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Allen Anderson
28 May 2008

An Interview with Allen Anderson

By Tom Moore

Composer Allen Anderson will be familiar to aficionados of contemporary music through various works released on CRI, or those in the Research Triangle through his presence in the new music scene here in North Carolina, where he has taught at UNC since 1996.

An Interview with Allen Anderson

Above: Allen Anderson


His works have been recorded by such leading artists as the Lydian String Quartet, violinist Curtis Macomber, and pianist Aleck Karis. We spoke at his office in Hill Hall at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, on May 13, 2008.

TM: What was the musical environment like in your family? What were your beginnings as a musician?

AA: I have an older sister, who somewhere in our childhood decided she wanted to play the organ. It wasn’t the classical organ….

TM: Farfisa….

AA: It wasn’t a Farfisa. That would have been fun! This was the household chord-organ, where the left hand played full chords, and the right hand played the tune. That and an autoharp were the only musical instruments we had in the house, and it must have come when I was about twelve, perhaps ten or eleven.

I do have a compositional memory that precedes this by some unknown number of years. I probably was six or seven at the time. The whole family was in the automobile, I was sitting in the back seat — this was before the days of seat belts — and I remember distinctly moving forward to perch myself over the back of the front seat, and proclaiming to my parents that if they gave me any line of song lyrics, I would be able to sing back the song that went with these lyrics. “You mean a song you already know?” “No, just give me the lyrics, and I’ll sing the song!”

I remember being crushed by their response, because they thought this was impossible. They didn’t give me any lyrics, and I remember returning to the back seat, and not thinking of myself as a composer for many years.

My first conscious desire to want to be involved in playing an instrument like many people from my generation, males in particular, was after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. It must have been within a month after that we went out and got a guitar. I studied with a man who did jazz guitar, but I was interested in joining rock and roll bands. He was teaching me rather advanced music theory while he was trying to make me into essentially someone who could play background chords — not really a soloist, but someone who could comp the chords. That was my first exposure to music theory.

TM: Where were you growing up?

AA: In the San Francisco Bay area. I was born in Palo Alto, and grew up in Los Altos, right there. When all the San Francisco bands from Haight Ashbury hit, I was a little young, but I knew what their sound was, and started imitating that in the bands that I played in.

When George Harrison started playing the sitar, I became interested in Indian music as well, and for two years I studied sitar during the summers in Berkeley, with a real honest-to-goodness Indian master, sitting on the floor for four hours every morning, playing scales up and down the sitar. When I got to college at Berkeley I realized within a month or so that I would have to give up the guitar, because in those days the electric guitar was not an acceptable instrument — nobody paid attention to it in that environment. And there was no place for sitar, so I decided that I needed to learn how to play the piano.

TM: What year was this?

AA: I started in the fall of 1969.

TM: What was music at UCB like in the early seventies?

AA: Not being a performer of a classical instrument with any capability, it was interesting how composition got started for me. I was in a class in which every student was asked to perform, and my fellow classmates got up and played the viola, or the piano, and the only way for me to do the assignment was for me to have written the piece myself, so that I could find a way to perform. At the same time I realized that I could sing, and was attracted to the choirs available at the department, which I found very stimulating. Some of my strongest memories of those years are performing new music as a singer. They had commissioned Roger Sessions to write a cantata, and I was involved in the premiere of that as a member of the chorus – When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed — big full-length cantata, forty-five minutes or so, as I recall. A cappella Schoenberg – De Profundis — difficult, but I was loving it. Various kinds of pick-up groups, since those were the years of Vietnam, strikes, there would be a sudden convocation. There was one where in a few days we had to learn music that had been written for us to sing. There were a lot of things going on, but my memories are primarily of new music events.

TM: Early music in the seventies was also outside the mainstream. Was there an important early music scene going on?

