10 Apr 2010

Timothy Andres: An interview by Tom Moore

Composer and pianist Timothy Andres is in his mid-twenties, with an impressive catalog of works to his credit, many of which can be heard at his website.

He recently moved to New York City after undergraduate and graduate study of music at Yale. We spoke via Skype on January 14, 2010.

TM: Could you talk a little about the musical atmosphere in your family? Was there an uncle who played the violin or a father who played the piano? I know you were born in Palo Alto.

TA: I spent my first five years in the Bay Area — Palo Alto, then Berkeley. Thereafter I grew up in northwestern Connecticut. Neither of my parents are musicians, but there’s certainly music and the arts go back in my family. On my dad’s side, my grandfather is a big music enthusiast. Back in the day, he was a contemporary music enthusiast — for him, contemporary music is Bartok and Shostakovich and Prokofiev and Stravinsky and those people who were avant-garde when he was growing up.

They always had music around when they were growing up. My dad and his siblings all studied instruments. My dad must have studied five instruments over the course of his life, but not as a professional. My uncle, his brother, is a professional accordionist, who lives in Seattle. He’s the only other professional musician in the family.

TM: What area of music? Does he do commercial music?

TA: More folk stuff. He has a klezmer band, a traditional French music band, does a lot of Irish folk music. He is very knowledgeable about traditional folk musics. On my mom’s side, my grandmother, my mom’s mom, is a professional actress. Her dad, my great-grandfather, was Gilbert Seldes, who wrote about the arts and especially about popular culture, in the twenties and thirties.

TM: Almost nobody is “from” Palo Alto, so I am assuming that your parents had not grown up there.

TA: They are both East-Coasters. My mom grew up in New York City, and my dad is from Baltimore.

TM: I only knew one person who had grown up in Palo Alto.

TA: When they were there, in the early eighties, was when Palo Alto was coming up. Over the course of their time there, it got more and more ridiculous, which is why we moved to Berkeley. Then the ’89 earthquake happened and they decided it was maybe not the best place to raise a family.

TM: Yes, indeed. They moved to a place with relatively few earthquakes.

TA: Connecticut is pretty boring in terms of possible natural disasters. There’s a tornado every fifteen years or so. We had major snowstorms and power outages while I was growing up.

TM: Speaking of Connecticut, you have a connection with Charles Ives. Is that something that goes way back? Did you visit the Ives museum in Danbury?

TA: I’ve never been there. For the fiftieth anniversary of his death I played the “Concord” Sonata in Danbury.

I got interested in Ives early on. My dad had always been into Ives, and he gave me a record of the “Concord” Sonata when I was in middle school or so. I thought it was just wild — it is wild — but I didn’t see the logic in it. I got the idea that I wanted to learn it when I was sixteen or seventeen. I worked it up for a year and a half, and ended up performing it quite a lot. I haven’t performed it since 2004, so I would like to work up that piece again.

Danbury is so different from when Charles Ives would have been in the area — it’s probably unrecognizable.

TM: There was a huge Ives boomlet…

TA: I like that….

TM: …as huge as Charles Ives booms can get, back in ’74, the centenary.

TA: That’s how my dad got into Charles Ives, since he was living in New Haven that year. He didn’t go to Yale, but was working in an architecture studio. Yale had a big Ives shindig.

TM: Since then he has continued to be present, but on a much lower level. How do you as a composer of the early twenty-first century see him speaking to you?

TA: He’s a singular figure. He’s like Abraham Lincoln for composers, in that both Republicans and Democrats like to claim Lincoln as their progenitor — it’s very similar with Ives, in that all types of different composers can get something out of him, and claim him as their own. He is a figure who is full of contradictions, and I think that he would have been totally OK with that.

TM: At the same time that he is in a sense the first “American” composer, he is also completely anti-canonical. I don’t imagine he is frequently taught in histories of music.

