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Mark Engebretson (Photo by Bruce)
03 Oct 2008

Tom Moore Interviews Mark Engebretson

A virtuoso saxophonist, performing internationally, Mark Engebretson is also a composer whose recent works often take place at the interface between the live performer and the computer.

An Interview with Mark Engebretson

Above: Mark Engebretson (Photo by Bruce)


He is presently professor of composition and director of the Alice Virginia Poe Williams Electronic Music Studio at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. We talked at the Music Library at Duke University on August 24, 2007.

TM: Let’s start with the basic biographical stuff — where you were born and raised, what was the musical environment that helped to shape you, the places you grew up. Memoirists are happy to talk about Lake Wobegon, but composers tend to be more focused on the latest great thing.

ME: I was born in California, but by the time I was three, my family was living in Minnesota, and I grew up in Alexandria, which is the “Birthplace of America”.

TM: Please explain….

ME: There was an ancient Norse rune found near there, with a story of 12th century explorers, there was a bloody encounter with the Native Americans they found — the story is engraved on the stone. Apparently legitimate historians feel that it is a hoax, that an illiterate early 20th-century farmer managed to carve these long-extinct glyphs….who knows whether it’s true or not… but we have a huge statue of a character called “Big Ole” right downtown in Alexandria, with horns, spear and shield — thirty feet tall.

So Alexandria calls itself the “Birthplace of America”.

I grew up in Alexandria until the end of 9th grade, and then my family moved to North St. Paul, Minnesota, a suburb outside of St. Paul. At that time I was (and still am) a saxophonist. I got into music playing in bands. My father, earlier on, had a big band, so I went to big band gigs when I was in junior high school.

TM: What instrument did he play?

ME: His main instrument is clarinet/saxophone. There was a real natural connection — I was taking up one of the instruments that he played, and we could go to gigs together.

TM: Did he have a day job in addition to the gigs?

ME: His day job was being a doctor, but he was a good amateur musician. Now that he is retired he has put all his energy into being a band leader, with a band called Doc’s All-Starts, which is playing all over the place in central Minnesota these days.

TM: How did he get involved in music?

ME: You need to go back to my grandfather Herman, who was a banker in a town called Lowry, MN, a town of about 250 people. He was a clarinetist, and was in the Army band in WWI. He was a very passionate amateur musician, so my father and his sister, who is a very fine pianist, grew up playing music. My dad played a lot of big-band music when he was going to college at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

I was a saxophonist. For one year I went to St. Olaf College, and then transferred to the University of Minnesota.

TM: St. Olaf’s is famous for its choir.

ME: And the band program is out of this world. They have a terrific orchestra, too. I wanted to be in a more urban environment, where music was more a part of the fabric of the experience.

TM: Rather than being part of the university.

ME: At the University of Minnesota, there were a lot of big-name people who came through, but there was the whole urban scene as well. I majored in saxophone.

TM: Was there a church musical environment you were part of, or were you primarily involved in big bands?

ME: I did go to church — I’m a Minnesotan, so of course I’m a Lutheran. I was in the youth choir in high school, and even sang a role in Jesus Christ Superstar, but it wasn’t central to what I did. As I got older and became more professional, going back to Alexandria, or to my wife’s church (she’s also a saxophonist, Susan Fancher) in Albion, New York, to play — it’s still part of what I do, but it’s not what got me into music in the first place.

TM: Was sax your first instrument, or were there other instruments you played as an adolescent?

ME: I don’t know if I should admit this, but I played piano first, and I hated it. I really did not enjoy the piano, much to my regret now, because now I love playing, but I’m horrifically bad. When the band program started, I actually started in percussion, but I tried the saxophone, and it immediately clicked.

TM: Alto sax?

ME: I started on alto sax, like most kids would. At various times the focus of what I have played has been either alto or soprano, and during the years I was in the Vienna Saxophone Quartet I played more baritone than anything.

TM: Let’s talk about the intersection of sax and contemporary music. The sax is so strongly associated with jazz and big band music, and perhaps less strongly with contemporary music. Orchestral instruments like the violin, for example, don’t have this “vernacular” performance tradition, the idioms, the vocabulary….

ME: I wouldn’t agree that saxophone is less associated with contemporary music — in my own experience, at some point, I realized that it wasn’t jazz that I was interested in, but “classical” music. There the saxophone has a very poor literature — only a handful of pieces in the romantic tradition, from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, so people who compose have been very busy over the last hundred years creating a literature. “Classical” saxophone is, by and large, contemporary, and the literature is enormous. This is the music that gets played. If you do happen to play the violin, you can play Engebretson, or you can play Beethoven. It’s a rough go…(laughs…).

