Tag: new orchestra music

Valerie Coleman: Writing Music for People

Earlier this year, New Music USA launched Amplifying Voices, a program promoting marginalized voices in the orchestral field. Following a national call, eight American orchestras are leading consortium commissions for eight different composers. The seven composers selected thus far are Tania León (the first individual composer NewMusicBox interviewed, in 1999), Tyshawn Sorey (featured in NewMusicBox last year), Jessie Montgomery (featured four years ago), Brian Raphael Nabors, Juan Pablo Contreras, Shelley Washington, and Valerie Coleman, with whom we spoke a decade ago, regarding her maverick wind quintet, Imani Winds.

One of the most exciting aspects of Imani Winds is their commitment to new music from a diverse repertoire of composers, which makes sense given that they were founded by a composer. But what about Valerie Coleman, the composer?

In our first conversation with Valerie, we barely scratched the surface of her compositional activities. Since then, these have become her primary artistic focus. Valerie has recently been chosen to participate in the Metropolitan Opera / Lincoln Center Theater New Works program, a perfect fit for her given her commitment to storytelling through her music, no matter the idiom.

  • I’m not somebody who writes based on the intellectual side of composition, but rather on the side of addressing what it is within all of us.

    Valerie Coleman
  • When I got into college... I started to recognize, whoa, maybe composers are supposed to be White male and not Black female.

    Valerie Coleman
  • It’s so important that educators encourage and not discourage in what they do.

    Valerie Coleman
  • I’m very excited about Amplifying Voices ... I envision working with young composers of color and helping them to find their voice.

    Valerie Coleman
  • It’s our responsibility to convey that story to the performer in such a way that is not cerebral.

    Valerie Coleman
  • A composer doesn’t necessarily have to choose any story to tell. That’s just how I identify and it’s because of what my ancestors have gone through.

    Valerie Coleman
  • The thing that we’ve always worked towards whenever we play music is the idea of playing together. Note for note. Beat by beat.

    Valerie Coleman

So the launch of Amplifying Voices seemed like a perfect opportunity to reconnect and have a conversation about her own music—her aesthetics, her inspiration, and what she hopes she can communicate to listeners.

“That’s just how I identify and it’s because of what my ancestors have gone through,” she explains. “I feel it necessary to tell their story, but also really just embrace this idea of how to walk in the world and inform people around me. … I recognize that there are stories that are yet untold that if they were told, they would transform all those who would hear them. So it’s my job to create music that allows that transformative power to happen.”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Valerie Coleman: Writing Music for People
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Valerie Coleman
September 29, 2020—11 A.M.
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Miami FL and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Lei Liang Wins 2020 Grawemeyer Award for Climate Change-Inspired Piece

An AAPI man posing in front of a wooden background

Chinese-American composer Lei Liang has won the 2020 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for an orchestral work that evokes the threat posed by climate change and the opportunity it offers for redemption. Boston Modern Orchestra Project commissioned the winning piece, A Thousand Mountains, a Million Streams, which premiered in 2018 in Boston’s Jordan Hall with Gil Rose conducting. Recipients of the 2020 Grawemeyer Awards are being named this week pending formal approval by university trustees. The annual $100,000 prizes reward outstanding ideas in music, world order, psychology, education and religion. Winners will visit Louisville in April to accept their awards and give free talks on their winning ideas.

“Liang’s piece, which explores a huge range of emotions and ends with both hope and ambiguity, has a forceful, convincing arc and wonderful orchestral colors,” said Marc Satterwhite, music award director. “Like some of our other winners, he challenges people inside and outside the field of music to ponder important things, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so.”

“I wanted to convey the importance of preserving our landscapes, both physically and spiritually.”

“The world we live in today is dangerous,” explained Liang. “Our very existence is threatened by global warming, which is causing violent disruptions to the living things on our planet and being made worse by human irresponsibility. When creating the work, I wanted to convey the importance of preserving our landscapes, both physically and spiritually, to sustain a place where we and our children can belong.”

Lei Liang

2020 Grawemeyer Award winning composer Lei Liang (Photo by Alex Matthews, courtesy University of Louisville.)

Lei Liang (b. 1972) is a music professor at University of California, San Diego, and research-artist-in-residence at Qualcomm Institute, the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. He has composed more than 100 works, including pieces addressing other contemporary social issues such as human trafficking and gun violence. Xiaoxiang, his concerto for saxophone and orchestra, was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2015.

Schott Music, a company founded in 1770 in Germany now with offices worldwide, publishes all of Liang’s compositions. In 2018, BMOP/sound record label released a recording of his Grawemeyer-winning piece which also includes Xiaoxiang. Click here to listen to a complete recording of A Thousand Mountains, a Million Streams and to look at a perusal copy of the full orchestral score.


Additional comments by Lei Liang on the inspiration for A Thousand Mountains, a Million Streams

“I came across the writings and landscape paintings of Huang Binhong and fell in love.”

A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams is a musical landscape that I painted with a sonic brush. The journey of this work started about 25 years ago when I was a college freshman. While immersed in the study of Chinese shanshui (mountain-stream, or landscape) paintings, I came across the writings and landscape paintings of Huang Binhong (1865-1955) and fell in love. I hand-copied Huang Binhong’s essays, visited Hangzhou, China, where he had his last residence, and went to museums to search for his original paintings. Since those first discoveries, his paintings have never ceased to inspire me.

In 2009, I met the Berkeley-based scholar and connoisseur Jung Ying Tsao (1929-2011). A particular album in Mr. Tsao’s collection caught my attention. It was painted by Huang Binhong in 1952, when he was nearly blind from cataracts. The master painter (then aged 87) continued to paint in blindness, and even created some of his most magical works during that time. It is an inner landscape, the magical projection of an internal vision. This orchestra piece is the culmination of a project that took shape over several years, and developed over several stages, mainly during my research residency at the Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego. The first phase, Hearing Landscapes, was the sonification of a Chinese traditional landscape painting by Huang Binhong (1865-1955), painted during a time when the artist was blind (in 1953).

From 2014 to 2016, I had a further opportunity to continue my research into Huang Binhong when I became the composer-in-residence at California Institute of Information Technology (Calit2) and Qualcomm Institute at the University of California, San Diego. With a group of scientists, we created a collaborative project that sought to conserve and explore Huang Binhong’s art through creative processes in musical composition and data visualization. Through the courtesy of Elna Tsao and with the support from the Mozhai Foundation, Huang’s album leaves were loaned to us, captured digitally, then reconstructed for high-resolution projection, revealing to viewers details of the work that have never been seen before. By using audio software technology, the intricate world hidden within the paintings’ brushstrokes are rendered sonically in an immersive space. Our project enables a viewer to fly through this painting, as if riding on a drone, and draws us into the landscape of microscopic elements – a fiber in the rice paper, the trace left by a single hair in the brush.

“Around the same time as China’s Cultural Revolution, the world was just starting to experience the catastrophic effect of what we would come to call global warming.”

In the 1950s, the cultural-political landscape in China began to change dramatically. Soon, China was to witness and undergo its most violent self-destruction – the Cultural Revolution – aiming at the annihilation of its own heritage through unprecedented brutality against its people. Around the same time, the world was just starting to experience the catastrophic effect of what we would come to call global warming. The harrowing effects of this era, induced by the emission of greenhouse gases, began to cause what we now know is the inevitable consequences of climate change: the sea will rise, the icecaps will melt, cities will flood, and whole species will be wiped out. The landscape we inhabit will forever change.

In 1952, in a darkness both literal and metaphoric, the blind Huang Binhong envisioned a luminous landscape that seemed to arise out of the shredded fragments and ashes. It transcended the brutal reality, offering a glimpse of a landscape to come, perhaps a place our children can call home.


Below is a link to a documentary, Deriving Worlds, about the research Liang conducted with scientists and sound engineers.

Deriving Worlds from Keita Funakawa on Vimeo.

American Composers Orchestra Announces Winners of Two Commissions Chosen From the 2018 Underwood New Music Readings

The American Composers Orchestra (ACO) has awarded composer Carlos Bandera its 2018 Underwood Commission, which is a $15,000 commission for a work to be premiered by ACO in a future season. Chosen from six finalists during ACO’s 27th Underwood New Music Readings on June 21 and 22, 2018, Bandera won the top prize with his work Lux in Tenebris. In addition, for the ninth year, audience members at the Underwood New Music Readings had a chance to make their voices heard through the Audience Choice Commission. The winner this year was composer Tomàs Peire Serrate, for his piece Rauxa. As the winner, Serrate also receives a $15,000 commission from ACO for a composition to be premiered in a future season.

Tomàs Peire Serrate (photo by Jason Buchanan)

Carlos Bandera (photo by Maitreyi Muralidharan) and Tomàs Peire Serrate (photo by Jason Buchanan). Courtesy Jensen Artists

“Carlos Bandera’s orchestral writing speaks with clarity and purpose,” said ACO Artistic Director Derek Bermel. “We were impressed by the expansive, colorful landscape in his tone poem Lux in Tenebris and look forward with great enthusiasm to his new work for ACO.”

ACO President Ed Yim added, “Tomàs Peire Serrate’s piece Rauxa takes the audience on a visceral ride of arresting rhythms and colors. He harnesses the forces of a large orchestra with such amazing command, and we applaud our audience’s good taste in picking his piece as the Audience Choice Commission. The commission that goes with the audience favorite vote puts a high value on the input of our listeners in the discovery of the future of orchestral music.”

2018 Underwood Commission winner Carlos Bandera (born 1993) is fascinated by musical architecture and by the music of the past. His recent music explores these fascinations, often by placing a musical quotation, be it a phrase, scale, or sonority, within dense microtonal textures. Carlos’ music has been performed in the Faroe Islands, Scotland, Uzbekistan, China, and several spaces in the United States, including Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall. Carlos earned his Bachelor of Music degree in Music Theory and Composition from the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University, where he studied with Elizabeth Brown, Dean Drummond, and Marcos Balter. Carlos recently received his Master of Music degree in Composition from The Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, where he participated in masterclasses with Christopher Rouse and Georg Friedrich Haas and studied privately with Kevin Puts. Lux in Tenebris was inspired by the music of Anton Bruckner. As Bandera explained, “Upon first hearing the music of Bruckner, I felt deeply connected to the composer and his work. His Eighth Symphony in particular, with its immense harmonic landscapes, devastating silences, and profound ‘darkness-to-light’ narrative, continues to be one of my greatest influences – no doubt, in more ways than I am even aware of. Lux in Tenebris explores these elements of the Eighth Symphony by allowing Brucknerian light to pierce through a dense micropolyphonic fabric.”

The two award-winning scores. (Photo by Lyndsay Werking, courtesy Jensen Artists)

The two award-winning scores. (Photo by Lyndsay Werking, courtesy Jensen Artists)

2018 Audience Choice Commission winner Tomàs Peire Serrate (born 1979) studied composition with Salvador Brotons at the Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya (Barcelona) and with Tapio Tuomela and Risto Väisänen at the Sibelius Academy (Helsinki). In 2013 he graduated from New York University with a Master’s in Scoring for Film and Multimedia, where he studied with Ron Sadoff, Mark Suozzo, Justin Dello Joio, and Julia Wolfe. That year he moved to Los Angeles to explore the film music industry and participate as a composer in different projects including writing the music for the films The Anushree Experiements and Prism, and orchestrating and arranging music for Love and Friendship, If I Stay, and Minions. In the fall of 2015, Tomàs initiated his PhD at UCLA, where studies with Bruce Broughton, Mark Carlson, Richard Danielpour, Peter Golub, Ian Krouse, and David S. Lefkowitz. His research at UCLA is about music, space and media, with a particular interest in new technologies and virtual reality. His concert works have been performed in Europe, US and Asia, and is currently working on the English version of his monodrama Hillary, recently premiered at the Off-Liceu series in Barcelona in June 2018. According to Serrate, “Rauxa is a sudden determination, like the impulse I had to write this piece, or an outburst, which actually is how this work begins. It is a Catalan word used in pair with another one, Seny, meaning balance and sensibleness, to describe or refer to the Catalan people and their character. This duality, like in other cultures and traditions, is essential, indivisible, and necessary to understand each part separately, which is what I tried to explore here.  I worked on sketches and sections of Rauxa in different moments and places, always away from my home country, Catalonia, and I kept coming back to it looking to improve it as well as to learn more about myself and about music.”

In addition to Carlos Bandera and Tomàs Peire Serrate, the 2018 Underwood New Music Readings participants were Lily Chen, Scott Lee, Ryan Lindviet, and Liliya Ugay. The 27th Annual Underwood New Music Readings were under the direction of ACO’s Artistic Director, composer Derek Bermel, and were conducted by ACO Music Director George Manahan, with Bermel, Gabriela Ortiz, John Corigliano, and Robert Beaser as mentor composers. The conductor, mentor composers, and principal players from ACO provided critical feedback to each of the participants during and after the sessions. In addition to the Readings, the composer participants took part in Career Development Workshops with industry professionals. This year’s New Music Readings attracted over 250 submissions from emerging composers around the country. To date, more than 150 emerging composers have participated in these readings and it has helped launch the careers of many composers including Anna Clyne, Sebastian Currier, Jennifer Higdon, Pierre Jalbert, Aaron Jay Kernis, Hannah Lash, Tobias Picker, Narong Prangcharoen, Paola Prestini, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Huang Ruo, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Kate Soper, Gregory Spears, Joan Tower, and Nina C. Young.

After taking a collective bow, the six composers featured in the 2018 ACo Underwood New Music Readings applaud conductor George Manahan and the members of the American Composers Orchestra. (Photo by Peter Yip, photo courtesy Jensen Artists.)

After taking a collective bow, the six composers featured in the 2018 ACo Underwood New Music Readings applaud conductor George Manahan and the members of the American Composers Orchestra. (Photo by Peter Yip, photo courtesy Jensen Artists.)

There’s Still So Much to Learn, But I’m More Confident Now

Early in 2016, one of my friends asked me to describe my career aspirations. Where do I see myself in five years, or in ten years?

I’ve always found this kind of question to be extremely difficult to answer. Careers and opportunities—especially in the world of classical music—can change so quickly, and sometimes quite arbitrarily. Often, planning and setting goals can seem like futile exercises. I’m always concerned that long-term planning will lead to disappointment, or will get in the way of larger opportunities.

So, in responding to my friend’s question, I kept my answer somewhat vague. “I want people to hear my orchestral music,” I said. “I want to write more of it, and I want opportunities for it to be heard!”

The past year has been extraordinary for me.

The past year has been extraordinary for me. Last November, I was attending rehearsals with the Yale Philharmonia as they prepared Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky for a December performance. The concert program only consisted of new works for orchestra written by composition students at the Yale School of Music. I learned so much throughout those rehearsals—not only from hearing my own piece, but from hearing my colleagues’ music as well. I didn’t imagine that Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky would have an interesting life beyond the December concert.

In February of 2017, I learned that I had been chosen to participate in the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings. Later in the spring, I received an invitation to attend the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. I now had opportunities to rethink sections of Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky and make revisions.

At this point, Likely Pictures is a strong piece, and it’s also a practical piece. The musicians of both the American Composers Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra seemed to understand what it was about fairly quickly. After several revisions, the notation is very clear, and there are very few questions regarding my intentions. I have been present at every performance of my orchestral music; ideally, a conductor and an ensemble should be capable of assembling my music without my presence and input.

A conductor and an ensemble should be capable of assembling my music without my presence and input.

In the spring of 2017, I learned that I had won a commission from the New York Youth Symphony. This was extraordinary news—I was receiving my very first orchestra commission! In my application, I had submitted Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky as my work sample. In a significant way, Likely Pictures had made this new opportunity possible.

Hilary Purrington standing outside Carnegie Hall in front of the New York Youth Symphony November 19, 2017 Concert Poster featuring a photo of her and listing her world premiere performance.

This past weekend, I heard the premiere of Daylights, my newest orchestral work. Commissioned as part of First Music, the New York Youth Symphony’s commission competition, Daylights literally opened the NYYS’s 2017-18 season. The work is a short, active concert opener. When I began composing it, I knew I wanted to create moments that capture the sensation of staring into a brilliant light. The word “daylights,” most often found as part of the expression “the living daylights,” is an archaic idiom referring to an individual’s eyes or consciousness. The title takes on many meanings—personal awareness and perception as well as the brilliant light of day.

Very often, my compositions come in pairs. I discover a sound or technique while writing one piece, and then I seek to improve upon it in a subsequent work. In a way, Daylights is an expansion of what I learned while composing Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky.

