubric and—in terms of both the ideas that inspire it as well as the actual way it sounds—it clearly relates to the here and now.

The sonic information overload that is contained in so many of Sebastian Currier’s pieces is perhaps attributable to a childhood spent completely immersed in the standard repertoire. His father was a concert violinist, and his mother Marilyn and brother Nathan are both active composers to this day. Young Sebastian and Nathan at first gravitated toward rock in their youth, but their heroes were Emerson, Lake & Palmer who, in turn, were inspired by composers like Mussorgsky. After a while, they were both much more attracted to the larger forms and listening modalities that were more clearly associated with classical music.

As much as I loved rock music, I felt this other thing had this breadth where you could go anywhere. It seemed to be so rich in terms of motion, character, whatever word you want to say. It was about that sort of travel. A pop song sets up a parameter, and it sort of is what it is. It sustains that and there are minor articulations. But with a piece of orchestra music, if you’re talking about Mahler or something like that, you get on here and you get let off over there and taken all around in between.

However, like most composers in the century since Mahler died, Currier carefully molds his music’s journey in a highly idiosyncratic way. In his particular case, that molding is very elaborate. It’s no surprise that during his formative years, his principal composition teachers were Milton Babbitt and George Perle, two of the towering figures of American twelve-tone music. Yet Currier’s sound world most of the time is very far removed from modernism. In fact, it’s sometimes downright anti-modernist as well as anti-traditionalist. In both so-called common practice-era tonality and in the highly organized serialism that reached its zenith in the middle of the last century, a goal oriented approach was often a driving force. For composers of Currier’s age and younger, that kind of overarching directionality—whether a resolution toward a clear tonal center or a combinatorial approach to a specific chromatic aggregate—carries much less weight. In fact, many of Currier’s pieces seem like multiple answers to the same question, and none of those answers offer the certainty of absolute correctness.

We live in a multifarious world. I don’t like and don’t respect […] the sort of closed feeling that […] it’s this way or the highway. It just doesn’t make sense to me as a conceptual framework for the way the world is.

While he has amassed an impressive catalog of orchestral, solo, and chamber music compositions (he is the only composer ever to receive a Grawemeyer Award for a piece of chamber music), in recent years Currier has also been involved in several multimedia projects which offer a whole new array of expressive possibilities. (In November 2012, the American Composers Orchestra will release a digital download of Currier’s apocalyptic post-Katrina inspired Next Atlantis for string orchestra and pre-recorded electronics created in collaboration with video artist Pawel Wojtasik.) But whatever he is working on, whether he is creating something that will be coupled with constantly shifting images or setting a text, what always comes first and foremost for him is the music. In that sense, he is a very old-fashioned composer, and it is in the company of the music of the composers of the past that his music most frequently lives. Among his most ardent champions is the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter who is most often heard playing Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn; in fact, Currier is the only living American-born composer whose music she has recorded with an orchestra. More recently, his music has been performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, again a rare occurrence for a composer who is both living and from the United States.

But in the end, despite this very clear link to the past, his music and the way he creates it is very much a phenomenon of the present. The most prominent objects in his Spartan apartment are his computer and his electronic keyboard.

I have no nostalgia. I think computers help me […] to work broadly, and then to zero in. [… If] you meet somebody you don’t know and they ask you what you do. […] It’s a funny thing. Here I am in my 50s, and I still don’t know how to deal with that question. When you just say classical music, it tends to sound like a throwback. […] I feel connected to that, but I think when you say that there are also some associations that may be can give the incorrect feeling, too, because it’s all about doing something new, but relating to something from the past also.

Frank J. Oteri: Whether it’s an orchestra piece, a chamber piece, or a solo piano piece, there is such incredible detail in everything you’ve written. To my ears that detail belies a very deep and thorough understanding of past music, the so-called common practice standard repertoire of classical music. Yet at the same time, the music still sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been written at any other time except now. Still I find that deep immersion striking, because it’s something I don’t hear in very much contemporary music. So it made me wonder how important it is to you that a listener be familiar with that tradition in order to fully understand how your music is, in some way, a response to it.

Sebastian Currier: That’s hard to answer. I’m going to agree with everything you said. I grew up listening to Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Scarlatti—just endless hours. It’s something that’s in me. Though it is something I do less of now, I did it obsessively at certain times and I think the level of detail does relate to that. I also think sometimes that maybe I am too detailed, because a lot of music written today isn’t, and it leads to a different type of listening. When you have the detail that I do, it’s sort of more like reading a novel. You need to follow it through. You can’t just let it pass by. So I agree with all that, but whether a listener needs that background—I’d like to think they didn’t, but maybe they do. It’s hard for me to know about that. And I’m not surprised when people don’t respond to my music; that tradition is something that doesn’t mean anything to them. So in a negative way, I see that those two things are related.

FJO: So do you embrace the term classical music to describe what you do? Is that what your music is?

SC: You know, you meet somebody you don’t know and they ask you what you do. What kind of music do you write? It’s a funny thing. Here I am in my 50s, and I still don’t know how to deal with that question. I think the answer is yes, I feel connected to that, but I think when you say that there are also some associations that maybe can give the incorrect feeling, too, because it’s all about doing something new, but relating to something from the past also. When you just say classical music, it tends to sound like a throwback, and it doesn’t point to things like different new media stuff, as I’ve done in the last eight years or so. That would seem to be not included in that sort of description. So I guess I’d say I reluctantly accept it, but it doesn’t seem really perfect.

FJO: We don’t really have a good term.

SC: It always seems to be symptomatic of the slight awkwardness of our place in society that there’s not a name. Even “new music” is something that’s been appropriated to pop music quite a bit. People use that term, or modern music.

FJO: So to get back to those folks you mentioned who don’t respond to your music who you feel might not be grounded in classical music and therefore perhaps don’t quite get what you’re doing in your music. I think this might be about the commitment to listening that it requires. The more concentrated and more focused you are on the details, I think the more someone can get from listening to your music. But by the same token, when you mention that the multimedia stuff doesn’t connect to classical music, I wonder if there’s a lack of comprehension that goes the other way. For people who are so versed in classical music, and the specific tradition of how they experience it, to be suddenly confronted with visual input can be a distracting information overload.

SC: I haven’t found that so much. That seems to be something people readily embrace, the allure of the image and the projection and video as something of our time.

FJO: But I’ve so often heard some people in the classical music community grumble that when there’s a video it interferes with the listening experience. They don’t need to see these things to imagine what the music is. They want to be able to imagine what it is for themselves and let their minds create their own images, especially when video is projected to go along with performances of standard repertoire pieces.

SC: Well that certainly is true, but doesn’t that relate therefore to just what’s being done, and how it’s being done. I mean, if it was done in a thoughtful way that did expand it, they probably wouldn’t say that. But obviously it can seem gratuitous, without a doubt.

FJO: I’d like to return to your multimedia pieces a bit later, but first I want to take it back to what you were saying about growing up being immersed in classical music. Your personal story is somewhat unique—your mother being a composer and your father being a professional violinist. Your brother is a composer also. That’s a competitive environment to grow up in: three composers and a performing musician. How do you create a unique musical identity within that kind of family dynamic?

SC: You mentioned it’s competitive, but it’s also the opposite. It’s also sort of nurturing. You have this common element. I think the competitive part obviously deals more with my brother than my mom, who’s from a different generation. But it happens more coming from the outside, not internally. At a certain time, you’re applying to the same things. [My brother and I] were at Tanglewood together and we went to Juilliard at the same time. So that is where that sort of stuff happens. But otherwise, growing up, I think that was a great thing, because we’d be sitting there talking about and listening to music. And when we were quite young, maybe 10 and 11, my brother and I had this rock band.

FJO: Who started writing music first?

SC: I think we probably both did, and it related really to, again, the pop stuff, because we wrote our own stuff. Whereas, you know, when you’re young with classical, you start to learn an instrument. We liked bands like Emerson Lake & Palmer that had this mix of classical stuff. I remember us waiting outside a big performance space in Providence after an Emerson, Lake & Palmer concert. My brother had a score of something he had written for them, and we gave it to them in their limousine at the back. They were very sweet. I’m sure they were looking at us like, who are these little kids, you know. But that might have been one of the first compositions, between the two of us.

FJO: What did your parents think of your interest in rock?

SC: Well, they supported us in a lot of ways except the fact that we had these big Marshall amplifiers, and the police came, and that’s stuff they could have done without. Otherwise I think they were pretty open.

FJO: But you gave up rock.

SC: Yeah. I gave up.

FJO: Why?

SC: No precise reason, except I remember this very, very well. I played violin when I was very young. That didn’t take. We were into rock stuff; we were totally into it like kids are, just all day all night, totally obsessed. But there were all these records in my parents’ house of classical stuff. You know, Beethoven, Brahms, whatever, and contemporary stuff—a whole bevy of stuff. And I remember us starting to listen. My brother and I sort of happened at the same time to be listening to this stuff. And as much as I loved rock music, I felt this other thing had this breadth where you could go anywhere. It seemed to be so rich in terms of motion, character. It was about that sort of travel. A pop song sets up a parameter, and it sort of is what it is. It sustains that and there are minor articulations. But with a piece of orchestra music, if you’re talking about Mahler or something like that, you get on here and you get let off over there and taken all around in between. So I was very taken with that. Again, when you talk about detail in my music, those were the things that I think were very formative for me, that feeling of what this music, whatever we want to call it, does.

FJO: It’s interesting hearing you describe exposure to classical music being about learning to play an instrument whereas rock was about creating your own music. The idea of coming up with something original is something very attractive for a creative mind, but often people will get exposed to classical music and think this is just music by all these dead guys and they do not get exposed to the fact that such music kept going into the present time and that there are living composers who are still doing this stuff now. But your mother’s a composer. So how much of an influence did she have on the music that you eventually wrote?

