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Join us on Friday, October 16 at the Berkeley Arts Festival for the opening concert of Wild Rumpus’s fifth season! One of the pieces we will be premiering is “From Dreams, We Emerge” by Christopher Cresswell. I recently interviewed Cresswell, where we talked about his piece, career, and arts advocacy. For more information on Cressell, visit his website.
How long have you been in England and what brought you there?
I’ve been here for a week and a half for grad school. I’m starting the first year of a 2-year Masters program. I’ll be here for the next couple years, in and out of America.
What drew you to Birmingham specifically, and to studying abroad?
Part of it was the desire to travel; I never did the study abroad thing when I was an undergrad. I always wanted to live overseas. I don’t really speak a foreign language very well, so England seemed like a good fit. The school here is totally open to creativity; there’s no real school of thought – none of that doctrine that you can get sometimes in higher education. There are people who write pop songs, who write classical music, weird instrumental stuff, it’s very encouraging of creativity. I do sort of singer-songwriter stuff, I do the sort of stuff I did for Wild Rumpus, so I tend to be all over the map anyways, and this seemed like a good fit.
What is it about all of these different things, both the electronic stuff, the singer-songwriter stuff, even the arts admin or arts advocacy. How did you get involved in all of those and what draws you to all of these different areas?
I’m definitely one of those people who constantly needs to be doing something, so that’s part of it. I’ve always loved sound. When I was a little little kid, I wanted to be a singer because that’s all I knew how to do. Then I picked up the trumpet, and then the guitar, and when I was 13, 14 years old I started to write songs on my guitar and play them in coffee shops. They were awful. I would set up little shows in the coffee shop, and I grew up in a small town so there was one coffee shop and my other buddy who wrote songs, we would trade off Fridays. it was totally that wanna-be singer songwriter thing. Then I went to college and Cage blew my brain open. I really fell in love contemporary classical music, so I thought that’s what I was going to be for a while.
I did the arts admin thing initially to survive after college. I didn’t want to go to grad school right away. I got really lucky and got a job at Boosey and Hawkes when I was 23 as an assistant. I got coffee for people and I had fun doing it. That set me on the arts admin thing. The arts advocacy thing – I’ve always been a politics junkie. I actually was a political science major for a year. I was either going to be the musician who knew too much about politics or the politician who knew too much about music. I went into music because it was more lucrative. It’s been all these different streams and what’s been really exciting in the last year or so is they’re coming together, or at least I’m seeing how to build a life out of all of them. Last spring, I went to Congress and talked to staffers about arts education and arts advocacy with the Americans for the Arts for an arts advocacy day.
We didn’t meet any Congress people, we just met their chief of staff or someone. Overall, it was really rewarding and I came away from it feeling totally in love with the process. Granted, I’m a West Wing Aaron Sorkin idealist junkie, so I’m in love with the process anyway. But everyone I spoke to was either really receptive to the arts or if they pushed back it wasn’t, “the arts are stupid, you’re dumb, go away”, it was very reasoned like, the one woman who pushed back, she said, “the congressman supports special education and wants to drive as much of the funding to that.” You can accept the either or premise, and I don’t really accept the premise but she was like, we would love to support the arts but …. our focus is this thing. I came away from it feeling good about our government. And then I left america promptly. I think it’s the difference between the noise of the bullshit and people actually engaging with the process. I think that’s true in our world too. How can we save new music, how do we save classical music. The reply is, “shut up and do it.”
Speaking of the new music community and the idea of just doing it, what was it that drew you to applying to the Wild Rumpus Commissioning Project?
I discovered the opportunity and listened to the music you guys were playing. You guys are doing a crazy cool amount of stuff from all over which is really exciting. You’re a San Francisco group, and I think San Francisco has connotations with it as all cities do, but you’re not that, you’re just doing whatever you think is interesting. I listened to some of the other composers who are in my cohort. We’re all doing very different things and you guys are very supportive of the very different things, which I think is the way to be. That was part of the cool thing about working at Boosey. I was already open-minded to new music person, but it basically pried open my brain and dumped all of the new music that was happening in New York City into it. So Claude Vivier is next to Steve Reich is next to John Adams next to Elliott Carter, and they’re all going to come up in your monthly meetings, so you just learn to listen to everything and appreciate everything on a different level, even if it’s not something you would actively seek out to listen to in your free time.
Could you think of one composer who you at first thought was not going to be your cup of tea and then really did end up blowing your mind while you were working at Boosey?
Elliott Carter. I had a total change of heart on him. My senior year of college, I remember my professor making me listen to the cello sonata or one of the cello solo pieces, and I liked it a little bit mostly because I thought I was supposed to like it a little bit. Then when I went to Boosey, it coincided with his 103rd birthday celebration. I went to his 103rd birthday concert at the 92nd street Y and it was an hour and a half of his music, and almost all of it was brand new. I remember there was a real moment halfway through the concert where I was like, Oh. One: I get it, and Two, oh my god. Since then, he went from someone I thought I was supposed to like to a total hero in my eyes. For his 103rd birthday, you could tweet happy birthday to Elliott Carter, and my friend and I put them all in a giant card and then brought him the card. Luckily I wasn’t the one in charge of explaining what Twitter was to him.