As I explained in a previous post, early drafts of Likely Pictures were extremely episodic, and my transitions between sections were less than graceful. My teacher, Christopher Theofanidis, encouraged me to revisit these sections and compose elegant transitions. Chris taught me to be thoughtful and deliberate when writing transitional material, and this new, increased awareness has impacted everything I have written over the course of the past year.

Similar to Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky, Daylights opens with a very sparse, delicate texture. The violins sustain very high, fragile harmonics, and a solo flute sings out a melody. I add glockenspiel, a second flute, and—eventually—solo violin and a very rude bass drum. In the final measures of the work, the music returns to a thicker, more active version of the work’s introductory, chamber-like material before blossoming into a noisy, active conclusion. In both Likely Pictures and Daylights, I contrast moments of intimate chamber music with expansive orchestral passages.

When composing Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky, I experimented with combining instruments to create percussive, staccato “hits.” It’s a defining characteristic of the piece, and I chose to incorporate this element into Daylights (although, in a less significant way). In this case, however, the “hits” are orchestrated differently, and I usually use something to lead into these staccato punches. For example, in one passage, a crescendoing snare roll and solo flute terminates with pizzicato strings and a choked suspended cymbal. This is an example of how I grow artistically: I find a musical element or effect that I like, and I experiment with it in different pieces and contexts. It then becomes something that I can keep in my “repertoire” of sounds and ideas.

I’m extremely grateful for opportunities to continue experimenting and developing.

Following the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings this past June, I learned that I had been awarded the Underwood Commission. Every year, one of the UNMR participants is selected to receive a commission for a future season. This is an extraordinary opportunity and privilege for me, and it will be my first commission from a professional orchestra. And, this opportunity is arriving at an interesting time for me, both artistically and professionally. I have learned so much about orchestral writing over the course of this past year. I’m a lot more confident in my ability to compose for orchestra, and I have so many ideas I want to hear realized. I also recognize that I still have so much to learn, and I’m extremely grateful for opportunities to continue experimenting and developing.

Daniel Schlosberg, Charles Peck, Peter Shin, Nina C. Young, Hilary Purrington, Andrew Hsu, and Saad Haddad talk through details in their pieces at a session with Minnesota Orchestra musicians during the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute.

Daniel Schlosberg, Charles Peck, Peter Shin, Nina C. Young, Hilary Purrington, Andrew Hsu, and Saad Haddad talk through details in their pieces at a session with Minnesota Orchestra musicians during the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. (Photo by Mele Willis, courtesy Minnesota Orchestra.)

You Study, Practice, and Improve

Last Sunday, I flew from New York City to Minneapolis. I boarded my flight and almost immediately fell asleep. When I woke up mid-flight (just in time for the drink cart to arrive at my aisle), the woman seated next to me commented, “You’re very quiet!”

I almost responded with “You’re welcome,” but I thought that might come off as a little snarky. Instead, I nodded and smiled and hoped she’d leave me to enjoy my lukewarm coffee. Much to my chagrin, she started asking questions. Am I from Minneapolis? From New York? Traveling for work? For fun? Blinking vigorously and rubbing my eyes in an attempt to re-moisten my contact lenses, I answered her questions, and I didn’t make a single thing up (as I usually do). I told her I was flying to Minneapolis to participate in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute.

“A composer!” she gasped. “Wow. Just, wow. That is a true gift. Wow.” She then proceeded to barrage me with unsolicited, ill-informed career advice, which I won’t get into here. But, to return to her initial reaction–this kind of statement isn’t uncommon. Composing can be a mysterious thing to both musicians and non-musicians, and many people describe it as a “gift,” as if we composers possess special powers. Others simply say, “Composing? That sounds really hard.”

Much of composing, though, is just like any other skill or ability: you study, practice, and improve. I’m sometimes tempted to answer the question of “So, do you know how to play all the instruments?” with “Why yes, I do.” But, learning how instruments work and what is idiomatic is a long process that involves a lot of trial and error. Countless rehearsals and performances over the past ten years or so have taught me what works, what’s risky, and what fails. And I’m still learning! Every rehearsal and performance experience compels me to reexamine what and how I write.

Learning how instruments work and what is idiomatic is a long process that involves a lot of trial and error.

Orchestral writing can be particularly tricky because opportunities for readings and performances can be few and far between, especially for “emerging” composers. This past year, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have worked on Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky with three different orchestras: the Yale Philharmonia, the American Composers Orchestra, and most recently, the Minnesota Orchestra.

Hilary Purrington with score in hand discusses a detail in her score with Osmo Vänskä during a rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra.

Hilary Purrington with score in hand discusses a detail in her score with Osmo Vänskä during a rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra.

Directed by composer Kevin Puts, the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute lasts for five full days and includes workshops, rehearsals, and meetings with conductor Osmo Vänskä and musicians from the orchestra. The program culminates in the Future Classics concert on the final day of the program. The Institute is comprehensive, and each composer’s work receives thorough and generous rehearsal time. We were all astounded by the speed at which the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra learn and understand new pieces. By the second rehearsal, Maestro Vänskä and the orchestra musicians were no longer assembling the pieces and figuring out how they worked; rather, the ensemble had shifted its focus to musical and artistic decisions.

Throughout the week, the seven participating composers met with representatives from each of the orchestra’s sections. The musicians gave us honest feedback regarding our writing for their instruments and how we chose to notate and format our music.  Similar themes reappeared throughout these meetings. The musicians repeatedly reminded us that they have very busy musical lives and are responsible for learning massive volumes of music. Given the limited amount of practice time a musician has for a single piece, it is vitally important that our writing is as clear as possible and simple to put together. For very practical reasons, no performer wants to be responsible for solving a complicated puzzle.

Musicians also assume that everything they see in their part will be heard. It can be disappointing to find out that a technically demanding passage is either completely obscured or “just an effect.” The “just an effect” issue is a common problem, especially when extended techniques are involved. Certain effects may work well in chamber contexts, but they don’t necessarily translate well to orchestral writing. Many extended techniques are quiet and subtle, and their effects are lost because they are obscured or simply can’t carry through a large hall.

Certain effects work well in chamber contexts, but don’t necessarily translate to orchestral writing.

The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra also stressed the importance of clear notation. Several individuals pointed out that modern notation created with computers can lead composers to make overly complicated parts. Rather than providing clarity, “over-notated” passages only cause confusion and frustration. In many instances, it can be better to use words to convey the composer’s intentions. But, don’t use too many words. One of the musicians asked me to use fewer adjectives and descriptions. So, you can’t necessarily please everyone, but it is helpful to consider the many perspectives and opinions of individual orchestra members.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the week was the opportunity to learn my colleagues’ music. The seven of us (Saad Haddad, Andrew Hsu, Peter Shin, Nina Young, Dan Schlosberg, Charles Peck, and myself) have very different musical instincts when it comes to composing for orchestra. Observing the choices that other composers make—whether musical or notational—and how these decisions impact rehearsals performances is both educational and inspiring.

An open program for the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute showing photos of the seven composers featured in November 2017.

It was also incredibly clear to us how important the Composer Institute is to the Minnesota Orchestra. Rather than handing the concert off to an assistant, Music Director Osmo Vänskä studied, learned, and conducted all of our pieces. He gave thoughtful feedback and criticism, and made us feel as if our music is just as important as the repertoire of any standard concert. The orchestra musicians, rather than sight reading in the first rehearsal, had actually taken the time to practice their parts; many had even contacted us beforehand with specific questions.

The Orchestra’s communications team worked hard to promote the concert, and it showed. The turnout for the performance was remarkable: the hall appeared almost full, and Orchestra Hall is not a diminutive space. During the intermission and following the concert, audience members sought to speak with us, and their enthusiasm for new music and the Minnesota Orchestra was more than apparent.

And, regarding the performances themselves, Maestro Vänskä and all the musicians were thoroughly invested in the music. All of our pieces were performed thoughtfully and musically. The Orchestra’s performance of Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky was flawlessly executed and beautifully paced, and I couldn’t be happier with how it sounded.

Hearing my own work is always informative. Rehearsal and performances reveal if my choices were correct or highly questionable. But, my experience at the Composer Institute went beyond the typical rehearse-then-perform process. We received thoughtful feedback from the musicians and the conductor, and we had the opportunity to learn one another’s works and witness how our colleagues’ compositional decisions played out.

We can’t experiment without hearing our music rehearsed and performed by live ensembles.

Compositional skill develops with study and experimentation; however, we can’t experiment without hearing our music rehearsed and performed by live ensembles. Experiences such as the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute give composers much-needed opportunities to hear works realized. I learned so much this past week, more than I can sum up in a blog post. I’m back in New York City now, and I’m excited to work and write and apply what I’ve learned.

The Minnesota Orchestra onstage at Orchestra Hall performing in front of a near capacity audience.

There was a nearly full house for the Minnesota Orchestra’s Future Classics concert on Friday, November 10.

Composing and Revising Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky

For a while, I’ve claimed that clarity is the most important aspect of my music. I want musicians to know what’s going on so they can musically react and interpret their part, and I never want an audience member to feel lost or perplexed. For me, a large part of growing and improving as a composer involves learning how to more effectively communicate with both performers and listeners.

There are two sides to this. Musically, I strive to create narratives that both performers and listeners can follow. On a more practical level, I carefully edit my scores and parts so that performers and conductors know what I’m looking for. As simplistic as it seems, I’ve learned to notate my music so that it will sound exactly the way I want it to.

The process of writing and revising has been transformative.

The process of writing and revising Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky for orchestra has been transformative for my writing. It’s my third orchestral piece, and it’s the only one I’ve been able to revise for subsequent performances. In its current form, the work is the product of important previous experiences and careful revisions.

I’ve been fortunate to attend schools that give composition students opportunities to hear orchestral works read and sometimes performed. In the summer preceding my second year at Juilliard, I began working on my second orchestral piece. I planned to apply to doctoral programs and, knowing that a reading at Juilliard would be my only chance to make a decent recording before application deadlines, I intended to compose something that could function well with very little rehearsal time. It needed to be simple and straightforward with the potential to sound polished by the end of a brief reading session.

This became Extraordinary Flora (2014). Composing a delicate, straightforward piece forced me to carefully consider how I presented and orchestrated my musical materials.  If I had composed this piece earlier, it would have felt counterintuitive, as if I was wasting the ensemble’s potential. But, this experience taught me that writing for orchestra with a sense of restraint can actually be more effective. Carefully controlling the energy of a massive ensemble allowed me to harness and focus it for moments that really mattered.

I began thinking about my next orchestral piece, Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky (2016), early in the summer before my second year at the Yale School of Music. In a continuation of what I had discovered while writing Extraordinary Flora, I wanted to create delicate, chamber-like moments that would contrast with expansive, more “orchestral” sounds.

The opening texture of Likely Pictures was my first significant idea; before anything else, I knew how I wanted the beginning to sound. I imagined a dry, sparse introduction with solo pizzicato notes sounding from within the strings section. Then, I wanted a slow, simple melody (unison piano and vibraphone) to soar over the pointillistic activity. A low, indistinct rumbling noise (tremolo basses, very low piano, and rolled bass drum) would slowly emerge.

And then I had to figure out the rest of the piece. This is how I usually begin writing: I compose the opening, and then pause to consider what happens next. On a large sheet of paper, I create a timeline and draw out the trajectory of the piece, determining proportions and how important moments will occur. I continue to refer back to these initial, basic sketches, often changing my mind and adjusting my plan.

During the first phase of composing, I always write by hand, usually at a piano. I improvise and sing and play until I find what I’m looking for. I compose with paper and pencil until it feels counterproductive to do so—that is, when it becomes apparent that I’m notating, not composing. I then begin organizing my materials into notation software. For me, notation software allows for greater flexibility as I alter and rework. And, I like the idea that the final barline is always there, waiting for me to meet it at the end of the piece.

I think it’s important to experience the passage of time like an audience member might.

At a certain point, playback becomes valuable, and I know many composers who would disagree with me on this. But, I think it’s important to experience the passage of time like an audience member might. Playing through the music at the piano, or singing, or conducting, or just closing my eyes and imagining—these exercises force me to actively participate in the music, and this participation drastically alters my sense of time.

When school started in the fall of 2016, I had notated a nearly complete draft of Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky. I brought what I had to my teacher, Christopher Theofanidis. In initial drafts, the piece was very episodic, and Chris advised me cover these seams and create smooth, elegant transitions between sections. This transformed the work’s continuity and overall cohesion.

We reworked individual sections as well. For example, I had initially imagined the solo pizzicato gestures of the opening section as coming from players within the section. Chris convinced me that the drama of seeing the individual players was important, especially as these subtle sounds recede. At a certain point, an audience member can’t quite hear the pizzicato notes, but he or she can see them. Visual cues can smooth over transitions, too.

Two months after the piece’s premiere with the Yale Philharmonia, I found out that I had been chosen to participate in the American Composers Orchestra’s Underwood New Music Readings. I took this opportunity to make some revisions, as I realized that my notation wasn’t always as clear as it could be.

The most significant and time-consuming change I made was to tie over sustained notes so that the pitch stops on a sixteenth note. Throughout the first section of Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky, I ask the first violins to crescendo through sustained tones. I noticed that many of the players seemed to back away before the completion of the note value, causing a sudden decrease of energy. Tying these notes over to sixteenth notes conveyed that I wanted the sound to persist and grow for the duration of the pitch. It’s not the most visually elegant notation, but I think it better conveyed my point, and I was happier with the ACO’s treatment of this gesture.

A passage from Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky

A passage from Hilary Purrington’s Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky showing how she notated sustained notes in a way that maintained energy for their entire duration.

I made other, far smaller adjustments. Yale’s music library had returned my parts, so I was able to consider the performers’ notes. Aside from small notational changes, deciding exactly what to revise was tricky. The Yale Philharmonia usually performs in Woolsey Hall, Yale’s largest performance venue. Visually, the hall is an ornate, dramatic space; acoustically, however, it’s not unlike an empty water tower. Although I was happy with the performance and the recording, the muddiness and other acoustic peculiarities made it difficult for me to decide what actually needed to change.

The Underwood New Music Readings took place in the DiMenna Center. Aside from clarifying some notation, I wanted to leave many elements of the piece untouched because I was curious as to how Likely Pictures would sound in a drier venue. The change in acoustics made an incredible difference; – staccato notes were actually staccato, for example. Each performance had its strengths, and I don’t think I could say that I substantially prefer one recording over the other.

One of the most valuable experiences was receiving direct feedback from the musicians.

One of the most valuable experiences of the Underwood New Music Readings was the opportunity to receive direct feedback from the musicians. As regular performers with the American Composers Orchestra, these musicians have seen and played an unbelievable variety of new works, and they are quick to catch on and understand a composer’s intentions. The instrumentalists gave the same advice to all the participating composers: Make an individual musician’s purpose clear. And, beyond this: Make it clear that the musician’s role is necessary and valuable. If a passage is particularly tricky, at least make it gratifying for the player.

Hilary Purrington receives feedback from Underwood mentor composers Derek Bermel and Trevor Weston. Hilary Purrington receives feedback from Underwood mentor composers Derek Bermel and Trevor Weston (Photo by Jiayi Photography, courtesy American Composers Orchestra)./caption]

For me, generating material is the most straightforward part of composing. Using Western notation and occasional words to describe an abstract idea and a musician’s role within that is often a complex task. In November, I have the opportunity to workshop Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky yet again, this time with the Minnesota Orchestra as part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute. The skill of effective and efficient communication can only be sharpened by experience, and I’m very grateful for another opportunity to continue learning and improving my craft.

Avner Dorman: Point of View, Personal Choice, and Duty

Avner Dorman on a Manhattan rooftop

As a teenage whiz kid growing up in Israel, Avner Dorman was simultaneously drawn to music and physics, studying the score of Stockhausen’s Gruppen and taking college-level mathematics courses by the age of 15. Although to this day he credits his science and math background with how he conceptualizes music, Dorman the composer was deeply moved by music’s emotional resonance from very early on and was quickly drawn to postmodern aesthetics, starting with his 1995 Concerto in A for piano and strings, a work he completed at the age of 19 which is still in his active composition catalogue and is available on a recording released on Naxos.

Dorman’s earliest works made him something of a superstar in his home country.  By the ripe old age of 25, the top Israeli orchestras were performing his music and he became the youngest composer ever to win the Prime Minister’s Award. But rather than basking in the glory, Avner decided to apply to graduate school overseas and he wound up here in the United States.  At first it was a bit of culture shock.