TM: It’s always interesting to hear what influences people bring to their composition, because they are so various. What were the formative things you were listening to as an adolescent? Jazz? Avant-garde? Cage? Ives? Bubble-gum?

ME: There was classical music and jazz in my house, since my father was interested in both as a listener and a player. For myself, I remember very distinctly getting out a whole stack of 45s with my sister, and trying to decide what my favorite song was. I don’t remember the group, but the tune was “Little Willie”.

As an adolescent, I loved Boston’s first album — “More than a feeling”, “Long time”….in fact, I have long since lost the album, but I downloaded it for my daughter and she loves it — just dances all over the place. That particular album is really well-crafted.

I remember being interested in some of the Christian rock of the day, and probably my first real attempts at composing were sitting at the piano and trying to bang out some kind of tune, singing along. My friends and I tried to form a band…

The real thing that got me going was classical music studies. I was playing music by composers who might be unknown to most people — Eugene Bozza, Paule Maurice — staples of the older French school. I started to think (I don’t why I thought this) — “I could make some music like this”, and started to write music to emulate these composers, and it wasn’t really too bad. I got a lot of encouragement, especially from Eric Stokes, who was a composer at the University of Minnesota, from the American experimental tradition, very interested in found sound, experiential music, community playing. He loved Ives and Henry Cowell. In our new music ensemble we played Scott Joplin as well. A terrific figure. He said to me “You have some talent. You should keep composing”, which totally blew my mind.

TM: You were at Minnesota for undergraduate school. What was the musical environment like there?

ME: I was a saxophone major, so I practiced like mad. I worked very, very hard and tried to achieve a superior technique. I couldn’t really pursue composition studies, but Eric was there, and so were Paul Fetler, and Dominick Argento, and Alex Lubet, who is still there. It was a rich environment for composers. For my part I was very focused on playing.

TM: When did you make a turn toward composition, or was it a gradual process?

ME: Gradual. I began composing with some seriousness at that time. With Eric Stokes’ encouragement I started learning about extended techniques — multiphonics, quarter-tones. I was interested and still am in those kinds of things.

I went to France after that, to study in Bordeaux, and the intention was to study saxophone, but by the second year I really wanted to take advantage of the fact that I could speak French pretty well, and could enroll in other classes. I studied composition with Michel Fuste-Lambezat, whom we called “Maître”, of course, and we had French-style master-class instruction. He would come in, and whoever had written some music would present it to him (with great fear). He would put it on the stand, study it pretty hard, play through a little bit on the piano, and make pronouncements about what was working and what wasn’t. There were always four to eight of us learning together.

After that I returned to the States, and decided to move to Chicago. I had met Susan Fancher, who is now my wife, and we decided to get married. Needing something to do in Chicago, I thought about going to Northwestern, and asked whether I could do a master’s in saxophone and in composition. They said I could do both, and so I did. It was one degree with two majors.

This was when things began to go the other way in terms of composing. Of the pieces which I let out, the earliest is from that time.

TM: The microcultures of musical institutions can vary so much. What were things like at Northwestern? I imagine things had begun to loosen up by that point.

ME: Northwestern was a great place to be for composition, and still is. My training is as a modernist, not to say that I learned a lot of serial techniques, but more in the sense that there was always an interest in the development of musical language, that progressive quality that modernists believed in. During those years at Northwestern I studied with Jay Alan Yim, with Stephen Syverud, later with Bill Karlins, I studied with Alan Stout, though I only had one lesson with him…it was a great lesson.

I found the experience to be very mind-opening. The emphasis on inventiveness, on how you can make connections and build connections, construct a universe, was very powerful. I find it powerful to this day, though lately I have been calling myself a recovering modernist.

TM: Who were the icons held up to you as compositional models? Boulez? Stockhausen? Penderecki? If you go to Symphony Hall in Boston, there above the stage is the name of Beethoven. I don’t suppose that you would find “Penderecki” in a similar spot anywhere outside Poland. Who might it have been when you were in graduate school?

ME: There was actually a list that Jay Yim gave me for my master’s exam, with about 15 names on it. The task was to be able to identify any score or recording by these composers, and to be able to write a detailed essay on their life and artistic milieu. Some of those composers were: Giacinto Scelsi (I discovered Scelsi at this time), Donatoni, Penderecki was not on there, but could very well have been, Xenakis….

TM: High modernists.