SC: I’m not sure that much, but maybe some. Obviously in the sense that we grew up with it, there was the model right there for sure. In terms of the actual music, I’m not sure you know. Maybe yes, maybe no. I think I’d need an outside assessor to figure that one out. Have you heard any of her stuff?

FJO: No, but I would very much like to hear it. I do know your brother’s music, but I don’t know your mother’s music at all.

SC: Some of her stuff uses jazz in a way. That’s sort of not my world to do that.

FJO: Except that I’d argue that your Piano Sonata is very jazzy.

SC: O.K. There are elements of it in the rhythmic nature of it, I guess.

FJO: I was listening to it back to back last week with some Herbie Hancock recordings, so maybe it helped me make a connection.

SC: That’s interesting.

FJO: But as long as we’re talking about the Piano Sonata; that’s a title that clearly relates it to classical music. Terms like piano sonata, concerto, string quartet, or symphony are loaded with historical associations. Say the word symphony, and people will immediately think Beethoven, Mahler, etc. So when you use such a title, you’re automatically connecting yourself to those precedents. You subverted it a bit when you named a piece Microsymph. You were saying that you’re attracted to music that takes you on this long journey. Here’s a piece that takes you on a journey, but it does so very quickly…

SC: Exactly. Mahler for modern times, right?

FJO: So why reference those titles now?

SC: Well, the Piano Sonata is an early piece—I think I did it in ‘88 or something like that. I think I wanted to reference, not just going back to Beethoven, but also obviously there’s the Barber Sonata, there’s a contemporary American practice that relates to that, too, or Prokofiev sonatas. I think it came from a kinship with that. However, in the case of the Piano Concerto, that was more of a conscious choice to do that when I’ve mostly had titles that referred to some conceptual component of the piece. There I wanted to banish that and just work within this simple tri-partite structure. That sort of seemed the logical thing to do. But I had alternate titles that I considered that I can’t remember now.

FJO: Yet you’ve written many pieces for soloists and orchestra over the years and you don’t call any of them concertos; each has a unique name, like your most recent one for harp and orchestra which you titled Traces. So is that piece somehow not a harp concerto?

SC: It is a harp concerto in structure, I think. That’s a complicated thing, the history of the concerto in the 20th century—really great pieces that are sort of un-concertos or something like that, like the Ligeti concerti where the instruments aren’t meant to have this 19th-century heroic stance of the individual to this mass and so on. To me, if you’re writing for a soloist with orchestra, wanting to undo that or to totally negate that is a little perverse. It’s about finding a new way of relating. And, of course, the case of harp is interesting because harp with orchestra is so problematic acoustically. So I wanted to find my own way for that. And the way I looked at it for Traces is that harp, in its sheer volume, can never win over the orchestra. But what it can do is lead the way. I have the harp being the initiator of everything. I thought that was a new way to deal with that relationship of the one to the many.

FJO: While the harp can easily get drowned out, if you orchestrate a certain way, it cuts through. That’s how it was traditionally used in the orchestra, as a punctuation that cuts through just now and then, but you’ve made that cutting though the focus of the piece.

SC: I know. Exactly. And it was a matter here of having this incredible opportunity to work with the Berlin Phil, but I also felt I had to sort of act with restraint. So I set up the framework of the piece such that that aspect of it would happen to some extent more naturally.


From the score of Traces by Sebastian Currier.
© Copyright 2009 by Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. Reprinted by Permission.
(An excerpt from a performance of Traces, which includes this passage from the score,
is featured in the Cover video above.)

FJO: And if you get asked to write a piece for Anne-Sophie Mutter, as you did, even though you called it Time Machines and not “violin concerto,” you certainly wouldn’t write an un-concerto for her.

SC: Indeed, and I wouldn’t want to.

FJO: So how did you get connected to her?

SC: It’s a totally random thing. And it just goes to show you can never predict the way things happen. Do you remember—I’m sure you do, but many people wouldn’t at this point—the Friedheim awards?

FJO: Yes.

SC: I had a piece there, and it was sort of a little bit like Survivor. There are four people, and then they ranked you there, and you won or didn’t win and got sent packing. So there are four pieces, and I was three of four, so it wasn’t total humiliation, but it didn’t feel like the greatest night. And it was my violin and piano piece Clockwork. One of the jurors was Lambert Orkis, and he came up to me afterwards and he said, “I quite like that piece; I’d like to send it to Anne-Sophie Mutter whom I play with.” And I thought, “Sure, right.” You know, it seemed so unlikely. But I sent it to him like he asked. And then a few months later, I got an email from Anne-Sophie’s secretary saying that she didn’t want to play Clockwork; she’d like to commission a new piece instead. So that’s how we started the association. It turned out—even better—she never even told me, once we had the commission in place, she actually played Clockwork in Asia. It was also this fortuitous thing where the year that she was playing the piece I wrote—which was Aftersong—I was in Rome. I was close by in Europe, so I said, “Can I come to the concerts?” And she actually had me come; I came around to almost all of their concerts. Later she admitted that she wondered if it was a wise idea. Like, you know, was I total nut or whatever. But we actually had a great time, and she’s been really important to me in so many ways since then. It was really one of those things that no amount of planning would make happen; it was a very important, fortuitous chance thing.

FJO: It’s invaluable to have the advocacy of such a world-traveled European soloist who doesn’t play a lot of American composers since she’s really not exposed to what’s happening here very much. So you have your foot in the door in Europe in a way that is extremely enviable for a composer. And Traces just got done in Europe. I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation.

SC: I think there’s probably some. As you know well, it is a very different world. But sure, I am getting played there. She just did Time Machines with the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, which was really great. So one can hope that will continue on.

FJO: There’s another aspect of your pieces for soloists and orchestra that I’d like to touch on here, specifically Traces and Time Machines. You used the name “Piano Concerto” for your piece for piano and orchestra, and when you mentioned why you did so you talked about it having a “simple tri-partite structure.” Three movements is standard concerto form. But these other pieces, which you did not call concertos, unfold quite differently. In both of the pieces we’ve been talking about, you really do an experiment with the form by having many smaller movements and tying them together and having material from one movement be interpreted in a different way in another. It’s a very different approach to form. So in that sense, also, they’re really not concertos.

SC: Right, but except for an early piece like the Piano Sonata, I’m not sure I came from that sort of literalism. When you’re talking about a concerto, yes, there’s a three-movement structure, but there is also that broader idea of what does it mean to be a concerto, which you don’t need to really think about in terms of the three-movement structure, but more the dynamic relationship. I think actually the history of the word itself comes originally from sort of a cooperation. When you think of the Baroque concerto, it’s a very different relationship than the classical one, which is when a sort of a proto-Romantic concerto happens.

FJO: Another loaded genre name is the string quartet. I love the two pieces you wrote for the Cassatt, neither of which you called “string quartet,” but you actually composed two pieces before those, which I’ve never heard, that you did name string quartets. I find it interesting to call something String Quartet No. 2, because it not only gives listeners an association with Mozart or Shostakovich, but it also ties to your own history. You know, what about String Quartet No. 1? But you didn’t call Quartetset—the first of the pieces for the Cassatts—“String Quartet No. 3.” You view it as something other. And I’m curious about what that other is.

SC: Well, the First Quartet is so old, but I felt like I needed to acknowledge it and call the other one the second. But those aren’t pieces that I [now] have played; I was learning at that time. By the time of Quartetset, I was sort of in a different place. We are talking about titles now, it relates to how a title helps you get into a piece and relates also to the concept that surrounds it. At a certain point, I ended up using that as a method most of the time.

FJO: But it’s interesting, because Quartetset is still sort of a generic title, even though it’s a title only you’ve used—well, you and Lou Harrison, who wrote a piece he called String Quartet Set. But calling it a set perhaps calls attention to its having many shorter movements, just like Traces and Time Machines.

SC: Right.

FJO: Yet when you wrote Quiet Time, which is ostensibly your de facto String Quartet Number Four, if I may, it has a similar structure. Like Quartetset, it has seven movements. And, in fact, you have described it as an attempt to go back and create the same kind of piece a decade later, so I’m curious about what your two approaches were to writing the same piece.

SC: I’ll answer that, but to go back to Quartetset, I think that’s one of the few cases where I sort of got distracted in terms of the title. Usually I conceptualize what a piece is, and I generally end up doing that. You know, of course, it’s always sort of T.S. Eliot—between the idea and the reality there’s a shadow, stuff changes. But that was a case where what I really wanted to do, which I mean I think I should have done but I didn’t, was to write a bunch of short pieces. It seemed to me that string quartets [ensembles] only have string quartets [compositions]. So I wanted to write the equivalent of Chopin etudes, or preludes, or mazurkas, things that could be excerpted that were short pieces that made a collection, hence the name Quartetset. But then I got going on it, and I got these sort of expansive movements, and it ended up being more like just a quartet. It sort of morphed. I remember I had problems writing that piece. For some reason, it was a little bit tortured to get it to happen.

FJO: When you talk about movements existing on their own, I can’t imagine any of them doing so except for maybe the sixth movement, which is so hauntingly beautiful.

SC: It is being done as a dance thing.

FJO: The viola seems to have an extremely prominent role throughout Quartetset, but particularly in that sixth movement. It leads in a way that the viola rarely does in the string quartet literature.

SC: I can think of places now that you mention that, but I don’t know if that was intentional. Maybe. My father was [also] a violist. He played viola more later in life, so there was a lot of viola around.