AA: Philip Brett was on the faculty then, someone that people know for his interest in British early music and gay studies. I sang a number of early music concerts with his group in those days. There were musicology students who would get groups together to sing Josquin…

TM: To go back to your rock and roll roots for a moment, what sort of rock were you doing before getting to Berkeley?

AA: When we started we were covering California surf bands, and then it got into the British bands. I remember learning lots of Yardbirds and Zombies, and from California, the Byrds. When we started to do our own stuff it was derivative of San Francisco, something like the Jefferson Airplane.

TM: Did this music end up being integrated into your approach to composition?

AA: I don’t know where it is. To me, not only was the electric guitar put away in a case, and left at my mother’s house, and not found again for twenty years, but the music associated with it was also pushed aside. I do have memories of walking out of the music building at Berkeley and hearing rock bands playing from a quarter-mile away, and thinking “that sounds great!” Once or twice I went to some venue at night. I remember sitting up close and seeing Jerry Garcia playing in New Riders of the Purple Sage, not much farther from him than you and I are now, but by and large it was just something that I didn’t pay much attention. You couldn’t avoid it, being in a large college town –you hear the music, you live in a dormitory, and it’s playing down the hallway — but I wasn’t doing anything with it, and since I was trying to learn to write music pretty much on my own, I was looking at scores of the European avant-garde, and trying to emulate that.

TM: What were the composers that had an effect on your hearing in the seventies? My friends and I made a point of hearing the most avant-garde things we could — Sessions piano sonatas, and so on, and the Ives revival was going on.

AA: Ives was big in California too. I remember getting Ives piano music as a Christmas present, and loving it. Somewhere along the line I heard the Rite of Spring, and the Berg Violin Concerto, and of all things getting a recording of the Schoenberg Woodwind Quintet, a rather severe piece by comparison. One thing that really enthused me was seeing — I can’t imagine this now — Pierre Boulez on television — he must have been conducting Marteau — and thinking what a fabulous world of sound this was.

At Berkeley, as a student, there was a fair amount of new music. I remember hearing a concert performance of Le Marteau there too. The most important composer as a role model, someone I wanted to emulate, was when then-young Fred Lerdahl was on the faculty at Berkeley for a few brief years. Hearing him conduct a couple of his pieces, particularly one called Wake — I remember being blown away by it. Also, because of the proximity to Mills College there was a staunch avant-garde side in the Bay area. There was a Cage happening on the Berkeley campus, which must have been trying to duplicate the Black Mountain Happening. People on ladders stringing Christmas tree lights, a giant balloon that was inflated and tossed into the audience, batted around like at a baseball game…wild, madcap happenings.

I remember a big Antheil concert with someone in tuxedo but no shoes….I don’t remember any of the early minimalist composers. There was a performance of Merce Cunningham where Cage came out and sat down in a chair, took a bottle of champagne out of a cooler, poured it very deliberately….takes a sip, opens one of his books, starts reading…meanwhile the dance had been going on for ten minutes.

TM: We look back at the seventies and think “what a revolutionary period!”, but inside the academic walls it was as conservative as could be imagined.

AA: I had traditional harmony and counterpoint classes with Andrew Imbrie. We had to write tonal fugues in the style of Bach. I just ate that stuff up. I didn’t actually study composition with anybody as an undergraduate — I felt insecure about my abilities. The content of the courses was very traditional, and the education probably had a greater impact on my development than the avant-garde things mentioned earlier.

TM: Where did you go after Berkeley?

AA: I went to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. One of my teachers had said “there is this professor you would probably get along with”, Seymour Shifrin, who had been a faculty member at Berkeley, but had left before I was an undergraduate there. I applied, and amazed, now, that I got in, because there were so few pieces that I had to send with the application. I ended up getting a PhD, and taught there for many years as well.

TM: Those who know the Boston scene may know Shifrin, but perhaps he is not generally well-known elsewhere.

