21 Oct 2008
An interview with Scott Lindroth
An interview with Scott Lindroth by Tom Moore
An interview with Scott Lindroth by Tom Moore
Composer Scott Lindroth has been teaching at Duke University since his arrival in North Carolina in 1990. In 2007 he went from being chair of the Department of Music to being the Vice-Provost of the Arts. His 2001 work for band, Spin Cycle, has been recorded several times, and has joined the standard repertoire, with dozens of performances nationwide. We spoke in his studio at Duke on March 17, 2008.
TM: Where do you come from musically? How did you get started? What were your family influences?
SL: I started late compared with most people who go into the profession — I started taking piano lessons when I was ten years old. My folks told me that I had wanted to start earlier, when I was five or six, but I was having a lot of trouble in school, and teachers in those days thought that music would be an unwelcome distraction, that I should get my act together before I took on another project. We would probably think differently today, but that was the wisdom of the early sixties.
My father played violin as a child. I had his violin, but I never heard him play, and he was never active in any way as a musician that I recall. He was a music lover, with a pretty good record collection, both classical music and some jazz of the forties and fifties, as well as pop — lots of Sinatra. For me, I remember that I always wanted to be involved in music in some way. From the time I started playing piano at ten I just could not wait to get going. I was also in a boys’ choir. Once I started I was very intense about my participation, practicing endlessly, and not long after I began to compose, when I was twelve or thirteen. I don’t know that I was conspicuously talented, but because I put in a lot of time, word got out in the community. I was very eager to do anything I could as a musician.
When I was in seventh grade, I started to play saxophone, which was a way to have some kind of communal music making, as opposed to the isolation of being a pianist. It was a revelation to be playing a large ensemble — both concert bands as well as jazz ensembles. It was probably my exposure to jazz that helped bring some focus to my work as a composer. Earlier I had tried imitating pop music of the day, without knowing much about what I was doing.
Jazz had an enormous appeal to me. I loved the complexity of the improvisations, the richness of the harmony, the incredible virtuosity of the musicians. Even though there was a format that was followed, it seemed to invite endless diversity — you could do anything, within the constraints that the medium imposed. Looking back at it, I reveled in a sense of freedom. Anything that I could hear, or imagine, or challenge myself to hear, I could find a way to express that through the jazz idiom.
The first pieces of mine that really began to sound like anything were for jazz ensemble. I got to high school, and had a very ambitious band director who just pushed me into writing things where I had no idea what I was doing, but he gave me an opportunity to try my hand at it. Initially, I brought in a Count Basie-style chart that I had written when I was in tenth grade. It took him completely by surprise, but it was based on all the Basie arrangements by Sammy Nestico that I had played through middle school and was playing in high school. It sounded pretty good — there were some things that were a little hard for a high school group, but he immediately made me write more. He said “it’s already publicized — there are going to be two pieces by you!”, so I did.ving a lot of tr
It was a joy for me to be doing that. I was beginning to explore improvisation, as a saxophonist, but especially as a pianist, which I regard as my primary instrument. I was beginning to study classical repertory as well, but I saw that more as a way of acquiring technique, rather than feeling like it was a viable channel of personal expression. I loved Bach, I loved Brahms...I couldn’t play Beethoven or Mozart very well. I loved listening to those composers, but jazz was really where I felt that I could focus my creative energy.
I wrote lots of arrangements for jazz ensemble, had my own group, a quartet, which I would compose for, do arrangements for. We would play gigs around town, I would play with society bands, and do that kind of work as a musician. That’s what you did. I was immersing myself as much as I could in the kind of music-making world that existed in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin — a small town of 30,000.
There was a harmonic complexity and composition density in jazz that I felt I could explore, that I was instinctively attracted to. I went to music camps in the summer, including one that focused on arranging. It was there that I met people who worked professionally, in New York, in Hollywood, as well as in universities in the Wisconsin area. There were people who had studied at the Arranger’s Holiday at Eastman, musicians from Henry Mancini’s orchestra who were some of the clinicians there, people who had played with the Temptations — an amazing mix of professional musicians and composers. I learned so much — anecdotal advice on how to find cool, interesting chords, ways of thinking about orchestrating for jazz ensemble that would make the ensemble more three-dimensional. I had been finding my way instinctively, but here I was getting concrete advice from people for whom this was their daily bread.
