24 Sep 2010

Pierre Jalbert: An Interview

Composer Pierre Jalbert (b.1967), of French Canadian ancestry, was born and raised in northern New England, and studied composition at Oberlin Conservatory and at the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked with George Crumb.

He has an impressive catalogue of orchestral works, as well as four string quartets to his credit. We talked by Skype on May 3, 2010.

TM: You were born in Manchester, New Hampshire, and grew up in northern Vermont. What was the musical environment like in your family? Were there uncles and aunts that made music? Grandparents? Your parents?

PJ: My parents were not musical, although my father liked to listen to classical music. Neither one played an instrument, or was involved in classical music in any way. Whenever we would have a big family get-together, on my father’s side all my aunts and uncles played instruments by ear. They all played guitar and piano, and we would have these family sing-alongs, with both English and French folk and pop tunes. My ancestry is French-Canadian. Everybody in the family, in my parent’s generation, had English as their first language, but their second language was French, and they all speak fairly fluently. With my generation we lost that, and had to study it in school like everybody else. Those family get-togethers were some of the first musical experiences that I had.

Growing up in Vermont I was part of the Vermont Youth Orchestra, and played percussion instruments, but I was primarily a pianist, and eventually I played a concerto with the orchestra. I grew up playing percussion instruments in band in middle school and high school, because I was primarily a pianist. They didn’t need a pianist — they needed something else. I was always good at the mallet instruments, because they were set up like keyboards. Classical music was an important part of my upbringing, because I was pretty serious about piano — entering competitions, playing all of the classical composers — Bach, Mozart, Beethoven — as well as popular music — I was really into the Beatles. Pretty early on I knew that I wanted to write music and be a composer. I started writing little imitative piano pieces for myself to play. Later, when we started playing Copland in the Youth Orchestra, that was basically my introduction to his music, though I had played some of his piano pieces — the Passacaglia, Cat and Mouse. He became my hero at the time, because he was the only American composer I knew of that was making a living writing concert music. I remember distinctly that when I was a senior in high school I heard George Crumb’s music — his piece for two pianos and two percussion called Music for a Summer Evening. That was a life-changing experience for me — that piece just blew me away. Eventually I ended up studying with him at the University of Pennsylvania in graduate school. Before that I went to undergraduate school at Oberlin. He was certainly a big influence on me. Other musical influences would be Stravinsky, Messiaen, Debussy, Ravel — a lot of the French composers.

TM: How long had you lived in New Hampshire before moving to Vermont?

PJ: I moved there very early on, when I was five or six years old.

TM: When you say northern Vermont, is that what people refer to as the “Northern Kingdom”?

PJ: I grew up in south Burlington, on Lake Champlain, in the western part of the state. The Northeast Kingdom is close to where my folks are now — it’s the very northeast corner of the state, that borders Canada.

TM: What was the musical culture like in Burlington? I imagine that the city has a liberal, university atmosphere, with its representative being the only socialist in Congress.

PJ: At that time Bernie Sanders was the Mayor of Burlington, which is how he got his start. The musical culture centered on the Vermont Symphony, which played at an old movie theater called the Flynn Theater, in downtown Burlington. They still do. There was the Vermont Youth Orchestra, and every high school had its own music program, usually with band and chorus.

TM: How long had the Vermont Symphony been around?

PJ: They have been around a long, long time — I think they started in the twenties or thirties.

TM: Presently the director is Jaime Laredo. Who was directing when you were growing up?

PJ: Efrain Guigui. As a high-schooler, I would usher at the Vermont Symphony concerts so that I could get in for free — that was part of my introduction to the orchestral literature. A couple of years ago they commissioned me to write a piece for their fall tour. Every fall, during foliage season, they do a tour of Vermont, where they play in these old opera houses — every town in Vermont used to have its own opera house. They are wonderful little halls, and a lot of them have been renovated. The orchestra tours to ten different towns, and always commission a new piece. They commissioned a string orchestra piece from me, and I got to travel with them on their two-week tour, where Jaime Laredo also did the Four Seasons as soloist and conductor.

TM: How big are the halls?

PJ: Some of them are smaller, and might fit four hundred, and some larger, and might fit four to six hundred people.

