Tag: text setting

What You Get and What You Give: Permission and Compensation for Setting a Text

Four old fashioned metal keys.

Once you’ve found a writer whose words you want to set and discussed some basic logistics and interpersonal concerns relating to your partnership, you’ll transition to discussing rights, permissions, and compensation.

Copyright for Pieces Using Text

Who owns what rights will depend on the nature of your collaboration and what you negotiate.

Who owns what rights will depend on the nature of your collaboration and what you negotiate. For transactional partnerships involving pre-existing text, the author/publisher keeps the copyright of the words, but allows the composer to use them in their piece. The composer then owns the copyright for the resulting musical work, but not the copyright for the words. If the author is creating new text for the composer to set, the same generally will be true.

However, if a composer and writer are co-creating the words and music (for example, in musical theater or a similar song-writing situation), then they might equally share the rights to both words and music. Contracts for that type of arrangement differ significantly enough from general text-setting agreements that they are outside the scope of this article.

Text-Setting Permissions

The heart of a text-setting agreement—whether for an already written text or a new one—includes the permissions granted to the composer and what compensation they provide in exchange. When the copyright holder of a written work grants a composer text-setting permission, they are licensing the text to the composer for specific uses. How exactly the composer can use the text and what they can thus do with their composition depends on the permissions granted.

There are six permissions a composer should get.

There are six permissions a composer should get:

1.) to use the text in a musical composition

2.) to license public performances of the resulting composition

3.) to publish and sell the resulting composition

4.) to have the resulting composition recorded (audio and video) and to permit the commercial release, synchronization, and/or other transmission of such recordings

5.) to print the text with proper credits in concert programs and liner notes for recordings

6.) to create arrangements or similar derivative works of the resulting composition

Permission 1 allows you to incorporate the author’s words into a musical setting. Everything else depends on this license being granted.

Permission 1 may or may not be exclusive, and exclusivity may be given in perpetuity or for a specific amount of time. If possible, I prefer to get exclusivity for at least a few years for art songs or choral works, and in perpetuity for dramatic works. If I receive exclusivity for a fixed term, I make sure the agreement specifies that I will continue to have non-exclusive permission after exclusivity expires.

When giving text-setting permission, some authors/publishers may stipulate how the text can be set. Most commonly, they could prohibit the composer from changing the text. Others may allow repeating lines or words but forbid other alterations. Or, they might indicate that any proposed modifications must be approved by the author/publisher. Less commonly, an author/publisher may also give guidelines about the music itself. I personally have not encountered this issue, but it does happen. Still, unless an author/publisher insists on it, specifying details about the musical composition in the text-setting agreement should be avoided.

Specifying details about the musical composition in the text-setting agreement should be avoided.

In any case, if the author/publisher includes a stipulation that is a deal-breaker for you, try to negotiate with them. If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to decide if you can live with that arrangement or if you should walk away.

Permissions 2-4 ensure your composition will have a long, productive life. More performances means more performance royalties, more music sales/rentals, and more possibility for future career growth. Recordings are vital for the same reason. Even if they are not directly generating income, recordings can help to attract potential performers, presenters, and commissioners. And if you do release a recording commercially or license it for use in film or on television, you and the author/publisher will receive added income. Allowing performances, recordings, and publication thus benefits all parties.

Permissions 1-4 are essential. Do not set a text without them.

There is a little more flexibility with the other two permissions. No. 5 accounts for the standard practice of printing texts to aid in listening, but should a copyright holder balk, it is not absolutely necessary. If you don’t get this permission, include a note in your score directing presenters to request permission to print the text in a concert program from the copyright holder.

Allowing performances, recordings, and publication benefits all parties.

Permission 6 is also not strictly necessary (and one could argue it falls under Permission 1). Still, I prefer to be explicit about the possibility of making arrangements or other versions of a piece up front. Generally, the splits for performance royalties, sales/rentals, etc. would remain the same for any such arrangements. The main exception would be any purely instrumental pieces based on a vocal work: there, the text’s copyright holder would not have any rights to royalties or other compensation.

Performance Royalties

In return for the permissions listed above, the composer would typically compensate the copyright holder in some way. First, in any piece where text is spoken or sung, the author(s) are entitled to a portion of the performance royalties, regardless of any other compensation they might receive.