But getting back to how Quiet Time and Quartetset are related, there is an answer to that that might not be apparent. I always thought of Quartetset as part of a group of pieces along with Vocalissimus and Entanglement and Theo’s Sketchbook that sometimes I talk about as music in the third person. When you read a novel—even if there’s a first person narrative—you don’t assume it’s the novelist. It’s somehow distant. And obviously, there’d be other novelists that would have many different points of view, even maybe characters that serve as narrators. In music, however, there’s sort of a presumption—I think—that it’s a first person thing. It’s like memoir all the time. And so I wondered if that needs to be true, or if there’d be an advantage from stepping back from that a little bit. That’s very clear in something like Vocalissimus, where it’s 18 settings of the same Wallace Stevens poem so it becomes very much about that. Entanglement is sort of a basic concept for a piece that two composers have, but they’re very different, so it’s borne out in different ways. Theo’s Sketchbook is a compilation through the lifetime of a composer, so it gives a sense of a narrative arc—a lifetime of a composer’s music.

Quartetset is more abstract, but I suppose follows that in some way. I don’t think I executed it that well, but I thought of it as somehow the past and the present being the two voices. When the piece begins, there is this sort of almost Viennese little thing that it begins with and the violin comes in on this one note, and it crescendos to this note, and when it gets to the top of the note, it moves to the next note, and a chord comes in. You really feel like, right before you, it sort of morphs between two worlds. I don’t think I did it extremely enough, or consistently enough through the piece, but that was my idea. So in Quiet Time, I was following the idea of this sort of dialogue between two things, but that dialogue was between natural and artificial sounds. The beautiful full-bodied sound of the quartet, then the things one does in digital signal processing—some sort of filtering, some sort of harmonic thing, pitch shifting or remodulation, compressing time or expanding time, resonances like reverbs and delays. So basically my dialogue was between the natural quartet sound and then these, in my mind, processed versions. So I somehow related that dialogue to being like the past and the present for Quartetset. But it’s not something that is very readily apparent when you just listen to it.


An example of the strings recreating the sound of “digital signal processing” in a passage from the score of “Time’s Arrow,” the second movement of Quiet Time by Sebastian Currier.
© Copyright 2004 by Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. Reprinted by Permission.

FJO: This idea of writing in the voice of another imaginary composer is a very strange one, I think. But what’s interesting is that each time you’ve explored that idea in a very different way. Entanglement isn’t a sonata for violin and piano; rather it’s two sonatas fused together.

SC: Exactly. Right.

FJO: But obviously both composers are you.

SC: Right.

FJO: In a way, every composer is writing toward a specific musical solution that works for whatever idea they may have for a piece in advance, whatever the style or compositional system. In these pieces, you question that process by offering multiple solutions. In Entanglement there are two, in Vocalissimus you offer a total of 18, which is weird. So how are these hypothetical composers you’ve created not you? How would you have done things differently?

SC: Isn’t it reflective of you to say there’s one solution? If you went back to the 18th century, that would be pretty apparent. But since the 20th century, I’m not sure that would be apparent. We live in a multifarious world. So I think that’s part of it. There’s a certain strain today even in European modernist stuff. I was at Columbia University, and there’s [some modernist] music I very much respect and like. But what I don’t like and don’t respect is the sort of closed feeling that that’s the only way, that it’s this way or the highway. It just doesn’t make sense to me as a conceptual framework for the way the world is. All of these things, going back to the different characters, can reflect that point of view. And I don’t know how weird it is. It’s not weird at all to ask that question if there’s a character in a novel. It’d almost be absurdly naïve to say that a character has nothing to do with the author. The relationships that are set up are all from the author, and the story that’s being told as a whole is the author’s, right?

FJO: I take your point, but this is music. I think the piece where it’s the most apparent is Theo’s Sketchbook. You’re creating this world of a composer from his juvenilia to the last piece that he writes, and you’re saying this isn’t you. You’re saying that if you were the composer writing all of these pieces, they’d be much different than this.

SC: Right.

FJO: So, to get really specific, how are you a different composer than Theo?

SC: Well, to get really specific, I’m mid-career, he’s done his thing. One of the things in that particular piece that was the starting point for me was whether we can hear maturity; that’s an attribute that we hear in music. An early Mozart piece sounds different than a late Mozart piece. We feel something. You don’t even need to be told that much. You figure that out. And the question is, why? What is it? So that’s what the impetus was for scoping out that piece. And that just seemed like a way. How else would I do it, but to distance myself and have that sort of fictional narrative?

FJO: It’s funny that you mention Mozart who died at 35.

SC: Right, but Bastien et Bastienne or something like that is different from—

FJO: —the Jupiter Symphony or the Requiem.

SC: Exactly. Yeah.

FJO: But can you write the music of a 70-year old if you’re not 70?

SC: Well, can a male writer take the voice of a woman? Sure. You can, but it is fiction; it’s posed in some way. Everybody knows it’s the nature of fiction; we know we’re reading a book that’s not real. It’s about entering into that world and having that relationship between the actual and the imaginary, right? So I’m asking the same thing. I think you could say that yes, I think I have pieces that maybe in some ways are program music, but that I don’t want to have be program music. So this adds that element, because you’re having to imagine this relationship.

FJO: Let’s continue this analogy of a novelist writing in someone else’s voice. An extremely effective novel written in such a way which immediately comes to mind is Robert Graves’s I Claudius, which is a first person narrative by the Emperor Claudius, somebody from 2,000 years ago. Graves had to get into the head of this guy, who’s not 100 percent likeable at all times, but he has to find a way to make him sympathetic. Graves really had to deeply empathize with Claudius and get into his head and make the reader believe in him somehow. How did you become Theo? How do you get into that zone where you write music that’s not you, to write the music of a teenager again, or, even more difficult, to write the music of an old man decades before you’re one yourself? How did you get to that place and say, this is Theo’s music, for yourself, to make it work?

SC: I don’t know. I think I did that relatively intuitively. There wasn’t that much thought in a way—it’s disappointing to say—in terms of that. But part of it was setting it in the Northwest and there’s Eskimo music in it. As a composer, I generally don’t do that sort of thing. So that sort of allowed me to try it on, within the context of stepping back a little bit. The other thing was having something sort of childish that seems to sort of blossom into something and then move into something else; that was part of the whole formal nature of the piece because it dealt with the full arc of a lifetime.

FJO: I love this idea that writing this piece allowed you to write music you were interested in writing but which you felt you couldn’t write as yourself.

SC: Not music I couldn’t write but don’t write, and that I could maybe dip into in a way that I wouldn’t normally. Maybe I will someday. Who knows?


An example of music by “Theo” that would not have been written by “Sebastian Currier”:
The “Eskimo Song” from Theo’s Sketchbook by Sebastian Currier.
© Copyright 1992 by Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. Reprinted by Permission.

FJO: Could this be a way to go back to writing for rock band, say, writing a piece that’s in the head of a guy who stayed doing rock?

SC: There we go, my next piece. You never know. But I should say, because we’re talking about it a lot, that idea was sort of a passing thing. I haven’t done that in some time, but it interested me for a while. It really started with Vocalissimus and with the particular idea of text setting. Actually, because I heard some I thought god-awful setting of Blake’s “The Tiger”—

“Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night”

—and thought why would anybody set that like that. I’m sure that composer, who luckily I’ve forgotten, had reasons for why he did what he did. But that made me realize that when we set stuff, it’s sort of like a mirror of ourselves. We think we’re interpreting one thing, but in fact we’re really more reflecting who we are. So that was the core of where I started. And then Vocalissimus branched out from that. Finding, I thought, a cubist point of view to a text. Then that gave me the idea that I can scope this out in other ways.

FJO: So is a listener going to be able to get that from just the music? How important is it to you that listeners know what the idea is that generates the piece?

SC: I think anything should work. I often go to a concert and I don’t read the program notes. I just want to hear the piece. Maybe if you’re interested, you’ll explore stuff. The one thing I would say, if you’re hearing Theo’s Sketchbook and you know nothing about it: You hear this childish little thing, you hear it change, by the end it sort of broadens out, and then you hear something that sort of is a much more mature version of this childish thing you’ve heard before. I think that would give you signs of something going on. You don’t need to know the rest, but that’s sort of inherent in the shape without having to know any sort of extra-musical, textual thing. I would hope that every piece I do has some conceptual component. In Quiet Time, you might not know that it’s a dialogue between natural and artificial, but once I told you that, you could think, “Oh yeah, I heard that first phrase like this, I heard that same phrase again, but sort of like it was weird and twisted in a way that I guess I can imagine was remodulation.”

FJO: Obviously when you add a text, you’re adding something that people get instantly: the words, unless you’re setting randomly generated words or maybe late Gertrude Stein texts, which are their own wonderful universes. But, as you said, people think they’re being pure to a text but often they’re just reflecting their own aesthetics. Two vocal pieces of yours handle this situation very differently from each other: Sleepers and Dreamers, your new piece for chorus and orchestra, and Vocalissimus. In Vocalissimus you’re setting the same line, over and over again, each time in a different way. It’s a strange idea; you calling it cubist is a very interesting way to describe it. In a way it totally subverts this notion of serving a text in a certain way and the music being a vessel on which this text lies. Instead, the text became a workshop for a wide variety of compositional approaches.

SC: That’s true, but it is something that I set up particularly for that piece. And it took me some time to get the right text, because I think one thing it needed was a certain openness and ambiguity and obviously brevity, too, to make that work. In that piece, it becomes more about the process.

FJO: So you had the idea for how you were going to set this text before you actually had chosen the specific text?

SC: Yeah. I was looking at another Wallace Stevens poem with the phrase “Look at the terrible mirror of the sky,” which seemed totally appropriate because I’m talking about sort of a mirror of oneself. But that phrase was set in three stanzas and I thought, I can’t do this; it was just going to be too long. So I kept looking for a long time until I found that very brief poem by Wallace Stevens that I could set many times.

FJO: Susan Narucki is just stunning on the recording. She takes on these different identities so effectively, which raises an interpretative issue. It’s not about having one sound and you really have to be kind of deliberate in order to deliver it.

