Nathan Heidelberger: Interview


Nathan Heidelberger is the first composer from our 2015 Commissioning Project to write a piece for us, which we will be premiering at our concert this Friday at the Presidio Officers’ Club at 6pm. Here, clarinetist Sophie Huet interviewed Nathan about his piece, his upcoming projects, and why he chose to write for the ensemble of bass clarinet, trombone, contrabass, and soprano. Learn more about Nathan’s music at his website.

Sophie: How did you get into composition?

Nathan: I started composing in middle school – I was taking piano lessons at the time and I’d started on the french horn. I didn’t really like practicing very much, so my piano teacher encouraged me to try composing. I started writing some stuff for the piano, and then I had a really encouraging middle school band teacher who encouraged me to write more and write for instruments in the band. She taught me the ranges of the instruments and things like that, so I was writing for my middle school band. Things took off from there.

How did you end up in Buffalo?

I came here for grad school, at the University of Buffalo. I got my doctorate last spring. These days, I have a day job as a copy editor at a children’s educational publishing company. I am doing that to pay the bills and writing music on nights and weekends.

I join you in the day job life. I have a day job at a small software company. I feel like more and more people of our generation are doing this. in some ways, it gives you the freedom to do what you want to do without worrying about the money side.

Absolutely, yeah. I thought for a long time that I would try and find a teaching job or something like that but the longer I spent in school, watching other people struggle with adjuncting and trying to get into that world, it just doesn’t seem like something I want to do. Having the pressure to succeed as a composer be coupled with the pressure of demonstrating my success so I can get tenure. I don’t want any part of that. I’m really happy with what I have right now.

To talk about your piece: first of all, I really love it. The rehearsals have been really fascinating. One of the things that really strikes me is I know you had talked about variation in the piece. I was wondering if you could talk about your vision for the movements and how you structured the piece.

I had mentioned at some point that a few of my recent pieces have been dealing with repetition and variation on a very local level. There would be short motive that would get repeated and would evolve over time, over one section or the whole piece. For this piece, I was more interested in looking at the bigger picture and having a larger chunk of music that would then go through this process of repeating and changing over time. A lot of it came out of the text that I was working with. It’s from this work called The Pine Woods Notebook by Francis Ponge, which goes through pages and pages of prose notes he’s trying to describe these woods that he was visiting one summer in 1940. He takes all these notes trying to get the description exactly right, and he’s looking for the perfect word. He keeps going to the dictionary to make sure that all the words he’s using mean exactly what he wants them to mean. He tries to distill all that down into a poem, and he goes through 20 drafts of this one poem, trying to get it right. This resonated with me a lot in terms of the compositional process of working through a process of drafting and reworking your stuff, but I also just liked seeing the way words would change over the course of these drafts. He’d put a different word in where he’d used one earlier, or the order of the lines would change. That really spoke to the way that I work with my musical materials, developing them over time, reshuffling the way they happen, trying to change the ways they relate to each other. I was really hoping to capture that over the course of these variations.

Even with the repetition, there is a sense of growth over the whole piece. The ending is so cool!

One thing I was thinking about, is if there’s one thing that’s repeating or slowly developing, that either some other aspect that goes through this very clear linear progression over time. One particularly clear way to do that is through register, so over the course of the whole piece the four movements, things slowly move higher and higher through register, which I think is very apparent. Working my way up to this higher register at the end of the piece is a culmination of that. And I guess it could work if you’re thinking about moving up a tree that’s being described in the poem, from the roots up through the trunk into the branches and the pine needles at the top.

How did you end up selecting the 4 specific variations from the 20?

That’s a good question. I think I retyped them all and printed them out on individual pieces of paper, and I put them all next to each other. I was trying to maximize a bit of variety – some of them are much more similar than others, some of them follow the same basic line order. The ones I ended up picking, there’s a bit more variety in terms of the order the lines come in, that was appealing. They all bring a different ways of dealing with the same image. For example, the last lines of the second and third movements of my piece:

“But ribbons woven of sleepless atoms” vs. “Beneath taut-strung ribbons of sleepless weave”

They’re both getting at the same image, and it’s clear how, given one, Ponge could have arrived at the other, but they’re also quite different each other. And then, in the last movement, those lines turn into “…to tell of sleepless flies.” So there’s that balance of continuity—being able to trace an image from one version of the poem to another—and variety—changes of wording (“woven” to “weave”), the introduction of small, new elements (“atoms,” “taut-strung,” “flies”). Not all the drafts offered that, particularly the variety part.

Did he end up with a final draft, or did he give up at the end of it?

He pretty much gives up in the end. In fact the last poem that he arrives at, which is the last one that I set, he breaks it down into these modules. Each module is maybe 2 lines or 3 lines and he says, well actually you could put these in any order. Now that I’ve arrived at this particular wording and these particular groupings of lines, we could just reshuffle them however you want and it would work. Which was also really cool to me as a composer, thinking about mobile forms and things like that. This idea that you could have a poem that would shuffle itself around. So in the end the order of the lines that I chose for that isn’t the way it’s printed in the book, but he says you could have reordered them in any of these ways.

Did that resonate you with what you were saying earlier about you moving the musical materials around and reshuffling those?

Absolutely. I think this is the best possible solution – that he arrives at this point where it generates all these other possibilities beyond itself. I hope there’s a sense of that in the piece, that there are these different gesture types or materials that appear in the ensemble in each movement in a different way, developed in a different way, lined up with a different part of the text also, the idea that you could keep reshuffling that for ever and ever.

What are some other projects that you have coming up?

My dream project right now is a solo piece for myself, actually. On piano and melodica, simultaneously, and vocalizing too. In a lot of my music, performers may be called upon to vocalize, non vocalists may be called upon to vocalise. We have a concert coming up in Buffalo, with a lot of pieces like that where performers are doing multiple things at the same time, which is really appealing to me. I’ll also be writing a piece for voice and cello soon, setting a Psalm from the Bible for a whole recital of song settings for voice and cello.

How did the reading session and our approach to this commission, was this helpful for you, and how did this affect the end result of your piece?

That was extremely helpful. When I initially got this commission and I was asked to suggest instrumentations, I was really excited about this really wonky sounding ensemble. Bass clarinet, trombone, contrabass, and voice sounded really great to me, but when it came to actually writing the piece, it became much more of a challenge to juggle that. Having that opportunity to read through the draft of the one movement was extremely helpful because it was really hard to get my head around that at first. I think it highlighted things in that initial draft that were pretty muddy and denser than they should have been given the register and the instruments. Figuring out ways to scale back on that and push things into the higher register as the piece went along really helped.

What made you suggest this combination of instruments to begin with?

I was pretty much looking for the most outlandish thing I could do, I guess. Then I had to follow through on it.