TA: No, he is glossed over as a historical curiosity. How do you encapsulate Ives in a couple of pages of a music-history text? You can’t possibly. His music isn’t neat and tidy — you can’t use it to sum up an era, because he was his own era. As part of a historical narrative he is not so useful. You could say that he is like Sibelius or Benjamin Britten — one of those composers for whom you can’t tie them to a larger movement. In those cases they were regarded as more conservative, while Ives was regarded as simply crazy or way ahead of his time. An outlier.

TM: Like Villa-Lobos, in the sense that Villa-Lobos is the national composer, but stands outside the European mainstream and the historical narrative.

Let’s rewind, and talk a little more about your path into music. You moved to western Connecticut, and rural western Connecticut at that. How did you wind up getting interested in music?

TA: I had always been interested in it, as far as I can remember, listening to records and tapes from a very early age, being entranced by them, but it didn’t occur to me that playing music was something that I could do until my dad brought an electric keyboard home when I was seven. It was a product called the “Miracle Piano Teaching System”, which hooked up to your Mac, with MIDI. It had an ancient program or HyperCard stack which would teach you how to play basic pieces. I started on that, and I believe we had a PowerBook Duo dock. That was my first musical experience. Soon after that I started writing things down, which seemed like something I should do. I could play music, so why not write music. I have been doing it pretty much constantly since then. I got a real human piano teacher pretty soon after that. I sang in a local children’s chorus from age nine through twelve. That was a big influence as well. There was one year where we had a good director and did interesting music, and the rest of the time we sang “contemporary Christian semi-denominational music”. I wrote two or three pieces for the chorus, and we performed them, which would have been my first publicly-performed works.

TM: What was the name of the chorus?

TA: The Litchfield County Children’s Choir. If I had grown up in another part of the country my first musical experience might have been playing in a marching band or a drum corps.

TM: Did you play music at your schools?

TA: I guess you could say that I was a bit of a problem child. My school was never very sympathetic to the idea that I wanted to spend a lot of time practicing piano and writing music, so I got into trouble a lot. I had some sympathetic music teachers who were encouraging. Early on I had started going into New York City for piano lessons, to study with Eleanor Hancock. She was my teacher from age 11 through 18. She was my only important piano teacher, since I only studied for a couple of years after that in college.

It is thanks to Eleanor that I am still able to play, since she gave me a solid technical foundation. I never really practiced as much as a pianist should.

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TM: How much should a pianist practice?

TA: Knowing pianists in conservatories, they are all these total recluses — pianists are so weird socially.

TM: Obsessively focused on the piano.

TA: I think that it is from the solitary pursuit of long hours playing on a dingy practice-room piano — that can’t be good for you.

TM: And it doesn’t happen with other instruments by and large.

TA: Not so much, since they are instruments of the orchestra, or depend more on chamber music for their repertoire. Pianists, if they want to, can be almost totally solitary. That lifestyle never completely appealed to me.

The other thing about Eleanor is that she let me play whatever I wanted. When I announced that I wanted to play the Concord Sonata, this was not a piece that was in her repertoire, but she was gung-ho and learned it along with me. I recently saw her score of it, full of markings and passages she had worked out…by this time she was in her mid-seventies, and didn’t really play herself anymore. She was very dedicated, and let me explore what I wanted to explore, which was a great, freeing experience, and probably one that spoiled me for future piano teachers, who wanted me to start their way, and learn Mozart and Schubert….nothing against those composers, but I wanted play Ives and Rzewski and John Adams. It just didn’t match.

TM: Piano teachers always seem to want to teach Schubert.

TA: I love Schubert. I play Schubert for fun all the time, but it wasn’t what I wanted to spend my life doing.

TM: The number of teachers who would give you Rzewski rather than Schubert is minimal.

TA: Very few have even heard of Rzewski, although he is one of the great pianist-composers of our age. He is a terrific performer.

TM: Absolutely. What other music might you have been listening to as a teen? Or was it only classical?