SC: But I think that when you’re thinking about the performative aspect of it, that gives a singer something that’s sort of enjoyable to do. It extends what I said about my doing something that I ordinarily wouldn’t do. It’s the same thing in a way. It invites the singer to do things that would be out of her comfort zone and, as a matter of fact, I think the better performances are where singers are more willing to do this—to sing with a voice that they would not want to be heard, one that’s totally flattened and maybe child-like in [another] one, something like that. It allows you to try different things. I’m like giving you that license to do it.


In the “Somnambulist” movement, Currier takes a very dreamy approach to the setting of a line by Wallace Stevens. From Vocalissimus by Sebastian Currier.
© Copyright 1991 by Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. Reprinted by Permission.


However, In the following movement, “Scientist,” the text is declaimed by the singer and accompanied by the ensemble much more methodically. From Vocalissimus by Sebastian Currier.
© Copyright 1991 by Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. Reprinted by Permission.

FJO: In tying this back to our earlier thread in this conversation about interacting with the tradition of classical music, Vocalissimus connects with a specific legacy that’s 100 years old at this point: Pierrot Lunaire. You use the same instrumentation only with percussion as so many composers have done over the course of the last century. I wonder if the ghosts of those pieces were hovering over you in any way. Schoenberg has certainly been a huge ghost over all of 20th century music. He was a great figure, but he’s also been kind of used as a dart board by people who have certain attitude about what contemporary music should be. He’s the guy that gets accused of making music ugly and being cliquish, creating things that only a few people could understand. I wonder if in some way this piece was about exorcising those ghosts.

SC: The thing with Schoenberg is you have his importance, and then you have his music, and there are few pieces that I like a great deal and then a lot of it I’m not interested in. It doesn’t interest me that much to sit down and listen to a great deal of his stuff. I actually like Pierrot and I love the Five Pieces for Orchestra; the early stuff I like. But after that, I’m not sure it matters that much to me. But maybe you’re asking the question more broadly—what he stands for. The generation before were obsessed with it. It’s not really important for me.

FJO: Well, in terms of your formative years as a composer, your two principal teachers were Milton Babbitt and George Perle, both of whom were direct extensions of Schoenberg. Babbitt was taking Schoenberg’s ideas to their logical next level and Perle’s initial misinterpreting of Schoenberg led him to a whole new way of reconciling twelve-tone thinking with tonality. So I’m curious about how their musical ideas filtered through to you.

SC: Well, in the case of Milton Babbitt, he was, as I’m sure you know, an incredibly smart guy and he very much prided himself on letting people do what they wanted to do. So I enjoyed working with him, and I learned a lot. But his projects and the implicit project of the follow through of dodecaphony and the picayune sort of relationships with pitch and collections of pitches, that didn’t mean that much to me. Pitch is very important to me, but the way things are worked out in this pre-compositional mathematical way wasn’t ever that important to me. So I don’t think in terms of him. I don’t have a feeling of much influence. In terms of Perle, maybe just in terms of his trying to start from the ground up and look at other ways of looking at pitch structures was kind of interesting to me at a certain point. The very basic idea of interval cycles is still something that, I think, does play a role.

FJO: That’s interesting. I’ve immersed myself in many of your scores. I haven’t done too deep an analysis of it, but following along with the score as I was in listening to Broken Consort, it really did seem influenced by twelve-tone music.

SC: I know exactly what you’re talking about, but that’s from a different point of view. The whole idea of having some jagged line that’s moving around and uses all twelve pitches and is sort of complicated sounds great, right? But the feeling that you’re going to take that, and that it matters that later you have one hexachord that you’ve transposed up a fifth, that is the stuff that doesn’t interest me that much, to focus in on that. But yes, there are definitely elements of the sound world that are appealing to me.

FJO: And obviously, the listener is invited to conjure up that sound world from certain types of gestures, and I would contend, certain instrumental combinations, or more specifically certain ways of combining them. To bring it back to Vocalissimus and the ghosts of Schoenberg and Pierrot LunairePierrot Lunaire wasn’t a twelve-tone piece, but the Pierrot instrumentation became the sound world for so much twelve-tone music.

SC: Absolutely, but maybe it’s not always a choice. One just ends up writing a certain amount for that because one’s asked and so on. Static was written because Copland House came to me, and there might have been some wiggle room, like you could not use the flute or not use the clarinet, but it all sort of clustered around that type of combination.

FJO: The Pierrot ensemble has actually been very good for you. Static won a Grawemeyer and you’re the only composer ever to win for a piece of chamber music.

SC: There you go. So my hat’s off to Schoenberg on that one.

FJO: But in a piece like Static, there wasn’t the conscious choice of your saying, “I’m going to write a piece for this ensemble since there are so many of these ensembles around.”

SC: Exactly. But in other cases it might be more a gray area. For Vocalissimus, I did choose that.

FJO: Specifically to conjure up Pierrot?

SC: No, I think more because it was a practical thing that I wanted in terms of getting performance opportunities.

FJO: Sleepers and Dreamers is a lot more ambitious in terms of instrumentation. But again, it’s a very unorthodox approach, I think, to setting a text. It’s a piece for chorus and orchestra, but you’ve set a first-person text. You don’t even have any vocal soloists; it’s always the full chorus.

SC: When you say first person, you mean many different persons.

FJO: Yes, but all the “I”s are being sung by “we”—always.

SC: Right. For the nature of the concert, that was partially practical. It wouldn’t have worked with soloists. And there’s no reason why a chorus couldn’t take on these different characters, it seemed to me, and to make that happen musically.

FJO: I found it interesting that one of the characters is named Sebastian.

SC: Well, I’ll tell you the story. I worked with Sarah Manguso, who is, I think, an amazing writer and a good friend. We did a piece that’s being done in Houston, Deep-Sky Objects, a then we did this piece. The concept was mine. I said basically what I want is the objective signs of sleep and I want to counter that with the subjective world of dreams. And so she gave me a text. I really liked the first part a lot; it’s what’s there now. But her dreams just weren’t right. I think there’s a thing with writers and dreams, because there’s so much license and one would tend to over compensate the other way. I needed the opposite. I needed the basic components of dreams: the exaggeration, the fear, the strangeness. So I ended up not using her text. There are these big dream databases for sleep research in California that I was going to use. I started to look for stuff there, but in the meantime I would just ask my friends, not necessarily about the dream they had last night, but dreams that they remembered from a long time ago. And I got so many good dreams that I ended up using them. So everybody in there is somebody I know; they’re all real people and real dreams. There was something obviously fun about that. I knew these people, but also I just thought they were great dreams.

FJO: So Sebastian is you.

SC: Indeed, Sebastian is me. There’s one where I change it around. Only one. The rest are all real people. Actually there were two that were mine, but I named one after my father instead.

FJO: The dream of yours you chose to include in the piece and put your name on deals with your own body, which is a very private matter.

SC: I’m not that private. It’s a bizarre dream.

FJO: But to have something so personal, whether it’s your dream or anybody else’s, become de-personalized in a way by having it sung by a group of people, rather than by one person, seems like a very unusual approach, at least to me.

SC: Yeah, maybe so. From a personal stand point now, or more of a compositional one?

FJO: Mostly compositional.

SC: It’s funny, I didn’t really even think of it beforehand. In rehearsals, I wondered if there would be joking. But it was fine, it never even came up really. It’s just what it was about. It doesn’t seem to me that it’s sexual. It’s personal, but it’s fine. I thought it was a weird dream, so I was proud of it from the standpoint of how weird it was.

FJO: But I’m noticing a similar attitude to the one you took with Vocalissimus when it comes to how you approach text setting. You had this idea for a vocal piece before you had the text. So the text didn’t inspire the setting. Instead, the setting you wanted inspired finding the texts.

SC: Correct.

FJO: So it’s much less about trying to find a common ground between a text and your own music and more about sculpting the language to fit your specific musical goals.

SC: Absolutely. Originally, the way the project happened, I was getting pressure to have a writer involved. I actually didn’t want one when I first started for that reason. I’m about to work on another project where I’m sort of avoiding that. I mean, it’s using other people’s text, but I’m dealing with it, because, yes, I think there is something to be gained from having total control or last minute control. If you’re just confronted with a text and setting it, there’s something that has been set up already. I think different things happen musically if you don’t have to have that environment. It’s funny because the other thing that can get in the way is simple legal stuff, like copyright, because you have to ask permission in advance. You can’t suddenly just change something on the fly, although I wish you could. So yes, you’re absolutely right that that interests me—to be able to make things with text where I’m making those choices in a way that is immediately responsive to musical things, rather than the other way around.

But I want to follow up with what you said about the chorus singing “I.” You’d probably know better than I do, but in terms of convention that probably happens a certain amount in choral literature anyway. But there was another maybe Jungian aspect to this piece. The first part is sort of a scientific, objective part. The second part—the dreams—alternates between vocalize—I think proportionally, in terms of time, more than half is simply singing on vowels—and these little moments where these dreams are. The reason I did that is obvious, it’s a night of sleep; it sort of duplicates in some way the process of sleep. Obviously it’s compressed. In 90-minute cycles, you move through deep sleep into stage three and sometimes stage four, and then you come up into REM, and then that repeats and so on. I wanted to duplicate that so when you think of it, in a way the whole thing is one night’s sleep. But then it’s all different people’s dreams, so there’s sort of a morphing of the collective with the singular in the nature of the way it’s put together. It is saying we all have our individual dreams, sure, but it’s also this basic component of being human, that we share in our own ways. And nobody really understands it.

FJO: So then how important is it to you that the words of the text are understood when an audience hears them sung? Is that even an issue for you?

SC: It’s very important. And with chorus, it’s hard. What I really want, and I hope in subsequent performances I can have it, is supertitles. I think the text is really important and I think the enjoyment of the piece will be increased by having it. I did my best with the comprehensibility. Maybe not totally, chorus is limited; it’s just the nature of chorus, particularly if you’re having anything that’s not totally homophonic. At that point it becomes very hard. There’s a history of that, too. Often the text is not as important in, you know, a mass, because it’s stuff that’s known already. Phrases get repeated a lot. The Kyrie is just six words total. The history of choral music is about dealing with that in different ways. I try to find my best balance of that.