He’s definitely someone I’ve had a total 180 on, in the same way that Philip Glass is someone I’ve had a total 180 on. I kind of hated him for a while, because everyone who is writing for TV or movies is ripping off Philip Glass it seems. I love them as comparisons. Carter is all about the moment. You listen to Carter in this way and then you listen to Glass, and yeah the arpeggios are a really stupid gesture, but it’s not about the arpeggio. It’s about the massive blocks he’s making out of the arpeggios. You can’t listen to Glass the way you listen to Carter, nor should you be expected to. Figuring that out, how composers are using sound in different ways, really broadened my horizons as to what I thought was “good” or “not good”.
To segue to your music, how do you want people to approach your piece? What was your inspiration behind that piece?
I had a long lead time on this commission, which was awesome. When I got the commission I was living in New York City. I had the instrumentation in mind, I knew I wanted to write for Pierrot ensemble and I wanted to write for electric guitar because I’m a guitarist myself. I’ve never written for guitar in that context; anything I’ve written for guitar has been much more in the singer-songwriter style. I was excited to use my instrument in a different way than I normally approached it, which was cool.
Because I had all that time, I would mess around with different ideas, just noodle on my guitar for a while just working on the piece. At some point, last January, I had created a 3-minute sketch of a piece that wasn’t a beginning, it wasn’t an end, it was maybe a middle. I really liked this 3 minute piece of music but I had no idea what else to do with it. So the piece that you guys eventually received ended up being the process of trying to figure out what to do with that 3 minute sketch. Initially, the idea was that the sketch would show up at the end of what I gave you guys, so the piece would be slowly forming forming and then here’s this thing, yay we arrived. I worked in a very different way than in normally do – I had the electronics in Protools and I was building them, and then I was improvising into Protools using a midi keyboard. Working in that way led me to some really organic stuff, like that chorale that shows up with the bass flute, cello, and clarinet. It’s just this little harmonic chorale that if I was looking at a piece of paper I wouldn’t have written. But I was just playing into it and it just felt good while I was sort of performing it. I decided to trust those instincts over thought composing. Eventually, I lopped off the three minute sketch and decided the piece was better as the unit. It’s almost like one big breath or one big organic sound that happens. If it had arrived at the sketch it would have totally changed the nine minutes that came before it. It was a little terrifying, cutting away the three minutes that inspired the whole piece. The piece was sort of inspired by very organically working the process of creating it.
I know I just said the thing about Carter and Glass, so now when I contradict myself, that’s fun. Approach the piece the way you would any piece of music that you go listen to. I don’t really write with an audience in mind, I write for general audience and I just want people to listen. if they like it great, if they hate it, great, and if they want to engage with the structural theory behind it after the concert, buy a beer, and just talk about that for hours and hours and hours, also great, totally game. I hope that however you approach it, whether you are really listening to the musical structure and ideas or just listening to enjoy a piece of music, I hope you are able to get something out of it.
You talked about how you had the electronics part already. Is this something you created from scratch, is it found sounds, how did you come up with the electronics?
The opening sound, that sort of shhhhh sound, that actually comes out of, that was something I had created for a previous project that I didn’t use for that project. That was a sound I had in my world, my life, that I always wanted to go back to. That actually is a couple of folk pop songs sped up a thousand times, so what you hear is all these little clicks and then I looped those clicks a little bit and applied crazy amounts of reverb to them. You get this shush sound. The rest of it is built from a lot of it is reversed piano sounds. There’s a lot of moments where you get the sound of a reversed shink! and then the real instrument almost catches it. There’s some clarinet sounds that are just sustained clarinet that I applied some effects to and manipulated in all sorts of different ways to build that texture. A lot of the sounds are real instruments that are then manipulated, which I like because you get the real versus the almost real. It’s an interesting dialogue between the two. There are some static sounds and weird, like white noise sounds, which hopefully fits in with the moody, ambient, almost ambient world.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience?
I’m super grateful to you guys, it’s been awesome, thank you. It’s been a great experience.
Join us on Friday, May 29 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for the final concert of Wild Rumpus’s fourth season! One of the pieces we will be premiering is “Bloom” by Stefan Weisman. Wild Rumpus soprano Vanessa Langer interviewed Weisman about his piece, career, and other great projects he is working on. For more information on Weisman, visit his website.
What have you been doing since I last saw you?
I finished The Scarlet Ibis. When we last worked together at Bard that scene was the very beginning of everything. We are now beyond the tail end of it. It got premiered at a festival called Prototype, the main outlet for contemporary opera in New York right now. It got great press attention, a really great review in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Opera News Magazine. Before I finished the piece a few scenes were done at Opera America…
We are both Bard alumni. What was your experience like at Bard and working with Joan Tower?