AA: It’s true, he’s not. His music has disappeared since he died in 1979. He was a very high-minded fellow. There was a purpose to everything. I am talking about one’s commitment to writing music, his own, and what he expected of his students. Extremely serious. Everything was questioned; nothing could be put down on a page without full commitment to it and its significance. Nothing was automatic. For some people this was a difficult environment — they weren’t used to thinking this closely about everything. I wasn’t a particular fast composer, so I didn’t find it inhibiting. His standards were very high. I didn’t study with him my first year at Brandeis. I remember showing him the piece that I wrote. I was very proud of it — it was the longest thing I had ever written.

His response was “Well…you use the same type of phrase shaping”. He was probably right, but it wasn’t what I wanted to hear at that moment.

One of the features of his music that had a profound impact on me for a long time was that there was very little repetition. Again, everything had to be discovered, nothing could automatically come back. There were things that repeated, but almost in a covert way — they weren’t obvious returns. It had an effect on the way I heard, or even on my ability to hear certain things in pieces of music. I emulated it, I wanted to be like that, and for a long time my music had very little repetition, either local or large-scale.

TM: Is this stripping-down to the most basic expressive gesture, without using repetition to build a form, something that comes from serialism?

AA: Shifrin was not a serial composer. He was not a pianist, but would write his music at the piano, and my sense was that he was always hunting for what the next pitch would be. Not that he couldn’t project shapes, he certainly could. There is more repetition in Schoenberg than there is in Shifrin. As you say, he would whittle it to down to the essential thing that has to be said next. You listen to Shifrin’s music and you would think from my description that it would be a few sparse notes. It’s not that at all. It’s almost as if you have headed out into the jungle, and there is more underbrush than you could ever possibly imagine. A piece that I loved was Satires of Circumstance, with these elaborate, melismatic instrumental lines, spinning out numbers of notes — they are very elegant lines. And you think what was he talking about, about paring it down — you didn’t have to pare it down, you just had to know that every note was the important one at that moment, what it meant, and what its purpose was.

TM: Do you recall some of the things he was working on at the time?

AA: A piano piece, Responses. I heard Robert Helps premiere the piece at Carnegie Recital Hall, at a concert that Shifrin himself couldn’t attend, probably for health reasons already. The fifth string quartet…one of his last pieces, In the Nick of Time, commissioned by Speculum Musicae. I remember copying some of the parts for that, if I am not mistaken. A piece for early music instruments, A Renaissance Garland, with recorder, lute, viol, and a singer.

TM: It seems that this influence of “paring-down” from Shifrin is something that continues in your work until today.

AA: That is true. I have made a conscious effort to put things in my music that he didn’t have in his. There have been pieces where I tell people “believe it or not, this piece is an effort to bring in repetition in one way or another”. A piece which I wrote in 1996, Cloud Collar, where this was one of my goals in writing it. There are some small chordal formations which are arpeggiated and repeated — it seems like such a simple thing, a basic thing that music has done for centuries in one form or another, whether it’s accompanimental parts in Mozart, or more recently, in flamboyant manner, in minimalist repetition, but for me I had to struggle with my hand every time I wanted to repeat a note, or have a chord repeat. The other hand was trying to bat it away. Someone listening casually might think that repetition wasn’t a particularly important part of this music, yet for me it was a major breakthrough that I was able to include it in any way at all.

An element of compositional naiveté on my part is insisting for years in finding ways to not repeat some basic material. It’s a hard-fought battle for me to make myself really think of thematic shapes, thematic contents, that reusing them is not only a means to make compositions grow, but makes them audible in a way that is remarkable when you actually do it. I am laughing as I am saying this — these are basic and obvious things, but they were hard fought on my part, to get them in there.

With respect to Shifrin, I certainly still revere him as a person, and admire the music, but there had to be a conscious break for me to try some things on my own.

TM: The lack of repetition is the antithesis of popular.