“In Israel, if you put on a concert it’s in the paper,” he opined when we met with him in early January at the office of his music publisher, G. Schirmer. “I remember the first time I had some concert that wasn’t listed [in The New York Times], I was like, ‘Why wasn’t it listed?’ And people said, ‘Why do you think you should get listed?  They list six concerts and that’s it.  There’s like a thousand today.’ I couldn’t quite fathom the size and variety that goes on here.”

By moving from Tel Aviv to New York City, Dorman went from being a big fish swimming in a little pond to trying to stay afloat in the music equivalent of an ocean. Dorman, however, was enrolled in The Juilliard School and his principal teacher there was John Corigliano, to whom he remains extremely grateful for helping him realize his own compositional identity.

“You only learn who you are when you’re not where you grew up,” said Dorman.  “Early on, people often would mention the Middle Eastern flavor of my music.  In Israel no one ever said that because other people are so much more extreme about it.  So [that] was a big revelation.  The other thing—and this I credit John for very, very deeply—is that I remember he would always say, ‘You’re very emotional and expressive, and you’re not afraid to express emotions in your music.’ … Since then, I’ve come in touch with it more and more and I think having him as a guide for several years really helped me understand who I am.”

But for Dorman, finding out who he was as a composer has never meant remaining in any particular aesthetic comfort zone. His music is constantly evolving and he is constantly challenging himself to go places where his music has never gone before—even sometimes to places that are decidedly uncomfortable. A prolific instrumental composer who has created numerous works for soloists and orchestra, particularly for less standard instruments such as mandolin and percussion, Dorman has begun to deeply explore vocal music. Last year, he completed his first opera, Wahnfried. It received its world premiere at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe in Germany on January 28, 2017, and will remain in repertoire there through May. Aside from the fact that Dorman’s artistic collaborators, Lutz Hübner and Sarah Nemitz, wrote the libretto in German and he is not fluent in German, Wahnfried poses many other challenges for the 41-year-old Jewish composer. Not only is the opera the story of the notorious late 19th-century anti-Semite Houston Chamberlain, another one of the opera’s characters is Adolf Hitler.

“Hitler met with [Chamberlain], and that’s actually in the opera,” Dorman explained. “If you listen to Hitler’s speeches, there are direct quotes from his book.  I actually transcribed some of his speeches as musical notation … and that’s the music that he’s singing.  … I am aware that some people from Israel might be offended by this, but I think they would be mistaken.  I’m obviously not advocating my own death and my family’s death.  Who would do that?  But I think it’s an important part of history that is rarely told and that needs to be told.  I definitely think it is a politically charged piece.  Even more so today than it was when I wrote it.  I do think, especially in this era, that one of the mistakes is not to say things.  We need to know that racism and hatred are a feature of humanity.  It’s in our language. These things exist and they catch on like wild fire.  When you don’t counteract and contradict them, they will continue to grow.  I think as artists we have the opportunity to make a statement that will be heard.”

Avner Dorman in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at the New York City offices of G. Schirmer
January 6, 2017—1:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  You became pretty prominent as a composer when you were still a teenager and some of the pieces you wrote back then are still in your active catalogue.  In fact, some of your earlier works have even been commercially recorded. There are two CDs devoted exclusively to your music out on Naxos, and one of them contains a piano concerto you completed when you were only 19 and the other contains your first two piano sonatas.

Avner Dorman:  My first piano concerto was from when I was still a teenager, but those piano sonatas are from my early 20s.

FJO:  You were still really young.  That’s many years ago.  If people discover you through these recordings, they’ll hear this music before they’ll hear more recent pieces which haven’t been recorded yet.  So I wonder, now that you’re a slightly older composer, how you feel about those pieces being an entry point that a lot of people will have for your music.  Do they represent who you are still?

AD:  I think in certain ways they do and in certain ways obviously not.  If you just look at the outer stylistic layer, their harmonic language, then certainly the first sonata and the early piano concerto are not stylistically how I write now.  I don’t even know how to describe what they are, but they are not the language that I use now.  But I think some of the deeper levels are still the same, like the energy that these pieces have and—maybe—this idea that music stems from the base up. A Baroque concept of harmony and a little bit of a physics-related concept of harmony is already in there.  I think I always was thinking about harmony like that.  And in all these pieces, there are a lot of elements from popular music and non-Western music—again, not in the same way, but I think that’s still there.  To a degree they obviously don’t represent me now, but they represent a time in my life and a stage in my development. So I don’t have a problem with people finding them first.  If someone went to see my most recent work, especially a lay person, they would probably have a hard time figuring out that this is the same composer, but I think that’s a very common thing, so I don’t have an issue with it.

I know some composers withdraw a lot of pieces later on.  I had actually written a lot of pieces before those pieces and had withdrawn them.  But I do feel like these pieces [that you mentioned] work well, even after a long period of time.  To a degree, I don’t think I could write them now; I just couldn’t do it.  So I almost feel like that person that wrote them deserves not to be put aside, even though I’m not that person anymore.  I do feel that they have artistic integrity and are rich enough that they merit having their own life.  That being said, I obviously hope that what I’m writing now, and what I’ve written since, has more to offer because otherwise I did my best when I was 20.  And that wouldn’t be great.

FJO:  Very fairly stated.  You remind me of this wonderful quote from Thomas Pynchon.  In the ‘80s, he authorized the publication of a group of short stories he wrote back in his early 20s, before he wrote his first novel. He contributed a new introduction where he wrote that though there are some good things in these stories, he wouldn’t have written them today. But that young writer also deserves a chance to be read.  There was this wonderful line that was something like, “I like the young me.  I’d even go and have a beer with him, but I probably wouldn’t loan him money.”

AD:  I would subscribe to that.  Also, I would say, the first concerto and the first sonata are very neoclassical and sometimes people think it’s because I was still studying.  But in high school, I studied [Messiaen’s] Turangalîla and [Stockhausen’s] Gruppen very deeply, and I had written some pieces that were all cluster harmonies and collectional concepts. Then—I was still playing Prokofiev, Mozart, and Bach—at some point I wanted to try to write something neoclassical.  That’s how these pieces were actually born, like after knowing some of the avant-garde and experimenting with that.  I actually felt like that would enhance my abilities as a composer.  So I think they’re less naïve than someone might imagine. At 19 you’re young, but if you started writing when you were 10 or 12, or even 15, you’ve had several years.  I was lucky enough to go to an arts high school where my theory and composition teacher was very well educated about Schnittke. I also got to know more recent scores.   I think he was roommates with David Lang at Yale, so I knew David Lang’s music when I was in high school.  So I wasn’t that naïve, thinking, “Oh, let me write something in A-major.”  It was really more like I want to try to do this.

FJO:  It’s interesting to hear you name drop Schnittke because I don’t think of those early pieces of yours as being necessarily neoclassical as much as being postmodern.

AD:  Right, the result is more postmodern than neoclassical.  But at the time I didn’t know that.  I didn’t quite know what postmodern meant yet, although I did know of David Del Tredici.  I didn’t know his music, but my teacher in high school did mention his name when he heard my concerto. So, again, I think it’s not by accident that I ended up studying with John Corigliano.

FJO:  You were saying that your harmony is derived from physics. You majored in physics as well as music, so your physics studies actually paid off.

AD:  Certainly, and I was even more involved in math and physics than a double major would be here.  I was in a special program at Tel Aviv University which lets you focus on different areas that generally you wouldn’t be able to focus on.  The amount of math and physics that I had taken was like being a math-physics major at a major university, and not a double major; it was even more extensive.  For the ability to conceptualize music, I think that knowledge has been invaluable. Like managing patterns over long periods of time—it’s the big question for a composer, right?  It’s also the question of math.  In my mind, they’re almost the same.  To play around with numbers and to write a piece of music are very, very, very close.  So yes, I think it really did pay off.

FJO:  So getting the double degree was actually complimentary to your composing. It wasn’t like you majored in physics in order to mollify your parents when they balked at you saying that you wanted to be a composer.

AD:  Well, my parents—especially my father—wanted me to study physics and math because it was more practical, but I was kind of a prodigy in math as a little kid.  I was already taking mathematics classes at the university level when I was 15.  A lot of my friends growing up ended up being in start-up companies and making enormous amounts of money.  So my father, who was professional musician, had very high hopes that I would not be a professional musician and that I would be a computer programmer.

I got into this program at Tel Aviv University which allowed me to do both. It was a very competitive program, but there was no tuition and they gave you a stipend.  I couldn’t say no to that.  Basically, for four or five years the university took care of it all. I still had to work, but it was too good to pass up.  Then when I started studying, the math and physics classes were very challenging but it was very rewarding.  I like this stuff.  So yes, I think it paid off and I think that program and that structure was very good for me as a person, because it was so free.  I could pick and choose courses from different parts of the university and skip certain requirements—all the things that they don’t like to let you do.  I will only thrive if I can do it a little differently and not have to go through all the steps that everyone has to go through.  That program is designed for people who are little off track—that the university feels have potential to contribute intellectually, but who don’t exactly fit the mold.

FJO:  So, the physics shaped the music to some extent.

AD:  Again, to me, math and music are so intertwined that I will sometimes sketch a piece as a series of numbers.  And to me notation is a graph.  So I can’t completely distinguish. I don’t know that I have as clear a distinction of where one begins and where one stops.  The great thing about music is it’s so emotionally connected; physics not as much.  I think that’s why music is such a holistic thing—the entirety of my being is involved.

FJO:  Well, it’s interesting in terms of what we were talking about earlier—neoclassicism and postmodernism versus the high modernism you were studying, things like Gruppen.  When people think of modernism, whether it’s the music of the integral serialists or practitioners of indeterminacy, or even the earliest pieces by the minimalists as well as the microtonalists—what all these various –isms have in common are a systemic approach that involves mathematical stuff.

AD:  Yes.

FJO:  But I think what postmodernism did—and co-relationally postminimalism as well, since you mentioned David Lang—is that it went beyond the mathematical procedures shaping the music. So it’s very weird, given your own compositional aesthetics, to hear you say that music is very close to math!

AD:  Yeah.  I think my music is definitely postmodern—anything that is sort of the middle brain, social, emotional, all that stuff.  I think what people were reacting against with modernism is that to a lot of people it sort of ended up being cold and separate from the human experience.  But I also find that there’s something really beautiful and rewarding about pure mathematical structure, and I think that goes back forever if you go back to Guillaume de Machaut or even Perotin. Ockeghem is one of my favorite composers. Mathematically it’s beautiful, and then musically it’s just sublime.  That combination, at least for me, is where the transcendence of music comes, when these two elements meet, like they do in nature.  You look at the stars and planets, and they’re both beautiful and also just incredible to think about.

FJO:  Since you brought up early music composers, I definitely hear in your music a deep dialogue with music history—with standard repertoire, a canon that spans a thousand years in Europe and has spread out to the rest of the Western world, the stuff we call “Western classical music” for lack of a better term.  At the same time, I hear much less of a dialogue with the so-called avant-garde.  In fact, I think you’re music is decidedly about not being avant-garde.  Is that fair to say?

AD:  I think I have some pieces that do that, but generally those pieces don’t get played that much.  I don’t know why.  In my first string quartet, for example, there are a lot of extended techniques. But for me, it’s a very personal piece and emotionally very loaded. I wrote it in memory of a very close friend who died in a motorcycle accident.

I do feel that the avant-garde is part of our musical history and I certainly don’t avoid it intentionally, or haven’t thought about it like that.  But I also think that—and this is the other side of the postmodern and postminimalist movement—there is a social aspect to music.  If the music is such that people don’t listen to it, then it is marginalized.  I feel like in my catalogue, partly that’s just what happened—pieces that are in dialogue with the avant-garde are less appealing—but maybe not.  I don’t know.  It’s hard for me to say.  I would have to maybe think about it more.  I do think my new opera does perhaps do that more.  I think opera allows for more extremes.

FJO:  We’re going to eventually get to the opera, I promise.  But while we’re still talking about your early days—you mentioned it in passing, but we didn’t really bring it up specifically—I’m curious about how you feel growing up in Israel shaped who you are as a composer.  It’s a society steeped in thousands of years of tradition yet, at the same time, it’s relatively a newly recreated country.  And, as a result of the number of European émigré musicians who moved to Israel, there are deep connections there to Western classical music. However, in another sense, it’s kind of a brand new frontier.  So I wonder what it was like for you to be involved in the classical music there.

AD:  I would say that I think one of the unique things about growing up in Israel is how much geographically you are at the center of the Arab world.  Israeli popular music, which is what I mostly heard growing up, is this kind of blend of Arabic and Western popular music.  I certainly think that has influenced me in a very deep way.  I think a lot of my pieces have those elements in them.  And I think my interest in rhythm, to a great degree, is because of that—because I grew up in a place where the rhythms that you heard come from Arabic and North African, even Indian music.  It’s a different rhythmic world.  People here hear it, but as an imported element.  Obviously, I didn’t hear it in a traditional context all the time, but it’s so prevalent there that you’re steeped in it.  Also, a lot of the early experiences that I had working in music were crossovers with Arabic music, popular music, and traditional Jewish music. It’s a small country and a very small market, so if you want to survive when you’re young, you just have to do all these kinds of things.  Even in the army, my job was to be an arranger for bands and orchestra, so I got to work in a lot of genres and types of music that I don’t think you would encounter elsewhere, because it is in the Middle East.

My family is from Europe and I grew up in a very central European household, but in Israel.  So I think that is also a big influence on me personally.  The new music scene there is very European.  If you go to a new music concert in Israel, you might not know that you’re not in Germany.  A lot of the composers are still very close to Paris, Darmstadt, and Frankfurt—all those influences.  Personally for me, the immigration from the former Soviet Union was very influential.  My main teacher in Israel came from the country of Georgia.

FJO:  Ioseb Bardanashvili.

AD:  Meeting him and starting to work with him was definitely a turning point in my life.  He brought in a lot of knowledge and expertise.  Georgia is even more of a different place than Israel, and just this point of view was so distinct and so unique. I think he was the person who encouraged me to focus on my point of view. Your point of view is the most important thing.  I remember he heard my piano concerto, the early one, and he said, “I can see your face in this piece.  This is you.  That’s your point of view.  Never forget it.  You’ll be tempted to try to be someone else.”  Here we talk about “finding your voice.” But to him, the idea is that it’s your point of view. He always talked about it in cinematic terms, like being a cinematographer who is invisible to the viewer but who makes the most difference in the movie. It’s the person who gives you the point of view. I think that really helped me to be more focused on my point of view when I’m composing.  It’s something I feel that you have to recreate from piece to piece.  So he was a huge influence on me. Going back to your question about the avant-garde, he would always say, “Why do you only use major and minor chords?  What about a cluster here and there?”  And we would argue about it.  I’m still very close with him.  He’s an incredible human being and an incredible composer.

FJO:  Now in terms of the reception history of your music, when you were a young composer in Israel you were essentially a superstar.  You were the youngest person ever to receive the Prime Minister’s Award.  You were named composer of the year by the second largest paper in Israel.  Your music was played by the nation’s leading orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic.  It was as high as you could go.  You said it was a very small community, but you were more than a big fish in a little pond.  You were as big a fish in that small pond as you could be.

AD:  It was really shocking.  I think within a matter of four weeks, all of these things you mentioned and a bunch of other prizes just happened.  I won this award and that award, and then “we want to play your piece here,” and “we want you to be composer-in-residence for this orchestra.”  It all happened at once.  I was obviously quite happy, but nothing really changed in the world.  You know, I didn’t write any new pieces during those four weeks.  It just happened. And that was actually the point where Bardanashvili and my father both told me I should probably go somewhere else—some big cultural center—and get my doctorate to grow more.

The Ellef Symphony, for which I won most of these awards, was played in a dress rehearsal. My score reading professor was an incredible character who was a pianist for the Bolshoi, I think, before he moved to Israel. He was a really odd character, but we got along very well and he was a fantastic teacher.  I remember he came to the dress rehearsal and we went out.  Everyone was so excited, but he said, “Well, you know, if you think about your career as a staircase, you’ve made the first step. You are now on the first stair. That’s a big step, you’re now a real composer.  But now you have all these other steps to take.”  I’m grateful that the people around me were smart enough to realize that that was the opportune moment for me to go somewhere else where I could develop more and make larger connections. In a small market, you can be really successful quickly.  But there’s nothing else left.  It’s like, what’s going to happen tomorrow?  What are you aiming for? It was great, but where do you go from here?  It’s a very challenging market to be in.  It’s a very small country with a lot of geopolitical issues, obviously.  I’m not telling any secrets.  I think I was very fortunate that people around me were saying that this was my moment to leave and get another perspective.