TM: You must be among a small contingent of native Vermont composers.

PJ: David Rakowski grew up in Vermont. I remember Larry Reed, whom I believe is still at the University of Vermont. Because I was serious about composition, I would go to him for advice before I went off to college. There are also a couple of composers who have been associated with Bennington College.

TM: There is an old saying in Vermont (about out-of-staters) that even if a kitten is born in the oven, you don’t call it a biscuit. Does that describe Vermont for you?

PJ: I had a wonderful piano teacher, Arlene Cleary, whom I studied with from the moment I got to Vermont till the time I went off to college. She was one of the most energetic people I ever met, and really encouraging, not only about piano, but about composition as well, helping me to develop that talent, and pointing me to some different people in areas where she might not have had the expertise, to people like Larry Reed, at the University. It’s a small, tightly-knit community.

TM: Was there popular music that you found appealing or were involved in?

PJ: I also played in jazz band as a pianist, and as I said the one popular music group I was really into was the Beatles. I always liked their music, and especially their more experimental things, like George Harrison’s use of Indian music.

TM: What led you to decide to go to Oberlin? Were you already planning to do composition, or were you thinking about performance?

PJ: I was thinking about both, and I did both. I was studying piano as well as composition. By the time I went to grad school, I had decided that being a concert pianist was not the life that I wanted — I wanted to concentrate on composition. I had had some friend who went to Oberlin, and I visited and auditioned at a number of different schools. Coming from Vermont, and being isolated from the wider musical scene in the United States, I had no idea what was going on. Oberlin seemed to be a good choice — I didn’t want to go to a big city, and I was still only seventeen. It was in a small town, but yet close enough to Cleveland, so that you could go into the city for concerts if you wanted to, although there was a ton of stuff going on there on campus. It seemed like a nice environment in which to study music and be serious about it.

TM: Who did you study composition with at Oberlin?

PJ: I studied with just about everybody who was there at the time. Ed Miller, Richard Hoffman, who was a relative of Schoenberg, Randy Coleman, who was an experimental composer. I studied piano with a professor, Sedmara Rutstein, who was steeped in the Russian tradition. I was exposed to various different approaches. Ed Miller was into jazz, but was very serious about new music as well. Hoffman was a twelve-tone composer, and Coleman was in the Cagean experimental vein. When I arrived at Oberlin, I discovered that I was the most conservative composer around. It gave me a chance to really widen my vocabulary, and to try out different things.

TM: What had your vocabulary been? Who were your models for composition before you arrived at Oberlin?

PJ: I had played a lot of Prokofiev on the piano, knew a little bit of George Crumb, done a lot of Copland, Samuel Barber, Dello Joio — conventional twentieth-century composers. My music was quasi-neo-classical, neo-romantic — I had dabbled with twelve-tone, but it always came back to tonality.

TM: Who among those teachers at Oberlin was most appealing? Hoffman was a very important teacher, and perhaps the latest of the Schoenberg disciples to be still active.

PJ: They all brought something different to the table. I would say Ed Miller and Richard Hoffman were the most influential, because I studied with them the longest.

TM: What appealed to you in particular in terms of style?

PJ: At that time I was exposed to a lot of different composers, since a lot of people visited Oberlin. I would say that those who I felt a real affinity for included George Crumb and Joseph Schwantner. Others, as well, including Chris Rouse. I was pushing myself to try out different things. I wrote a completely twelve-tone work for the first time when I was a junior. I was trying out different instrumental ensembles — I wrote a piece that included electric guitar and electric bass, along with more standard instruments, and there was another piece which included electronics.

TM: What would you describe as your opus one, and why? Something from your time at Oberlin? At Penn?

PJ: Probably a piece I wrote at Oberlin that our contemporary ensemble performed, for about fifteen instruments. I really felt that it worked well, and it was chosen for a symposium. Larry Radcliffe, who was the director of the contemporary ensemble, conducted it. It was my first big success, and my first large ensemble piece that I was satisfied with at the time.

TM: What is it called?

PJ: It is called Memorial, and it’s not published, so in that sense it’s not opus 1. If I had to pick a piece that is available, it would probably be Songs of Gibran, which I wrote in graduate school. It’s a piece for mezzo-soprano and small ensemble based on texts by Khalil Gibran.