A faculty ensemble that consisted of all the guest artists read one of my early jazz ensemble pieces. I sat in front of them while they were sight-reading, and was completely in awe. I had never heard my music played so well before. It was stunning — all the trumpets were hitting the high notes, the fast sax figuration — they were just reading it down. When it was over, I was completely exhilarated, and then they went around the room and tore me to shreds. “There’s no place to breathe!” “I can’t read your manuscript!” — one thing after the other. I wasn’t that upset by it, because I was riding high from hearing the piece played so well, but got a dose of the reality of the practical side of being a composer — what you can do to get the musicians on your side — what are the best registers on an instrument, how much time do they need to breathe....
That moment of being able to get a peak artistic experience along with practical advice was just tremendous. If my work as composer has distinctiveness it was forged in that setting — being able to think idealistically, but understanding that there are practical concerns.
I wanted to go to music school, and my folks were wonderful through all this, although they were not musicians themselves, and didn’t have any idea what being a professional musician would mean. They were always completely supportive of what I wanted to do. I applied to Eastman, University of Michigan, and to University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.
I was admitted to Eastman, much to my surprise. I went to the interview, and did not know anything of contemporary music, and little classical music. My portfolio at the time was several jazz band charts, and a Rodgers & Hammerstein medley that I arranged for the concert band with the boys’ chorus that I had sung in when I was ten, and a few original pieces where I was trying my hand at a more classical style without really knowing what that meant. They liked my work, and wanted me to go to Eastman. It really floored me.
So I began to try to learn not only what classical music was, but also contemporary music. I went to the public library and checked out LPs of Stockhausen and Varese, and picked up an LP of Pierrot Lunaire, and the John Cage string quartet, at the local record store. On the flip side of the Cage was George Crumb’s Black Angels, and the first time I listened to that I thought that there was something wrong with the stereo. It begins with the ffff onslaught, and goes to something that is barely audible. I had never heard anything like it before, and I can’t say that I understood it. With Varese there is some kind of visceral connection. I was totally puzzled by the Schoenberg. I picked up Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, the original Nonesuch recording, which I thought was fascinating. I liked the sense that there was a world with people writing music that I didn’t understand, but somehow they wrote it. There had to be a way to understand it.
I liked jazz because there was a complexity, a density, something to stretch your ears and your imagination, and here I was discovering another kind of music which took that to a higher order of magnitude. I can’t say that I loved it, but I was fascinated by it. For me the musical experience has to include this sense of wonder. I was fascinated music that is inscrutable but utterly absorbing. It doesn’t tell you how to listen to it, but you have to figure out what are the things that you are going to pay attention to.
I began to see that contemporary music offered this opportunity, which was quite different from what I had been doing. I was thinking socially, about pieces that are needed, what people like to listen to, what people like to play....I was thoroughly indoctrinated in that. I didn’t resent it at all — it was fine. To see that there was another world that didn’t play by those rules was very intriguing.
TM: Jazz is one of those words that means many different things — a stage band at a high school, or Henry Mancini, or John Coltrane, or Sun Ra. According to the canonical histories, the early seventies was a terrible time for jazz — fusion, the nadir of American jazz, at least according to the Marsalis school. What was jazz in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin in the early seventies? I think of 1972-1974 as John McLaughlin, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis at the very limit.....
SL: I listened to a lot of bands in those days. There was a move to try to bring jazz into the public schools, which gave new life to a lot of old bands, everyone from Woody Herman to more progressive voices, being able to tour to high schools and colleges, and publishing their charts for performance by school bands. I listened to Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson’s band was very big at the time, Stan Kenton in the music education field, with mixed meters, all these wonderful Hank Levy charts that we played by him.