An excerpt from the world premiere performance of Deep-Sky Objects (2011). Music by Sebastian Currier, text by Sarah Manguso. Performed on September 22, 2012 at the Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall in Houston, Texas, by Karol Bennett, soprano, with Musiqa. Videography by Bill Klemm, courtesy Anthony Brandt / Musiqa.
FJO: In a collaborative work, there’s always a danger that one element will overshadow the other. Music can be overshadowed, too, especially by visual stimuli since we are largely more acculturated to paying attention to what we see more than we hear. You’ve now done quite a few pieces that involve multi-media components, which, potentially, could distract people from the music. So I wonder in those contexts how much of the music you write is shaped by what your collaborator is doing with the video, or how much control you have to shape the images and make it work with your music the way you do with text.

SC: The answer is actually very variable. In the case of Next Atlantis, that’s actually a very complicated story. But the way it is now, I wrote the music entirely, and we edited the video images on top of it. So it wasn’t in any way dictated by the images. We’re used to music in film becoming subordinate. With Nightmaze, the whole idea was to set up something that had a rhythm of attention with a visual aspect. Most of the time, it’s this very neutral thing, you’re just going down a road and then these signs loom up and there’s suddenly attention towards that visual component. I wanted to have some way that you could let the music and sound predominate mostly. I was definitely conscious of that issue. And in terms of that, it doesn’t even exist as a video. It uses a program called Watchout; it’s basically a complicated queuing system. I did this to prevent having to use a click track. I was controlling when stuff would happen. It was predetermined, but not from a video. It was actually from a text of a friend of mine—Tom Bolt—one chapter of an experimental novel of his. I felt I had the space to do what I wanted, but I was also being directed by the images or the narrative basically.

FJO: The images of driving down a highway in Nightmaze fit really well with your music. Of course, driving and music really are an effective combination which is probably why all that music Bernard Herrmann wrote for Jimmy Stewart’s long drives in Vertigo work so well.

SC: Those are great scenes. I’ve even thought that the nice thing about driving is it’s about motion which also relates to music which is about motion, too. There’s definitely a good connection.

FJO: And of course, music is—more than anything else—about time, which has been a recurring inspiration for the titles of your pieces over the years. In the booklet notes for one of the CDs, you made some really fascinating comments about music existing in time, and how you want to capture time.

SC: In [the notes for] Time Machines, I was just saying that obviously any performative art unfolds through time. But music is even more simply made out of time because pitch is a function of time. And therefore, it’s really nothing but time and air, literally. A cycle of time, in the case of pitch, and then the time thing that we’re more used to, personal time unfolding.

FJO: And timbre of course, and harmony…

SC: Obviously all of those, hence my last movement is called “Harmonic Time,” and indeed, all of them are extensions of time, which we normally don’t think of at all. It’s sort of removed from our senses, but indeed it is made that way.

FJO: The very last area I want to talk to you about, and this again comes from just having been immersed in your scores, is that all the scores from the 1990s are these beautiful, hand-written manuscripts and that is how they are published. But the pieces from the last decade are all computer engraved. I see a computer hooked up here, and obviously you’re now using some kind of notation software. I’m wondering if you feel that’s changed your process in any way, especially in terms of working out details, to take it back to the very beginning of our conversation.

SC: I have no nostalgia. I find using a computer is great for all that. But I definitely write differently post computers. But I don’t usually copy a piece until the very end. That’s the last stage. That’s like draft seven, let’s say, or something like that. And not having to deal with musical notation that much until that point, I find very liberating. One thing that’s helped me over time is I’ve learned to sketch. And I think maybe it takes time. You need to know what you do to sketch. It’s always that sort of chicken and egg thing. But I think there’s something very difficult about—and I used to do this—having to notate stuff. You end up working very hard having to make local decisions of details early on. And then you’ve spent a week on this thing, and you suddenly say, wait a second. That doesn’t work. And yet you spent all this time. You make better decisions about local things when you know how it fits in the whole, and to have to make a local decision early on is hard. There was this show of Gehry at the Guggenheim a while ago and they showed all his models. Have you ever seen a Gehry model when he starts? It’s the most horrible looking scrunched piece of paper. There’s a piece of balsa wood that’s been sort of cracked in half, and you look at it and you think, “What’s that disgusting thing?” And then you look; that’s Bilbao! Because he would start with the idea you just need to get the form. He knew he’d figure out the beauty of the particular curve later, but he’s working to sort what the basic layout is. And once you get that, then you model it with a little more detail. So that’s how I work now. And I think computers help me do that, to work broadly, and then to zero in, and all the end decisions are when I copy it into Finale.

FJO: That’s certainly very different from the way composers worked in previous centuries.

SC: Indeed it is. Well, I think it is. Why do you say that?

FJO: Well, Beethoven didn’t have a laptop. Neither did Brahms or Chopin or Scarlatti. Some composers kept extensive sketchbooks, but I think that’s quite a different way of working than what you’ve just described.

SC: Beethoven sketched things. People improvised things and then sometimes half improvised a performance and then wrote it down. So just the presence of musical notation, let’s say if you went back pre-computer, that doesn’t mean that’s the same as before, either though, right? Those things relate to overall musical practice in a broad way. So sure, it’s changed, for sure.

Big Paper

Composing can be difficult. Even during those relatively rare and much coveted periods when my brain overflows, with notes spewing forth in surprisingly pleasing orders, I can find it quite challenging to block off enough time to sit uninterrupted in order to vivify those ideas. Since I move back and forth between several different workspaces—each of which presents its own challenges—it’s been essential for me to create rituals that allow me to quickly take over an unfamiliar room. Generally, my first stage of composing involves physically writing out my ideas in pencil on paper, and so I carry the tools of my trade in a very light plastic portfolio case, ready to emerge at a moment’s notice. If you look inside this envelope, you’ll find a .9mm mechanical pencil, an equally large eraser, a 15-inch straight edge with cork backing (so it doesn’t smear the graphite markings), and 11×17 staff paper. Lots and lots of large staff paper.

Tools of the trade

Everything that I need to compose, on a desk that I’m only using for the day.

Several years ago, I created my own paper with blank staves barely large enough to allow me to create legible music, and with just enough vertical space between them for my relatively long-winded performance markings. I use 11×17 paper so I can photocopy it anew each time I run low on supplies (and since I long ago lost my original file and copy, the quality of my staff lines has gradually deteriorated over time), in landscape layout so I can notate up to twelve parts on a single page and see the music run horizontally for a gratifyingly long time. When I compose for large ensembles, I either handwrite a short score, waiting until the computer transcription to see all the parts on separate staves, or I forgo my usual paper in favor of a vertical layout.

For me, the main advantage of this large paper is that it allows me to view big swaths of musical materials at a single time. In solos and small ensembles, I can fit several minutes’ worth of slow music onto a single page, and even for a piece as large and complex as my 20-minute toy piano concerto I was able to notate the entire work on a mere 14 sheets. This feature allows me to lay out entire compositions on the lid of a piano or across a desk, freeing me up to view potential confluences between distant events that I might have otherwise missed. In addition, when I want to create a visual representation of my musical plan, I find that I can sometimes roughly map the form for a new piece on a single piece of paper. Finally, when I’m in the process of sketching new ideas, the large paper permits me to separate different types of materials into their constituent categories while keeping all the various motives for a composition in one place.

The key challenge that often leaves composers afraid of enacting the switch to big paper is how to transport these bulky pages. While students used to purchase large portfolio cases, which they carried around conservatories as a badge of honor (at least I did), our current need for laptop computers and other items that don’t easily fit into such containers makes this solution less viable for our contemporaries. Instead, I simply fold my paper so it fits into an envelope built for 8.5×11 sheets, using a draft page in the middle so the graphite doesn’t smear: a simple solution, but one that is only feasible for composers who don’t worry about the relative condition of their handwritten drafts.

If you’ll excuse me, it’s probably time for me to turn away from the computer and towards the big paper.

Score head

Another advantage of the large paper is that I can hide behind it.

Believing in Ghosts

Although it was a long time ago, it’s easy for me to recall the anxiety, tension, and sheer terror of being alone in the dark as a young child. As any former children reading this might attest, what makes the experience so frightening isn’t the darkness itself, but rather the darkness’s ability to thrust us into an indeterminate state where ghosts, monsters, and bogeymen might be swarming under the bed. As children we were still open to these kinds of possibilities, and the sense of sight which might have disabused us of these fears had been dimmed with the lights out. As an adult, I’m pretty sure there was never anything under the bed, but it was the belief in ghosts—not the existence of ghosts—that gave the experience of being in the dark such power.

Likewise, I feel that many of our problems as composers are self-created byproducts of something that is not actually there. For me, compositional ghosts often assume the form of teachers, peers, idols, or competitors, although they can also come to embody the opinions of panels, foundations, or imagined groups of critical people that may not in fact have a sound basis in reality. Oftentimes, our compositional ghosts are constructed more out of our own fear and anticipation of disapproval, absorbed through a strange form of social osmosis rather than handed down from an authority figure on high. We internalize expectations from friends, enemies, and mentors without full awareness of having done so; we believe everyone else’s tall tales, and this gets in the way of writing our own story.

Composer David Rakowski’s duly celebrated buttstix are a way of making compositional phantoms tangible and, moreover, just as ridiculous as they really are. I was never a student of Davy’s but always identified with his desire to see what he, figuratively, had a stick up his ass about. As Rakowski points out in his excellent NewMusicBox interview with Frank J. Oteri, we all have different hang-ups and assumptions and habits and fears and contentments that make us who we are, and sometimes it is the case that certain “buttstix” do provide us with useful tools or at least the discipline of having negotiated a particular rigidity; it’s just that, unexamined, a composer’s buttstix can inhibit personal and artistic growth. Some of Rakowski’s own buttstix include “serious music is slow music” as well as “improvisation is not composition.” In an official buttstix follow-up post on his blog, Rakowski relates how each time he discovered (and occasionally, extracted) a new buttstick, his music began to seem less a part of the “camp” he currently identified with and more like, well, himself.