Typically, performance royalties are split 50-50 between the publisher and all creators. The 50% creator share is most commonly divided 25% to the composer(s) and 25% shared by any authors not in the Public Domain. A 2/3-1/3 split or other arrangement is possible if all parties agree. (Translators—if applicable—are included in “authors,” as they contribute to the creation of the text. Remember, translations of texts that are Public Domain in their original language may not be Public Domain themselves. In such cases, you’d need to get permission from the translator/their publisher and compensate them for use of the text.)

The 50% creator share is most commonly divided 25% to the composer(s) and 25% shared by any authors not in the Public Domain.

For non-dramatic works, these royalties are collected by performing rights organizations (or PROs) like ASCAP or BMI, who distribute the funds to their members.  Authors must belong to a PRO to receive this income, so I suggest including a clause in the contract that the author must be a member of an appropriate PRO to receive their performance royalties.

Dramatic works like operas fall under grand rights, and such performances are licensed by the copyright holder(s). In that case, the composer or their publisher if they have one will need to distribute any licensing fees to the author(s). The split between composer, author(s), and if applicable, publisher should be specified in the contract.

Additional Compensation

There is no one standard for compensating a copyright holder to use a text. Some common arrangements are:

  • the author receives performance royalties but no additional compensation
  • the composer pays the author an upfront fee
  • the composer agrees to give the author/publisher a percentage of sales/rentals
  • the composer pays both an upfront fee and a percentage of sales/rentals

It is more likely performance royalties will be the sole form of compensation when one or more of the following are true:

  • the composer and author have a personal relationship
  • one or both is a student or emerging artist
  • the composer is receiving little or no money for writing the piece
  • the music will be self-published
  • the text is already written
  • financial need or other similar extenuating circumstances exist

Performance royalties usually provide more income over time than either an upfront fee or a percentage of the sales/rental income, so this arrangement is not an unreasonable possibility. Still, it is good to offer additional compensation when you can, especially if the author is writing a new text for your collaboration.

It is good to offer additional compensation when you can, especially if the author is writing a new text for your collaboration.

An upfront fee has the benefit of being a clearly defined one-time commitment. However, it requires an initial investment on a piece for which you may not have received any money yet. This can be problematic depending on your financial situation and the fee involved.

The amount requested can vary widely depending on who the author is, who the publisher is (if applicable), and who you are. If you are receiving a commission to write the piece for which you need text, you could offer a percentage of your commission fee. . If you are not being commissioned, you may have to pay the fee out of pocket. It could be relatively affordable, perhaps in the $50-200 range. Or, the fee could be a prohibitively high amount (up to $1000 or more) that you are unlikely to ever make back in future sales.

If the fee is beyond what you can afford, you might share details like planned list price, anticipated sales, or profit of similar pieces you’ve created in order to give the person with whom you are negotiating a more realistic sense of the finances involved. When the amount comes from the publisher, the author might be able to convince them to agree to a more reasonable fee. Or, if you have a publisher, they could negotiate with the author’s publisher on your behalf. Ultimately, though, if the fee is too high, you may need to find a different text or author to work with.

A percentage of the sales/rentals for the composition is another option. While this has the benefit of requiring no money up front, it could cost you more in the long-term if the piece is very successful. For published musical compositions, the publisher typically keeps 90% of the sale price. The creator share is 10%, which is split between the composer and author(s). That may be divided so that half goes to the composer and the other half is shared by any authors, or it may be split 2/3 to the composer and 1/3 to the authors. For self-published works, giving the author 10-15% of the sale/rental price is reasonable. Some composers may go as high a 50% share on sale/rental income. That split only makes sense if it comes after expenses, since you alone will be covering those.

If you are self-published, this approach also requires extra accounting to ensure the income is collected and distributed appropriately. You might make annual payments or periodic ones triggered when the author/publisher’s portion reaches a certain threshold (for example, when the total reaches $25). Whatever arrangement you and the author/publisher agree to should be detailed in your written agreement, as should the actual percentage.

Whatever arrangement you and the author/publisher agree to should be detailed in your written agreement.

Paying both an upfront fee and a percentage of sales/rental income is not to the composer’s advantage. It has all the downsides listed above plus an increased overall financial commitment. Unless you really want that text and cannot negotiate another arrangement, avoid this possibility.