I also listened to some stranger things, Don Ellis, who was the West Coast hippie version of a jazz band, experimenting with technology and psychedelia, which was hard to get a handle on from where I was. Buddy Rich &– he played in our high school gymnasium, if you can imagine such a thing. That was the repertory that I knew, and when our bands played in state festivals, that is the music that you heard. It was exciting.
As a keyboard player I saved up my pennies from working at McDonalds to buy a Fender Rhodes, which is what you had to buy in those days.
TM: Do you still have it?
SL: It has been sold. I left it with my parents. I wish I did still have it.
As a keyboard player the fusion world was emerging. I listened to a lot of Herbie Hancock, both in the context of the Miles Davis Quintet, which I adored, and then with Headhunters. The musicianship is just unbelievable — it’s not Spyro Gyra, for example, which I would say is a late decadent manifestation of fusion. Return to Forever — I liked Chick Corea’s playing but the loud, electric stuff was hard to listen to — I much preferred when he played with Gary Burton on acoustic piano. Herbie Hancock I found exciting no matter what he played — he is just such an amazing improviser. The things that he does on albums like Nefertiti, for example, just thrilled me, or his albums before Headhunters....
SL: Just an amazing band. Chick Corea’s quintet with Joe Farrell and Woody Shaw — that was the stuff I really loved. The harmonic syntax — you couldn’t find too many ii – V – I progressions in that music, let alone anything based on blues. That kind of free-floating approach to harmony and melody I found exciting, and inspiring.
Weather Report was a group I really liked — Wayne Shorter I continue to adore as a sax player.
That was the world in terms of more adventurous jazz. I knew some of the late Coltrane, but didn’t really get a handle on that until later, when I began to fill out my historical knowledge of more classic jazz.
TM: Once you got to Eastman, how did you make the transition from mainstream big-band jazz to contemporary music? What was the compositional environment there like in the seventies?
SL: I arrived at Eastman in 1976. Contemporary music was beginning to go through a period of reassessment. George Rochberg’s work was questioning the historical necessity of twelve-tone music. Eastman itself, just by its location, halfway between the Midwest and the east coast, was in some ways removed from the situation where serialism was a mainstream in university music departments (if it was). That certainly wasn’t the case at Eastman. Howard Hanson was alive. He wasn’t teaching, but I remember going to a concert that he conducted. There was an idea of an American school of composition that was somewhat independent of the cutting-edge trends. This left more room for students to explore what they wanted. The composition faculty at the same time included Sam Adler, Joe Schwantner, who was the Young Turk, had just been at the school for a couple of years, was in his early thirties, and Warren Benson. Even among those three the stylistic range was enormous. Sam brought a combination of Piston and Hindemith with an interest in Schoenberg. Schwantner was the modernist, but at the same time was beginning to composer works that made use of tonality, though conceptualized as trichords that were manipulated systematically, but nonetheless evoking the idea of tonal music and quotation. Warren Benson was a composer of vocal music, with a deep sensitivity to text, and using that as a way of thinking quite speculatively about how music might be conceived. He could do anything from writing a straightforward band piece, to things that are quite strange and odd and hard to pin down, because he is thinking in terms of metaphor and imagery which he is struggling to capture in music.
There wasn’t an “Eastman sound” at the time. I didn’t know what was what in terms of contemporary music. I studied with Joe Schwantner as a freshman, and at my first lesson, in his very small studio, he said “I have got to go make a phone call. Here, listen to this new piece by Mort Subotnick”, and puts “Until Spring” on the record player, with the volume cranked up. The piece terrified me, but at the same time I was absolutely thrilled by it. My first composition lesson ever, and this is what is being presented. He gave me ten pages of repertory to learn, and it was all post-1945. I methodically spent time going through Babbitt, and late Stravinsky, and Carter, and Rochberg, Dallapiccola -all composers who helped define the postwar landscape. Certainly the emphasis was on the European modernist school, rather than Barber, or Ned Rorem, or other very capable composers. It became the soundtrack to my life at Eastman, and it was a real challenge to try to come to grips with this. My first piece was something like Prokofiev, a woodwind trio, a march, with tonal qualities to it, but more dissonant and chromatic than anything I had done at that point. I thought I was at the edge there, given what I had done before. It was clear to me that Schwanter was eager for me to move on to other things. I remember spinning my wheels on a chamber ensemble work — everyone was playing key clicks and breath sounds — and he wasn’t excited about that either.ano at ten I just co
A friend of mine, another composer, played Le Marteau sans Maitre for me, which totally knocked me out. It was the first modern piece where I was just utterly captivated by the sheer beauty of the music. The vocal writing was a little tough — but the instrumental writing was just absolutely gorgeous. There was a sensuous beauty that I found exquisite, and exciting, with a rhythmic vitality and energy. It spoke to me in an immediate way, without having to understand anything about the constructive procedures involved. It just hit me.