Examples of buttstix, courtesy of David Rakowski.

I can’t help but think that Rakowski’s buttstix have done more pedagogical good than a whole four years of masterclasses with impressive prize-winning composers. The process of identifying and removing myriad buttstix is comparable to the terrified child turning on a light: in both cases, the phantom Unacceptable Act is easily cut down to size, or even revealed as entirely imaginary—but as long as they reign from the shadows, the phantoms are able to exert a terrifying influence.

Bringing our assumptions and hang-ups into the light of day can put them in their place, whether we view them as ghosts to be dispelled, buttstix to be yanked, or as just a few of the many available channels on the satellite TV of reality.

As another academic year begins, I have a few college visits planned and have been thinking about the compositional ghosts that most often haunt today’s generation of young composers—including assumptions and dictums about the process of composing, an area of composing rarely afforded the attention it deserves in today’s undergraduate curricula. Below are ten of the biggest, baddest ghosts that seem to be influencing many young composers today, and which we would do well to examine. The following precepts should be questioned and challenged just as forcefully as the belief in supernatural creatures lurking under the bed:

1. Measures of music generated=progress made (corollary: erasing measures is a shameful step back).

2. Studying works we laud and admire is more beneficial than taking a closer listen to works or (genres) which we dislike.

3. Composition is a “career.”

4. The presence/absence of any one award/accomplishment is, in itself, capable of making/breaking a composer’s chances.

5. More care and forethought always produces superior work (corollary for teachers: more writing on the blackboard=clear evidence that teaching has occurred).

6. Composition should reflect the results of conscious deliberation, rather than communion with the hidden unconscious.

7. The main point of school is class and the assignments/learning/social relationships acquired therein.

8. Explaining why you made a musical choice is equivalent to justifying that same choice.

9. The type of attention we bring to music is irrelevant to how that music is experienced.

10. Writing new music for old instruments isn’t in any way funny.

What compositional ghosts have haunted your nights? And what caused you to invest them with so much power?

Ann Millikan: On The Move

At the home of Ann Millikan, East St. Paul, Minnesota
June 15, 2012—12 p.m.
Photography and video recording by Philip Blackburn
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Oversimplifications about the kind of music that composers write based on where they live have persisted for centuries. The age-old myth of a clear dichotomy between French and German composers still lives on in many people’s minds, as do even quainter notions such as the idea that all Italian composers write operas or at least are always lyrical. A closer look reveals a landscape in which it has always been impossible to make generalizations. (Music history is littered with composers like the “Italian” Francesco Antonio Rosetti, an 18th-century composer who briefly worked in France and was later a Kapellmeister in Northern Germany, but was actually born František Antonín Rosety in Bohemia.)

Here in the United States we continue to talk about East Coast vs. West Coast composers, and then there’s “Minnesota nice.” But a composer such as Ann Millikan, who grew up in California and is now based in East St. Paul, writes music that completely defies such one-dimensional geographical typecasting. That said, she does acknowledge that her relocation to the Midwest has had a profound impact on her capacity to write the music she wants to write:

I think the biggest difference is the ability to not juggle so many things as I had to do in the Bay Area, because the cost of living is a lot higher out there. So what’s changed is the amount of work that I’ve produced. The intensity with which I’m doing it has really changed, because I’m working full time as a composer here. [But] I don’t think my voice has really changed that radically. I think I’ve deepened it, though, because I started writing for orchestra since I’ve been here. I wasn’t doing that out in California. I didn’t even really have a desire to at that point. I was very focused on chamber music.

Since her move in 2004, Millikan has created four orchestral works. Her first opera—based on the true life stories of immigrants in St. Paul’s Swede Hollow neighborhood—was produced earlier this year. She has also released two CDs devoted exclusively to her music on Innova. The first disc, a collection of music she created for the E.A.R. Unit, offers a great introduction to her aesthetic range. In the six compositions contained therein, a keen sense of timbre combines with influences from Brazilian and many other world music traditions as well as a rhythmic punchiness coming out of jazz (and even funk on the uproarious 221B Baker Street), no doubt the result of her many years of work as a singer and jazz pianist before devoting herself exclusively to composition. The second disc, featuring three orchestral works, expands her palette without sacrificing any of the idiosyncrasies of her compositional vocabulary. For example, in Ballad Nocturne—commissioned by Orchestra Filarmonica di Torino for Italian virtuoso pianist Emanuele Arciuli (who loves jazz but who is not an improviser)—she wrote a solo piano part that frequently sounds as if it were being improvised even though it is completely written out.

Before she jots down a single note for a composition, Millikan typically constructs a prose narrative outlining her basic conception of the piece. As she explained when I visited her home in June, “Colors, shapes, sounds, durations—I describe everything as if I’m doing a review of a concert, and I listen through it. I describe it as clearly as possible. Then, by the time I’m actually composing, it goes really quickly.” Sometimes, these narratives emerge directly from her dreams. Each day she wakes up at 5:30 in the morning and jots down the unconscious narratives she remembers from the night before. “Internally, I think in story form, whether it’s instrumental, opera, orchestral, chamber, choral—it doesn’t matter” she acknowledged. Such a process means there’s always a story behind her music even if it isn’t always sonically apparent to listeners.

What she does hope listeners are always aware of, however, is that composers can be vital contributors to society at large. Since establishing herself in the Twin Cities, she has set herself the goal of escaping what she describes as “the new music ghetto.” In works such as her opera Swede Hollow and the House of Mirrors project, she has made overtures to local people who initially had no idea about what composers do but who are now engaged fans.

I think our whole view of the composer is so limited. It doesn’t need to be that way. I think being involved in the community is a really important thing to do, because of the way we think. We’re problem solvers. You know, we solve puzzles: thinking things backwards and forwards and forming all these different angles. That’s kind of what our job is as a composer. So I think we can be involved in the community in non-traditional ways.

How she and other composers interact with the public where they live and work and how those local audiences respond to their music is perhaps the most viable way to assess the significance of a composer’s personal geography.

Frank J. Oteri: All of your pieces, even the instrumental ones, have wonderfully elaborate narratives that inspire them. These pieces all tell stories. One piece, Red Migration, is about your coming to live in the place we are in right now, Minnesota. You’ve been here now for a number of years, but you spent most of your life in California. You were a California composer. Now you’re a Minnesota composer. Do those geographical associations mean anything to you? Do you feel that moving has changed your music in any way?

Ann Millikan: Well, I lived in California my whole life until I was 40, and moved here in 2004. It’s much more of an academic-oriented scene in the Bay Area, a lot of the things going on are connected to what’s going on in the universities and the conservatories and so on. Whereas in Minnesota, it’s a lot looser; there’s a lot more independence. And the weather here is a lot more intense in the winter time. But I think the biggest difference is the ability to not juggle so many things as I had to do in the Bay Area, because the cost of living is a lot higher out there. So what’s changed is the amount of work that I’ve produced. The intensity with which I’m doing it has really changed, because I’m working full time as a composer here and I’m devoting many hours a week to it. I’ve been able to focus and produce a lot more work.

FJO: It’s interesting to me that you haven’t mentioned the music changing in any way, just the amount of it that you’ve been able to create.

AM: I don’t think my voice has really changed that radically. I think I’ve deepened it, though, because I started writing for orchestra since I’ve been here. I wasn’t doing that out in California. I didn’t even really have a desire to at that point. I was very focused on chamber music. But coming out here, that was something I wanted to have an opportunity to delve into and develop. So I wrote a grant application to the Contemporary Music Fund out of the Argosy Foundation to do an orchestra CD—that was three years ago—and then I wrote only music for that. Those were actually my first orchestral compositions, starting in 2008. So that’s probably the biggest change, having the opportunity to develop that aspect of my voice since I’ve been here.

FJO: Returning to Red Migration, that’s a piece that exists in two versions. The original is for chamber ensemble, which is how it’s recorded on your first disc with the E.A.R. Unit. But it also exists for symphony orchestra. Did you start writing for orchestra by re-working that piece?

AM: Yup, that was the first thing I did.

FJO: But you didn’t include it on your orchestral CD. I’m very curious to hear how that sounds compared to the chamber version, which is how I know it.

AM: Well, it’s very dense. It actually hasn’t been premiered. I just did it.

FJO: But it’s interesting that it was your starting point for orchestral music, since it is also a piece about your coming to Minnesota. I always wonder when composers attach programmatic associations to pieces how much of that is perceptible to an audience. Sure, people can read the booklet notes for the CD, which is how I first learned the back-story, and I think this information is also on your website. But how much of this could people intuit if they didn’t read the notes? Does it matter to you? The narratives seem to be central to your own creative process, but how important is it for listeners to know the narratives behind your music?

AM: You’re right that a lot of my music has a narrative because that’s the way I work. Internally, I think in story form, whether it’s instrumental, opera, orchestral, chamber, choral—it doesn’t matter. There’s always that element for me because my process comes from a written background. When I set up to write a composition, I’m often spending a great deal of time writing on paper.

Millikan Composing Studio

Millikan in her composition studio

I get up at 5:30 in the morning, and that’s when my ideas just start coming, and I just write, write, write, write, write, write, write, and then go compose. They come to me very much in a descriptive form. So narratives are a very natural extension of that. A composition being a specific duration of time and how you’re taking the listener through that journey is of great interest for me. So I always like to share what that is for me because for each composition, it’s really different. And if the person gets that, I’m very happy. I think they exist on their own without them, but I do like them to have program notes.

