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Robert Maggio [Photo courtesy of the composer]
18 May 2010

Robert Maggio — An Interview by Tom Moore

Composer Robert Maggio is professor of composition at West Chester University (in suburban Philadelphia).

Robert Maggio — An Interview by Tom Moore

Above: Robert Maggio [Photo courtesy of the composer]


He recently moved to Lambertville, New Jersey, an erstwhile mill-town on the Delaware River, now a center for art and antiques, across the river from New Hope, Pennsylvania. We spoke via telephone on April 15, 2010.

TM: Thank you! It’s been a long time. The last time you were living down by the Delaware border.

RM: Now we live in Lambertville, New Jersey. It’s a beautiful community to live in — lots of painters, lots of artists….

TM: and a little closer to New York City.

RM: It’s been helpful, since I have been able to go to New York regularly. I have been involved in a musical theater workshop for four years now, going almost every week to present songs that I am working on for various musicals, and to hear other people’s music as well. It’s very nice — Lambertville is right between New York and Philadelphia, and in another direction, West Chester, where I teach.

TM: I recall that you grew up near the dreaded Somerville circle — you must drive past there all the time.

RM: Now I go over it.

TM: In listening to the works from the last few years at your site, it sounds like you might have made a change in direction compositionally. To get started…please talk a little about the piece Dos Visiones — was that a collaboration where you and Ana Lara wrote independent movements? How did that work?

RM: Yes, we wrote independent movements — three each, and chose similar themes — not musical themes, although we actually did share musical themes — but we started from concepts that we found at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California. After we started writing music, we started sharing our music with each other, and trying to embed, to quote each other’s pieces in our own. We intended at some point to write a movement together, but by the time we got there, the piece had reached forty minutes, which was our limit, so we didn’t get to write that movement together. I would have loved to have done that. Self-portraiture and national identity was one theme-group, another was humor and irony, and another was magic and magical realism.

TM: How did the collaboration itself get started?

RM: The American Composers’ Forum has a project called Continental Harmony, which began in 2000. The idea behind Continental Harmony was to link composers and communities, but beginning not with the composer’s vision of the project, but with the community’s vision. For example, each arts organization or community group devised a project that they felt they needed a composer for. Long Beach Symphony wanted a piece about the Museum of Latin American Art, and since their composer was Latin American, he wanted the piece to be performed in both Mexico City and Long Beach. He chose Ana Lara, since she is from Mexico City, and he knew her, and they had an open call for composers to apply, so they could write about how their skill-sets met what the orchestra needed, and how they could be an ambassador for their country and also for the Museum of Latin American Art. That’s how we got paired off, and they said “go to the Museum, and spend some time there”. We dreamed up the shared themes, and that we would interleave the movements.

TM: You had never met before?

RM: No. We both had been commissioned by the orchestra during the previous season. Once we signed onto this project, they wanted us both to get to know the orchestra, and wanted each of us to write an aria for tenor and orchestra on the life of Galvez, the explorer, whom neither one of us knew. We met at that point, and we met at the premiere of those works, and started planning this piece, a good two years out. We write very different kinds of music, so it was wonderful to put our pieces back to back. It was exciting to see how the styles played off each other.

TM: How would you characterize the two styles?

RM: My influences are largely American composers. I have been strongly influenced by Copland, Barber, Bernstein, more recently Adams –my colleagues, all the Americans that I know. In school what I gravitated towards was the American music, probably because my interests growing up were in jazz, and pop, and rock, and theater. Ana’s music is probably more influenced by Latin American music, and by music that is filtered from Europe through Mexico and Central America.

TM: Do you think there might be a future collaboration where you are working together on a piece?

RM: Anything is possible. It’s unlikely - most composers don’t like to do that.

TM: Could you talk about Simple, which was a commission from Pottstown?