My response was to compose a piece scored for flute, cello, xylophone, vibraphone and piano. There’s an overlap with the Marteau ensemble, but differences as well. I had rhythmic scaffolding or patterns that I would work with, a way of being able to find notes that would give me sonorities that I wanted to use, allowing me work in a methodical way in exploring uncharted territory for me as an artist. Most importantly the piece sounded great, and achieved everything that I had hoped it would, the colors I was going for, the textures I imagined — it all spoke right away at the first rehearsal. The piece was extremely difficult to play, but people seemed to get it, that there was a colorful world here, that all these disjointed and complex rhythms would make sense in that context. The experience of hearing this piece played very well by a group of freshman musicians at Eastman began to give me the confidence that I could navigate this world of contemporary music, that here was a way that I could speak authoritatively as a composer, with real accomplishment, a definite artistic point of view, that helped me gained a foothold. This was the next formative experience, where I got a glimpse of what my artistic identity as a composer could be, something that I could build on.
TM: In American contemporary music it seems now that everything is possible — you don’t have to write serial music, it’s not like the Soviet Union where you had to write socially useful music, there’s no impetus to write nationalist music. How did you find a voice that appealed to you as a composer in the late seventies and early eighties?
SL: The idea of a voice for me is a little tricky, because I always bristled at the idea of having just one voice. I had so many different kinds of musical interests — I didn’t feel that I had to find a way to reconcile jazz with Boulez. Why? Jazz was fine on its own. At the same time I was excited about trying to find a way to work speculatively with music. To be fascinated by music, to be absorbed by a composition was something I valued as much as being moved by a composition, and I continue to feel that way. Both of those experiences are hugely important to me, and they lead to different kinds of voices.
People might listen to my music and say “yes, it’s all cut from the same cloth”, but I wanted to feel like I could go off in any direction I pleased, regardless of the track record I had, or what my interests were supposed to be based on earlier works. At Eastman at the time there wasn’t an orthodox “Eastman sound”, so it left room for different kinds of voices to emerge. The piece I mentioned — I was an eighteen-year-old, studying with Joe Schwantner, at the time a hard-core modernist. I thought “yeah, I want to try my hand at that”. When I started working with Sam Adler, who has much more of a neo-classical training, my interests would change as well. Imagine trying to reconcile Walter Piston with Morton Feldman. These were interesting problems. When Rothko Chapel came out, it was one of the most beautiful pieces I had ever heard. I traveled to Buffalo to hear the Steve Reich Ensemble play Drumming at the Albright-Knox Museum, with fifteen people in the audience. A total revelation — where did this music come from? It was music from another planet as far as I was concerned. These were powerful aural images in my mind, in addition to the things I was studying in my coursework at Eastman.
I tried to find a way to cultivate a speculative world, exploring novel musical territory, imaginative territory, and reconcile that with ways that musicians could play something they would enjoy playing, that would sound well in a more-or-less self-evident way — that was a preoccupation that began to emerge then.
Having a single voice is still a problem for me. I like to feel that a composer can speak many languages, that that is a viable way of being an artist today.
TM: From Eastman you went on graduate study. Who did you work with? What was the esthetic? How does the dynamic of speculative vs. social continue to play out?