TA: It was pretty much only classical. In high school I studied composition at Juilliard pre-college, so I was in this hyper-canonical sort of world. At Juilliard that was the early 20th-century canon. In high-school I would have been obsessed with Bartok, Shostakovich, Mahler, Prokofiev, Ives, Copland, Bernstein — orchestral hits. I didn’t even hear Steve Reich or Philip Glass until I got to college. They were just not on the menu at Juilliard.

TM: Because conservatories are usually fifty or sixty years behind the times.

TA: I guess so, and it takes even longer for that to filter down to the high-school programs, since I am sure they were known in the composition programs. In college that totally changed, with an explosion of influences and listening to new kinds of music that I had never heard before.

TM: What was the factor that impelled you to go to Yale?

TA: For a while I was thinking that I would go to Juilliard. I liked it a lot there, and had great teachers who were encouraging. But eventually it became clear that it could be a place where it might be stifling to be totally ensconced at. I applied to a few Ivy League schools, and had no idea what my chances were, since I was going to this tiny non-accredited performing-arts high school in northwest Connecticut. I took academic classes, but they weren’t what you would get at a real high school. I got in, and went to visit at these places a bunch of times. I had the nicest experience at Yale, and it seemed like there was more going on musically. I liked the idea that I would hang around with people who weren’t all musicians, and who weren’t striving for the same kind of thing that I was. In retrospect I am really glad that I made that choice — Yale was a great place for me, and opened me up to a lot of things to which I had not previously been open. I spent six years there, so it must have been good.

TM: And close to New York.

TA: People at Yale like to complain about New Haven — it’s a favorite pastime. After a while it can get stifling — I was definitely ready to leave at the end of last year. I had been there for six years, and done two degrees. I knew everyone. It’s a very tight-knit community, and that’s nice. Everyone is very supportive of each other, it’s not hyper-competitive even though it is a conservatory. The composition department is top-notch, although some of the other departments are a little old-fashioned for my taste, a little conservative. The composition department has a variety of different voices, and the student body was something that attracted me.

TM: Had you been doing composition during the years before you went to Yale?

TA: Yes. I wrote in a very hyper-emotional neo-expressionistic style — very overwrought, very dissonant. I wrote a lot of piano music, did a piano concerto which sounds like Bartok, a piano sonata which sounds like Prokofiev mixed with Copland….

TM: Is there a line you would draw between the juvenilia and op. 1?

TA: Yes, at some point in college. I had been working on a big symphonic piece influenced by Mahler, and spent a year and half writing it, and by the time it was done I was pretty sure that I didn’t anyone anywhere to play it ever. At that point I had begun to be exposed to a lot of new music. I heard minimalism for the first time in my life, and started listening to really interesting pop music that I had never heard before. I didn’t write a lot of music in 2004 and 2005 because I was spending a lot of time listening. I didn’t know where I was going with my own music.

It wasn’t a clean break, but there was certainly a before and after.

TM: Is there a piece that you would think of as your Opus 1?

TA: Probably the song-cycle called Transparence of the World, which I think is the earliest piece on my website now. That’s probably the earliest thing I would let anyone perform.

TM: What year was that from?

TA: From 2004 — I worked on it in the spring of my freshman year.

TM: Was there a composer at Yale who had a particular influence?

TA: I went through so many teachers as an undergrad, because there was a good deal of turnover in the department when I was there. At first I was studying with a great guy, John Halle, who left to go to Bard after a couple years. He definitely opened me up to a lot of new things, gave me a lot of music to listen to, asked provocative questions, and played devil’s advocate, which I think is the most effective thing that you can do as a composition teacher. Even if you don’t really mean what you are asking, it’s useful to have someone ask it to you. You have to learn to say “Thanks, but no thanks”, which is definitely something I do with composition teachers, and you have to. You can’t take everyone’s advice, because it all is going to be different. That helped me, because I had so many teachers — five teachers in four years of undergrad, and they all told me different things, so I eventually learned to not listen to any of them….They were great.