TM: Why Gibran?

PJ: They were short lyrical texts that I found easy to deal with vocally. There was something spiritual about his poetry that I really liked. These particular poems were written early on in his career, and simply called songs. They called out to be treated in a musical way.

TM: He is a poet that is so well known to the American public, although perhaps more so earlier than today. And yet he somehow belongs to the Arabic cultural sphere. How do you see his position in American culture?

PJ: I can’t speak about his position in American culture, but his writing spoke to me personally.

TM: How would you describe your idiom for this set of songs?

PJ: I was studying with George Crumb at the time, so there is a lot of Crumb influence in the piece. He has many works for voice with small ensemble. And there is Messiaen there as well.

TM: Who else did you study with at Penn?

PJ: Dick Wernick was also there, and Jim Primosch, and Jay Reise. I studied with all of them.

TM: Were there important colleagues who were fellow students of yours?

PJ: We had a lot of talented students who have done well for themselves since. Oswaldo Golijov conducted one of my pieces. We did all of our concerts at Curtis, since we basically had no performance program at Penn, but there was an exchange agreement with Curtis. Alan Gilbert was a conductor at Curtis at the time. He didn’t do any of my pieces, but he did some pieces by other Penn composers while he was there. Jennifer Higdon was there, David Crumb (George Crumb’s son, also a composer, who now teaches at the University of Oregon), Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, Michael Friday, David Lefkowitz, Ofer Ben-Amots….

TM: What would be a representative piece from this period?

PJ: I wrote an orchestra piece called Evocation, which was my first full orchestra, and I got a really good recording of it with the Curtis orchestra. That got me the New York Youth Symphony commission while I was there. Evocation and Songs of Gibran are two of the more important things I did while I was there.

TM: Two schools of making a piece: an architectural approach, where the general outlines of the work are the first things to be conceived, with the details then fitting into the shape; a more novelistic approach, where the piece is built upward from the details, with a sense of the total structure coming later. Which camp do you belong to?

PJ: I definitely fall into the first category, although once I have that I start fooling around with smaller ideas, and seeing how I can develop them. I try to have a picture of the whole, and I encourage my students to do that too, fairly early on in the process. Then you can work on timing, and the process of timing events. That is something that I learned very strongly from George Crumb’s music, which is almost totally about events occurring, and when and where they come in, and how they are timed. His sense of timing is just impeccable. If you can be successful with that, your music is much more convincing.

I try to start out with some sort of outline in terms of time. Is this a five-minute piece, or a twenty-minute piece? Is it a multi-movement piece or straight ahead? And these things can change as the ideas warrant, as you work on them. But I try to have a good idea of that, so that I can keep that in my mind all through the time in which I am working on the piece. Then I can set about thinking about the smaller-scale structures — the phrase structure — where does this phrase end, where does the other begin? How does this event happen, where does this section end, where does the other begin? How is it timed? Is this one too long, is this one too short? Does it need to be developed? That is pretty much the way that I work.

TM: What would you say is the thing that generates the piece? Do you work from a musical idea, a visual image, a literary reference?

PJ: It varies — I have done all of the above. I wrote a piece called Icefield Sonnets for the Ying Quartet, which was based on the poetry of Anthony Hawley, a set of sonnets which talk about nature scenes in very cold climates. That set of poems was inspired by his time at Banff, Canada. Growing up in Vermont, I could really relate to these cold winter scenes. Those conjured up certain musical ideas for me. I wrote a piece for the Albany Symphony based on the historic stained-glass windows by Louis Tiffany which can be found in some Albany churches. Those were a direct visual inspiration. I just did a piece with a visual artist in Montreal named Jean Detheux, who does computer-animated films that are completely abstract, like looking at an abstract colorful painting that moves through time.

Other pieces get their starts from purely musical ideas. I just wrote a cello sonata for David Finkel and Wu Han which is called Sonata for Cello and Piano — it doesn’t have an extra-musical association, necessarily.

TM: Please talk about In Aeternam, which seems to have been exceptionally successful. What is the reference in the title?