SL: I almost didn’t go to graduate school. Right before I left Eastman I was working at a planetarium in Rochester. They had a job for a composer/sound engineer. They produced their own shows, and had a little studio with a mini-Moog, a Rhodes, a Farfisa, a big sound effects library. I wrote music for their shows. They would hire someone like Leonard Nimoy to read a narration. I wrote kids’ shows, and the script would say “25 seconds. Do a supernova”, and I would write music that would do that. They would synch the visuals to my music, which was great! I had taken film music composition classes at Eastman, so I had been thinking about going into the commercial industry as a way to make a living as a composer.
I wound up being accepted at Yale, and what made me go there was a summer at the Norfolk Contemporary Music Seminar, where Jacob Druckman, who was teaching at Yale at the time, brought together Joe Schwantner, Morton Feldman, George Crumb, Seymour Shifrin. I thought that anybody who can get along with all these people must be a remarkable man, and that this must be a remarkable program. Again, it was important that there wasn’t going to be a single institutional style.
It was very exciting. The other students that I met from Yale had incredible chops, real professionalism and sophistication, musically and imaginatively, that I didn’t see at Eastman.
After a year at Yale, I planned to take a leave of absence and try my hand at film music, but ultimately I stuck around. There I worked with Earle Brown, Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Jacob Druckman, who was the only Yale faculty member I studied with. Yale had a policy that you studied with as many teachers as you possibly could — you did not have an apprenticeship. This was an opportunity for a composer to be exposed to widely differing artistic points of view, and you had to figure out how to navigate that yourself.
That was a challenge, but an exciting one, and one that was valuable for me. In the end I had to figure how I would make my way as a composer, and what kind of music I was going to write. On the one hand, it was like being in a pinball machine, bouncing from one composer to the next, but they were all extremely provocative, with strong points of view, and not always in agreement with each other. It reinforced the idea that you had to find your own voice.
My classmates at Yale were David Lang, Aaron Kernis, Michael Daugherty, Michael Gordon. Having classmates as ridiculously talented as these people were was intensely stimulating. You learn as much from interaction with other students as you do from your weekly lessons. There is more continuity there, since these are the people that you see every day, as opposed to the seminar teacher who comes in one day a week from New York.
TM: You have a work on a Bang on a Can Live CD [Bang on a Can Live, vol. 1, issued on CRI in 1992]. The press buzz that Bang on a Can produced (at least for me, living outside New York) was that it managed to combine the transgressive excitement of rock with classical contemporary music. Tell me about this esthetic.
SL: As you said, the publicity for Bang on a Can was “these are people who grew up listening to rock and roll, and why shouldn’t that be a part of music...”
That formula has always driven me crazy. It may have been true, and was true for the members, but I don’t know that that was the musical objective. At least early on, the idea was musical radicalism — why shouldn’t musical radicals co-exist, why should boundaries defined by institutional affiliations or stylistic interests separate radical, imaginative musical thinking. So really the idea was not so much fusing contemporary music with popular music or rock, but having a concert where a piece by Babbitt could be followed by a piece by Steve Reich, which is exactly what they did in that first festival. They were determined to get Babbitt and Steve Reich in the room at the same time, and even get a picture of them next to each other, with their pieces programmed back-to-back. Or Cage, who was also in attendance at that concert. Bang on a Can sought out the most daring and accomplished composers regardless of their aesthetic differences.
That was the idea of Bang on a Can, and in that context, Babbitt sounds incredible. You don’t listen to it with the rhetoric of Perspectives of New Music in mind. Philomel is a stunning piece, all the more so when it is followed by Four Organs, another stunning piece. Why do you have to separate these things? Putting the music in this context underscores the courage and individuality of these composers, rather than hearing them in a context where they are the most accomplished practitioners of a particular school of composition. Why can’t we hear all of this at once? Why do we have to go one place to hear Babbitt, another place to hear Reich, and yet another to hear Cage? That was what was exciting about Bang on a Can, at least for me.
One thing that Bang on a Can became known for, and which I didn’t know I was doing at the time, was the idea of a post-minimalism, perhaps informed by more chromatic harmony, more complex rhythms than the pulse-oriented music of Reich. Louis Andriessen was the huge figure for the Bang on a Can composers &– he was a composer who could combine European modernism with the visceral energy of minimalism, somebody who brought these seemingly disparate worlds together in compelling music.