FJO: One piece of yours that has a particularly amazing story is Trilhas de Sombra. In your description of the story behind this piece, you wrote about music coming from a sound that’s hidden in the earth under the snow. It’s a wonderfully rich metaphor. I guess it’s from experiencing a Minnesota winter, although there are all these Brazilian influences in it and I know that Brazilian culture has been very important to you formatively and still is. So I’m curious about that story. Is that your own invented story? Is it a folk tale? Where does that story come from?

AM: I started writing Trilhas de Sombra in 2008. It’s based on this whole series of snow-related dreams I had when we had this massive amount of snow in December of 2007. I started writing this story based on that, and very much wanting to think of it in terms of a composition eventually because it was a whole sound world that this character entered into. My relationship to sound is very physical, so when I create sound worlds, I’m thinking almost three dimensionally when I hear it in my head and when I’m trying to create it orchestrationally. So in a way, that story is sort of me as a composer. You know, it’s really the journey into that world, and where it comes from. It’s sort of allegorical on one level, and very personal on another.

From Trilhas de Sombra

A page from the orchestral score of Ann Millikan’s Trilhas de Sombra, © 2009 by Ann Millikan and reprinted with her permission.

FJO: Another personal level is that it ties to your niece Gabriela who lives in Brazil; several pieces of yours have been inspired by her. What’s her story? Is she a musician? Is she musical?

AM: Well, Gabriela and Pedro are my niece and nephew who live in Brazil, and I don’t get to see them very often. She just turned 18. They’re really amazing kids. It’s a way for me to connect with them through my work, and she’s very musical. I remember sitting down with her at the piano when she was about five or six and improvising with her, and she was just picking out things. And she would direct me to what to do. Their dad is a jazz guitarist, but they’re not musicians.

FJO: You started out as a jazz musician. On your website, you state something like: “I used to do jazz, but then I decided to be a classical composer, so I no longer do that.” Whenever I see something like that, I think: Why give up one and do the other? Why not do it all? I’m curious about if there was sort of a transition period, where you were doing both. Why did you feel you no longer wanted to be involved with jazz? Of course, jazz still surfaces in your music in other ways. I’m thinking of your Ballad Nocturne, which sounds somewhat like jazz even if the performance practice for it is not jazz.

AM: I made that leap to becoming a composer really because I was spreading myself very thin. I was playing piano, I was singing contemporary music and early music, and I was composing. I was sort of jumping between them from the time I graduated—my undergraduate was 1986—to the early ‘90s. I made a decision basically to go back to graduate school and focus on composition because I wanted to catch up with what I was hearing. The sound worlds that I was hearing in my mind compositionally didn’t fit into jazz at all, and I wanted to further my training and develop my skill level so that I could write what I was hearing. I stopped playing pretty much because I just didn’t have time to do everything. So I kind of gave up piano, and I was singing a bit for a while, but I gave that up, too. It’s an odd thing, but in terms of the worlds themselves, they’re often separated artistically. In the Twin Cities, the jazz musicians here are very open to crossing over, and I’ve worked with a lot of them in my House of Mirrors project, which was really fun. So that’s probably the closest I come to continuing to use that. But my sound world, the way I hear rhythm, the way I hear harmony, all of that is very much influenced by jazz. It’s the language that I come out of. I didn’t grow up in classical music and then learn about jazz, it’s the other way around, so it’s very indigenous to how I think.

FJO: You used to play the piano all the time, but unless it’s hiding somewhere, I don’t see a piano here.

AM: I know. I sold it when I moved here. I didn’t drive it across the country, so I don’t have one.

FJO: Do you miss it?

AM: I do. If I had a grand piano, I would play, I promise you that. I do miss it.

FJO: Although I guess it would be somewhat problematic to be banging on a piano at 5:30 in the morning, although early in the morning is a great time to compose.

AM: It just sparkles.

FJO: The phone isn’t ringing; nobody’s trying to get you to go out somewhere. But since you’re not banging things out on a piano, what’s your process? Is it all in your head? There doesn’t seem to be a physical intermediary. What is the process of getting from the sounds you’re hearing to the notated form?

Millikan Working

Millikan at work

AM: It goes straight from lines on a paper notebook to Sibelius. But the written process is very, very important for me, because it’s the opportunity for me to really describe what I’m hearing in my mind as clearly as possible. Colors, shapes, sounds, durations—I describe everything as if I’m doing a review of a concert, and I listen through it. I describe it as clearly as possible. Then, by the time I’m actually composing, it goes really quickly. Whereas if I just went straight to composing, I would just think, “O.K., what note comes next?” I like to think through a composition so that I really have a sense of it in its entirety first: Beginning, middle, and end. Where does it rise and fall? What are the high points and low points? Where are the cadences? It really feels like an organic whole before I write a single note.

FJO: It’s interesting that you do this as soon as you wake up in the morning, because you’ve just talked about one of your pieces as coming from dreams. I know on your site you talk about many other pieces coming out of dreams. So dream is an important element in your process and, of course, the best time to capture a dream is when you first wake up, right?

AM: Yeah, because it’s a time of day before you get the onslaught of emails, and news, and so forth. Your ability to listen internally is at its height, at least it is for me. So that’s a really important time. The first few hours in a day kind of set the whole rest of the day in motion. I can interrupt myself at any point, but if I’ve already done that, then I can come right back to it, whereas if I start the other way, it would be very hard to get to that concentration.

FJO: So how long does it typically take to compose a piece?

AM: It really depends, especially on the deadline. I mean, this opera, I had so little time to actually compose it. I wrote it in seven weeks, the entire thing, libretto and music. It’s a forty-minute opera. That was not a very comfortable pace, but it varies. For my orchestra CD, I wrote all of that music in eleven months.

FJO: Aside from ideas that will carry over from your dreams once you’re awake, there might be something that’s in your head when you’re out somewhere and you want to get back and get it on paper. Maybe you have these ideas for a line, or a harmony, or a timbral combination.

Millikan Washing Dishes

A musical inspiration can happen anywhere for Millikan, even while she’s washing dishes.

AM: Those things I can hear at any moment. Like the middle section of the Ballad Nocturne, where it has the bass melody, I wrote that washing dishes. That’s when it came to me. I just hear it in my head, and try to remind myself of it, until I can go upstairs and get it on paper. Things can come at any time, and I have to just be diligent about remembering them. I always try to keep that awareness open. That’s an issue. That’s one of the most interesting things I think about being a composer. Those feelers that you have are always alert, and so even when you’re taking time, going for a walk or whatever, your compositional mind is still working. It’s still coming up with things, pulling ideas from the environment.

FJO: I’m curious about how you structure your music. How important are structures for you? Do you work with structures? How much is intuition?

AM: It depends on the piece, but I think structurally, and that’s definitely part of my process. I can get very heady and techie about it, but I don’t tend to put that into my program notes.

FJO: You can get heady and techie with us. We want to hear it.

AM: Well, I’m very interested in the way timbre works, and intervallic relationships like stacked ninths, and how they can create layers of sound, clusters, the way they poke out. Creating those dimensionalities between things is something I mess with a lot, and the expansion and contraction of time, moving durations that way. That’s all part of the pre-compositional process for me. I think through that stuff really carefully. Just sort of intuiting my way through something doesn’t work. I get blocked really quickly. I know some composers just sit down and they write. But I really have to plan it and have what is going on structurally in my mind really clearly.

FJO: One thing I find really interesting is that these narratives that inform these pieces don’t necessarily lead intuitively, at least to me, to where I think they should go in terms of the sound world. I’m thinking specifically about 221B Baker Street. I love that piece. I listen to stuff before I read the program notes, usually, but then I always read the program notes afterwards. But after that first listen through, the last thing I probably would have thought of was Sherlock Holmes for that one. It was sort of a funk, jazz, rock, kind of sound world, and there’s all this quintuple versus duple stuff going on. So what’s the connection?

AM: Well, that really was just plain fun. It was basically writing an encore piece for the album, something that would be really playful. So, in terms of why I did it, or how I thought about it, that one was definitely more intuitive. That one was something more fun to write. I wanted to do something that used electronics and it was a fun vehicle for the E.A.R. Unit to put an octave divider on the cello and use sound manipulators on the woodwinds and so forth.

FJO: Now in terms of writing for that ensemble: E.A.R. Unit is a quasi-Pierrot-type ensemble. They have two percussionists, so it’s not exactly the official Pierrot plus percussion instrumentation, but it’s pretty close. Anything written for them could easily be done by another one of the many Pierrot groups actively performing; just add an extra player. I find it interesting that despite all these groups, and the richness of that combination, so many composers write only one Pierrot piece. So it’s nice that, because of your residency with them, you were able to really develop a whole repertoire. Yet you tweaked the instrumentation in slightly different ways in each of the pieces; you never did the exact same thing twice.

AM: Right. Well, when we were together for that residency in 2001 at the Berkeley Arts Center, and I had a chance to work with them that whole week and write a whole bunch of new material for them, part of it was wanting to think about creating an interesting program that wasn’t always the same, and also wanting to highlight the ensemble in different ways and bring out different aspects of them and the way they interact.

FJO: And of course the danger in writing for a very specific ensemble is that it’s so tailor made for the group it was written for that no one else can ever do it. While that’s not necessarily true for the E.A.R. Unit, because their instrumentation is ubiquitous, not every other group would probably be willing to work with electronics or even know how to do so. Have other ensembles picked up those pieces?

AM: Trens Coloridos para Gabriela has been performed by several other groups. So has Three Reflections. But Baker Street hasn’t been performed by anybody else. The Woodcarver & The Blacksmith they did in L.A. So some of them have had other groups do them.

FJO: Of course these questions always come up when writing for the orchestra. Orchestras theoretically are equipped to do anything that is written for them, yet ironically orchestra pieces tend to be the ones that get done by one orchestra and then never done by any others. You talked about initially thinking of yourself as a chamber music composer and thinking that the orchestra was out of your reach. The orchestra is out of reach for most composers. But you had a change of heart on this and not only wrote several works for orchestra, you got them performed and recorded in Bulgaria of all places. That’s a bit of an odyssey.