FJO:  In terms of risk taking, you went as far beyond being a big a fish in a little pond as you could to swimming in an ocean—the New York City music scene is much bigger than a pond.

AD:  You want me to regret it?

FJO:  By no means!  You’ve done well.  You came here to attend Juilliard, which is a world-famous school, and you studied with John Corigliano, who is an extremely famous composer and was a very important mentor for you. But I still wanted to point out that, aside from it being a great opportunity for you, it was also a big risk, at least initially.

AD:  Yes, it was a big risk.  There was a financial risk, too.  I actually had founded a startup company before I came to the United States.  I got some venture capital and I was still running it for the first couple years when I was at Juilliard.  The company eventually closed down but I’m pretty sure that, had I stayed in Israel, we would have had a better chance to survive.  It was a music software company and, I think, a very interesting concept, but maybe too early in those days. Maybe the technology was not ready. Maybe we didn’t have enough money. I don’t know. Maybe had I stayed it would have worked out.  I will never know.  So, yes, I risked a lot.  But I think for me, being in a place where there are so many other composers and so many other points of view and so many organizations, I feel like I needed that challenge and that dialogue.  I thought that I would grow and expand my horizons.

People around me were worried that I would be frustrated staying in a small pond and that, as a person, it wouldn’t be the best thing for me.  I wasn’t someone who was ready to take on a big job and become a power player in that scene.  Some people really like that and some people did that and do very well.  I’ve always wanted to focus on composing.  I’m fairly certain that, had I stayed there, I wouldn’t have had as much time and energy to dedicate to the work and I wouldn’t have had the same opportunity to engage with other composers and get feedback from conductors. At Juilliard, one of the great things is that you work with such good musicians and you get feedback from them. That’s not to say that the Tel Aviv University music department is not strong; it’s very strong, but it’s much smaller.

You’ll probably find it funny, but one of the first things that shocked me about New York is how difficult it is to get a listing in The New York Times.  In Israel, if you put on a concert it’s in the paper.  There’s no question. I remember the first time I had some concert that wasn’t listed, I was like, Why wasn’t it listed?” And people said, “Why do you think you should get listed?  They list six concerts and that’s it.  There’s like a thousand today.” I couldn’t quite fathom the size and variety that goes on here.  But again, why not take on the challenge?  I’m always up for a challenge.

FJO:  And you found a way to thrive here.  We talked about you going to Juilliard and studying with John Corigliano. Here we are in the office of his publisher which is now also your publisher, G. Schirmer, one of the world’s leading music publishers.  You were signed by them almost twelve years ago, just a month after you turned 30. So ultimately, coming here was the right decision. But I think it’s important to remember the moments of uncertainty.  We talked about ways that growing up in Israel shaped your music.  Do you feel like coming here changed your music?

AD:  I do. And I think it took me a long time.  People would ask me what the most important thing that coming to New York or that studying with John Corigliano did for me, and I didn’t know exactly.  But I think now I have enough perspective. One thing is that you only learn who you are when you’re not where you grew up.  So, if you grew up in a small town in, I don’t know, rural Pennsylvania, it’s only when you move to New York City that you realize that you’re from a small town in rural Pennsylvania.  Before that, you know it theoretically, but you don’t really understand it.  Early on, one of the things that happened here was that people often would mention the Middle Eastern flavor of my music.  In Israel no one ever said that my music had a Middle Eastern flavor because other people are so much more extreme about it.  But it’s there.  So I think learning who I am from people who are not from exactly my background was a big revelation.  The other thing—and this I credit John for very, very deeply and it took me a long time to understand what he actually meant—is that I remember he would always say, “You’re very emotional and expressive, and you’re not afraid to express emotions in your music.”  I was like, okay, but he felt that was really important.  You should listen to your emotions and think about them and start from the emotion. That’s why I wouldn’t say it starts from the numbers for me.  They’re a huge part of me, but I think emotion and expression is a huge part of me as well.  And I think that’s something that he saw very clearly and helped me come in touch with more.  Since then, I’ve come in touch with it more and more and I think having him as a guide for several years really helped me understand who I am.  So I think to a great degree, I was able to know myself much better because I wasn’t in my original environment.

FJO:  I’m going to throw out an assumption I’ve had and see where it goes. An early orchestra piece of yours, which was in fact a piece that the Israel Philharmonic played under Zubin Mehta, is Variations Without a Theme.  Variation form is one of the most common forms in Western classical music.  But, as we had been saying, Israel, while connected to European traditions, is also somewhat removed from them and has its own traditions, some going back millennia even though it was built anew in modern times. It’s an old place, but it’s also a new place.  So you’re taking variations, this time-honored form, but you’re doing variations that are completely unlike what we think of as variations.  Your variations are without a theme.  They’re homeless.  There’s almost a diaspora quality to it. Am I reading too much into this?

AD:  That’s an interesting thought. In the Ellef Symphony, the main theme is the same note repeated four times and then a rest.  I was trying the old Beethoven thing of “can you write with a smaller and smaller and smaller motif?”  So then I was like, I don’t want a motif at all.  I don’t want a theme.  In variations, most of the interest is not in the theme.  We love variations and sometimes the theme is nice, but really it’s because the variations are interesting, what you do with the material.  It’s almost like it’s what you do despite the material that is so interesting.  Take the Musical Offering; the theme there is not a very good theme.  You know, the king wrote it, whatever.  But it’s what Bach did with it, despite the theme, that makes it a great piece.  That was my impetus for that piece: just throw it out, why do I need to deal with a part that bogs me down.  In the variation process, I’ll just play with elements of music.

The other thing is that variations are short and they change often. It’s like 50 seconds later—boom, we’re doing something else. I find that very exciting.  I don’t feel I need to be committed to a certain texture, to a certain idea, to a certain aesthetic.  The postmodern part of me loves variations, because I don’t need to justify why three measures after I started one idea, it’s like—whup—we’re doing something completely different.  Obviously the challenge is to make a piece like that coherent, but being so mathematically oriented, that’s usually not the challenge for me; that usually almost happens on its own. So the more I stretch the boundaries, I think it usually works out better than when I try to work in a box.  I understand why some composers need that.  If you’re like a Jackson Pollock personality, you need the box.  But if you’re very mathematical, then maybe the box will happen on its own.

FJO:  Alright, I’ll try another one. You’ve written a ton of concertos.

AD:  Yes.

FJO:  Once again, it’s another centuries-old, Western classical form. And while you wrote a piano concerto very early on and a violin concerto more recently—two most often used solo instruments in concertos—you seem to be more drawn to instruments that are more outside of what we think of as being soloists with an orchestra. You’ve written several pieces which feature percussion soloists, as well as a piccolo concerto, which is not very common.  Saxophone concertos are getting more common, but it’s an instrument that’s not typically associated with the orchestra so it is also an outlier.  And one of my favorite pieces of yours is your mandolin concerto, definitely an outlier to the orchestra.  In a way, it’s an interesting sonic metaphor for growing up in a somewhat outsider place in terms of Western classical music that’s also partially inside because of all the European immigrants.  But do you think of these concertos that way, or am I just inferring it?

AD:  I don’t want to make this disappointing. I love writing concertos.  It’s perhaps the medium that comes easiest to me.  I don’t know if it’s because I started out as a pianist and played a bunch of concertos, or maybe it’s because of my affinity for Vivaldi.  Concertos are easy for me to write and to conceptualize.  I think part of the reason that I’ve written all these concertos for unorthodox instruments is that these instruments are beautiful and there’s so much to do with them that hasn’t been done.  But partly it has to do with basic market demand.  With Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!, [the percussion duo] PercaDu were colleagues of mine at the academy in Tel Aviv and they just nagged me to write something for them.  That piece developed into the concerto.  A piccolo player asked me to write for him fairly early in my career. First, he wanted it to be a piccolo and harp sonata. I’d written the first movement, and I called him up and said, “You should come hear this, I think it’s a concerto.  I don’t think it’s a sonata.  I want to make it into a concerto.”  That’s how that piece came about.  The Mandolin Concerto started in a very similar way.  Avi [Avital] wanted a piece for mandolin, harpsichord, and harp.  And I said, “Avi, I love your playing and I appreciate that you like my music, but I don’t think I’m the person to write that piece.  I think Henze should write that piece, or Webern, like someone with that sensibility.  I think it could be beautiful, but I just don’t see it myself. Why not something with a string quartet, a little concerto with string quartet?” And we made that work. Then it became a real concerto.  I asked him to bring me recordings.  Avi gave me stuff from Russian and Brazil, and bluegrass; mandolin is prevalent everywhere in the world.  In Israel, it has a really interesting history as well. There are a lot of mandolin orchestras in Israel.  It was a social-political move of the government in the ‘50s to help educate immigrants, especially from poorer backgrounds. They would have the kids study mandolin so parents could work.  It was kind of a real socialist thing.  So yes, I’m fascinated with these unusual or non-traditional instruments, and with all of these soloists.  But partly it’s just that these people want to play solo concertos.  There’s no Tchaikovsky marimba concerto and no Brahms mandolin concerto.

FJO:  But there is a very famous Vivaldi Mandolin Concerto.

AD:  Yes, and I’m a big fan of Vivaldi.  Some people don’t appreciate it, but I really do like his music.  But yeah, there aren’t that many [mandolin concertos].  There also aren’t that many saxophone concertos; there are more, but there’s no canon so there’s an opportunity there. The thing with piano concertos and violin concertos is that you’re always in dialogue with the past to some degree, because you’re writing an old genre.  And you’re always in competition. The orchestra world has to be driven by a lot of considerations.  It’s difficult for a piano concerto to get played a lot, but a lot of soloists are coming to me for these kinds of concertos.  I’m not the only one, obviously.  Percussion concertos are a big driver of new orchestral works.

Also, when you’re writing a concerto, you can write longer pieces than the regular seven-to-ten minute orchestral commission and you have the soloist as your partner.  When they get to the first rehearsal, they know the piece really, really well.  With Avi, he knows it so well and most orchestras can probably read that piece at this point off the page because there’s a recording and YouTube. Any orchestra can also basically read Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!  It was not like this at the premiere. It’s not an easy piece, but as it gets into the rep, then the conductors can hear recordings.  It just becomes much easier and the soloists bring so much with them.  You can count on the soloists to help the orchestra learn the piece more quickly, so that’s a very helpful thing.

FJO:  And it is one of your most widely performed pieces at this point.

AD:  The two percussion concertos are, definitely. I think each one of them has exceeded a hundred performances.  That’s a lot.

FJO:  And for both of those pieces, I think it also helps that you gave them such evocative names. Instead of just calling it Double Percussion Concerto No. 1, it’s Spices, Perfumes, and Toxins!, which actually immediately conjures up the Middle East, though perhaps once again I’m reading too much into this.

ADSpices, Perfumes, Toxins! is definitely sort of a Middle Eastern piece. The first movement is based on an earlier piece of mine that I wrote just for PercaDu. The goal was to write a piece that really reflects young Israeli culture.  If you go and analyze that first movement, a lot of the rhythmic aspects of that piece are actually drawn from South Indian music, but the flavor of it is very Middle Eastern, I agree, and that was the idea of that title as well.

FJO:  And for the other one, Frozen in Time, the movements are all named after different continents and inspired by their musical traditions. We were talking before about how we’re formed by local influences, but for this piece the entire world’s music was your playing field.

AD:  Right.  That was from Martin Grubinger when we started talking about this piece. He said, “You’re from the Middle East, but your family is from Europe and you live in the States.  You’re kind of a citizen of the world.”  His perspective actually got me thinking about that concept for that piece.  Again, that’s one of the reasons I love working so much with soloists: the exchange of ideas is very fruitful.  When I write a concerto, I insist on meeting with the soloist and seeing them play in person.  Recordings don’t do the same thing.  There’s something about the physical presence of a person: the way they move, the way they hold their instrument.  Often when I’m composing, I imagine them playing the piece.  And when I orchestrate, I always imagine an actual orchestra on stage.  I’m always thinking—back to physics—about the physical manifestation of the piece.  I don’t know how other people do it.  When I teach, I always find that students, as long as they’re thinking of composing or orchestrating as pen to paper, it’s very difficult for them to do it well.  Once I imagine a specific stage with a specific orchestra and a specific soloist, I’m actually doing the work that I want to do.  I’m actually thinking about reality and not about just page and paper.

FJO:  Early on we were talking about successes and risks.  You’ve actually managed to have a career as a guy who writes music for orchestra, which is something that is elusive to many others. There are tons of composers who maybe have only one orchestral piece in their catalogue, or it’s not even part of what they do or aspire to do. There are many composers who write well for large ensembles who work outside of the orchestral sphere entirely and instead write music for wind band where it is not uncommon for a piece to get played a hundred times.  You have not yet written for wind band.

AD:  No, but Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! has been arranged for band.

FJO:  But by someone else.

AD:  Yes, by someone else, by my wife. And she did a great job! It was premiered by the Musique Militaire Grand-Ducale in Luxembourg, and it was also done by some other bands in Europe.  And I think San Jose State did it last year.  There are talks of other American bands that want to do it as well.  There was a graduate student in North Texas who arranged my piece Astrolatry for band. I’m hoping to work with him to make a few adjustments and get it performed again, maybe at my college. I find that world very interesting, first of all because the ensemble is so rich.  Bardanashvili always says that strings are like the canvas of the orchestra and winds are the colors.  So when you’re writing for orchestra, you’re designing the canvas and then on top of that you add the colors.  The wind symphony is all color, so to me it’s a very attractive ensemble—also for the fact that you can have basically as many percussionists as you want, which is always a struggle for me with the orchestra.

My percussion parts for orchestral pieces are like these little books.  I wrote a piece for the Cleveland Orchestra that was premiered last year.  It’s a seven-minute piece, and the percussion score is very thick. The percussionists there did a phenomenal job, obviously, but they’re not used to seeing stuff like that. Partly it’s because I love writing for percussion—the rhythmic and color aspects of percussion are so central to my writing.  I will often write six parts and just somehow squeeze them into three, because you only get three plus timpani.  So I find the band world really fascinating, and I would love to write for the band word.  But I feel like it’s a completely different market and I just haven’t had experience with it.  I can say this: when they played Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! with the wind symphony, it almost sounds the same; it’s very difficult to tell that it’s a different piece.  Some things bands are really good at—like rhythmic things and accents, because they play a lot of marches and a lot of them play more popular music. And of course John Corigliano often talks about the amount of time that they rehearse, which means you can actually write differently for a band.

Because I’ve written so much for orchestra, I think at this point I can write what I want to hear in a way that is very practical.  And I think that’s one of the hardest things to learn as an orchestral composer, because you write your first piece and someone’s played it, but then the phone doesn’t ring.  So how do you actually learn to be good at orchestrating and all the endless details common to orchestral composition?  How do you make it practical?  How do you get better at that?  By having written a lot for orchestra, I’m much more confident that I can do that work.

FJO:  Another part of your experience with orchestras which we haven’t even begun talking about is that you now also have an active career as a conductor, and not just of your own music. You’re the music director of CityMusic Cleveland. That’s another of way of honing your craft writing for an orchestra since you actually get many practical takeaways from directly working with an orchestra.

AD:  Right, and you learn things the score never tells you—which pieces and which things actually work well in first rehearsal.  This is something I’ve learned as a composer, but even more so as a conductor. You learn on the job that some things that look great on paper and sound great in all the recordings are actually not very practical.  I did the Mozart Haffner Symphony. It’s a piece I love. I’ve known it forever. I thought, “Oh, this is gonna be a walk in the park.”  But it’s so difficult to put together.  It’s so difficult to play.  It’s very transparent. Mozart never writes anything that doesn’t have to be there; this is one of the things people admire him for.  But that means if anyone plays something wrong, there’s no one else to cover.  On the other hand, Rossini is the most practical composer.  Everything that you put in front of an orchestra, it just sounds great.  It plays itself.  We did the Dvořák Violin Concerto.  The balance is so difficult in that piece, but how do you know until you actually do it?  And the same goes for Ravel.  Ravel is always quoted in orchestration books, but there are so many things that Ravel wrote that orchestral musicians actually change.  In Alborada del Gracioso for example, there’s a place where the second violin is pizzicato, and it’s divided.  One half is playing on the quarter notes, and the other half on the off beats.  But they just play all the notes.  No one divides it, as far as I can tell.  How would you know that?  When you’re studying Alborada, you’re like, “Oh, that’s a good idea.  I understand why he does it.  I will do that too.”  But it’s actually a mistake.