Regardless of which arrangement you and text’s copyright holder agree to, you will want to write up the granted permissions, any stipulations, and all financial details into your contract. The final article of this series will focus on formalizing your agreement and completing the collaboration.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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Corigliano, Who Set Dylan Text, Reflects on Songwriter’s Nobel Lit Win

A great deal of reporting and online chatter flooded in behind this morning’s announcement of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win in literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But could the text be separated from the music? Was this choice brilliant? Was this choice a publicity stunt?

Beyond the mainstream commentary and think pieces bound to follow, John Corigliano is in a unique position to reflect on Dylan’s text for a new music audience, as he set the songwriter’s work in 2000 to create the song cycle Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. We asked him about the literary merits and character of Dylan’s text, from his perspective as someone who worked with this material at such a granular level.

When I wrote my seven-song cycle Mr. Tambourine Man, I had not heard the music to Bob Dylan’s songs; but I had purchased a large book of his lyrics and, on first reading, immediately recognized them for the poetry they are. These lyrics can evoke a Whitman-like grandeur, as in “Chimes of Freedom;” etch an Agee-like portrait of small town life, as in “Clothes Line,” or declaim a terrifying indictment of militarism (“Masters of War”). I can see why the Nobel committee awarded him the prize for literature.

The POTUS concurs:

Friday Informer: Where Profanity Meets Art

It probably goes without saying, but the above clip is intended for mature audiences due to language.

Vice is not a magazine usually associated with new music coverage, yet pre-show buzz for The Nouveau Classical Project’s Sacred-Profane concert showed up on their pages (complete with score samples, no less).

Of course, being able to put “cunt-punt cantata” in the headline probably paved some of that PR road. The April 9 and 10 program featured the premiere of Vin Calianno’s Sororatorio: a Cuntata, a six-section setting of the famed, absurdly vulgar 2013 email lashing delivered by then-Delta Gamma chapter president Rebecca Martinson. The 885-word missive covered her…displeasure with the behavior of her sisters at recent social events, tearing them down using Tarantino-level profanity.

In the weeks after the email first went public, the jokes and spoofs were myriad, including this interpretive reading by actor Michael Shannon for Funny or Die.

Sororatorio, scored for Pierrot plus percussion (though in this case the percussion included a few vuvuzelas) could have been just a gimmick. And in the non-pejorative sense it was! The packed-in stylish crowd gathered in the black box space for the performance was buzzing with anticipation before the show opened with Marina Kifferstein’s arrangements of movements from Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum, plus Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Chrysalis and Nina C. Young’s Meditation and Void. While waiting for things to get going, composers near my chair were debating just how Calianno would manage to set “cunt punt” anyway. If you missed the show yourself and need to have your curiosity sated, that clip is below.

NCP has plans to take this work on tour, and while the ensemble—particularly vocalist Amanda Gregory—deserve props for the premiere performance, with so many dramatic elements to play with, future performances are bound to offer opportunities for all sorts of interpretive play.

Hindustani Music: The Four-Syllable Darling and Text Setting in Hindi

During the year I spent living in Delhi, the Bollywood song “Munni Badnam” was one of the most popular tunes in the country. The song was absolutely everywhere. It was wafting out from shops I passed along the road, spilling out of rickshaws whizzing by on the street. Even as I worked late into the night, I would occasionally hear it radiating through the walls from nearby apartments. Each time I listened to “Munni Badnam” (which is in Hindi), there was one word in the first line of the song I just could not catch. It bugged me to the point that I finally looked it up on a Bollywood lyrics website. I realized then that it wasn’t even a Hindi word: it was the English word “darling”. Munni badnam hui, darling, tere liye [1]. But it wasn’t just the context that made me unable to recognize the word: this version of “darling” was actually four syllables: daa-ruh-ling-guh.

As a composer, I am constantly fascinated by the way different languages can be set to music. Each language has a specific way of interacting with music that unleashes its inherent sonic beauty while maximizing its comprehensibility. When I learned Italian, it seemed to me that the naturally rhyming verb endings and open vowels were almost designed to be able to perfectly accommodate settings of strophic poetry. The subtlety of the French language is so beautifully preserved in the unique rhythmic and melodic choices French art song composers make in their music. Each language has specific traits that are accentuated and built upon in their musical setting.