AM: Well, I tend to have these huge ideas, and then I just find a way to do them. That was just one of them. I wanted to give myself that challenge, and the combination of funding, Innova support and foundation support, and my desire to go into it all lined up. In a way, it was my Ph.D., but I didn’t get a degree for it. Typically what people do in a Ph.D. program is they focus on writing for orchestra. So I just had to do it on my own.

What was really exciting for me was having the opportunity to write the things that I’ve wanted to write for a good 20 years, in terms of my sound world. [As a member of the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus] I recorded [Morton Feldman’s] Rothko Chapel with New Albion in 1990 and that was really my introduction into contemporary music. It had an enormous impact on me: those sonorities and the sort of melody within those sonorities. It just stayed in my mind for years and years. And it wasn’t until I got to really focus on the orchestra for that year that I had a chance to go as deep into those sound world possibilities as I had been imagining for a long period of time. People say, “What do you mean Morton Feldman’s an influence on your music? I don’t get it. You’re all over the place.” The rhythmic punchiness of my music is much more connected to jazz. But the textures, the layers, the way he orchestrates, those are all things that I spent a lot of time studying in the early ‘90s and then kind of developing my own style around. It’s really across all my music if you follow the thread. I’m working with rhythmic juxtaposition and layering. That interdependence of modal line and melody within really dense textures is something that I’m very fascinated with. So getting to do that with full orchestra was just—wow—it was incredibly exciting. I loved it!

FJO: But of course the other side to this is that it’s very different from working with E.A.R. Unit or other chamber ensembles, which are more often willing and able to work with somebody, allow pieces to gestate, and rehearse them a million times until they’re right. Orchestras all over the world function on a clock. If you’re lucky, you get two rehearsals and then you get a performance which might not be ideal. Good luck ever getting that composition done again, unless it miraculously finds its way to other orchestras. Some recent pieces for orchestra have had such luck, but there are so many other terrific pieces in addition to the ones that get played. How was it working with the Bulgarians? Did you have an opportunity to interact with them individually, or was it a situation like so many composers have where they only get to talk to the conductor for a few minutes in between run-throughs?

AM: It was pretty much a traditional recording session set up. I had a chance to meet with the conductor, to go through the score and trouble shoot. But then, you know, the clock’s running and they’re just doing it. They rehearsed and recorded at the same time, so they were running stuff and then doing takes. So that was not the most ideal situation in terms of getting a chance to really hear the pieces as a whole live. It was done in chunks. But they did a terrific job, I thought.

FJO: I imagine all the music you wrote for them is completely notated out and there are no graphic notation elements or indeterminate elements in the scores, even though that has been an element in other pieces of yours.

AM: I think when I first started graduate school, coming from jazz, I was used to giving a certain amount of freedom to the performers that I was working with. But over time, especially working with classical performers, who are less comfortable with improvisation, I tended to just write it out if I knew what I wanted. So more and more, I was through-composing absolutely everything that I did. There have been projects where there was some sort of aleatoric element. Then it was sort of a different process, like with the House of Mirrors piece. Ballad Nocturne was commissioned by the Torino Orchestra for Emanuele Arciuli. He’s not a jazz pianist, but he appreciates jazz very much, and so I wrote it to sound as if it were being improvised, to sound like the piano soloist is developing something very organically. He’s actually championed that; he’s performed it with a couple of different orchestras in Italy.

FJO: You’re working in theater and opera now, that’s another whole world. I’m curious about how people in that community are responding to your music. How willing are they to take chances and how much are you trying to push the envelope with them?

AM: Your primary objective as an opera composer is to tell the story. The story has to come first and you want to always make sure people can understand it. So in terms of the way the recitatives are written, the way the singers are interacting, the way I orchestrate, all of that is very much in service to making sure that it’s coming across. It’s simplified way, way, way down. I didn’t take risks. But I still enjoyed what I did. I didn’t by any means cheat my voice or anything, but I kept it as simple as possible, so that we could actually do it. There are so many factors when you enter into the opera world. You’ve got singers who not only are having to learn the music, and memorize the music, they’re also acting. And that’s a tremendous amount of processing that the singer has to go through in a very short period of time. It’s remarkable to witness: to see them on book, and the next night they’re off book, then to see them perform it where they just become those characters. I have so much respect for them in their ability to do that, because that’s a very tall order. If you’re a chamber musician you’ve always got a score in front of you. But they’re learning blocking, and they’re having to be in character, and they’ve got to listen to the conductor, and they’ve got to follow what’s going on, and they’ve got to remember everything. So you want to be as giving to them as you possibly can be. If you’re doing big tonality shifts, make sure they’ve got things to listen for. You know, create cues. If I create dissonances, I’m always backing it up with something that they could anchor with. You always have to be aware of that. You can’t just be as completely free as you are with instrumental music. With a chamber piece, you’ve got somebody who’s going to sit down and really study your score. If you’ve got crazy intervallic relationships, they can take the time to learn that. The opera objective is very different.

FJO: Now in terms of writing with texts, I know you’ve done some choral pieces, too. I wonder how much working with a text changes what your process is. In the case of your opera, you’re setting your own texts, so you have different liberties than if you’re setting, say, Rilke or scripture. Those are texts that you can’t really mess around with that much.

AM: Exactly. Yes. That’s a nice liberty of writing your own text: if you don’t like the scansion of something and you want to change a word, you can. But when I worked on the libretto, I was always thinking about how I was going to set it. So I was pairing that very closely together. When I’ve written choral music, it’s often been a very separate process: be a writer and write the text, come back to it as a composer and look at it fresh. The opera was much more simultaneous. And it was very character driven. It was very much focused on who these people were, how they would express themselves, how they thought, how they felt, what their motivations were, what their arc was in the story. So that’s very different than just writing a choral piece. A choral piece is much more one dimensional. You’re just telling whatever that message is for that piece. It is less nuanced than if you’re writing for a particular character.

FJO: So, now that you’ve gotten your feet wet in both the opera and orchestra worlds, are these places you want to return to? Where does it go from here?

AM: Well, opera’s been a goal of mine for a long time. I think it comes naturally to me, because I’ve been a writer and think about story so much. It’s just part of how I’m oriented, so it was a natural. To me there’s no deeper connection between classical music and theater than opera. You asked about why I decided to write for orchestra, that’s really one of the main reasons why I did it because I wanted to write an opera. The way that the orchestra can express itself can really come alive with opera. So, yeah, I want to do more. Absolutely.

FJO: I’ve gotten to know your music through these two fabulous recordings on Innova, but I’ve never heard any of it live. Luckily we’ve got these great technologies that allow us to hear much more music than we ever could if we could only hear it in person in a live performance. But with opera, you really need to be there. So I’m hoping that these pieces get picked up by lots of ensembles so that people will have an opportunity to hear them live. At the same time, I hope it’s all being well documented with audio and video recordings that will be available for people to see and hear.

AM: Thank you. I would love that. Swede Hollow, the opera that I just did, was very well received by the local community, and there was immediately talk that we should do this every year because it’s indigenous to this place. It’s a fascinating history, and I was amazed that people didn’t even know about it. Between 1839 and 1956, immigrant populations came in waves through Swede Hollow. It’s a ravine in the eastern part of St. Paul, and it was an area sheltered from the wind. It was a place where people could live very cheaply, if they didn’t have any means. So starting in the 1850s, immigrants from Sweden who were escaping the famines and pressures that they had under their agricultural system were starting to come to Minnesota. As they settled and could do a little bit better, they would move north and they would start farming; that was the pattern. Waves of immigrants came. In the first 50 years, between 1850 and 1900, it was mostly Swedish. Then around the turn of the century, it was mostly Italians. Railroad barons would go to Italy and get workers to come over. It happened in Sweden a bit, too. So you had all of these communities that settled there for periods of time and then would move on. The last wave of immigrants was from Mexico. They came here to work the farms.

For the past two years, I’ve been very closely aligned with the community around Swede Hollow and have gotten to know some of the people that lived there. I interviewed them, worked with them, and did this little series of concerts and storytelling with them. So writing an opera based on their story was sort of the next thing that I wanted to do in that process. For a good five months, I did a lot of research at the historical center, did in-depth interviews, read books, went online, and was just compiling this wealth of experience from over the 117-year period of this evolving community. People that lived there [many years ago] are still around today. They still know each other. People have portrayed it as a slum, a ghetto, and that people were evicted, and then there was this whole finding that there was contaminated water. There are all of these things that have been perpetuated over the years. But the truth is very different than that. These were very close-knit communities. Everyone looked after everyone’s children. People worked and had different odd jobs. Sometimes they were actually doing quite well. Their homes are actually quite nice. They did have electricity. They did have telephones. They did have water pumps in their homes. There was a lot of misconception about it; I was hoping that in the opera I could tell some of the other side of the story. So I brought all of these things together with fictionalized characters that told different aspects of the story.

FJO: So to bring it full circle, it sounds to me like you’ve now internalized being a Minnesota composer.

AM: Well, I’ve certainly gotten very local in the last two years. I’ve planted myself very much in the east side and am even growing the native plants of Minnesota here on my land. I’m getting to know the community in a very personal way. Getting out of the new music ghetto was something I very much wanted to do, to interact with people that really had no idea what I was doing. I think our whole view of the composer is so limited. It doesn’t need to be that way. I think being involved in the community is a really important thing to do, because of the way we think. We’re problem solvers. You know, we solve puzzles: thinking things backwards and forwards and forming all these different angles. That’s kind of what our job is as a composer. So I think we can be involved in the community in non-traditional ways. That’s something that’s very interesting to me, integrating my work as a composer with the work of the community that I live in.

Millikan In Garden

Millikan in her garden among the native plants of Minnesota