So, as I conduct more and get to know the pieces from the actual practical point of view, I think it makes a huge difference.  Also, I’ve worked with so many different conductors, some of the greatest in the world.  Having conducted myself, I feel much more at ease now working with conductors.  I have much less angst about saying things. I know what it feels like to be standing there and moving your hands and thinking that’s really not what I wanted, but that’s what came out.  This idea that whatever comes out of the orchestra is what the conductor wants, it’s not true.  Sometimes you do something, and it’s just not what you wanted.  So as a composer, if you say that probably should be like this not that, the conductor may say, “Yeah, that’s what I wanted.”

I’ve learned that that’s much more of an integral part of the process and sort of a natural thing to have happen all the time.  Conducting has been great learning, especially for orchestration. The best way to learn orchestration is to conduct.  Obviously it takes some time to study scores and it takes away time from composing, but I think it’s worth it.

FJO:  Also, CityMusic Cleveland is an organization that has a very significant community agenda.  It isn’t about doing a concert series in a concert hall that people from around the city of Cleveland come to.  It is about going into the communities directly and serving different groups of people.  There really is a mission to build audiences.  You were saying early on that if music is not reaching people, why do it?  I think what they’re doing ties very neatly into that.

AD:  My first experience with CityMusic was when they played my piece Uzu and Muzu from Kakaruzu, which is a piece for kids based on a beautiful Israeli children’s story.  It’s all about building bridges and resolving conflict.  They did it and I went and did outreach work for the orchestra.  I went to inner city Cleveland schools; I talked with kids and did presentations.  I love doing those things.  I also did that in Miami last year for the Cleveland Orchestra. I very strongly feel that that’s one of my missions in life.  So the more I can do that, the more I will do it.  I narrated some of the concerts, too.  It really is in my heart and soul to bring art and music to people who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to have these experiences.  CityMusic’s concerts are free and we go to churches all over Cleveland. Your local church, so it’s a place you’re comfortable in.  And during intermission, the musicians talk with the audience and there are cookies; it’s a very community-oriented experience.  I think that partly why they decided to hire me as their music director is because I do share that mission very, very deeply and very dearly. And the orchestra is so good.  Some people make the assumption that if you’re going to do that, then maybe you sacrifice some of the musical integrity.  But that’s not the case.  The orchestra is really a top notch ensemble. The atmosphere in the orchestra is also very special, because a lot of the people playing in the orchestra do it for the mission, not for the gig.  We rehearse more than most orchestras.  We usually have four, three-hour rehearsals, plus a dress. And then we perform five times.  So by the last concert, we’ve been through the music a lot.  I’m very encouraging of collaboration during rehearsals as much as is possible in an orchestral setting, so I think the musicians in the orchestra really take ownership of the orchestra. That’s not always the case.

FJO:  The kind of community engagement you’re describing sounds similar to what you did when you served as the composer-in-residence with the Stockton Symphony through the Music Alive Program that New Music USA administers in partnership with the League of American Orchestras. I think what was particularly noteworthy about doing outreach activities there is that it was a deeply troubled community. There’s a lot of talk at orchestral conferences about how to make orchestras more relevant to people’s lives; there you were, actually on the front lines.

AD: That was an incredible experience.  By the end of the residency, I think 7,000 students heard the concerts and another 5,000 students heard some form of presentation or were somehow engaged by the orchestra.  There must have been some overlap, but we’re talking probably near 10,000 elementary school students in the Stockton area.  And yes, it’s a city that went bankrupt and that has great divisions and economic gaps and a lot of social problems.  In some of these schools, you come in the morning, and you see the kids eating their breakfast, because their parents don’t have money for breakfast.  I didn’t know that was the case.  I didn’t know this is how things are in some places.  Yet you start talking about how to write music—I showed them that in Uzu and Muzu there’s a diatonic row, a row of seven notes that are from C major.  I showed them all the permutations and I showed them how the theme is built from that.  And these kids got up and they started making up their own tunes.  And other kids were singing in the retrograde. They get it. You see that their minds expand and their hearts calm down. Music has that ability to engage people in a very healing way and in a very developmental way. We need to give them all the tools that we can so they grow as much as possible.

As musical institutions, that’s a great goal.  Stockton [Symphony] is another example of a very small orchestra that is both high quality and that took on this giant project.  I was in awe of how they manage to produce so much outreach and I think I only spent three week there, maybe four weeks, during that year. That was a big production to reach that many students.  And I got letters from students. They sent me drawings that they made.  Some schools put on their own pieces that the kids made based on the story.  They made up stories and they acted them out and played.  They actually created these musical stories.  It’s so heartwarming to see that you can touch lives in this way.  It makes everything so much more a part of the world.

The tendency as a composer is to lock the door and say see you in six months; it’s such a solitary experience.  There’s nothing more solitary than composing a piece of music.  Of course, I enjoy that.  But I think in order to be a complete human being, giving to the community is very enriching for me, and obviously I think it’s our duty, or my duty at least, to do these things. I grew up in a place where everything was basically available. We can’t just take it for granted.

FJO:  In terms of engaging communities and sending messages through your music, sitting on this table with us is the full score of your first opera. You’ve written vocal music in the past, but not a ton. In fact, there’s only one vocal piece of yours that I ever heard, a setting of Psalm 67 from pretty early on.  So I don’t think of you as a vocal composer.  Last year, I know that you wrote a big choral piece which I’m eager to hear at some point, but writing an opera is even more ambitious.  And with vocal music, once you attach words to something, you get into this whole other area of meanings and emotions and telling stories directly.  And the story you chose to tell here, for your first opera, which is being done in Germany—

AD:  —in German!

FJO:  Yeah, which is not a language you’re fluent in.  But what seems even more peculiar is that you’re an Israeli-born, Jewish composer and you wrote an opera that’s being premiered in Germany about this guy who was an anti-Semite who inspired Hitler.  That’s kind of mad.

AD:  Well, this is where we start the therapy session.  I’ve had a lot of time to think about this.  I think from my point of view, to write this is very natural.  It’s a funny thing.  I grew up in an Israeli household, but three out of four of my grandparents came from Germany.  Two of them were born in Germany, one was born in Israel but moved to Germany. During the ‘30s they moved to Israel. So German culture and German music were a very central part of my home upbringing. Nietzsche, Goethe, we had all the books at home and they weren’t in Hebrew.  Growing up, I played a ton of Bach and Beethoven sonatas, Brahms, Schumann. It’s like if you asked someone here where they are from.  “I’m American.”  Where did your family come from?  “Well, they came from Italy and Spain.” My family came from Germany.  So I’m Israeli, but my family came from Germany.  Then this same culture that produced all these things that I identify with very deeply produced the same thing that was trying to very effectively kill all of the people that I am a part of religiously.  That’s a huge paradox to grow up in.  So I think that this story fascinated me.  This guy was not just an anti-Semite, he was one of the first people to put together a racial theory that, on the basis of so-called modern science, distinguished the bloods of different people—between the top Aryans and the bottom Jews.  Not only did he do that, but when you read his book, The Foundations of the 19th Century, he starts from the individual.  He says really what drives history is individuals.  Like the genius individuals. Who is a genius individual?  Wagner.  Beethoven.  So not only did he make this up, he made it up with my biggest heroes.  I wanted to understand why this became so popular.  His book was a huge best seller.  Not just in Germany, but in Russia, in England, in France, and in the United States.  It was huge, and this guy is completely forgotten by most people today.  How did this happen?  I felt like this is an opportunity to understand a little bit more, because the history books start with when Hitler came to power.  But this guy wrote his book in the 1890s.  This guy divorced his first wife and married one of Wagner’s daughters.  He became the head of the Wagner household.  He ran Bayreuth, and got rid of all Jewish influence and socialist influence in Bayreuth.

And he was very influential in the German government during World War I.  Hitler met with him, and that’s actually in the opera.  Hitler revered him, and Hitler quoted him.  If you listen to Hitler’s speeches, there are direct quotes from his book.  The intellectual, pseudo-scientific, brainwashing ideas brewing there that people bought into are where racism starts.  This is where hatred starts.  Of course, anti-Semitism existed in Germany and in Europe for thousands of years.  But I think what drew me to this story was to understand. We don’t play Wagner in Israel. To me, it’s an abomination. How can we not play Wagner in Israel?  But, of course, I understand.  And yet, did Wagner really mean this stuff?  So this has really been an opportunity to get familiar with a part of this history. And I think it’s very relevant.  I think it’s more relevant now than I thought two years ago.  Racism is not gone.

Wagner’s son Siegfried was most likely gay, so one of the things that happens in the opera is that there’s a big scene where the main character, Houston Stewart Chamberlain who wrote the book, catches him with a lover in the garden. He pays off the lover to go away and then covers it up. These ideas that still plague society were there a hundred years ago.  Sometimes I think it’s perhaps easier for people to look back and be like, “Oh that’s really bad. Let’s be better than that.”  That’s one of the things that the opera taught me.  I didn’t think two years ago it would be very relevant, but now people talk about neo-Nazism again. These tendencies in society are not eradicated.

The cover for the full orchestra score of Avner Dorman's opera Wahnfried.

FJO:  So Hitler actually sings in your opera.

AD:  Yes.

FJO:  And you’re staging this in Germany where Mein Kampf was banned for decades?

AD:  It’s now a best seller again.

FJO:  But the Germans are very aware of this horrible history to the point that they’re very concerned about people being swayed, as they had been, by a charismatic figure.  I’ve looked at films from that time and I don’t understand how he could have possibly been perceived as charismatic, but he was by millions of people. So to put his persona on a stage and have him sing, there is a potential danger in making him somehow iconic, since that is what opera does with characters. What are Hitler’s melodies?

AD:  That’s the context of the whole opera. Houston Stewart Chamberlain is not as famous, but he’s a vile, despicable human being.  There’s just no other way to say it.  We actually cut some of the worst things, but there are pretty racist, awful things sung in this opera.  It’s all very grotesque.  When people ask me what genre is this opera in, I would say that the pieces that it speaks with from the past are Shostakovich’s The Nose, Ligeti’s Grand Macabre, some of the staged pieces by Mauricio Kagel. That’s the world that this piece is in. It’s different, obviously, but it’s very grotesque and absurdist.

So, yes, it celebrates these people, but in a very mocking way.  The opera does not advocate for these points of view. I think it’s very clear, both from the libretto—which I think is brilliant—and the music. Also I would say that I think that has always been my way of dealing with the Holocaust.  I always had to make jokes.  I always had to think about it with some humor because it’s just too horrific to actually think about.  In Israel, there’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, and you go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. Even thinking about it now, it’s just too much to handle. So I think humor and irony and absurdism—like Bulgakov, his spirit is in this opera, this out-of-this-world grotesque—is my way of dealing with it.

Specifically to Hitler, to answer your question, I actually transcribed some of his speeches as musical notation, because he was really a composer as an orator.  He was a brilliant orator. He starts and then he waits and he builds up in pitch and lengths, the number of words.  If you ever watch a speech by him—which is a very bad feeling but I had to do it—when he gets to the climax, it’s always like very high and then some word, the Jeeeews, he will say as a very long word.  And he will basically yell it.  I actually transcribed some of his speeches.  And that’s the music that he’s singing.  It’s actually from the intonation of his speech; it’s actually Hitler.  Weirdly enough, some of the motivic structures that I found in his speeches are related to the scene in the first act when Houston Stewart Chamberlain first comes up with his racial theory.  By complete coincidence, but that ties in really beautifully.  The first time that this guy comes up with the racial theory is the same motive that Hitler ends up using for his big scene.

It was very tough to write the end of this opera.  The ending is very harsh.  It’s very evocative of death and death camps and not in a very beautiful way, but a very artistic way. I ended up thinking about the three last scenes of the opera as the beginning of the next one, which is the one where World War II happens.  I wrote it like the beginning of another opera, because that was the biggest block I had in the whole process. What are you going to do with Hitler?  How do you sit down and write notes that Hitler is going to sing?  That was really tough.

FJO:  So you’re going to write a second opera about this?

AD:  I don’t know, but that was how I imagined it. If there was a sequel, this would be the beginning of that sequel, so then I don’t have to think of it as an ending so much, which was very hard.  I think also transcribing Hitler’s speeches was a way to deal with what to write for Hitler.  At the end of that scene, he’s like, “I’m going to have the Reich for a thousand years.”  It’s very optimistic, but not.

FJO:  Now in terms of being a big fish in a little pond, an opera in which Hitler has a singing role probably could never have been done in Israel, I would imagine.

AD:  No, I don’t think so.  It would mean a lot to me if it will ever be done in Israel.  I am aware that some people from Israel might be offended by this, but I think they would be mistaken.  I’m obviously not advocating my own death and my family’s death.  Who would do that?  But I think it’s an important part of history that is rarely told and that needs to be told.  There are a bunch of quotes from Wagner, so maybe because of that, they won’t play it.

FJO:  Obviously this is a very socially charged work.  We talked about the emotional qualities of music, and what Corigliano said to you about you challenging emotion in your music. And also what Bardanashvili said to you about having your identity in a piece.  And then the work you did in Stockton and now with CityMusic Cleveland, interacting with the communities and how important that is to you.  A final observation, a lot of people are talking about these days being the beginning of a new era that’s very uncertain. So what is the role of a creative artist in such a society?  What is our responsibility as artist citizens?  When you say that you had to tell the story of this opera, I feel you’re touching on that.

AD:  Obviously this is a very personal choice.  When I say I feel this is my duty, I really mean my duty.  Is it another composer’s duty and responsibility?  It’s not. I don’t feel like that’s anyone’s choice, but for themselves.  With a piece like this, you have a captive audience for two hours and you get to design the whole experience—which is, I think, the most exciting thing about writing an opera; there’s not going to be a Sibelius symphony on the second half. I think it’s an opportunity, if not a responsibility, to say something.  I definitely think it is a politically charged piece.  Even more so today than it was when I wrote it.  I do think, especially in this era, that one of the mistakes is not to say things.  We need to know that racism and hatred are a feature of humanity.  It’s in our language. These things exist and they catch on like wild fire.  When you don’t counteract and contradict them, they will continue to grow.  I think as artists we have the opportunity to make a statement that will be heard.

The problem for most people is that if you’re sitting home and you hear some personality, politician, celebrity, or whoever, talk on TV or on the radio and don’t agree, what are you going to do?  I guess today you can put it on your Facebook and in your Twitter.  Great.  But if you write an opera, or you write a symphony, or you release a recording, or you get interviewed, you can say these things and maybe more people will take notice.  When someone comes to the symphony and they hear a piece and it has a message like this, maybe it touches them in a different way, because they get an hour off from their crazy and busy life and the music touches their emotions.  Maybe it reminds them, you know, I was once a child. We all have love and compassion; that’s the other feature of humanity.  Everyone has a certain element of prejudice and not being tolerant, even without being aware of that.  But we all also have love and compassion and care about the people around us in our communities and beyond.  So I think we do have an opportunity to raise these questions and to make people think and to encourage people to think, and to encourage people to feel and maybe not go in those directions even when it’s tempting.  So I do think artists play that role in society.  Historically it’s basically been proven that the last step before the really horrific steps is when that role is blocked by the government. In those societies where the government says to artists, “You can no longer speak your mind,” that’s one step before genocide and war and the massive imprisonment of people.  That’s the moment that people really need to worry about.  Like the Nazi government felt that certain artists, like Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, were a threat to the country. That shows us that we shouldn’t underestimate our ability to influence.  Hitler was afraid of Brecht.  So Brecht had some power there.  Stalin was afraid of Shostakovich.  Well, obviously Shostakovich was afraid of Stalin.  Not to get too into current politics, but you see it now with the inauguration and who was not willing to perform, and who was willing.  It’s a big deal.  It’s a big deal when an artist who is invited to do something, says, “You know what, for you, I won’t do it.”  That’s always a big deal when artists say, “I won’t support this kind of rhetoric.”  I think we have power, or at least there’s some opportunity and possibility, that we can affect the world positively as long as it’s not blocked by the government.  Obviously we’re not there, but I think we shouldn’t be afraid.  But again, that’s me.  I completely respect people who feel like music is separate and shouldn’t have anything to do with anything else.  It’s their choice.

Sixteen Jazz Composers’ Works to be Performed by Three Orchestras

The official logo for EarShot, the National Orchestra Composition Discovery Network

Between May and September 2016, three different orchestras will give public readings of new works for symphony orchestra written by a total of sixteen jazz composers as part of the third Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute (JCOI) Readings, a program coordinated by EarShot, the National Orchestra Composition Discovery Network. In addition to the reading sessions, the activities at the three orchestras—the Naples Philharmonic (May 25 and 26), American Composers Orchestra (June 15 and 16), and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (September 20 and 21)—will involve a variety of workshops and other opportunities for the participating composers.

