We caught up with the 8 Resident Composers of the 2011 Mizzou New Music Summer Festival to ask them about their music and themselves.
AWS: What is the first piece you wrote? Do you still own up to it?
Clint Needham: The first piece I wrote was Star Crossed Lovers for band as a high school freshman English project. I thought it would be easier to write a piece of music than to write an essay…it turned out to be a lot more work, but the experience of having my high school band read the piece was amazing. I do not list Star Crossed Lovers on my CV.
Steven Snowden: I was a horn performance major during the third year of my undergrad in 2001 and I had become moderately obsessed in making weird sounds on my instrument. In an effort to convince my fellow horn players that this was a worthwhile subject (and that I wasn’t losing my marbles), I gave a presentation in my studio class on extended technique. Unaware that there was already a fair amount of literature that utilized many of these techniques, I decided that I needed to write a piece to demonstrate how awesome it was to make your horn sound like a broken car alarm or an angry elephant. The result was a piece for horn and piano that I called Momentary Lapse.
Asking if I still “own up to it” evokes an image of a police interrogation room with cups of stale coffee and detectives pounding their fists on steel tables shouting, “Jo Jo already ratted you out. Now just fess up and maybe we’ll let you off easy!” I suppose that in a situation like that I would admit to writing it. However, I don’t think this piece is particularly good and I certainly wouldn’t perform it now for anyone except for my mom. Actually, I don’t think I even have the manuscript for it anymore. At the time, I didn’t even consider that I might end up going into composition and nostalgically look back on it 10 years later.
Fortunately the only recording that exists is on a cassette tape in my closet. I recently dug it up and took a listen. I suppose it could best be described as sounding like a shared hallucination that Paul Hindemith and Claude Debussy had about the Warner Bros. Tasmanian Devil.
Michael-Thomas Foumai: My ‘first’ piece was for piano, but it should have been for a much larger ensemble. I remember using a notation program that could only provide a grand staff. What I really wanted to do was write for an orchestra or anything more than just two staves and I tried to pack in as many notes on the staff. At the end, the pages were scattered with black; it looked more like a blue print than music. It was impossible to play—a condensed score on steroids. I’ll say that the piece has since disappeared.
David Biedenbender: The first piece I wrote was called Reflections on the Passion. I wrote it for my high school band during the last semester of my senior year. Lasting 13 minutes, it was essentially a compilation of every idea I could muster, tied together with a lot of transitions and a detailed extramusical program. I haven’t listened to it in quite some time, but it was an incredibly formative experience for me. I was fortunate enough to rehearse the piece and conduct the premiere—I was hooked. Had I not had that opportunity at that particularly crucial time, I’m pretty sure I would be in medical school right now. I am still grateful to my high school music program, including director Matt Taton, for giving me that opportunity.
Liza White: I’ve been playing with composing and arranging since I was about 8 or 9. But the first original piece that I wrote, edited, and had performed was a 3-minute trombone quartet called Short Piece for Four Trombones, when I was a senior in high school. And yeah, I still like it.
Kari Besharse: I don’t remember. I improvised as a kid, wrote songs for my heavy metal band in high school, but my first “written“ piece wasn’t until my freshman year in college. I don’t keep track of any of this stuff, and no, I really wouldn’t own up to any of it!
Yotam Haber: The first piece I wrote, at age 10, is a piano sonatina in C minor, because back then, C minor represented the darkest and most melancholy of all keys. I still have it, and I am amused by the flats, naturals, and sharps, which are placed on the wrong side of the note heads, because I was thinking “E-natural—that”s E and THEN the natural, just like you say it!”
AWS: What are the challenges and rewards for writing for Alarm Will Sound’s instrumentation?
Yotam: I like to think of chamber orchestras as the Ferrari of ensembles. Whereas the full orchestra is more of the MACK truck-type, the chamber orchestra, with one player on a part, can dart and twist in a way that 100 players simply can’t. I like this flexibility.
Clint: The challenge for me is the strive for an orchestral sound. The rewards are clarity & agility. This instrumentation allows you to spin the orchestra around really fast like you would a chamber group. A full orchestra is not as agile – it’s more like trying to spin an elephant around really fast.
Michael: With one person on a part, there is much that a composer can get away with. Intricate figures and rhythms can be executed with clarity; with an orchestra it could be messy or lagging with so many. Likewise, with one on a part, it’s not an orchestra and balancing between the instruments presents the most challenge, but it also allows for space to explore different combinations of instruments that I have not considered!
Steven: Much like a full orchestra, this instrumentation presents the opportunity for a really varied palette of colors. However, because it is significantly smaller it possesses a level of agility far beyond that of a large ensemble. In the process of composing, I grew pretty comfortable with this collection of instruments and realized that basically any sound I wanted to achieve was possible, though it was often through the process of developing creative solutions via extended technique and unorthodox orchestration. I guess I could compare it to having a Swiss army knife vs. a garage full of tools. When it comes down to it, you can do pretty much any job with just that Swiss army knife, but you might need to make like MacGyver and come up with some pretty novel applications for it.
AWS: How did knowing the piece was for Alarm Will Sound influence what you wrote?
Patrick Clark: I’ve always felt that the performing artist might be compared to a shaman leading the unwary audience into a netherworld of musical spirits. This netherworld is all the more dangerous for all involved when the terrain is new. Assuming the work is born of sincerity (the composer’s duty), a successful invocation of the spirits within the music depends upon the performer’s willingness to believe that there are authentic spirits to be aroused. These spirits are thus sub-layers of the surface notes, and the performer must transmit their voices for the listener. Knowing that Alarm Will Sound would premiere my piece allowed me the comfort of exploring more mystical tonal relationships, and incorporating irony of a kind which is less obvious than what I might otherwise write for players less familiar with the myriad rhetorics of new music. In a word, I can trust Alarm Will Sound to persuade an audience to suspend its disbelief and experience the piece as intended because they have guided audiences into so many worlds even more distant than Ptolemy’s Carousel.