I studied with Matthew Suttor from New Zealand, who moved to the Drama School and teaches there now. They hired Michael Klingbeil from Columbia, and I studied with him a bit. Orianna Webb, a young composer who was at Cincinnati, and Kathryn Alexander, who has run the department for a long time. That doesn’t even count summer festivals…so many people.

In grad school I studied with four more teachers — Ingram Marshall, Aaron Kernis, Chris Theofanidis, and Martin Bresnick.

TM: There’s no overlap between the grad and undergraduate programs at Yale.

TM: Could you talk about some of your recent pieces? Perhaps about Some Connecticut Gospel?

TA: This goes back to my ongoing association with Ives, and to a friend I met at Tanglewood. She is a violinist, who was in the New World Symphony program in Florida, a training orchestra that Michael Tilson Thomas runs. They were doing an Ives celebration last year, because MTT really loves Ives, and basically will find any excuse to do his music. My friend initiated a commissioning program, which commissioned four composers to write chamber pieces which were in some way related to Ives. She thought of me since she knew that I played Ives and really loved Ives. I wrote in the fall of 2008, during the big ramp-up to the election. I was feeling really excited about that, and so it figures in the piece. I tried to imagine a sort of idealized Connecticut, the way you get it in a lot of Ives, especially the songs — idyllic, pastoral scenes — and idealized human qualities, very much in the way that I feel people tended to feel about Barack Obama — idealizing in a virtuous, “Americana” way. I got to thinking about the fact that Connecticut doesn’t seem to have many personality traits of its own. People don’t think of being Connecticutian in the way that they think of being Californian or being Texan, or even being a New Yorker. I was trying to bring a feeling of pride and statehood to a place where it didn’t really exist. Musically, the piece works in a way that I seem to fall back on often — a passacaglia or chaconne, bookended by two Ivesian, made-up parlor-song reminiscences. I like writing for medium-sized chamber groups. It’s where I am most free to try different things, to write what I want. In this piece especially I felt like the instruments themselves were real characters, and tried to treat them in a dramatic way — each instrument plays its own role. They come in gradually, and it’s not a coloristic thing — it’s like a character in a play. You wouldn’t have a character come on, say one word, and go backstage. I think musicians appreciate it when you write them parts like that. This was also precipitated by the fact that I actually knew a lot of people who were down at New World, and was able to pick the people that I would be writing for. I already knew their musical personalities and put them into the piece. I love doing that, rather than writing for a bunch of people that you don’t know. It’s nice to have a familiar musical touch that you are writing for.

TM: I noticed the gradual accumulation of energy, which is not a strategy that is frequently used.

TA: Quite the opposite, I’d say. It’s sort of clich├ęd — a Samuel Barber orgasm. I think it’s a little over-played, but it works. You can add your own spin to it. It doesn’t have to be the Adagio for Strings.

TM: Could you talk about Fast Flows the River [for cello and Hammond organ]? The very first thing that strikes me is the sound of the Hammond organ, which for me is very hard to separate from 1960s-1970s rock and roll.

TA: That’s funny — it’s partly a generational thing. I didn’t grow up listening to that stuff, and the Hammond organ is just a really fantastic-sounding instrument that I can use, and for me, not tied to anything in particular. There’s a very good Hammond B-3 module built into Logic. I originally wrote the piece with the idea that you would play it on a MIDI controller from a laptop. It ended up that the Music Technology Lab at Yale purchased a Hammond organ that spring, so I got to play, perform and record it on a real B-3 with a giant Leslie speaker cabinet. That’s the recording that is at the website. I love how it envelops the cello in a warm cushion of sound.

That piece is something I came up for my friend Hannah [Collins], the cellist. She wanted a piece without piano, so of course I came up with a piece with Hammond organ, something even less practical. It’s a setting of a folk-song, with the cello playing a drawn-out, hyper-extended version of the melody, a tune that I remember hearing as a kid, and have used several times. It’s a very straight setting — I fiddle around with the harmony, and there’s the short commentary at the end that makes it into my piece, rather than my setting of a folk song.