AA: I try to place the music I write in some other listening place than the easy one. It’s demanding on the listener, and demanding on the performers as well. I want the experience of listening to it to be a different kind of experience than the one that might lead to dance….that’s not to say that elements of dance in a potentially more refined form aren’t things that I want…elegance, grace of motion, I certainly aspire to those things. The concert hall experience for my music that I want …it wouldn’t be right to call it meditation, but there’s an element of thought…not only a physical response, as important as that is.

TM: Were there other important figures in your study at Brandeis?

AA: I studied with Marty Boykan during my first year in graduate school. I hadn’t had much formal compositional training, so it was my first extended experience showing music to someone as I was writing it, and getting feedback. Marty was and remains the most profound musical thinker that I have encountered — he always has the best insights, the best references to examples of a similar problem from the great works of the classical music literature — how Beethoven handled this problem, or how Brahms couldn’t manage to get something similar to work. The depth and delicacy of his understanding of his music had a profound effect on me.

TM: Let’s talk about some of the pieces which have been recorded on CRI. Was the String Quartet written for the Lydian Quartet?

AA: Not exactly …. the Lydians recorded it. It’s a three-movement piece, and the middle movement was written first. This was when I was living in Boston, and the middle movement was written as a wedding present for two people who are here on the faculty at UNC…

TM: whose initials are in the title…

AA: “Variations on S.K. and R.L”, who are now my colleagues and good friends of mine, Susan Klebanow and Richard Luby. Susan Klebanow is the choral director and Richard Luby is a violinist.

TM: Susan was at Brandeis.

AA: She was at Brandeis when I was a graduate student and she was an undergraduate. She, my wife, and I all sang in early music groups together at Brandeis. That middle movement was based on the spelling out of their names in musical notation, and in the variations I tried to capture some element, some form of music that we shared, so there’s some very loosely shaped references to madrigals, an effort to get some baroquish string writing in there, because at the time Richard was playing a lot of baroque violin. There’s an attempt to capture the sound of Broadway show tunes….all this in a style that is never any of these things overtly. After that was written, and I had it played by the Lydian Quartet at Brandeis, I thought that maybe there could be a whole quartet built around this.

Not long after that I lost my job at Brandeis — didn’t get tenure there, and the first movement was written in a kind of defiant “I’ll show ‘em” anger at the forces that be…

the first movement is rather turbulent, and alternates between a vigorous music and one that is more resigned, with the resignation winning out at the end. The third movement is a sort of rondo.

TM: One of the things that struck me was how it drifts away at the end.

AA: I had a long-standing reluctance to end anything with a clear, forceful affirmation. It has happened in some more recent pieces, but there was a period of time in which that was about the only way that I could figure out how to get a piece to end, to have it trail off in one way or another.

TM: Could you talk about Casting Ecstatic?

AA: The Lydians had recorded the string quartet, and after the recording session Dan Stepner, the first violinist, said in exchange for having recorded this piece for you, I want you to write me a solo violin piece as a sort of payment. A win-win situation….I wrote Casting Ecstatic for Dan, and thought of it as a sort of concert etude for violin. There are a number of tricks in it that are devices that I was interested in exploring — it’s not an etude in the most concentrated, single-minded sense. Among the things that show up in that piece are efforts to have the violinist refinger the same pitch in close succession in order to avail himself of fingerings for other notes around it, as well as a sort of tremolo between a normally-stopped note and a harmonic in the same place on the finger board. This latter is the thing which I was referring to in the title, the “ecstaticness” of a note that suddenly takes off, and almost loses control under the finger of the player. That was one of the grounding elements.

TM: How was the move from the contemporary music in Boston to UNC?

AA: After teaching at Brandeis, I taught for two years at Columbia, and commuted back and forth between Boston and New York. When the possibility came for a permanent job, I moved to North Carolina. There are good people in contemporary music in North Carolina. There has always been activity at Duke and at Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill has added a director for the arts, Emil Kang, who wants to make Chapel Hill a real center for new music. I keep busy….