I learned to speak and sing in Hindi over the same span of time[2]. Exploring the language in both its spoken and sung formats concurrently illuminated Hindi for me in a unique way. Many points of connection between speech and song surprised me, as they differed not only from English, but from many of the other the Western languages I knew. These observations prompted me to think more deeply about the connections between music and language, about the ways that one effects and enhances the other, and about new directions I might explore while setting text in Hindi, English, or any language.


Hindustani music is primarily sung in the chest voice, or what Hindustani musicians call the “natural” voice. However, the actual pitch of spoken Hindi is higher than the pitch of spoken English. Just watch any American movie overdubbed in Hindi, and you will immediately hear this distinction, as your favorite American actors and actresses are paired with a voice that is disturbingly higher than the one you are expecting.

Even with these opposing range considerations, the Hindustani singing range shakes out to be markedly lower than the Western one. For example, the range of a female singer who sings in A [3] will go comfortably down to an E below middle C, and up to a C#, and possibly an E within the treble staff. Above the E is considered virtuosic, whereas in Western music, it is standard for a high-voiced female singer (even a non-professional one) to sing up to G and even A above the staff. The Carnatic (South Indian classical) range is often lower still.
Some of the drawbacks of utilizing the lower range in Western art music are the decrease in clarity and definition, as well as the decreased ability to project—both of which result in a decreased intelligibility of text. However, in Hindi, the difference in sound production technique in the language changes the quality of the voice and markedly increases its intelligibility, even in the lower range.

Vocal Placement and Timbre

I find that I have a very different voice when I speak Hindi. My Hindi-speaking voice is higher in pitch and much more forward in my head and mouth. Vowels resonate in the face mask and through the nose, a fact that is incorporated into the grammatical constructions in the language itself. For example, the only difference between the singular and plural forms of many common Hindi words is that a small nasalization is added to the last vowel in the plural form of the word–the back of the tongue closes the throat slightly to feed air through the nose which creates the sound. Additionally, the particular sound quality of nasal resonance on consonants like M and N allow them to be heard when held. While the sustained portion of an English word is almost always a vowel, the nasal quality of the Hindustani sound allows M and N to also serve as sustaining notes in Hindustani music.
I’ve noticed that when I speak or sing in Hindi a lot (especially after a prolonged interval away from it), the tip of my tongue gets a little raw, as it plays a much more active role in the pronunciation of Hindi words than of English ones. Consonants are formed right at the lips, with the tongue tip either against the back of the teeth or brushing the ridge of the hard palette. There are no swallowed or imploded consonants like the letter T in the word “mountain.” I was so surprised when a friend of mine from Delhi told me of his fascination with the way I pronounced the word “totally.” He said, “I’ve been trying to imitate you for weeks, but my T’s just keep knocking together…” However, the fact that Hindi mandates this definition of consonants markedly increases the clarity of the language when sung.

In written Hindi, transliterated English words [4] sometimes look like snarled bramble in comparison to the Hindi ones. The main cause of most of these snarls can be boiled down to one main difference between the languages: Hindi rarely has multiple consonants in a row. Devanagari, the script in which Hindi is written, uses a single consonant as the main anchor of each syllable, with the vowel modifying that consonant in the way an accent would modify a letter in a Latin-script language. Two consonants in a spoken syllable is somewhat common and navigable, but more than two consonants creates written havoc that the Devanagari script is simply unequipped to handle.
While written and spoken English is much better equipped for consonant clusters, sung English still struggles with them. I remember trying to set a beautiful text for choir a few years ago. At the end of a particularly ethereal line, the poet had used the word “forests.” There was simply no way I could set the word without creating an unseemly rustling cloud of consonants at the end of the phrase. In the West, we compensate for these moments of ambiguity by printing full texts in programs or flashing them in supertitles, one phrase at a time. However, Hindustani musical culture does not make substantial use of written material in any form—just as the performers have no written music, the audience has no written program. Anything that needs to be communicated is spoken or sung directly to the audience from the stage. How, then, is the audience able to understand what the singer is saying?

In addition to the pitch, tone quality, and production of sound that have been touched upon above, there are two additional features of the particular method of text setting in Hindustani music that contribute greatly to the communication of a text.