ME: Ligeti, who I later wrote my dissertation on, Nancarrow was there, and some others who might seem more off-beat in comparison — Morton Feldman, Louis Andriessen, and a lot of the doubly high-modernists — Brian Ferneyhough, Harrison Birtwistle, Michael Finnissy, Kaija Saariaho, Henze, Poul Ruders.

TM: It is interesting to see who is on the list for a particular generation. Soviet composers for decades were lower than scum. Shostakovich was considered to be compromised; Prokofiev was worse, other composers with a huge presence today were completely off the radar screen, Arvo Pärt, for example, and other East Bloc composers.

Why were these composers that you mention iconic, and not others?

ME: By the way, Schnittke and Gubaidulina were also on that list. I think a lot of those composers had developed highly-individualized personal languages — Scelsi, Feldman, Xenakis, Elliott Carter.

TM: You completed your masters’ at Northwestern, and….

ME: And then I lived in Sweden for a year and half.

TM: An interesting choice. Was it the saxophone?

ME: I was following my wife. Susan got a gig with a full-time saxophone quartet called the Rollin’ Phones. She went to join the group and I went along. I started teaching saxophone, clarinet, and got a half-year job with a professional wind symphony in Linköping. I began doing professional composing in Stockholm, and then we moved to Vienna to join the Vienna Saxophone Quartet, where I got lots of commissions from the Austrian Ministry of Culture, and began to see myself as a composer.

When we left Vienna, we went back to Northwestern, where we both did doctorates, Susan in saxophone, and I did mine in composition. We continued to play with the Vienna group for another four years, commuting from Chicago, but my studies by this time were all about composing.

TM: Who were your professors at this point?

ME: My dissertation adviser was Jay Alan Yim. I studied with Bill Karlins, and also with Pauline Oliveros and Marta Ptaszynska, who is now at the University of Chicago, and with Mike Pisaro

TM: What did you bring from your activities as a professional saxophonists to your approach as a composer? So many composers come into composition as pianists, or from the organ, and now there are some who come in from the guitar. It’s less frequent to see wind players taking this route.

ME: Early on I was very interested in extended techniques, and the saxophone is a champion instrument for those kinds of things. I brought an openness to sound. These days I am a little interested in multiphonics and so on. Certainly they are usable in a musical context, but I have been trying to explore other areas. An openness to sound combinations.

Secondly, as a single-line player, I think that the interest in line is really strong in my music. To this day, it is a lot harder to imagine writing for a pianist, one person who does many things, than it is to imagine what an orchestra can do, which is many players each doing one thing. I can imagine individual lines on a large scale, and how they will combine, but the physicality of many things at once is something I don’t do myself.

My experience improvising with Anders Åstrand in Sweden was important. We would improvise entire concerts and say something like “Let’s play for a while, and when we all get to A, we’ll stop”, and we would play, and get to A, and make an ending. Or we would say “Let’s play a fast one”, or a slow one. No score, but we really listened to each other, and created (I’ve got the recordings to prove this) really coherent musical compositions, with motivic development, themes and sections, and so forth, and I learned a lot about how sounds can be combined. In particular, that any sounds can combine with any others, and sound beautiful. And that we feel form in a very natural way. It might seem trite to distill things down to this, but the golden section is something that we would do without even thinking about it, or structural shapes related to that, or that sound very satisfying. I thought “that’s really natural”, and I should try to compose music that has that element.

TM: You might say that everyone improvises in speaking before an audience, in conversations, and we don’t think of this as something difficult or abstruse, for which we have to have incredible technical preparation. In our Western classical tradition, we so often tend to be tied to notes on the page, and think that music is what is on paper, and not the notes in the air.

ME: I remember expounding the philosophy that “music is for listening”. Music is the thing that flies through the air, a wonderful and beautiful and mysterious thing.

TM: “If it sound good, it is good”. And if it doesn’t sound good, it isn’t good, and it doesn’t matter about the theoretical structure if you can’t hear it.

ME: I always admired Xenakis in that respect. There’s someone who sat and spun out equations, and formulas, and probabilities. One of his best pieces is a saxophone quartet, Xas, which has curves like those which he designed for the Philips pavilion with Corbusier. It sounds great, but it’s based on an intense intellectual construct.

TM: Moving on from Northwestern, you have continued on the academic track, rather than the touring professional track.