PJ: The reference is to a death in the family. My brother and his wife — their first baby died at birth, and that type of thing does not happen very often these days. This happened a long time ago, long before I wrote the piece. It stems from that, although I don’t think one needs to know that to enjoy the piece, to understand the piece musically. That piece follows the same kind of form that I was using in that piece I mentioned as my opus one, from Oberlin. In basic terms, you have a slow-fast-slow structure, an arch form where ideas A and B are in the slow section, idea C is in the fast section, although they are typically related thematically, then the slow section returns, and you have idea B, then idea A. I have used the same form for many of my works, and it seems to work very well. That was the first piece that I wrote for the California Symphony when I was appointed their Young American Composer-in-Residence. It was a three-year residence, and that was the first piece that I wrote there. I remember that the conductor had asked me to write a piece that their audiences could appreciate — in other words, make it accessible. This is probably the first piece where I was really trying to make it a little more accessible to a general audience. The piece went on to win the BBC Master Prize, which is why it has gotten a little bit of attention and some success.

TM: Your site mentions spiritual concerns, and your work list includes the Symphonia Sacra and Les Espaces Infinies [for orchestra and chamber orchestra, respectively]. As someone who has sung choral music for various denominations, I notice that is an area you have not explored.

PJ: I am Catholic, and the liturgical music I heard growing up had a big influence on my writing. There are several works, Symphonia Sacra being one of them, where I incorporate Gregorian chant into the piece. I am involved in our church here, and I sing in the choir, but the kind of music we do is not really classically based. Unless you are at a big church, which has a big choir with singers who are not necessarily professionals, but who are fairly well-trained — I can’t do anything on that level where I am right now, but I would like to. We have an excellent choir here at Rice, and I would love to write them a piece, but I just have to do it. I always seem to be writing a chamber music work or an orchestra piece.

TM: The Catholic Church, with a millennial tradition of great music and great architectural spaces, seems to have abandoned this in the last forty years, at least in the United States. Can something be done about that?

PJ: I don’t know. I spent a year at the American Academy in Rome back in 2000. I was surprised to find that even at the Vatican I was not at all impressed by the choir. They are just amateurs doing it. I don’t know what has happened. The music has become mostly folk or even pop music, because that is what the people know. To sing real classical music — masses by Mozart — you need to have a larger church and people with some expertise.

TM: People who are both fine musicians and devout Catholics no longer have a comfortable home in the US.

Could you talk about recent or upcoming projects?

PJ: I am trying to finish a piece for the Emerson Quartet which they will premiere in Houston this coming season. That will be my fifth string quartet. When people ask, I say yes.

After that I will be writing a piece for the Music from Copland House Ensemble. The Copland House is Copland’s estate, about 30 minutes north of New York City, near Peekskill. It now serves as a composer retreat. There is one composer living there each month. I went there a couple of years ago. You get the house to yourself, and Copland’s piano, and Copland’s workspace, they give you meals and provide a stipend for you. They have their own ensemble of five players — flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano.

TM: That’s an unusual format for an ensemble.

PJ: They are becoming more well known. Derek Bermel, who is also a composer, plays clarinet in the ensemble. I am also working on a piece for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, for clarinet, violin and piano, which they will be taking to London with them. After that I will be working on a piece for the Arizona Friend of Chamber Music, for the Tokyo Quartet, which looks like it will be a piano quintet. So there is lots of chamber music coming up.

TM: Another area for growth, since you have a fair amount of vocal music, would be music for the stage. Is that something that appeals to you?

PJ: Yes, I would love to write an opera, and Houston Grand Opera has a great track record of commissioning new opera.

TM: You are just waiting for the call.

PJ: Yes.

TM: Any final thoughts?

PJ: I have been at Rice for fourteen years, and my time here has been a big influence. The orchestra program is wonderful, the chamber music program is great, and the opera program. The school keeps getting better and better.

TM: The Houston climate is a little different from where you grew up.

PJ: Another Vermont connection is that the Lane Series has commissioned a piece as a retirement for Jane Ambrose, who is retiring as director of the series at the University of Vermont. And I will be going to New York for the award ceremony at the American Academy of Arts and Letters — I was fortunate to get one this year. And in August In Aeternam will be performed at the Cabrillo Festival with Marin Alsop.

TM: A busy summer.

Click here for Pierre Jalbert’s web site.