That’s how I understood the spirit of that festival, and was very excited about that myself. The piece that’s on that recording, Relations to Rigor (a terrible title, but what can I do...) has a long history, in that it started off as an impossible-to-play piece for youth orchestra, and then morphed into a piece for fifteen instruments that the Yale contemporary ensemble attempted to play, but could not. I was so discouraged that when a friend invited me to work at the electronic studios at CalArts, over winter break, I made a MIDI version of the chamber work. Of course, everything in the music was now in place, but it was completely drained of any life-blood, and I thought “how am I going to rescue this piece?” I composed new music for a Pierrot ensemble to play along with the MIDI transcription, and that was the version that finally worked, and got a lot of performances. It travels very easily, and even though there are only six instruments on stage it sounds like there is a whole army playing. At the time, it allowed me to explore instrumental virtuosity enhanced by an electronic world that I was trying to come to grips with as well.
In 1992, Bang on a Can curated a concert at the Holland Festival, and programmed Relations to Rigor with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble. The Wind Ensemble called me and said “this piece only has two wind instruments. Do you have anything with more winds?” I said “I have a version for fifteen instruments....”. I recall that David, Michael and Julia were not happy about that, since they had heard the original piece, and thought it had problems. But the Wind Ensemble nailed it. They played it beautifully, the way it was supposed to go. Everything that I had been trying to do in that piece was in fact in there. I liked it better in some ways than the piece for sextet and tape. I thought “Gosh, if I had heard this performance first I would never have gone to the trouble of rewriting it for MIDI.” But beginning to explore that medium turned out to be fruitful in other ways. It’s interesting how contingencies of performance can have a dramatic effect on my work as a composer.
The pieces from that period have various kinds of number games going on, especially with regard to rhythm. That piece on the Bang on a Can CD is entirely based on phone numbers of friends in New York at the time — the idea of the arbitrariness of the numbers was appealing to me. How can I make these make sense? How can I make a musical statement that has direction and form even though the numbers have no inherent meaning in themselves? I still find it exciting to work this way, although in those days I was determined that every note in the piece would have a reason for being there. I was always more flexible with pitch, but I was very interested in structuring the rhythmic life of a piece. That kind of thinking brought me to the post-minimalist school, or my version of it.
TM: You have a solo CD [Human Gestures] on CRI with a number of different media. Let’s start with Light from 1993, recorded by D’Anna Fortunato, a Boston mezzo, with Dinosaur Annex, a Boston ensemble. What were the circumstances of the commission? Did you choose the subject and the text?
As a listener what struck me was the “Messiaenic” quality of both the instrumentation and the musical style.
SL: Light was composed for a festival in the Midwest — friends of mine from Yale who were living in Minneapolis organzied a festival of contemporary music, and had engaged the Milwaukee-based ensemble Present Music to play new pieces. That dictated the instrumentation. The first version was for countertenor, and the text was by William James. The piece had spoken passages. The text was from James’ late writings, a gloss on Henri Bergson found in “A Pluralistic Universe”. It is an ecstatic vision of life that I found beautiful and moving, life as a process in which you are inventing yourself from moment to moment. Creativity happens by throwing yourself into a situation and adapting to it.
I tried to set the text to music, and some of it worked beautifully, but the spoken parts did not. Present Music wanted to do the piece again, and I decided to rewrite it with. As much as I loved the William James text, it was just too cumbersome to sing. In reading Hildegard, the text has a circular quality which creates an ecstatic spiral, which comes to a focal point of a vision of Christ. I was able to rewrite the vocal part to accommodate the new text.
Dinosaur Annex performed it a few times, and then recorded it. One can hear Messiaen in this piece — I have always gravitated to the colorful harmonic texture in his music. It may also go back to my admiration of Boulez.
TM: You remark in the notes for Human Gestures, if I can paraphrase, that the string quartet is a fraught medium in terms of its historical antecedents. In listening to your String Quartet for the Ciompi Quartet from 1997, I hear aspects of computer music, of minimalism, and of French music. Where did you come from in creating a voice for this piece?