RM: That was a commission for a short concert opener. I have been playing around for quite a while with using folk music as a means to replace the blank page — to try to make variations on something without necessarily revealing the theme. I took the theme that Copland made famous — Simple Gifts, the Shaker tune — and my goal was never to state that theme clearly, but just to use the rhythms and the intervals and the harmonies, and to reconfigure it entirely. It still has some of the same qualities of Copland’s melodies and harmonies and textures, but I don’t want someone in the audience to say “Hey, there’s that Shaker tune”. It doesn’t show up in any obvious way.

TM: One can think of other pieces with that strategy, but finally arriving at the gestalt by the end — the Britten piece for guitar which ends with the Dowland model that he started from.

RM: The funny thing is that I teach that piece. I just finished the variations unit in my composition class, and that is the only piece that we study as a model. It’s wonderful how hidden and submerged the thematic material is in all the variations. You can choose to have the theme appear, or not. It is certainly rewarding in the Britten when it arrives after all those variations.

TM: One realizes that what was inspirational was the primal quality of the Dowland, or for that matter, of Simple Gifts.

RM: There’s something appealing about being given the materials, and then being allowed to work with them. It’s like getting a bunch of ingredients — like the Iron Chef. Take these ingredients and do something with them. I want to come up with something that I want to listen to. If I stay too close to the Copland, I am recreating that. I am a reasonably good imitator to begin with, and there’s danger in that sometimes. I have to challenge myself to listen closely to my own instincts. By not allowing some thematic material to show up as a quotation, I am forced to make up new stuff.

I did quotation for a long time, going back through my music from graduate school in the late eighties and early nineties, and then began to do more of this kind of work, using one song or riff, and coming up with a whole bunch of music which doesn’t in any way sound like that thing. In 1996 I wrote a piece called Riversongs for wind octet, which is almost entirely built on patterns from the Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun — but it sounds nothing like it, and you would never notice it, ever. I would have to point it out to you. The point was not to make a reference to Here Comes the Sun — the point was to give myself a challenge — here are these ingredients: make something. Lucky Charms, pepperoni, whipped cream — go! There’s something fun about that.

TM: Some composers conceive of a metaphor or a structure for a piece, and then the work of composition is filling in the details. If you think of the architect Oscar Niemeyer you will see four or five lines or curves, and the architecture comes from that sketch. And some composers build up from the smallest gesture, almost organically, from there, so that they don’t have a sense of the large-scale structure until they have worked the material.

RM: I have worked with both, and sometimes with both in the same piece. Since I teach composition, I am always thinking about strategies. In helping students develop their own pieces, I have to be someone who has a big toolbox of strategies. Students come into my office every week with something, and I have to think what is the advice, what is the take-home message today? Sometimes it is the “be more organic” message, and sometimes it is “what is your concept for this” strategy. I have to apply that to myself as a composer, and I have had moments when I have being trying to work on something organically, from the ground up, and I have gotten nowhere. Then there will be some sudden conceptual strategy that appeals to me and I think “Oh my god! That’s what it is”, and I can fill it in. Sometimes having opposing strategies will get the piece going.

TM: Sounds like you don’t belong to the pre-compositional planning camp, though.

RM: I have had times when I have seen something visually — I have seen an art work and thought “that is what this piece will feel like” — that sort of structural idea. Or I watch movies, and get really interested in narrative structure. A movie might have a weird chop in the middle, or the end does something completely different than the rest of it, or there’s a strange flashback — I might think of that kind of game-plan too. It is always to get an emotional effect, because it will feel a certain way.

TM: What you said about images may be another compositional strategy. My wife, who is an artist, infrequently works from a blank page, but may have an image that she starts from, whether a photograph or something else, that may develop. This sounds like something that appeals to you as well.