The 2016 JCOI Readings are the culmination of a process that began in August 2015, when 36 jazz composers of all ages were selected from a national pool of applicants to attend the weeklong JCOI Intensive, a series of workshops and seminars devoted to orchestral composition held at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music in Los Angeles. After completing the Intensive, sixteen composers were given the opportunity to put what they learned into practice by composing a new symphonic work. The composers, working in jazz, improvised, and creative music, were chosen based on their musicianship, originality, and potential for future growth in orchestral composition. Each composer will receive coaching from mentor composers and a professional music engraver as they write their new works. Composers will also receive feedback from orchestra principal musicians, conductors, librarians, and mentor composers, throughout the readings. Each of the three orchestras will workshop and perform between four and seven composers’ new works.

Robin Holcomb, Sonia Jacobsen, Yvette Jackson, and Nathan Parker Smith

The four composers participating in the Naples Philharmonic’s readings (pictured from left to right): Robin Holcomb (photo by Peter Gannushkin), Sonia Jacobsen, Yvette Jackson (photo by Ava Porter), and Nathan Parker Smith. (Photos courtesy Christina Jensen PR.)

The Naples Philharmonic readings will take place at Artis-Naples Hayes Hall, with mentor composers Vincent Mendoza (composer/arranger), James Newton (JCOI Director; University of California, Los Angeles), and Derek Bermel (Artistic Director, ACO). The featured composers’ works will be conducted by Naples Philharmonic Assistant Conductor Yaniv Segal. The participating composers are: Robin Holcomb (b. 1954), a Seattle-based composer and singer/songwriter whose music draws on both her childhood in Georgia and her stints working among avant-garde musicians in New York and California; Sonia Jacobsen (b. 1967), a much-awarded composer, jazz saxophonist, and founding director of the New York Symphonic Jazz Orchestra currently based in Chapin, South Carolina; Yvette Jackson (b. 1973), a composer, sound designer and installation artist focused on radio opera and narrative soundscape composition from La Solla, California; and Brooklyn-based performer and composer Nathan Parker Smith (b. 1983), who leads the Nathan Parker Smith Large Ensemble which performs throughout New York City.

The Readings will include an open, working rehearsal on Wednesday, May 25 at 2pm, and a run-through of the composers’ pieces on Thursday, May 26 at 7pm. Both events are free and open to the public.

Jonathan Finlayson, Dawn Norfleet, Ben Morris, Ethan Helm. John La Barbara, Guy Mintus, and Brian Friedland

The seven participating composers in the ACO Readings: (top row, left to right) Jonathan Finlayson (photo by Scott Benedict), Dawn Norfleet, and Ben Morris; (bottom row left to right) Ethan Helm, John La Barbara, Guy Mintus, and Brian Friedland. (Photos courtesy Christina Jensen PR.)

The American Composers Orchestra’s readings will take place at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, with mentor composers Derek Bermel, Anthony Davis (University of California, San Diego), Gabriela Lena Frank (composer in residence, Houston Symphony), and James Newton. ACO Music Director George Manahan will conduct. The participating composers are New York-based Jonathan Finlayson (b. 1982), a disciple of the saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman who has performed alongside Mary Halvorson, Henry Threadgill, Von Freeman, Jason Moran, Dafnis Prieto, and Vijay Iyer; Boston-based Brian Friedland (b. 1982), whose music is rooted in jazz piano traditions but also shows his love of genres ranging from Balkan Folk to classical minimalism; New York-based saxophonist and composer Ethan Helm (b. 1990), who co-leads the jazz quintet Cowboys & Frenchmen; Israeli-born, New York-based jazz pianist and composer Guy Mintus (b. 1991), who has collaborated with master musicians from Turkey, Greece, Iran, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, and Mali; Ben Morris (b. 1993), a recipient of two Klezmer Company Orchestra Composers’ Prizes, three Festival Miami Composers’ Awards, and an ASCAP Morton Gould Award who is currently pursuing his masters’ at Rice University; John La Barbera (b. 1945), a composer/arranger whose music has been performed by Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme, Chaka Khan, Harry James, Bill Watrous, and Phil Woods; and Dawn Norfleet (b. 1965), a jazz flutist, vocalist, and composer residing in Los Angeles who is on the faculty at the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County and the Colburn School of Performing Arts.

The Readings will include a private, working rehearsal on Wednesday, June 15, and a run-through of the composers’ pieces on Thursday, June 16 at 7:30pm, which is free and open to the public (reservations suggested).

Hitomi Oba, Gene Knific, Anthony Tidd, Emilio Solia, and Amina Figarova

The five composers participating in the Buffalo Philharmonic readings (pictured from left to right): Hitomi Oba, Gene Knific, Anthony Tidd, Emilio Solia, and Amina Figarova (photo by Zak Shelby-Szyszko). (Photos courtesy Christina Jensen PR.)

Finally, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra readings will take place at Kleinhans Music Hall, with mentor composers Derek Bermel, Anthony Cheung (composer, University of Chicago), and Nicole Mitchell (composer/flutist). All of the works will be conducted by Stefan Sanders, associate conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

The participating composers are: Amina Figarova (b. 1966), an Azerbaijan-born, New York-based pianist and composer who studied classical piano performance at the Baku Conservatory as well as jazz performance at the Rotterdam Conservatory, Netherlands, and attended the Thelonious Monk Institute’s summer jazz colony in Aspen; Gene Knific (b. 1992), a pianist, composer, and arranger based in Kalamazoo, Michigan who has won seven DownBeat awards for his performances and compositions; Los Angeles-based saxophonist and composer Hitomi Oba (b. 1984), who holds an MA from UCLA in Music Composition and whose album, Negai, received a Swing Journal jazz disc award; London-born, Philadelphia-based Anthony Tidd (b. 1972), who has performed with Steve Coleman, The Roots, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Wayne Krantz, Meshell Ndegeocello, Common, and Jill Scott, and has produced albums by The Roots, Macy Grey, Zap Mama, and The Black Eyed Peas; and Buenos Aires-born, Brooklyn-based Emilio Solla (b. 1962), who has recorded more than 40 albums performing with Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo O’Farrill, Cristina Pato, and Billy Hart, and whose latest album, Second Half (2014), was nominated for a 2015 Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album. The Readings will include a private, working rehearsal on Tuesday, September 20, and a run-through of the composers’ pieces on Wednesday, September 21 at 7pm, which is free and open to the public.

*
JCOI is a new development in the jazz field, led by ACO in partnership with the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music in Los Angeles and the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University in New York. While many jazz composers seek to write for the symphony orchestra, opportunities for hands-on experience are few. Since the first JCOI readings in 2011 and with these new sessions at three orchestras, nearly 100 jazz composers will have benefited from the program and so far 27 new jazz works for orchestra have been created and workshopped. EarShot, the National Orchestral Composition Discovery Network, initiates partnerships with orchestras around the country; provides consulting, production, and administrative support for orchestras to undertake readings, residencies, performances, and composer-development programs; identifies promising orchestral composers, increasing awareness and access to their music; supports orchestras’ commitment to today’s composers and enhances national visibility for their new music programs. EarShot is coordinated by American Composers Orchestra in collaboration with American Composers Forum, the League of American Orchestras, and New Music USA. It brings together the artistic, administrative, marketing, and production resources and experience of the nation’s leading organizations devoted to the support of new American orchestral music.

(—from the press release)

Missy Mazzoli: Communication, Intimacy, and Vulnerability

Missy Mazzoli in her composition studio.

A conversation at her home in Brooklyn, New York
February 17, 2016—2:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Missy Mazzoli first appeared in NewMusicBox ten years ago when she kept a daily blog for us about her experiences as a participant in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. That week-long orchestra boot camp offers emerging composers intensive workshops with musicians and a performance of their music on a subscription series concert entitled Future Classics which is also broadcast live. The piece of Mazzoli’s that was featured was These Worlds In Us, which was also her very first piece for orchestra. In the opening salvo for that NewMusicBox blog series, she expressed concern about how her music, which is “based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability,” would “translate to an orchestra.”

As it turned out, These Worlds In Us was a huge success and has continued to be performed by orchestras across the United States as well as in Europe. (It will be performed this month in Akron, Ohio.) And, over the past decade, she has also written additional orchestra pieces that have been performed by the Detroit Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Albany Symphony. When we spoke with her in her Greenpoint apartment, she had just returned from a Music Alive: New Partnerships residency with the Boulder Philharmonic which culminated in a performance of her Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres).

“I still feel like I’m asking the same questions,” she said, “and, with each piece, finding different answers to the question of how to bring an intimate, vulnerable, human experience to a situation like working with an orchestra, which is a little bit disconcerting and I feel kind of disconnected as a composer for a couple different reasons.”

But writing for orchestra forms only a small part of her compositional output. There’s a brand new solo piano piece of hers on Michael Mizrahi’s forthcoming CD (which will be released on March 26) and an older solo piano piece on Lisa Moore’s new disc. A few weeks before heading to Colorado, she was in Brazil for a whole concert devoted to her chamber music. She fronts Victoire, something of a cross between an indie rock band and a chamber ensemble, which is about to record its sophomore album. Plus her latest opera, Breaking the Waves, based on the Lars von Trier film, will be staged by Opera Philadelphia next season.

“I’m still in the beginning phases of my career where I am taking commissions and jumping at opportunities to work with whomever,” Mazzoli acknowledged during our talk. “So it’s really about taking whatever is brought to me and making it something that I’m excited about.” And though she is clearly excited about a very wide range of musical activities, they share a common core. “The thing that I can say consistently inspires me is human beings. It’s not nature as much as it is just me being inspired by human beings trying to live their lives. And, in the case of my operas, human beings trying to live their lives under insane, impossible circumstances.”

The thing that we have been most excited about, however, is that a piece of her choral music, Vesper Sparrow has been chosen to be performed during the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea. Mazzoli’s piece will be presented alongside works by composers from Australia, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom, on a March 28 program featuring the Ansan City Choir conducted Shin-Hwa Park. Vesper Sparrow originally appeared on Roomful of Teeth’s 2015 disc Render, a recording that received a New Music USA project grant, which led to the composition’s submission in the ISCM’s call for scores for the 2016 WMD.

“When I wrote it I never imagined anyone else singing it, because it had to be written so quickly and it was so particular for this group,” Mazzoli claimed. “But I’m open to different interpretations. I like the Sardinian aspect of it and I like that there’s a recording that these singers will hopefully listen to, even just to get an idea of what the piece is about and the character. But do they need to have that precise sort of like nasally intonation that the Sardinian music has? Not necessarily. I think that the piece is the notes and the rhythms and the texts. And all that translates on the page.”

Frank J. Oteri: The main impetus for our talk right now is that your choral piece Vesper Sparrow will be performed during the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea, at the end of March. But you have a lot of other stuff going on as well. You just came back from a weeklong Music Alive: New Partnerships residency with the Boulder Philharmonic, which culminated in a performance of your Sinfonia, and only a few weeks before that you were in Brazil performing a concert of your chamber music. I read in The New York Times this week that Opera Philadelphia will be staging your new opera Breaking the Waves next season, and Michael Mizrahi’s latest solo piano CD, which is being released in a couple of weeks, includes a piece of yours.

Missy Mazzoli: Lisa Moore also has a piece of my mine on her new album.

FJO: Really? Another piano piece?

MM: Yeah.

FJO: Wow, so there’s some considerable activity with your solo piano music as well as your choral music, your chamber music, your orchestral music, plus opera. You’re writing many kinds of things and you’re getting pulled in many different directions. Is there any kind of music you would not want to write?

MM: I really can’t think of it. But, you know, so many of my opportunities are not necessarily my choice. I’m still in the beginning phases of my career where I am taking commissions and jumping at opportunities to work with whomever, so it’s really about taking whatever is brought to me and making it something that I’m excited about. But it’s hard to imagine something that would come my way that I wouldn’t be excited about.

FJO: You haven’t written a band piece yet, as far as I know.

MM: No. And I’m not terribly excited about it, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t do it. I think, under the right circumstances, it could be really fun.

FJO: Or a solo organ piece?

MM: Again, you kind of need someone; it’s hard to just write a solo organ piece and just throw it out into the universe. I really would want someone to come to me and say, “I’m going to perform this 20 times, and I’m really excited.” So we’ll see.

FJO: Or a sound installation?

MM: I would love to do a sound installation. I could do one in my living room; it would be awesome, but it would be only for me. So I’m definitely open to that, too. It’s hard, though, writing all these operas lately. I’m working on one for Opera Philadelphia; it’s co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Beth Morrison Projects. And I’m working on another one that will be announced really soon. I’m also dealing with performances of my first opera, Song from the Uproar. Opera can take over your life. So I feel like while all this other stuff is happening, really when I sit down to write, the operas are my focus. That’s been an interesting shift. Usually I’m working on ten different things at the same time, but for the last couple of years, it’s been like this one massive piece.

FJO: The first piece of yours I ever heard was an orchestra piece, These Worlds In Us, soon after we first met, which was ten years ago. Then the piece was chosen for the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, which is a really extraordinary program. You wrote a series of blog posts for NewMusicBox about your experiences at the Institute that year. I decided to reread them all last week, and I came across a fascinating couple of sentences from your very first post.

MM: I’m afraid.

FJO: You shouldn’t be; they’re great. They were about your concerns about the experience right before the Institute got under way, and they are extremely heartfelt. The sentences are: “My music is based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability. How does this translate to an orchestra?” Now, ten years later, your music has been performed by lots of orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony and, most recently, in Boulder. So I wonder what you think about those sentences. Vulnerability is discouraged because of how the rehearsal process works. And, at this point, how do you deal with an orchestra’s inherent lack of intimacy?

MM: Well, I still feel like I’m asking the same questions and, with each piece, finding different answers to the question of how to bring an intimate, vulnerable, human experience to a situation like working with an orchestra, which is a little bit disconcerting. I feel kind of disconnected as a composer for a couple different reasons. You’re dealing with this mass of people—you very rarely get to have individual interactions with the players. You’re flown somewhere and you have two or three rehearsals and then it’s the performances. It’s not set up to have one-on-one pow-wows with your performers, which is what I’m used to.

So this experience I just had last weekend in Boulder was really interesting. They premiered the new version of this piece that I originally wrote for the LA Philharmonic called Sinfonia for Orbiting Spheres. I put harmonicas in the orchestra and also melodicas, the piano that you blow into—I have some around here—and there’s a lot of strange percussion. I really wanted it to feel like this intimate, enveloping experience. The harmonica sounds so vulnerable and so human because these players are not professional harmonica players. They’re professional horn players and clarinetists and they’re just using the length of their breath to play these really simple, almost toy-like instruments. It was so great, but it was a risk for me. I didn’t know how that was going to work in an orchestral context. And I was so happy because I think that it made the experience more intimate for everybody.

FJO: Fascinating. Some orchestras might not be willing to do it. Some players feel very firmly that they should only be required to play the instrument that they’ve spent their lives studying and perfecting making the best possible sound with.

MM: Right, and I respect that. That’s valid. My goal is not to make people look bad. I was really grateful that the Boulder Phil musicians were open to the idea. They might not have liked it—I’m not sure—but they were really great and they wanted to make the piece work. So much thought went into me even writing for harmonica in an orchestra setting. It was not just a whim; it was very considered. There’s this very serious emotional intent that I have. So my strategy with working with the orchestra was to try to get them to understand what I was going for. It’s sort of a music of the spheres feeling, and it was this idea of enveloping the audience in this ether, while all these loops of little melodic fragments were swirling around them. Harmonicas are really like the ether in which everything exists. So once they understood that, I think that they were at least willing to give it a shot.

FJO: An important component of the performance in Boulder was that you were in residence there for a week, so instead of just showing up for a couple of rehearsals and the concert, you had a greater opportunity to connect with the players, so that must have helped that process. I was curious how that experience was different from other experiences you’ve had with orchestras over the years.

MM: In Boulder I did a lot to connect to the audience, but unfortunately I didn’t have so much time to connect with the players, even in a residency situation. I think it’s hard to create that time and space, but I think it’s something worth working towards for all orchestras—to try to create a deeper connection between the composers and the performers. I’ve talked to a lot of my composer friends about this very thing. But it did make a big difference for me, just being in Boulder for a week. I taught for a day at Colorado University. And I performed a concert of my own works at this art space called The Dairy in downtown Boulder. I met with their board. I went to luncheons. I did a stargazing hike where they played my music as people were looking at the stars, because the piece is about the planets in orbit. That was amazing, and it allowed me to have conversations with people about a bunch of different things, and allowed them to have a bunch of different ways to access my music and the work.