ME: I had my chance to be a real musician in the real world, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. It was a great experience, but there was something else that I wanted to do. After Northwestern, Susan and I moved to Buffalo, where she got a position with another full-time saxophone quartet, the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, which had its 25th anniversary when she was there. They played half of the time, and were in residence at SUNY Buffalo for the other half of their activities. I sent out resumes feverishly, and got hired as a theory adjunct at SUNY Fredonia, and then got a position in composition at the University of Florida at Gainesville. I met some wonderful people — James Paul Sain and Paul Richards, and then went back to Buffalo, teaching at Fredonia and Eastman. Those were the work experiences that prepared me for my current job as assistant professor of composition at UNC Greensboro.

TM: Let’s talk about your recent compositions. Is there an esthetic commonality between the works, or do you take each one as it comes?

ME: I think and I hope that I have a voice that is mine, that people will recognize. One of the things I am most interested in today is interactivity, by which I mean, on the one hand, combining the computer, using Max/MSP, with live performers, and also trying to get the computer to behave in a way that is more like human performers. We can’t achieve artificial intelligence yet, but we are trying to simulate that somehow. My colleague at UNCG, Alejandro Rutty, said “Max is nothing but a big reverb machine”.

When it deals with live audio input, it has a tendency to take the input, do something to it (very quickly, mind you), and spit it back out, doing some kind of reverberation. Live players don’t work that way in an improvisational setting. One player can suggest something, or anticipate another, or things can happen simultaneously. If you compose a piece you can work out connections, since you can think out of time. The computer is less good at things like this.

I am working on ways to make it feel and appear as if the computer is acting more like a human player. There should be variations in performance, within constrained parameters. A computer piece should be identifiably the same piece from one performance to another, with more variation than you would find in a piece by Beethoven, but within parameters, so it’s not so wildly different that you might not recognize it as the same piece. The computer is good at doing things exactly the same way, or wildly different. I am trying to get it play the way a human would.

TM: The iconic composers you mentioned create a personal language by reaching a level of abstraction that excludes local particularities. If you look at Copland, he studied in Paris, and yet in the 30s he is working at creating something that is recognizably American. The high modernists are creating things from some other place, some other planet. You don’t think “England”, “France”, “Germany”. For some composers this national inflection is still present and something that they strive to cultivate. You are an American from Minnesota, living in the South? Is your music American? Is this present when you think about your musical language?

ME: There are European musicians who have told me that my music is insufficiently American. “You are American, you should sound like John Adams!” But on the other hand, in the States, my music is perceived as being colored by European experiences, especially the pieces like the Energy Drink, which are horribly difficult, and which were difficult for me to compose. Those things seem to be more European than American.

The short answer is that I don’t really think about this very much. I do know that having lived in different places, one finds oneself responding to the musical environment. The pieces I have composed are somehow inflected by the places that I have been. In Vienna, if you wrote something with a tonal background and triadic harmonies you would have been laughed out of town — you just couldn’t do it. It was perfectly safe to smash and burn and make a lot of noise.

In certain ways, the music of the last few years is more conservative. I want the surface to shine and shimmer, whereas before I wanted it to grate and grind.

TM: It sounds like the anxiety of influence — that the weight of triadic music is so great in Vienna.

ME: It’s not like that at all [in Vienna]. My friend Wolfram Wagner, who is Viennese, a very fine composer, refers to the influence of the “institutionalized avant-garde”. That is what made it impossible to write triadic harmony. It’s not Beethoven who looms over compositional life in Vienna. At that time you had to project your avant-garde and modernist credentials to get the money I was talking about.

TM: But the reason for the avant-garde to have this esthetic is that in their institutional life they are so well-behaved.

ME: I don’t know that they are well-behaved — I have been to concerts with people and booing and stomping out.

TM: But they probably wait for the lights to change before they enter the crosswalk.

ME: There is a certain amount of civility that we sometimes lack here on the other side of the pond.

TM: You had the institutionalized avant-garde in Vienna. What was the spirit of the scene in Chicago and Buffalo?

ME: Chicago I experienced as a student, to my dismay the second time, since I felt like I was a professional composer. In the fabric of musical life in Chicago there is an improv scene that is very strong — Ken Vandermark, Gene Coleman, Jerry Ruthrauff. I would go and play concerts in bars with friends. I did that with Pauline Oliveros, and that was a lot of fun. We weren’t connected to the University of Chicago scene. There is a huge distance — physical, spiritual and philosophical between University of Chicago and Northwestern. It’s not the personalities. Marta is down there now, and she is a wonderful composer and a friend. It’s a long, long way between them.