RM: When I was writing Simple, it happened that one of my students went on to do work at Indiana, and she said that she was going to write a brass quintet, and the first thing her new composition teacher asked her to do was to brainstorm a dozen one-measure ideas — textures, gestures, shapes, rhythms — and then go back over them and see what really appealed, and then develop that. In a funny way that is how I wrote Simple. I remember taking that folk-song, and putting it in front of me, and thinking of more than a dozen things that I could do with it. I didn’t keep writing, but brainstormed a whole bunch of ways of starting an idea, and then started developing some of them that really took off, and began to put them together like a puzzle. I don’t usually work that way — it was an unusual approach for me.

TM: To move onto another piece, you have a recent piece called Color and Light, which perhaps connects with the Bucks County School, although Lambertville is across the river in Hunterdon County.

RM: It’s all Impressionism, really. There’s a lot about color theory, about sustaining tones — having one instrument play a note, and another instrument take up the same note, or a group of instruments play a chord, and another group sustain that chord while the first group moves onto another, creating afterimages — a soft color palette, a very slow-moving pace — there’s a lot of things which were from looking at the paintings that I see in town, at art galleries, and thinking about what they might sound like, and what they feel like — what the soul of those paintings is really about. There’s a fascination with the visual senses of color and light. There are easy translations into harmonies — harmonies have certain colors, colors from voicings of chords. I spent a lot of time thinking about what instruments were going to play this, in what register, at what dynamic level, and how they were going to articulate that chord, and were they going to have a crescendo — a ton of details on very little information. I remember thinking that it would be music that was going to be very spare — the challenge there was to “under”— write the piece, to try to do less, and see how much soul I could get out of one note — how beautiful can one or two notes be. The main motive of that piece is two notes.

TM: Almost Zen, you might say.

RM: I think so. Not so much what those paintings look like, but more what they feel like. There is something about living in a small town on a river that one wants to be a little Zen there.

TM: It’s not until you don’t have that river anymore that you realize how special a presence it is, not just the water, but the valley and the light and the nature.

RM: It’s actually very calming.

TM: Your music seems to be becoming more American, and perhaps less “uptown” in a sense, not that it was ever “uptown”, but farther from the idiom of uptown chamber music, and closer to this sense of what the Delaware Valley is — it’s not New York, it’s not Philadelphia.

RM: That seems fair. It wouldn’t surprise me if living in the environment that I do has an effect on the kind of music that I write. I actually wrote a piece that was about living in Lambertville, called At the River, and evokes a music that describes the place, the people, the architecture, the history, and since then I have written two more pieces for the same group in Lambertville, the Riverside Symphonia, and the players, playing the third piece, Color and Light, even though I think of it as somewhat different than the first two remarked that they thought that it, just as you said, had a kind of American pastoral sensibility. There’s a certain edginess that I may shy away from more. The most recent string quartet deals with Italian folk music, of all things. There’s some pretty edgy music in the second movement, but when I look at where the piece ultimately goes, it allows that to dissipate.

TM: Interestingly, the most “American” composers were both living in New York City — Charles Ives and Aaron Copland, evoking places from New York City.

RM: I am fan of theirs — if they were in Facebook I would be on their fan pages.

TM: I speak to more and more composers for whom Ives is important, even though he is not one of those people who is in the canon, and no one teaches him.

Could you talk about the Diabelli variation project?

RM: There are twenty-five composers involved with that, and nobody knows what anybody else did. They wanted one-and-a-half minute variations for three out of four instruments on the Diabelli theme. That was fun — I wrote three variations in one, going through the Diabelli theme three times, transforming it into something else — like putting it through a Diabelli variation machine. I was also trying to write something very playful. I think that theme is playful and very silly — it cried out for something fun and light and enjoyable. Hopefully the whole thing will be really wonderful, with twenty-five composers takes on that theme.

TM: I love that word “silly” that you use, because there are so few composers that have the balls to be silly, and to be open and upfront about it. Who is there? Poulenc, perhaps, and how many more? It’s wonderful and exhilarating when something can be outrageously silly. One thinks of the Minister for Silly Walks…but there’s very little music that goes that direction.