FJO: To talk a little bit more about your first orchestra piece, These Worlds In Us, one of the things that struck me about it at the time and every time I’ve listened to it or have thought about it since then, is how ravishingly beautiful it is. Certainly not everything you’ve written is so decidedly and so intentionally pretty, but beauty has definitely been part of your compositional arsenal. It seems to be a conscious aesthetic decision for you, so I thought it would be interesting to talk about that as well as what your view of beauty is.

 

MM: What does it mean to be beautiful? How much time do we have? I think that what you’re saying is that there’s a lyricism, or that there are elements of that piece and pieces that I’ve written in the last ten years that are sort of conventionally beautiful in a way that most people would say, “Oh, that’s pretty” or “That’s a melody I can hum.” I think that a lot of noise music is beautiful and that it’s pleasing, but I know what you’re saying. There’s a lyricism, and there are these melodies that float around the listener in a way that I think could be described as beautiful. That’s something that has been a part of my language from the very beginning. My goal is to try to draw the listener in with something that is familiar, even just a tiny bit, whether it’s a little repeated melodic fragment or the sound of the harmonica, which is a sound that everybody knows. Most people have picked up a harmonica and have blown into it. We know that sound. So I try to draw people in with something that they can latch onto, but then twist it and present it in a different way, present the melody with a strange chord underneath. Or have the harmonicas be this insistent repeating drone that becomes unsettling. The piece I just wrote for the Boulder Phil becomes very dark at the end. All of a sudden, the harmonica feels like this lone person lost in space instead of this warm familiar sound. So I don’t know. These Worlds In Us was the first orchestra piece that I’d ever written, and it was really daunting. I remember really losing my mind trying to write that piece. And I remember having this thought: I can write a melody. When all else fails, I know I can do that. So I’m just going to do that and not worry about what comes next. And that’s where the theme for the piece came from.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that you want to give the audience something to latch onto, because another constant through line in your music is that there’s always a narrative arc behind it, whether it’s inspired by literature or by personal experience. In the case of These Worlds In Us, it was both: a wonderful poem, which is where the title came from, but also you thinking about your father and his experience being a Vietnam War vet. But these kinds of backstories are hard to decipher in a piece of abstract instrumental music with no vocal line; they hinge on people reading the program notes. How important is it for you that people know those stories?

MM: Sometimes it’s important that they know, sometimes it’s not. Certainly it is with the dramatic work that I’m doing, even in an abstract opera like Song from the Uproar, which does not have a conventional narrative. It’s more like a fever dream. But it’s important to me that people generally understand what’s going on, even in the simplest terms. Other times those stories are just for me. That’s just the way that I conceive of music. I conceive it as a human struggle. I conceive these melodies and rhythms as being characters that are sometimes working together and sometimes in opposition to each other.

In my piece for eighth blackbird [Still Life with Avalanche], the percussionist devours all the other instruments and absorbs all the material. It’s a weird, abstract play that’s being enacted by these performers. Whether or not you know that that’s what I was thinking of in that particular piece doesn’t matter because it just leads to a musical result. The same thing is true with These Worlds In Us and Tooth and Nail¸ the piece that I wrote for violist Nadia Sirota, which is about jaw harp music in Uzbekistan. I don’t really care if people understand all the things going on in this piece because, at the end, it’s just leading me to create a musical structure.

My two composer obsessions this month are Anna Thorvaldsdottir and John Luther Adams. They’re both really inspired by nature. A couple of months ago, I was driving around Death Valley thinking: I wonder if there’s something in there for me. I should get inspired by nature. But the thing that I can say consistently inspires me is human beings. It’s not nature as much as it is just me being inspired by human beings trying to live their lives. And, in the case of my operas, human beings trying to live their lives under insane, impossible circumstances. What do they do? How do they get out of it? How do they relate to each other? That stuff to me is so fascinating and juicy, even as a way to think of non-narrative instrumental music.

FJO: One of my favorite pieces of yours is Magic With Everyday Objects, which you describe in your program notes for it as music having a nervous breakdown. But part of the reason I love it so much is I don’t think you even need that program note. That message gets immediately across in the music. Obviously some narratives are harder to convey than others, some details are just too subtle. I wouldn’t have known the backstory of These Worlds In Us just from hearing the music.

MM: But that doesn’t matter to me.

FJO: There’s another backstory with These Worlds In Us which is a purely musical one. You used the same melodic material in another piece of yours, a piece you wrote for Newspeak called In Spite of All This. And yet, though this material sounds so pretty in These Worlds In Us, it’s decidedly not pretty anymore in the other piece. It’s something else entirely.

MM: I think that’s totally a function of the orchestration. I actually wrote the piece for Newspeak first and then orchestrated it out and changed it to fit into an orchestral context. I think when you move into an orchestral context, I don’t want to say it’s inevitably prettier because a lot of composers don’t think that way, but there’s a certain lushness and a lyricism that happens when you have a full string section, versus just a solo violin. So I think maybe that’s what you’re experiencing. And also, because I had more instruments in the orchestra, I was able to flesh out a lot of the harmonies, and so I think it comes across as this richer, more immersive experience.

FJO: Even though they share the same material, that material is presented so differently to the point that I don’t think they’re the same piece at all. They’re very different pieces.

MM: They share a theme and a structure, but that’s about it. I do this all the time. I steal from myself all the time. I think a lot of composers do, and I think it’s a fallacy that we’re supposed to reinvent ourselves completely with every piece. My boyfriend is a painter and he’s been working on the same series of work for the last year and a half; it’s so fascinating and satisfying to watch that happen. I think of music in the same way. I’ll often use the same material to generate a few different works before it’s completely out of my system.

FJO: You wrote the Newspeak piece back in 2005; I don’t know anything you wrote before that.

MM: Before 2005, when I was 24! Well, it’s funny. The piece that Lisa Moore recorded for an album that just came out two days ago is the earliest piece of mine that is published and available for people. It’s a piece for piano and electronics called Orizzonte. I wrote it when I was 24 for a band that I was in when I lived in Amsterdam; eleven years later, it’s finally been recorded by someone else.

FJO: I have a demo recording of you playing it that you gave me the first time we had lunch together ten years ago.

MM: Oh really? Oh my God… Wow. Well, it went through a bunch of different versions. It started off as an improv experiment and then solidified into something I could play on a concert program.

FJO: I didn’t realize back then that you had been in a band in Amsterdam. So even that early on, you were involved in several different approaches to making music. People still package things into “classical music” or “indie rock,” and you’ve certainly done work that could fit in either category, and many things that have aspects of both over the past ten years, but it seems like you’ve been doing that from what you consider the very beginning of your musical output.

MM: I don’t think about it that way at all. This band in Amsterdam was a great example. Was that a band or was it an ensemble? I don’t know. I got a residency in a squat, and was like: Let’s start a band; we’ll work all week in this squat and then we’ll give a concert at the end. Great. So it’s just people together making music. It was a welcome change for me from just working alone in my room and then delivering pieces to people. So it just sounded like fun. That’s where that came from.

FJO: In some ways Victoire is a band, but it’s also an ensemble. It’s a little bit of both.

MM: I don’t lean towards one or the other. My goal in creating the ensemble was to take the best of what was going on with bands. I wanted to make records. I wanted to tour. I wanted to create a show that was a consistent instrumentation for which I was creating new music, because people were asking me to put on concerts. Our first show was at The Stone, John Zorn’s venue on the Lower East Side. I didn’t want to just bring in a string quartet and then a solo clarinet; it just didn’t make sense programmatically. I wanted to have a consistent ensemble and I wanted to tour the world. I wanted to perform all over the place. That was from the indie rock world. But then I wanted a really virtuosic level of performer. I needed people who were classically trained. I wanted us to be performing music that was written down and that I wrote. So that was coming from the ensemble side of things. So it’s equal parts both.

FJO: Of course there were several models from the previous generation of composers forming their own groups to exclusively perform their own music, like The Philip Glass Ensemble or Steve Reich and Musicians. But you didn’t call it The Missy Mazzoli Ensemble.

MM: Because that seemed pretentious at the time. I don’t think it was pretentious of Philip Glass or Steve Reich, but I think that in the current climate, it just felt wrong. I don’t know. We were taking so much from the band world that I wanted to give it a name that wasn’t my own name.

FJO: But do you think of that music differently than you think of the other music you write?

MM: No, I don’t. Often a piece will start as a commission for someone else, and then I will arrange it to be performed by my ensemble. I took Magic With Everyday Objects, which I originally wrote for NOW Ensemble, and arranged that for Victoire. Then I re-arranged it and it became The Door into the Dark, which was the opening track on our first album. I did that with bits of my opera, Song from the Uproar, too. The opera ends with an ecstatic coda, and I really wanted to play that myself. So I arranged it for Victoire. The music is exactly the same. But even if it’s not the exact same notes, it’s the same level of complexity as all my other music. The biggest difference is really just in the way that it’s rehearsed, because I can try things out with the group, experiment with different synthesizer timbres. I’m obviously not really able to do that when writing for someone else.

FJO: Curiously, the biggest project that has involved Victoire is Vespers for a New Dark Age. The first Victoire album, Cathedral City, was credited to Victoire. Only someone reading the fine print could see that all the compositions were by Missy Mazzoli. But Vespers was clearly identified as a Missy Mazzoli album. So even if you don’t think of there being distinctions, distinctions are being drawn somehow.

MM: Sure. Inevitably. But the Vespers album also included three tracks that are electronic pieces I created myself, with the help of the producer Lorna Dune; it didn’t involve the band. And then there were all these other people involved, like the percussionist Glenn Kotche. Lorna also created a remix of this other piece, A Thousand Tongues. Jody Redhage performed the original version of A Thousand Tongues, and we sampled her voice. So there were a lot of people involved. For me, a Victoire album is the five of us getting in a room and making music together. This felt like so much more, and the unifying thread was me as a composer. So I think it felt right to release that album under my name. It felt more in the lineage of Song from the Uproar, which is the album of my opera that was released two years before.

FJO: It was fascinating to hear you say that there was music you wrote for someone else that you wanted to perform yourself, and so you reworked it and made it into something else. This ties back to an earlier thread in this discussion about communication being the core of your music. Certainly performing is a form of communicating, so being directly involved in a performance is an important way to engage with an audience.

MM: Well, yeah. I love to perform. I was a performer before I was a composer. It’s part of my musical DNA. Initially I was just performing to scratch that itch, just to be able to be in front of people because it’s fun and exhilarating and nerve-wracking in all these great ways. And when I’ve performed, I realized that my connection to the audience was much deeper as a composer when I was in front of them as a performer. You tell people you’re a composer and they have no idea what you’re talking about; they don’t have a sense of what you do every day or what your place is in the world. I found that people were a lot more open and understanding when I was up there as a performer saying, “I wrote this, I’m going to play it for you.”

FJO: So you were a performer before you were a composer?

MM: Well, it all happened when I was super young. I started taking piano lessons when I was seven, so in that sense, I was a performer before I was a composer. I was a kid. But really quickly I started writing music and realized that this is what I need to be doing with my life. I started writing when I was about ten, and there was no question that I was going to go to school for composition. This was going to be my life.

FJO: So you definitely came out of a lineage of classical music.

MM: Oh, yeah.

FJO: So the whole indie rock thing came later. How did that come into your life?

MM: Well, it came into my life from being a kid in a small town in Pennsylvania, which means that I spent a lot of time driving around listening to the radio because there was nothing else to do and music was just a big part of my life. My parents are not musical, but I was moved by all kinds of music in a way that I wasn’t moved by anything else. And classical music in particular—because I was able to play it myself and have that connection—had a huge impact on the way that I process the data of the world. It gave me an identity and it gave me a focus as a kid. So I think I just obsessively latched onto it in this really extreme way.

FJO: I couldn’t help snooping around the apartment when we were setting up, and I noticed that you have a bust of Beethoven on a bureau as well as another Beethoven portrait hanging on the wall. I was a little surprised by that.

MM: Really? He’s the best. I fell in love with Beethoven as a kid. You know, you’re not really exposed to John Luther Adams or Philip Glass when you’re seven and taking piano lessons. I loved playing Beethoven, and I loved learning about his life and realizing that he struggled, that he was constantly trying new things and then discarding things. When I was in school in Boston, I would go to the Harvard rare manuscript library and just dig through Beethoven sketches, most of which have these big Xs on them. It was always very reassuring to see that he was not always happy with what he wrote the first time around.

FJO: Unfortunately nowadays so many composers do everything on computers, so no one can see sketches with Xs on them.

MM: Well, I have a lot actually. I still work a lot by hand and there’s definitely some obsessive scribbling there.

FJO: So, are you going to save those things for posterity, or are you going to be like Brahms and destroy all your sketches?

MM: I save them, but I wouldn’t say I’m saving them for posterity. Who knows? That’s for future generations to decide if I’m still interesting. But I do save them for myself.

FJO: Do you ever find yourself going back to those things that you crossed out and using them?

MM: Not really using them as much as just taking stock of the passage of time. I have filing cabinets full of old manuscripts and notebooks and journals. I like to look back and see like, oh, that’s where I got the idea to start Victoire, to start this ensemble. Or my initial notes for creating Song from the Uproar or Breaking the Waves, which is a project that’s taken over my life. It’s fun to go back and just see the initial brainstorms for those projects.

FJO: So what was the initial brainstorm for Vespers?

MM: I wanted to create my own version of a Vespers prayer service. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to do that without being heavy handed and religious, because I’m not a religious person. But I love the musical form of that prayer service, the idea that it’s a series of invocations broken up by singing. The tradition varies depending on what precise religion you belong to, but it seemed like this great, flexible, inherently musical form. So, the invocation in Vespers is not “Help me, oh Lord”; it’s “Come on all you ghosts.” The lyrics were written by the poet Matthew Zapruder, so it’s all by replacing the sacred text with secular poetry; I was able to hint at the themes of the prayer service without being overtly religious.

FJO: But by subtitling it “for a New Dark Age” it has a kind of ominous undercurrent to it. “Dark Age” is a negative term, even though some wonderful things happened during the original so-called Dark Ages, the Medieval period.

MM: Were there? Was there anything good?

FJO: There was some great music.

MM: Okay. If you’re in the top one percent. Well, that line “New Dark Age” comes from a line in one of Matthew’s poems called “Korea,” where he says, “I know I belong in this new Dark Age.” So, that is a little more uplifting than the phrase “new dark age” alone and that summed up my feelings about being alive. I know that we are kind of in a dark age to some extent. Things are messed up. But I also know that I belong here. You know, this is my time, and I embrace that. So when I read that line, I was like: this really resonates with me. That was the impetus to use his poetry for the entire piece.

FJO: So this poetry existed before you set it.

MM: Yes. And Matthew Zapruder was amazing. He’s also a musician, so I think he understood that I wanted to be really free with which texts I used. He let me draw fragments of texts from a bunch of different books and remix them into lyrics that made sense for the project, each individual set of lyrics. Sometimes they come from a couple of different poems, or a couple different books. But all of it existed before, except I got him to write one new piece; the second track, “Hello Lord,” was a new poem written just for the project.

FJO: That’s interesting. You just described it as the second track rather than the second movement.

MM: Well, I get confused myself with that because this piece is a little complicated. There are five acoustic movements, but then there are these three electronic remixes stuck in there. It’s confusing.

FJO: But the reason I brought it up is I wonder if you think of the recording rather than a live performance of it to be the definitive way to experience the piece. It was initially written for live performance.

MM: It was, but it was also written for recording. I knew I wanted to make this into an album even before I started writing. You spend so much time with an album when you’re editing it and referring to everything as a track. I think that was emblazoned in my memory.

FJO: And clearly, in our time, many more people will have heard the recording than would have been at the original live performance at Zankel Hall.

MM: Exactly.

FJO: But what’s strange about that—maybe this is part of us being in a new dark age—is that even though music gets primarily transmitted through recordings, recordings are no longer a viable economic stream for most people now that so many people are just listening to music online. This hasn’t really sorted itself out, but you clearly still make albums. In fact, one of the reasons you said that you formed Victoire was that you wanted to make albums. So making albums is still important to you.