Textual Repetition

Khayal singing (the dominant style of Hindustani vocal music since the 18th century) makes use of a wealth of poetry. One or two poems in Hindi or Brijbasha (an ancient Indian language not unlike Hindi) are always the centerpieces of a khayal performance. However, a text of about four to six lines will be used over a span of, perhaps, ten minutes of music. There are general guidelines for the repetition of each line, though they are loose and leave a great deal of room for improvisation and spontaneity. Each time the text is repeated, it is accompanied by a unique musical variation. Hearing the same text with different music perhaps 20-30 times over the duration of a section allows the audience multiple opportunities to grasp its meaning. Additionally, it allows the singer to color the words differently each time, highlighting different aspects of their pronunciation. This varied repetition results in both greater intelligibility for the audience and a more multifaceted characterization of their meaning.

The constant repetition of text allows the music to open up in other areas as well. When I first began singing Hindustani music, the tradition’s flexibility with declamation surprised me. There are many places in the music where weak syllables fall on strong beats. To Western ears this text setting may be perceived as off-kilter, because in Western music the strength of syllables closely follows the beat pattern. However, in Hindustani music, because the text is repeated so often, the disjunct relationship between the musical and textual stresses can be a source of interest and engagement rather than confusion. Also, Hindustani music is marked by incredibly long melismas in both slow and fast tempi. Melismas that occur on consecutive syllables can separate a word over a long period, so as to make it unintelligible in real time. However, perhaps similarly to a composer like Handel (who is also known for his long, patterned melismas), the repetition of text allows it to be understood in a simpler, more direct form before vocal pyrotechnics take over.

Sung vs. Spoken Consonants

For me, the biggest revelation in exploring sung Hindi is in the way the music handles consonants. In Western music, a lot of our consonants get swallowed at the end of syllables, or bunched together so that they are lost in the millisecond between sustained vowels. Professional Western singers work on the articulation of consonants for years to be able to communicate a text to an audience effectively.

Sung Hindi addresses this issue by articulating each consonant as a separate syllable. So, for example, the word “badnam” is spoken as two syllables (bad-nam), but is sung as four (ba-d-na-m). The extra syllable emphasizes a consonant that would be otherwise lost at the end of the word, which allows sung Hindi to be instantly understood. Sometimes the note will even change on these added syllables. (See the example below—both the D and M in the word “badnam” are on different notes.) While these “ghost” syllables are often shorter than the main ones, they are often also accented or stressed in some way, which adds a unique layer of rhythmic zing to words that might have otherwise sounded a little metrically flat.
Though the above is an example from a Bollywood song, the same practice is used in Hindustani classical music, and in many other Indian languages as well. In Hindustani music, there can even be melismas or long held notes on these ghost syllables.
This addition of an extra consonant syllable is a brilliant feature of Hindi text setting, and I so wish this system also worked for English text setting. But considering my confusion with the four-syllable version of the word “darling” in Munni Badnam, I doubt it would be effective on a larger scale. While Hindi consonants are certainly not as delineated in speech as they are in song, listening closely to a Hindi speaker will reveal that those consonants are still pronounced very prominently. This trait of Hindi pronunciation makes the leap from a clearly articulated consonant to a short extra syllable completely conceivable. Trying to make the word ”darling” into the four syllable “daa-ruh-lin-guh” would be so out of character with the English language that it would have the opposite effect—it would render the word completely meaningless.

Maybe this particular solution doesn’t transfer between these two languages, but even understanding why this is the case tells me so much about how each language is articulated. Perhaps there are other languages where this technique might be incredibly effective. And perhaps there are other points between Hindi and English where a successful transfer of methodology is possible. I am eager to find them.

Learning Hindi in its written and sung forms simultaneously has been revealing in so many ways. Little idiosyncracies I would have otherwise missed in the language are illuminated through song. Learning how to sing in Hindi has been teaching me volumes about the type of voice I need to use when I speak, the way words are formed and feel in the mouth, and the way the sounds resonate in my head and through my body. And, perhaps most importantly, discovering the unique ways in which the language and music connect allow me to explore new pathways in my own relationship to text setting, whether in Hindi, English, or any other language.


[1] Translation: Munni (referring to herself) has become infamous, darling, for you (or, for your sake).