RM: Comedy is hard in music –it’s hard to be funny. There’s arch humor, with raised eyebrows…I think my recent forays into writing musicals have given me more license to have a good time. The other premiere coming up is Summer — 2 AM, which is a riff on Knoxville — Summer of 1915. I worked with someone who is a singer-songwriter, Mary Louise MacNamara, who has a wonderful sense of humor. She and I collaborated like a songwriting team on these, and we wrote eight songs for Laura Heimes to sing. When we first met with Laura, to ask her what the piece should be about, what she wanted to sing about - she was also going to be doing the Barber on the same program, which is one of my favorite pieces, one of the first classical pieces that I ever listened to, and which I just fell in love with — obviously I wanted to take Barber’s name off, put mine on, and say I wrote this great music- and I needed to stay a million miles away from it. I write that nostalgic stuff very well and very easily. Nostalgic, beautiful, sad, longing — I do that really well in music. When we started talking to Laura, her life had just been turned upside down by having a baby. Sitting there, trying to drink an ice tea, with Laura feeling constantly interrupted or distracted, we decided that that was what the piece would be about — about Laurie’s life change, from being a married singer without a baby to being a married singer with a baby. It starts off with a quotation from the Barber, and she is using that as a lullaby for the child, and it ends there, too. It goes on a seventeen-minute journey where she is coming to terms with her life being turned upside down, but it also develops her humor — it’s all funny. We allow ourselves one moment of “awwww…” , but everything else is funny.

TM: How did the project get started?

RM: They already had Laurie lined up, they already had Barber lined up, and then when they were working on the program, since I teach at West Chester, which is Barber’s birthplace, they thought of me, and of course I was very interested. I didn’t know Laurie — I had heard her before, but I didn’t know her. We just went from there.

TM: She is a wonderful artist.

RM: She has a sense of humor, so she can carry these pieces off. I wouldn’t have written it for anyone else. It largely came out of writing for the performer. She does opera, she does dramatic stuff? She’ll be great for this.

TM: Absolutely. She has a killer sense of humor. Do you have other exciting projects coming up for 2010 and 2011?

RM: Yes — both of them involve working with dance companies. It’s been a few years since the last project, with Matthew Neenan and Ballet X in Philadelphia. I have just been paired up with a choreographer in Lambertville where I live, Mark Roxey. He and I just got a grant from the American Music Center — Live Music for Dance. We are creating a piece together for next season based on some of the philosophical writings in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, of all things — a very beautiful inspirational text from the seventies, if anyone remembers it. I have been re-reading it, and there are some just beautiful fascinating ideas which will translate very well into music and dance. There are a couple of irons in the fire in dance projects, which I hope will come through.

TM: Looking at your oeuvre, it seems like there should be an opera there. Will there be one in your future?

RM: Yes — I am just waiting for that phone call. It seems like a no-brainer to me. I have been working on musicals, and understand a lot about musical dramatization at this point. I think I have the dramatic chops to do opera now, and the experience in writing a lot of vocal music, and a lot of orchestral music, and am someone who is fascinated by film and theater, and always was. Opera is definitely a place that I want to go.

I have a student right now who is just beginning an opera. We were just brainstorming plot and narrative — I was so excited to be talking about story. We weren’t talking about music, we were talking about storytelling. When I write an opera, that is what I want to focus on. I want to make sure that people really care about those characters, are invested in who they are. Some of my favorite opera has those qualities.

TM: Just a matter of hearing from a company with a commission.

RM: I am doing work on musical theater on spec — there’s only so much time to work on large-scale projects. Musicals, operas — these things take a huge amount of time. I want to know that it is going to happen, and I want to workshop it. To make a successful opera, you have to workshop it — you have to put it together piece by piece. We do that all the time in my BMI musical theater workshop — we put song by song up in front of everybody. You get great feedback, and the pieces grow from having been test-driven.

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