SL: You have singled out all of the things that I was interested in. The piece is in two movements — a short introductory movement followed by an eleven-minute main movement, which is what I composed first. It took me a long time to find my bearings in the medium of the string quartet. The repetitive and textural aspects were very important to me in that piece, but at the same time I wanted it not to have the “aloofness” of minimalist music, but to have the expressive richness that a string quartet can do so beautifully. I wanted to find a way to use a limited gestural language, with repetition, but to bring a richness of sonority and shape to the phrases, an ebb and flow to the music that is idiomatic for the string quartet. I was also concerned with pacing over a long period of time — starting calmly and serenely, gradually beginning to simmer, and then heat up to a rolling boil. I wanted to bring together minimalism with a more romantic concept of having music unfold gradually, and taking its time in doing so, accumulating intensity and expressive urgency over time.
At the same time, after pieces like Relations to Rigor, which is speculative in a formal sense with its number games — I thought “another kind of speculation is engaging with history”. How can a composer engage with earlier models? I think this String Quartet welcomes influences from tonal music, and other string quartet writing. These influences co-exist with the post-minimal world that I was exploring.
The first movement was an after-thought. It was a sketch that I was trying to use in the main movement, but couldn’t find a home for. After working many months on the second movement, the first was written in about two weeks. After “proving myself” in the main movement, I could then write melody and accompaniment — nothing more.. It was such a pleasure to feel that I was connecting with something that I did not understand as coming from within me, that I constructed in a conscious way. The piece just led me along. I followed it, and wrote it down. It sounds starry-eyed, but that is what it was. For a composer those are wonderful moments, when everything is flowing, and comes out right the first time, or if not, you know how to fix it. That feeling is something that I hope I can recapture in everything I write.
TM: In conversing with composers, I can see that there can be a myriad of approaches to composition, but that one is what one might call architectural, where you know what the overall shape will be, where the arches are, and then you fill in the details, and another is a “novelistic” approach. Writers are notorious for creating characters which then take control of how the architecture of the book will work out, so that the writer doesn’t know the shape of the work until the characters tell him.
SL: I am very much more of the second school, or perhaps there is a third one. I am a “bottom-up” composer — I can’t really work in a top-down way, where I set up the whole architecture of the piece. I did do that once or twice — it was interesting, a little tedious too...I felt like I was dutifully filling in the blanks. I am much happier when I am discovering musical ideas, and trying to figure out what they want to do, and just letting them spin out over time, finding a way that they will somehow fit together — you always do find a way. That’s much closer to my temperament. Even the second movement works that way. These days, when I begin a piece, it’s not necessarily at the beginning of the piece — it’s something that may be used, but I have to figure out if it’s the opening or not.
My music usually isn’t long enough to be novelistic, but certainly the idea of being bottom up, and responding to the details and having them assemble themselves into some kind of form is closer to the way I work.
TM: Biological, you might say.
Somehow the duo for two like instruments seems to be a nineteenth or even eighteenth-century medium, not something that has been especially cultivated by contemporary composers, though there is a wonderful duo by Birtwistle for two flutes. It seems too connected to the world of amateur music-making, I suppose. How did you come to produce this Duo for Violins [also on Human Gestures]? It’s almost too small a medium for a chamber music concert.
SL: It started off as a piece for violin and piano, and the piano writing was always so similar to what the violin was doing that I thought, really, this is a piece for two violins. There are minimalist influences, with hocketing, closely-alternating triple stops, with enormous sonorities from two instruments...the idea was to create the idea that it was a much larger ensemble than two violins.
This was 1990, the first piece that I finished after I arrived at Duke, the first piece where I engaged with history in a way that took me by surprise. You mentioned the eighteenth century — Corelli, Vivaldi, this tradition of mechanistic violin writing, incredible virtuosity — the figuration in that music was very much on my mind, as well as Janacek, a composer I adore. His string quartets, especially the first, the Kreutzer Sonata, with its frantic, impassioned string figuration with lots of repetition, and nervous energy, whether ecstatic, or violent... I found this enormously appealing.