MM: Sure, it’s important to me. I also like the idea of releasing singles on the internet. Or creating music that’s just for video and releasing that on YouTube. I’m not really precious about the album. I do think though that—as a composer and as someone who grew up listening to records—the natural length of a CD is really satisfying to me. I like the idea of making grand statements, coming out with 40 to 60 minutes of music and saying, “This is my latest statement,” rather than saying, “This is something I made this morning, and here’s three minutes of it.” So I think that there is value and weight to this idea of the album and that that length still has significance. My friend Judd Greenstein, who runs New Amsterdam Records, used to say when he was starting the record label that albums are the new symphonies. And that really made sense to me. There are pieces that can be accepted as a whole or can be broken up into movements, and there’s still a logic to that. So that’s how I think of it now.


The video by Mark DeChiazza of “Wayward Free Radical Dreams” from Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for a New Dark Age is making its debut on NewMusicBox
FJO: Now, what’s interesting is that in your discography to date, you have pieces on different people’s albums, but the albums that are your albums—the Victoire album, Uproar, and Vespers—are all unified as albums. They’re not like most single composer new music recordings which are usually just a collection of pieces for various ensembles. I guess that’s coming from the same impetus as wanting to form an ensemble with consistent instrument to perform concerts of your music. You didn’t want to have all these scene changes on stage that are really awkward. Of course, in an album those kind of scene changes aren’t awkward, because it’s pre-recorded. But it can still be an awkward listening experience.

MM: Yeah. I don’t know. It just seems a little bit awkward. I’m not against the idea of composers releasing these sort of compilation albums of their pieces, but it just has a different feeling from someone like Philip Glass releasing Glassworks with the Glass Ensemble or Meredith Monk and her Vocal Ensemble releasing something like Dolmen Music, which has a bunch of different pieces on it, but it still makes sense because it’s a consistent instrumentation. That to me felt smoother, so it was what I wanted to do.

FJO: Since we’re talking about making grand statements, this seems like a good place to talk a bit about your operas. Once again, these pieces come out of your love of literature and, in the case of the most recent one which we’ll get to a little later, film. I tried tracking down an opera you did based on a story by Boccaccio, but I wasn’t able to find very much information about it.

MM: I knew you were going to say that! It was sort of an exercise, a workshop kind of thing I did in my first year as composer-in-residence with Opera Philadelphia. It was a collaboration with Mark Campbell, who’s a great librettist. He’s very collaborative and I really loved working with him, but we had some trouble coming up with an idea that worked for both of us. He had come to me with one story, and I sort of tentatively said yes, but I think he could tell that I wasn’t that excited. So then he came back to me and was like, “I think that with you we just need to go dark,” I took it as a major compliment. I was like, “Yes. Do you have any stories about sex or death?” Because I feel like all my interesting work is about sex and death. And he said he always wanted to do something with Boccaccio’s Decameron, to take one of those little stories and work with it. And I ate it up. It’s this story about this woman whose lover is murdered by her brother. She plants his head in a pot and then this basil plant grows up and she sings to it. It’s called the flowering basil. It’s hilarious and dark. There’s love and death and sex and intrigue, all in this little seven-minute mini-opera. I think it is being done in Cincinnati somewhere; I’ll get that recorded and let you know.

FJO: Boccaccio, though maybe not as widely read as he used to be, is part of the literary canon. On the other hand, Isabelle Eberhardt is not somebody everybody knows about—yet. But she’s a really fascinating figure, such an amazingly headstrong, independently minded person, a real role model from an era where women weren’t, by and large, allowed to be what she was. At the same time, she’s a really tragic figure; she died at the age of 27. How did you come to know about her, and what made you decide to make an opera about her?

MM: I was 23 when I picked up a copy of her journals in a bookstore in Boston, really just completely at random. A new edition had just been published in English, and I was immediately struck by what I read when I opened it up. It just has this tone and this openness that is really strange for travel diaries of that era. You read Pierre Loti or André Gide and they’re writing about going into the desert with 45 servants and having high tea; she had nothing. She was very poor and extremely adventurous and brave, and had these really raw experiences, sometimes amazing experiences. She was one of the first women to witness this particular religious ceremony that happens in the desert where people shoot guns into the sand in this very colorful ceremony. She also experienced extreme poverty and extreme loss. She seemed to live this very extreme life. I was really struck by how she wrote about her sadness in particular. She had 25 different words for being sad.

I knew immediately that I wanted to do something with her life, that there was something in there that was resonating with me. I started actually by just writing songs about her. I would take fragments of her journal and create texts based on the fragments and just write songs. Then it became apparent that it needed to be an evening-length theatrical work. At that point, I brought on the librettist Royce Vavrek to sort of craft the true libretto. But it’s called Song from the Uproar, because it’s her song; this song emerging from the chaos of her life, that’s the song coming out of the uproar.

FJO: There are some interesting parallels between Isabelle Eberhardt and Stephen Crane, whose poem you set in your short piece for Jody Redhage, A Thousand Tongues, which you mentioned earlier. They probably never met each other, since they were based in different parts of the world, but both were tireless adventurers who scoffed at conventions and both died before they were 30, around the turn of the 20th century. It was a very different world than the world we live in now in many ways. Yet in both cases, the music you chose to convey their words is a very contemporary sound world. You didn’t feel the pull to go back into their sound world.

MM: No, because what’s interesting to me was what was going on in their minds, which I think is something that transcends time and place. So I was interested in the things, about Isabelle’s story in particular, that made her story universal, the things that I identified with as a woman living in the 21st century. There’s this constant loneliness, this feeling of being very much in love with her husband but really wanting this independent life. And there’s a conflict between Eastern culture and Western culture, in her own mind; this stuff was really juicy and interesting and is not just about her being in Algeria in 1904. So I wanted a piece that was unmoored from time and place. That’s why I felt free to use electric guitar, electronics, and samples, and that’s why for the production that we did, initially at The Kitchen and later at LA Opera, there’s film with images of things that happened long after her death—people answering telephones and riding in cars. But I think it all makes sense because the story is about this fever dream of a life that she had.

FJO: And in the case of the Stephen Crane?

MM: Well, that was a much shorter text, but I also tried to get at the universal qualities of that poem. He says, “I have a thousand tongues, and nine and ninety-nine lie, though I try to use the one, it will make no melody at my will. It is dead in my mouth.” Who hasn’t felt like that sometimes? It’s this idea that you have these many faces, but which one is your true face and what is the truth? So it seemed to tap into something more universal.

FJO: Compared with these other pieces, Breaking the Waves is much more contemporary. It’s based on a Lars von Trier film that’s set in the 1970s. But you initially didn’t want to do this.

MM: Right. So my librettist, who’s also one of my best friends, Royce Vavrek, came to me and said we should make this into an opera: Breaking the Waves, Lars von Trier’s seminal 1996 film. And I was like, “That’s a great film. It’s already this complete object; why would we mess with it?” Also, at the time, there were a lot of operatic adaptations of films being made, and I just felt like I wanted to try something different. So he left me alone and let me think about it. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I watched the film again and I was like, “Wow, I can hear music for these people. But it’s not going to be what people expect; it’s going to be very, very different from the film. I really feel like I can make my own piece based on this incredible story.” Once I felt the freedom to separate myself from the film, that’s when the project became real and became very exciting to me.

FJO: Of course, that’s an even bigger challenge. When you’re reading a story or a poem, even if it’s from another era, it’s still a disembodied text that allows you to hear it in your own mind rather than a specific way. But if you’re basing something on a film, that film already comes with its own sound world: the sounds of the actors’ voices as well as the music of the soundtrack in the film. There are all these things already there that you have to strip away in order for it to become your own thing.

MM: It’s true, but less so in Breaking the Waves, since there’s no composed soundtrack for it. There is music in the film—some ‘70s rock tunes by Elton John, David Bowie, and Deep Purple—but there isn’t a score that’s telling you how to feel. I think that that left space for me to create my own music for it. That’s really significant. But still, you’re right, especially with Lars von Trier, you have all these amazing hand held shots, and these close-ups of people’s faces. That is such a part of our experience of that story, just being in the room with these people, in their face, as Emily Watson is crumbling, or in her wedding dress waiting for her fiancé to come on a helicopter. It’s really emotional. How do I keep that in the opera, when it’s a singer who’s a hundred feet away from you in a theater where your eyes can look anywhere? You don’t have to look at her face. And there’s no way that I can make you look at her face, except to have her sing something really awesome. So it’s an interesting challenge that I solved in a couple different ways throughout the opera, since that intimacy is something I wanted to maintain from the film.

FJO: There’s that word “intimacy” again, going back to that comment you made on the blog ten years ago.

MM: Right. I haven’t really changed much. I’m still trying to do the same things all the time.

FJO: Now the initial impetus for this conversation was Vesper Sparrow, the piece being done in Korea. Once again the source of it is literary inspiration, although this time from somebody who’s an exact contemporary of yours.

MM: Well, the thing to know about working with the group Roomful of Teeth, who commissioned and premiered it, is that they have this residency every year at MASS MoCA, the museum in Massachusetts, and they invite composers to come stay with them for two weeks to learn about the group and to learn whatever vocal techniques they’re learning. At the time, they were learning Tuvan throat singing and Sardinian su cantu a tenòre singing. So I would try to learn it with them or try to sing along with them, and I just hung out with them for two weeks. During those two weeks, you’re supposed to write a piece or two for them, and then they perform it at the end. It’s like Project Runway without the snarky competition, where you have to create something very fast and then present it. So I did that and the week before I was going to go, I was thinking, “Wait a second, are they going to sing words? If they’re going to sing words, what are they going to sing?” Thankfully my best friend is a poet, Farnoosh Fathi, so I called her and I said, “Send me the manuscript to your book,” which was coming out that fall—it’s called Great Guns—and she did. I just printed it out and on the train ride up there, I sat and read through all these poems. She was also very open to me taking bits of poems, and cutting out what didn’t necessarily work for voices or was too long. She has this great poem that at the time was called “Vesper Sparrow,” which was later changed to “Home State,” and that’s where the text comes from that happens like three-quarters of the way through the piece.

FJO: But there are also all these other syllables that are not really comprehensible as language. That’s not part of her poem? She didn’t write those syllables?

MM: No.

FJO: Now I’m totally confused.

MM: Yeah, rightfully so. So, in one of the versions of the poem, again I don’t know because she was writing while I was writing the piece and a lot of it changed for the final book, but one of her poems began with the call of the vesper sparrow, which translates something like “hey, hey, now, now, all together down the hill,” or something. We put words to it to remember the call. And so the Roomful of Teeth piece is sort of an explosion of that. It’s like these bird songs initially. And then, halfway though, they just start singing words that come out of nowhere. So it’s this mish mash. Farnoush’s poetry is very lyrical and is free association. There are all these beautiful images that you don’t expect that come in out of nowhere. And that’s what inspired the piece. This text comes in out of nowhere. You don’t expect it. And the connections between the phrases are tenuous, and you’re supposed to come up with that in your own mind.

FJO: Before you told me this story, I had no idea that this came about because Roomful of Teeth was learning traditional Sardinian singing techniques. Yet still, when I first heard it, I immediately associated it with Sardinian traditional music because I have field recordings from Sardinia, and what you wrote sounds remarkably authentic at times. And so when I was trying to figure out the connections I thought, well I know that you come from an Italian background, but you were using a poem by a woman with an Iranian background. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together in my head.

MM: Well, now you know the story, which is that I had to come up with something very quickly and called in favors from friends. But I think the result is something that does capture the spirit of not only the Sardinian singing, but also of Roomful of Teeth itself. It’s like this joyful coming together of people from all these different places, of these very particular voices, and somehow the combination of all of them makes total sense. And this combination of bird song and a strange abstract poem by this Iranian-American poet somehow all comes together and makes sense in this little five-minute piece.

FJO: It was written for Roomful of Teeth, and they made a fabulous recording of it, too. But it’s printed in score and so it’s available for other groups to perform. So it can have a life beyond Roomful of Teeth. And now it’s going to be done in South Korea as part of the 2016 ISCM World Music Days. The singers who are performing it there might not necessarily have the same background as Roomful of Teeth. They might not have had the workshop in Sardinian folk music that Roomful of Teeth had that week. How can they do an idiomatic performance without all of that? How necessary are those elements in order for the piece to work?

MM: When I wrote it I never imagined anyone else singing it, because it had to be written so quickly and it was so particular for this group. But I’m open to different interpretations. I like the Sardinian aspect of it and I like that there’s a recording that these singers will hopefully listen to, even just to get an idea of what the piece is about and the character. But do they need to have that precise sort of like nasally intonation that the Sardinian music has? Not necessarily. I think that the piece is the notes and the rhythms and the texts. And all that translates on the page.

FJO: So to come full circle, we talked about you playing your music yourself with your own group, as well as writing for orchestras where you have very little face time with the musicians. Now here we have an example of a piece that’s out in the world and you may have no face time at all with the musicians. That’s actually a very typical situation with composers whose music is published and gets widely performed. At a certain point, you can’t be everywhere. Your identity has to be conveyed exclusively through those marks on a printed page; that’s how it ultimately lives if it is to become repertoire.

MM: Right.

FJO: That’s the opposite of intimacy, but I guess it’s vulnerable, isn’t it?

MM: It is. And if my only outlet was to make these marks on a page and then deliver it to people who I would never meet, I would be really depressed. I created this band, and I perform, and I write for my friends, and I try to be intimately involved with people who are in the process of performing my music to counteract that, to maintain some sense of control and involvement on every level. In a good way, not in a control freak kind of way, but just to be involved in all aspects of the music making. It’s a little bit scary to send this piece off and have people I don’t know yet perform it. But that’s also really exciting, and I will know them in a few weeks!

Michael Jackson-Themed Orchestra Piece Wins ASCAP Nissim Prize

Vincent Calianno sitting at a desk and staring at a large orchestral score manuscript.

Vincent Calianno

Vincent Calianno has been awarded the 36th annual ASCAP Foundation Rudolf Nissim Prize for The Facts and Dreams of the World According to Michael Jackson, a 12-minute work for orchestra. Selected by a panel of conductors from among 170 entries, the Brooklyn-based Calianno will receive a prize of $5,000. The jury also awarded Special Distinction to Matthew Browne of Ann Arbor, Michigan, for Kill Screen, a 5-minute work for wind ensemble.

In his program notes for this year’s Nissim Prize-winning piece, Calianno wrote, “The Facts and Dreams of the World According to Michael Jackson is a set of four proverbs (aphorisms, cautionary tales, apothegms) for orchestra. Conceptually, the germ of the piece comes from a dream I had some time ago: In my dream, a terminally ill Michael Jackson commissions an architect to construct a large mausoleum with gardens and galleries within its complex labyrinthine interior. This piece neither celebrates nor lampoons the real Michael Jackson’s public persona or music, but nonetheless reflects upon the gifts, experiences, and wisdom we leave behind to our loved ones when we are laid in the earth.” (An audio recording of the piece can be streamed here.)

Calianno has a diverse catalog that includes opera, large ensemble works, chamber, and electroacoustic music, as well as video works. His long-standing interest in visual media has led him to compose music for short and feature-length films and the silent cinema, as well as for his own film and media work. Recent compositions include When I Dream, Some Letters Fall Out Of My Mouth To Make a Word, which was premiered by the International Contemporary Ensemble, and Bone Chinoiserie and the Alabastard Cowboy for Ensemble 39. Other performers who have commissioned and performed his music include The New York Miniaturist Ensemble, Artifact, The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, The UIUC New Music Ensemble, The University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra, and The Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra, as well as members of the JACK Quartet, eighth blackbird, and Callithumpian. His media and silent cinema works have been exhibited and performed at such venues as The Banff Centre (Canada), Huddersfield University (U.K.), National Taiwan Normal University (Taiwan), The Juilliard School, and Merkin Concert Hall (NYC). Calianno was a 2015 participant in the ASCAP Foundation Columbia University Film Scoring Workshop.

The judges for this year’s Nissim Prize were: Gemma New, music director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Ontario, Canada, associate conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, principal conductor of the Camerata Notturna, and director of the Lunar Ensemble; Gerard Schwarz, music director of the All-Star Orchestra, music director of the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina, and Jack Benaroya Conductor Laureate of the Seattle Symphony; and Diane Wittry, music director of the Allentown Symphony (PA), artistic director and conductor of the Ridgewood Symphony (NJ), artistic director (USA) for the International Cultural Exchange Program for Classical Musicians through the Sarajevo Philharmonic (Bosnia), and artistic director for Pizazz Music and the Pizzaz Symphony Orchestra.

Dr. Rudolf Nissim, former head of ASCAP’s International Department and a devoted friend of contemporary composers, established this annual prize through a bequest to The ASCAP Foundation. The prize is presented annually to an ASCAP concert composer for a work requiring a conductor that has not been performed professionally.