David: I’ve been listening to Alarm Will Sound for quite some time now. I remember hearing Acoustica for the first time during my undergraduate studies and just being totally blown away. Having a background as a rock and jazz bassist, I was always trying to reconcile my love for these idioms with my love for concert and experimental music and classical performers and ensembles. As a young composer, hearing this album (along with the Bang On A Can composers) really opened my ears and my perspective, giving me artistic license to explore this part of my musical passion. I have been exploring these musical relationships for a few years now (and I continue to explore them), and having the opportunity to write for Alarm Will Sound really allowed me to be confident in my musical vision, knowing that whatever I wrote would be played with incredible passion, energy, and precision.
Liza: One thing that I love about Alarm Will Sound is the way that they shake up traditional classical music performance conventions. The piece I wrote asks players to use their voices and move their bodies in specific ways as well as to play their instruments, and I know that Alarm Will Sound will do this really well. Also, popular music is an integral part of their repertoire. That’s a good fit, because my work embraces popular music too, on an equal footing with all the other types of music that I love and the other influences that inspire me.
AWS: Is there anything extramusical that influenced the writing of the piece?
Kari: It depends on how you define “extramusical”… To me, this piece is very much a product of place, but more specifically, the sound-scape of a place. Last August, I moved from Illinois to Hammond, Louisiana. My apartment is two blocks away from two intersecting railroad tracks. One is the Illinois Central line, which runs from Chicago to New Orleans, the other is a freight track. Intermittently all day (and all night) we hear trains approaching and passing from different directions. Therefore, the sounds of these trains are very much a part of my piece, the spectra of their whistles, the rush of sound when they pass by, and their creaky mechanical rhythms. My apartment also looks out over a park, so my piece is also populated by sounds such as birds and wind chimes.
Liza: The musical material in this piece is derived from step team routines, which use combinations of stomping, clapping, speech, and patting different parts of the body in a choreographed way to execute collective rhythm. Step is related to hip-hop, which I’ve always been interested in. The piece is also about race relations the way I’ve experienced them. So its use of step routine material is both a musical influence and an extramusical one.
Clint: After spending a few months looking, I have recently bought a home in the suburbs. I was really intrigued by the general funkyness of the insides of the houses we looked at. From the crazy wall paper, to the paint colors, to the do-it-yourself projects gone wrong, to the fresh smells of wacky terbacky, some of these homes were real standouts amongst the quaint spec-home divisions where they were located. I then imagined each resident of these “standout” homes moving around their house doing a quirky new dance called the “Urban Sprawl” (think Nixon dancing in Nixon in China).
AWS: What are you reading or watching these days?
Patrick: I’ve just finished the novel The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy. To the best of my impressions it is written in a narrative form of continual variations on a single question: why is it that there are men/women that commit implacably to some undertaking, a duty if you will, despite overwhelming resistance and questionable benefits (and potentially heavy costs) to the task? The relationship of this idea to the pursuits of the musician is obvious if perhaps a bit over-dramatized. And I’ve very recently seen the film Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa. Here the question is pondered as to whether anything we might call a “fact” can exist outside of individual perspective, opinion, and investment in the “fact’s” potential ramifications on the observer. Does truth exist only in the eye of the beholder? There is a loneliness and sublimity to these ideas. I’m certain that an interesting parallel to Rashomon would emerge in comparing the various and conflicting accounts of any premiere of a piece of new music heard by independent members of an audience!
David: I’m currently reading Robert Lane Greene’s book called You Are What You Speak. It’s a fascinating look into the history of language and the political and personal identity that is tied to what and how we speak. I’ve also been really interested in dreams, consciousness, and creativity. Antonio Damasio’s work in particular has interested me. On television, I just can’t get enough Mythbusters!
Kari: During the composition of Rails, I read Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, Claude Levi-Strauss’ Triste Tropics, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, and Larry Niven’s Ringworld. I watch a whole lot of Star Trek…
Yotam: I am re-reading slowly The Voice Imitator, by Thomas Bernhard, a set of 114 extremely short short stories, strange, almost mystical parables of which I read one per night. My guilty pleasure is reading the first Diabolik comics from the early 60s — bizarre Italian stories with a thief-murderer-con artist-lover protagonist who has absolutely no redeeming value or moral compass. It’s rather refreshing!
Liza: I just finished reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I also read the New Yorker magazine, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe. I don’t own a TV, but I watch a lot of internet-streamed Red Sox games.
Steven: Off and on for the past few months, I’ve been reading a collection of poems by Federico Garcia Lorca as well as the service manual for my motorcycle. I find it pretty gratifying to be able to maintain/repair my own hog (not to mention that it’s a whole lot cheaper). My wife has slowly, but surely turned me into a sci-fi fan. Lately we’ve been watching movies in that genre that aren’t particularly good because we couldn’t really figure out what to watch after Battlestar Galactica went off the air. We’ve grown pretty fond of the “B” class movies. While you can’t necessarily lose yourself in intricate plot lines or high quality acting, at least you know what you’re getting into when you rent Attack of the Killer Shrews.
Michael: I have not been reading too much, but I have been revisiting a ton of old and recent Disney films.
Clint: I am an MSNBC news junkie. I read the Huffington Post daily, watch Real Time with Bill Maher each week, and count down the days until the new season of Dexter starts.