TM: You have a recent set of pieces for saxophone quartet. They seem to be a little more transparent in style, maybe drawing on the French wind tradition, with more repetition.

AA: That piece is from 2000-2001, and the repetition has become more of the language of that piece. One of the reasons that it happens in the saxophone collection is that it is the first piece in which I entered it into notation software as I was writing it, rather than writing it on paper, and then transferring it. Although it’s not always a good idea, I was pushing the replay button, and listening to how the computer performed it, and I would say that it was due to the software that the repetition became so pervasive in that composition.

It’s a curious set — a quartet in three movements, like the string quartet, but in this case, it’s the last movement which is the most important — it is as long itself as the other two combined. The first movement is just a table-setter — short, with a clear, straightforward shape to it, building by increments, with an ebb and flow, two-thirds of the way through it has its highest point, and falls off to the end. The second movement is almost entirely cantabile, based on sustained lines in one instrument or the other, and stems from my memory of a piece by Peter Maxwell Davies that goes back to when I was an undergraduate, one I liked very much, the Leopardi Fragments. I was sitting at my piano, not at the computer, thinking about what to do, and found myself playing something that was like the beginning of that Maxwell Davies piece, and not really getting it right, but using it as the opening. We’re talking about two measures worth of material, and you can see that I didn’t get I quite right, so I say in the score “after a misremembered measure or so of Peter Maxwell Davies”.

The third movement has been performed by itself, and works by itself without the other two, although I prefer it to be in their company. Some things I like are where all the parts get going, and it gets a kind of groove. There’s not an obvious repetition to it, but the momentum builds nicely.

TM: Your commission for the UNC chorus is quite different in style from your other works.

AA: When I came to UNC, Susan Klebanow asked me if I would write a piece for her chamber singers. I wrote a piece for piano and small choir to a text of Denise Levertov, and that was the first choral thing I had written in a long time. The piece you are referring to I wrote just over a year ago. Two years ago, the chair of the music department asked me, at the completion of the graduation ceremony, to write a piece for the graduation ceremony in the music department. I had no idea how to handle that – the music that I had written just didn’t lend itself to a commemorative, ceremonial function, and I had no idea how to fulfill the request. I put it aside for nine months.

In a composition class one of my students showed me a song that he was working on, and it seemed like he didn’t go very far in developing his material. So I wanted to rewrite it to show him how it could go. It turned out to be an inspiration to myself to write a choral piece. The next thing I had to have was a text. What kind of text do you use at college graduation ceremony? I ended up finding a translation of a Li Po poem.

The nature of its language is because it was for a graduation ceremony. A year ago it was premiered, not only by the graduating students, but by all their relatives in the audience.

We had 250 scores, and they all sightread it…it was performed again at the graduation ceremony last weekend, but this time by a small choir.

TM: Can you tell me about current projects?

AA: About two years ago, my colleague here at UNC, flutist Brooks de Wetter Smith, asked if I wanted to work on a collaborative project. He was going to Antarctica, planned to take photographs, and wanted to know if there was some way we could make something with sound and light when he got back. He took over 4000 photographs, and when he came back we went through them. I can’t say I looked at all 4000…but we assembled a number of photographs that would offer some cohesion. I wrote a score for that, which was just performed two weeks ago. That was the Iceblink project, for flute, clarinet, percussion, harp, violin, viola, cello, double bass, soprano and narrator — live music while the photographs were projected – not IMAX, but large all the same. It was interesting to work on. I was forced to complete every step as I went along, instead of blocking out the whole in any way. While I was writing, Brooks was feeding the photographs into a program to time them to the music. He needed to know exactly how long things would be to do it, so I had to work from the beginning straight through to the end, with very little revision time. As a result I wrote thirty-five minutes of music in seven months, which is much faster than I am used to writing.

It was exhausting, so I can’t say much about the next one, except that it will involve both professional and student performers.

[Click here for an excerpt from Held In the Weave]

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