I do remember the Chicago Symphony doing a Birtwistle piece. I tried to go one night, when it was paired with Tchaikovsky and it sold out, and I didn’t get in. And the next night they canceled the Birtwistle. They simply weren’t going to play that again.

In Buffalo, you mention Feldman and Foss, and in that time there was an association with the Symphony which is no longer there, but the tradition is carried on by the folks at the University of Buffalo. As a composer I was not so active at that school, but I spent a lot of time going to UB, going to concerts. They have huge audiences, and they are doing high-modernist music. It’s a tribute to David Felder, Cort Lippe, Jeff Stadelman and Jonathan Golove who built that.

TM: North Carolina is spread-out. We have urban centers which are not impossibly far from each other, but yet not so close. It’s hard to connect with what is going on in Winston-Salem, or Greensboro, or the Triangle, or east of the Triangle. What does it mean to be a composer in North Carolina?

ME: There are good programs run by the North Carolina Council for the Arts, and the local arts councils. There are funding opportunities. I was invited by Rodney Waschka to do half an evening of my music at NC State [in Raleigh] last year. This year we will do something similar at Chapel Hill. I have some association with the composers at Duke. I also started a new music festival, which is in its fourth year at UNC Greensboro. Last year I invited a number of composers from North and South Carolina, including Scott Lindroth, Reg Bain, John Fitz Rogers from South Carolina, trying to bring the community together by bringing people to Greensboro. This year I have folks coming down from Richmond: Judith Shatin, Ben Broening, Ico Bukvic and a pianist, Amy Dissanayake from Chicago.

The idea of the festival is trying to bring people together, to our house, so we can get together, hear each other’s music, talk a little. These places are really active, and there are super musicians, composers and performers all over the state — we’re just a little too far away from each other. That’s the disadvantage that we are all dealing with. On the other hand, the state has a healthy economy, there is support for the arts, for orchestras and ensembles.

TM: Tell me about Edges.

ME: This is from 2002. There was a competition at the Jacksonville Symphony. It placed, so they gave it a public reading, and it was performed again last year at UNCG. It has a really simple form — ABA’. For the first A, I made a number of harmonic fields, which I numbered, but presented them in a different sequence — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 6, 7, 3, 8, 9, 4. They were overlapping, so the experience of listening to this part of the piece is somewhat disorienting. It doesn’t seem to quite make sense, because the fields are out of order, and slammed up against each other, in an unpredictable way. The middle section is strings only, and I took a motive from the first part, and just wanted to write a beautiful middle section, without thinking about it too much. When the A returns, what was jumbled is in a straight line. My notion is one of clarifying form, where things make more sense as they go along.

TM: Reminiscent of Britten’s Nocturnal, where the preexistent music crystallizes out by the end. What else is new for you?

ME: There’s SaxMax, an interactive piece. This piece is for saxophone and Max/MSP, and was written for Susan Fancher and Jim Romain, who gave the first performances, she on soprano sax, and he on alto sax. I devised a part for the computer so that someone could “play” the computer. It was played about 11 times in the first year. I played the computer part for many but not all of the performances, so that was another challenge I set for myself — transportability of the piece. It’s a duo for saxophone and computer performer. The computer performer has a number of samples which can be called up by pushing keys on a MIDI keyboard, and has the ability to manipulate those samples with faders and knobs. This can also be done with a mouse and a computer screen. There is some granular synthesis performed on the sound of the saxophone. In some parts of the piece, the saxophone performer can tell the computer to listen — to record or not record on demand. In other parts the computer is listening and processing all the time.

I don’t really have pieces that are straight electro-acoustic, and I doubt that there will be. I wrote some straight tape pieces as a student, but that has never been satisfying to me. I always thought that I was right about this, that we have to use live performers, but I talked to Paul Lansky, who I consider to be a very smart person — most people do — and Paul says that in his work he divides these things, between just acoustic and just electro-acoustic, and wants to focus on the specific properties available in those environments.

I thought “I may not be right”, but that is the choice for me. I love performers. I love the possibilities that computer music gives us, but I like combining that with people.

TM: What else is upcoming?

ME: I am finishing a piece for orchestra which is supported by a grant from UNCG, which is called “Mysterious Voices of Wind, Moon, Trees and Dreams”, a smallish work for large orchestra, about 12 minutes or so. I am trying to find a kind of music which fits with each of these ideas. The title was suggested by a dear man and arts supporter we called Colonel Jim, who died, unfortunately, last spring. The other piece I am working on is an interactive piece following SaxMax. This one is for contrabassoon and Max/MSP, called ContraMax.

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