TM: You have a knack for evocative titles. Do the pieces take shape as response to an idea, or does the idea come afterwards.

TA: Some of each. It’s always different. Titles are one of my favorite subjects to talk about. I feel like so many great composers and great pieces have really awful titles. It’s the single biggest issue facing the acceptance of contemporary music — the fact that there are so many atrocious titles.

TM: What do you think of the punning titles from the Babbitt generation?

TA: When Milton Babbitt himself does it, it’s ok with me. What really annoys me is if you have a composer these days who writes a new piece and calls it a plural abstract noun followed by a Roman numeral. That is something that was so played out twenty-five years ago. I can’t imagine why you would want to do it now.

The other thing that annoys me is that I feel that there are these neo-Romantic generic, new-Agey types of titles — I won’t name names, since I know some of these people — which on the one hand are so unmemorable, and on the other hand sound like some sort of health-food drink….and these are smart people! I feel like they should realize this.

TM: I had a friend who figured to make a million dollars marketing “Gentle Massage” herbal tea….

TA: Like some sort of yoga compilation CD you would buy at Starbucks. Titles are something that I made a conscious decision to focus on several years ago. I keep a list of unused titles, or words and phrases that get stuck in my head. Sometimes they are useful, sometimes they just stay on the list. Sometimes I will come up with an idea as I am writing the piece. They always want you to explain the title in your program notes, and sometimes I just don’t have a reason for it. It’s always a challenge to come up with some sort of association. There’s no reason you should have to have one, but if you don’t, people will ask you.

TM: And you know your biographer will come up with a reason.

TA: I am struggling with that right now. I have to write program notes for a new piece that I just finished for the Albany Symphony. The title I gave it is Look Around You , which is named after a BBC comedy, a faux-educational video, the sort of science videos you saw in school, that always look like they are from the seventies, except that everything in it is blatant misinformation. I love the idea of something being presented to you as indisputable fact when it is hilariously wrong.

TM: Please talk a little more about the piece.

TA: It’s a concerto for violin and viola, except that they are played by the same person, who switches off between them. It’s a one-movement piece — it took me a real effort to write — I started it near the beginning of the summer, and I feel like I really had to tear it out of me. Usually I write faster than that. It’s less easy-going than a lot of my music. I tend to be a easy-going guy, but it was a period of major changes that I was making in my life, like being out of school for the first time ever, figuring out how to survive on my own, live in New York…my girlfriend of five years moved 2000 miles away to go to medical school, which was a big change. That worked its way in there, somehow — it’s not a piece about my personal experience, since I don’t really do that, but there’s some turmoil in there.

TM: When is the premiere?

TA: At the end of March. When they approached me with the commission, the music director gave me the option to write a concerto for whoever I wanted, and I wrote it for a good friend of mine from Yale, violinist Owen Dalby, who is also a great violist. He has played in about ten of my pieces, so he and I go way back. He’s a faithful collaborator.

TM: What’s the next big project?

TA: One thing I have to do is my first string quartet. That’s always a little intimidating, to take a crack at that. That’s for a group called the ACME Quartet, which is very active in the contemporary scene in New York City. That will be paired with an Ives quartet no. 2 and the Bach Art of the Fugue, so I am thinking about how I can work in those two influences which are not as diametrically opposed as they may seem. So the Ives association continues.

I am also working on an orchestral paraphrase of the music of Brian Eno, taking material from a couple of albums from the seventies, and working that into a nineteenth-century style orchestral suite, like you might have a transcription of a Wagner opera by Liszt. Not just orchestration, but a sort of fantasia if you will. Eno is a composer who I have been very interested in, who I had not been exposed to before I heard him at Yale.

TM: Tell me about your surname.

TA: It was chopped off when the family got to Ellis Island. We’re Ashkenazi Jews — I am about seven/eighths East European Jewish.