I wanted to use triadic sonorities because they would ring well on the instruments. As I worked on it, I realized that I was drawing on historical models in a way that I never thought I could do, or would do.
I regard this piece as a real breakthrough, in terms of musical ambition, expressive ambition, getting things down on paper that I had never really managed to before.
TM: You talked earlier about the social function of music. Music in the United States has all these tribes, and one tribe, which doesn’t speak to many of the other tribes, is band music. Another tribe is church music. You have people who are church music composers and don’t write anything else. You have very successful band composers, who don’t write anything else.
Spin City, which has been recorded a number of times, is a piece for wind ensemble that doesn’t sound “bandy” — it’s not drawing on fixed ideas of what bands can or can’t do. It’s a piece of contemporary music that is written for band.
SL: You are right about these tribes, though it is changing a little bit. There are original new band pieces by Chen Yi, Michael Torke, John Corigliano. Band directors are excited about this.
I had been away from band music so long that I was coming to it with a different perspective. The work was a commission for the University of Michigan — from Bob Reynolds, his last commission as music director of the symphonic band at Michigan. The original idea was very different, with several tempi going on simultaneously, though all notated in a single tempo. There was a long, meticulously noted accelerando throughout the piece, even though the pulse stays the same....
I was really interested in all this, but at some point I thought “this is going to be hell to play”, so I set it aside. I sat down at the piano, and came up with the opening figure for Spin Cycle, and off I went.
It’s very difficult, but in a different way — everything does line up, people can anticipate where the difficulties are going to come, they can play their passage and have a moment to recover before they do something else. It was a great deal of fun to compose &– it has number games, but used locally, rather than globally, as well as my other musical fingerprints. There are some nods to band music [plays a bit at the piano]… I would never have done something like that in my string quartet. When I played the MIDI version for Michael Haithcock, who conducted the premiere, he just started laughing at that point...but when a band plays it, it sounds totally plausible.
A lot of music is ruined by good taste. A composer winds up holding himself back and not going all the way, to be genuinely daring. Music can absorb almost anything. I realized “this is the sound of bands. It is going to sound fine....” It flows right by, and you don’t think “what a cliché!”
You can’t find people who are more eager to play contemporary music, not only the conductors, but the instrumentalists themselves. They really get excited about playing new pieces, they really want to serve the composer well. It’s exhilarating to be working with people like that, who will put that time and care and energy into your work.
TM: Let’s talk about your recent and forthcoming works.
SL: Over the last seven to eight years I have been concerned to seek out collaborative projects, perhaps out of some frustration in my concert music, but also to understand about how music comes to mean something to people. When you are working with a dancer, or a visual artist, or a theater director, they are keenly aware of how music indexes meanings, and creates meanings. These things were on my mind. I have always avoided the feeling that music had to have a particular meaning. I was perfectly happy with the world of absolute music, that the meaning could be left up to the listener.
My collaborative projects were an attempt to test those assumptions by working with artists in other genres. I did a choreographic work with Clay Taliaferro, who recently retired from Duke; I wrote incidental music for Mao II, an adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel by Jody McAuliffe in Theater Studies, which features a continuous soundscape; and out of that came a collaboration with Bill Noland for video and music, that developed excerpts from Mao II into a separate video piece; most recently working with Anya Belkina, a visual artist who is now at Emerson College, but who taught graphic design, painting and computer animation here at Duke. This was a 45-minute work in several movements that began with a setting of Rumi, a long poem called Nasuh, which I set for soprano and string quartet, but with new movements added for the ensemble Zeitgeist in Minneapolis, with live electronics, which I played. Taking Rumi as a theme, I transcribed Koranic recitations, and used that as musical material. The idea of bringing in something external to my normal musical concerns and using that as a point of departure was very different, and very exciting. Trying to bring that music to the ensemble was extremely invigorating, and I think that is something that I will continue to explore. -
I am working on a trio, a small piece for flute, viola and guitar. I will have another piece for Dinosaur Annex in a year or so, and hopefully another large ensemble work coming down the pike. Those are the things that I have cued up for the future.