[2] I am what is sometimes referred to as a “heritage speaker” of Hindi. While I did not grow up speaking the language (I began learning it during my masters degree at Yale), I did grow up speaking Gujarati, another Indian language from the state of Gujarat, where my father’s side of the family is from. Gujarati is about as far from Hindi as Spanish and Italian are from one another, so there are certain constructions that feel completely intuitive to me, and others that require me to think of grammar rules in order to say the right thing.

[3] Indian musicians usually have a specific drone note they sing on. A common note for women is A or Bb, and for men it is (I believe) C# or D. While Western musicians change keys in every piece, and even within a piece, Hindustani musicians will often sing in the same key for an entire career.

[4] English is widely spoken in India, and modern conversational Hindi makes increasing use of English words. Indians lovingly call this light, English-infused form of Hindi, “Hinglish.”

New England’s Prospect: “The harpsdischord shall be theirs for ollaves”

It was the beer, in the end. And Schrödinger. But for much of the time, Martin Pearlman’s Finnegans Wake: An Operoar did right by James Joyce’s garrulous tumble of language. The Sunday night premiere was under the nominally anachronistic auspices of Boston Baroque—the inaugural concert of the group’s new chamber series—but the rationales were both obvious (Pearlman is Boston Baroque’s music director) and, maybe, a little meta-historical, the whole early music movement being, after all, a product of modernity. And the opening chapter of Finnegans Wake is nothing if not historically informed, a dense, hallucinatory tour of legend and lore, the centuries peeled back to set the stage for the fall of the original Finnegan, Finn McCool, and the wake which proves the unlikely creation act of the novel’s dreamlike narrative.

What success the work produced could be traced to two fundamental decisions: not cutting the text (the piece—as it stands, Pearlman reserving the Joycean prerogative of calling it a “work in progress”—sets the novel’s first seven pages in whole), and opting for a reciting actor (Adam Harvey) rather than singers. The words could flow unimpeded, Pearlman’s rhythmic setting natural and fluent, Harvey’s delivery (even with the handicap of an American accent) confident and—no small feat—remarkably off-book for a premiere. The music, for the most part, provided constantly shifting scenery. The ensemble was of the new music ilk—flute, clarinet, violin, viola, double bass, piano, and a fair collection of percussion—and the musical accent that of post-serialism, rhythmically and contrapuntally busy and multivalent, but harmonically mediated, not averse to venturing forth chromatically (occasionally rising to a pitch reminiscent of Joyce’s “duodisimally profusive plethora of ululation”) but always staying within earshot of a tonal center or resolution. Many of the motives alternated between chromatic, “atonal” versions and more triadically contoured twins.

Joyce playing the guitar in Trieste, 1915.

Joyce playing the guitar in Trieste, 1915.

Pearlman clearly loves the song-like nature of Joyce’s language (Joyce was a singer, after all), and his delineation of it was optimized towards bringing out its capacity for rhyme and dance-like scansion. (At times, as in Harvey’s snappy delivery of lines like “the strupithump of his ville’s indigenous romekeepers, homesweepers, domecreepers, thurum and thurum in fancymud murumd,” it was almost as if to make a case for Joyce as a kind of proto-rapper.) And Pearlman was attentive to the broad symmetries in the prose’s structure: the rolling tolling of historical events, with the musicians giving fragmentary cues for Harvey to respond to, was mirrored in the telling of Finn’s fall, Harvey now the one spurring commentary from the instruments, interpreted portents now become portentous gossip. The tallying of Finn’s various incarnations, with the music providing a mickey-moused soundtrack keyed to the text, was transformed into the din at the wake, the speech rhythms herded by the hints of Irish song burbling up through the ensemble. The opening glimpse of the River Liffey, a wash of cymbal and a heavy jig from the violin, returned at the end, Anna’s “wivvy and wavy” hair (borrowed from page 28 for a coda) now elided with the river’s current. (The perception of all these structures was vastly aided by the piece being performed twice.)

Still, it was those Irish songs that hinted at the barrier Pearlman’s setting—along with all settings of Finnegans Wake—eventually ran up against. Pearlman relished the chance for the ensemble to provide a gloss to the text, the songs Joyce hinted at or parodied suddenly poking out of the musical texture. But the results were more of an Ivesian hubbub than Joyce’s rapid-fire but precisely aimed allusive vectors. The problem, of course, being that music goes, inexorably, in real time—on the page, Joyce’s references, however passing (and they almost all are in passing), can still hit their marks, clear and momentarily in the spotlight; but layered into music, they were perceived only peripherally. By the time one had processed a musical quotation, the next one had already gone by. (And some remained unprocessed—even on second hearing, and primed by Pearlman’s mention of it during a question-and-answer interlude, I still missed a Beethoven quote accompanying the “dusty fidelios” at the wake.)

It’s the eternal trade-off of trying to musicalize Finnegans Wake: you can capture the rhythm of the language or the depth of field of the allusive web, but not (at least in my experience) both—because the allusive web is as much visual as aural. You can see it in the beer, the cask meant to accompany Finn, pharaoh-like, on his journey to the world of the dead, the “barrowload of guenesis hoer his head” to match the “bockalips of finisky fore his feet.” It’s one of the book’s more famous portmanteau-puns, the barrel of Guinness made to bookend the whisky in a Genesis-Apocalypse biblical whole, but also containing within it the spark that will fuel the book: not only genesis (after all, what better image for creating a universe than brewing it) but also genius, the creative urge to tell the story. And, if you’re a close reader of Finnegans Wake, you note that this is already the book’s second version of the pun, after the initial introduction of the title character, who, in a parenthetical digression, we learn

sternely struxk his tete in a tub for to watsch the future of his fates but ere he swiftly stook it out again, by the might of moses, the very water was eviparated and all the guenneses had met their exodus so that ought to show you what a pentschanjeuchy chap he was!

And then you can dig deeper and find out that the Guinnesses did meet their exodus in a way particular to Joyce, Joyce’s father having been secretary to the Liberal Party whose candidate unseated Sir Arthur Guinness for a seat in the Irish parliament, Arthur’s father, Sir Benjamin Guinness, Lord Mayor of Dublin, to be likened in Finnegans Wake to Noah, Noah who went on the first biblically recorded drunken spree, a spree recorded in Genesis, a spree that could very well have been fueled by a barrel-load of Guinness. It’s the sort of referential rabbit-hole that infuriates the book’s detractors and endears it to its adherents.

In a way that has eluded every musical setting of it I’ve yet heard, Finnegans Wake is a book of quantum superposition. Joyce, in fact, wrote it at the same time quantum physics was coming into its own, at the same time as De Broglie’s equation, Schrödinger’s wave function, the Copenhagen interpretation. It was Schrödinger who came up with the most famous analogy for the superposition that resulted from a probabilistic interpretation of his wave function, his cat, suspended between the states of life and death until an observation forces it into one state or another. But Finnegans Wake might be an even better illustration of the concept, every one of Joyce’s half-inherited, half-invented words encompassing an abundance of states simultaneously, all the interpretations and allusions and hints able to hover, superimposed, for as long as the reader wants. For all the respect and entertainment value Pearlman brought to his setting, in the end, the performance, the accompaniment, the necessity of forward motion inevitably collapsed all those functions, the multitudes within each of Joyce’s redolent mutations reduced to whatever wave was most aurally apparent.

Still, the one-state-out-of-many that Pearlman chose was almost always an agreeable one; Finnegans Wake: An Operoar might hem the text in, but it does so in a way that still defers to it, puts it in the foreground, and celebrates it. It has to be some sort of testimonial that, after hearing the piece, quibbles and all, I nonetheless went home and started re-reading.

Sebastian Currier: Reversible Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO: Who started writing music first?

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

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

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

FJO: But you gave up rock.

SC: Yeah. I gave up.

FJO: Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SC: That’s interesting.

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

SC: Exactly. Mahler for modern times, right?

FJO: So why reference those titles now?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

SC: Indeed, and I wouldn’t want to.

FJO: So how did you get connected to her?

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

FJO: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SC: Right.

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

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

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

SC: It is being done as a dance thing.

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

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

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

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


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

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

SC: Exactly. Right.

FJO: But obviously both composers are you.

SC: Right.

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

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

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

SC: Right.

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

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

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

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

FJO: —the Jupiter Symphony or the Requiem.

SC: Exactly. Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO: Specifically to conjure up Pierrot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO: So Sebastian is you.

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

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

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

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

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

FJO: Mostly compositional.

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

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

SC: Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO: And timbre of course, and harmony…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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