Well I was at Bard a long time ago. She was amazing to work with. She was my first composition teacher. And actually when I went to Bard I had done music my whole life, since I was a little kid. I started on the violin, I played piano. I was obsessed with classical music. But when I got to Bard I was not there to study music. I was there as an undergrad, undeclared, and was interested in seeing about getting into some film classes. And I really couldn’t get into any as they were all so packed. You were there at the conservatory in the graduate program much later and already knowing what you wanted to do. I was there starting from scratch and since I couldn’t get all of the film classes I wanted I just started taking music classes. I didn’t initially take with Joan. I first started by taking a class with a composer Daren Hagen, which was a music history course that I really liked. Then I was looking at the course schedule and I saw music composition and thought, oh that would be interesting. And I saw Joan Towers name and I had actually never heard of her before. I probably should have. But I was young. I knew Mozart and all of the old dead white guys you know. So I thought oh that would be interesting music ‘composition’. And you know how Bard is. I got on the phone and called her office. I introduced myself and said I’d really like to take your class. She asked me about my background. And she said, ok you could take the class if you write a solo clarinet piece over the break in the intersession between the semesters. She chose clarinet because it was an instrument I couldn’t play. She wanted me to write for an instrument where I couldn’t really try it out. Because she wanted me to have the experience of hearing someone else interpret the piece. So I went in day one of the class having finished a piece over the break. A short piece like a one page piece. And it was hard to write it. You know it’s a one line instrument. And just writing a melody. And I thought it was so amazing. I couldn’t believe it, hearing my piece played by DaCapo chamber players. You know I think they are still in residence there. The clarinetist from DaCapo chamber players played it, her name was Laura Flax. I just fell in love with composing.
Was that your first composition class?
That was my first composition class. I had never tried composition before. And so I did it over the next four years or so. By the time I finished I wrote a full orchestral piece, which Leon Botstein conducted and it was amazing. So I went from writing a one page clarinet piece to writing a full orchestral piece and Joan was really incredible. She has her own method. She really didn’t want me to look at music theory. She didn’t want me to think about that. Her process was basically- work slowly, really listen to what you are doing, really know your music intimately. You have to really know exactly what you have and if you get stuck in a corner, don’t think about theory, think about your intuition. Her method was really about working organically, working with intuition, working with your own musicality. For that reason she wouldn’t allow me to study music theory. I had to kind of sneak around on the side and get it. I don’t think Bard is that way anymore, but at the time she wanted me to work that way. It was great. The next composer that I really felt made a difference in my life was completely different. He was all about coming up with processes and schemes and architecture and really kind of plotting out conceptually how the piece works from beginning to end even kind of before you kind of get started. That was David Lang and he had a more kind of (I don’t know if he likes the term) post-minimalist aesthetic and very different from Joan’s. So I’ve had those two composers who I’ve always had whispering in my ear. After I finished at Bard I went and started my masters at Yale and that’s where I started working with David Lang.
Did you have any musical training prior to that class with Joan?
Only playing. I played violin, piano and in orchestra at school. When I did it as a kid I did it because I enjoyed it not thinking it would become a career. I loved classical music. I was obsessed. I was kind of a weird kid. I kind of liked pop music to a degree, but I would sit and listen to classical records and CDs nonstop and read all of the liner notes and listen to things again and again and again. And my mom she would go to the flee market every weekend and find me boxes of classical records and I would absorb them. But I just did it because I loved it. I wasn’t thinking of it as something I would pursue. I was sort of naïve. I must have known that composers still existed, but I didn’t know much about it until I met Joan. And I found, oh, there is a whole world of living composers. It was a brand new concept for me. So Bard really introduced me to all of that.
Wild Rumpus guitarist, composer and artistic director Dan VanHassel tells me that both you and Emma O’Halloran both studied with Steve Mackey whose Fusion Tune is featured as the veteran work on our program. How was it working with him and can you explain his aesthetic to me and what you took away from your time with him? I’d like to and I think our audience would like to understand how this all ties together stylistically.
I studied with Steven when I was getting my PhD at Princeton. And by that time I kind of had a lot of experience. I think Princeton takes people who know what they are doing, who have you know pretty set aesthetic already. It’s a PhD program there. They like people with all sorts of different aesthetics, people with a solid voice and so when I got there it was sort of a dream. I just totally loved it. Everybody, all of the composers, they take only a few, I think maybe 4 or 5 a year, and everyone gets the same great deal. A really nice stipend, full tuition. And its just 4 to 5 years to compose music and to work with Steve and the other faculty. But by that time, they are taking people who are pretty well developed, so even though it is still a student teacher relationship its very collegial like an equal. Its not so much that you are studying. Your producing your work, your coming up with ideas and then you get feedback. And Steve gave the greatest feedback. He gave such good comments. And it was nice too, because I don’t think his aesthetic and my aesthetic are exactly the same. I love his music and I love his ideas. He deals a lot with performing himself, quite a bit with improvisation. And those things are two things that I don’t do at all.
Tell me and those who are not familiar with his work a little about Steve Mackey’s aesthetic as opposed to yours for example.
My impression of Steve is about the old school model. The composer is also a performer. That I feel he gets his ideas by applying them. And he plays, as far as I know his main instrument is electric guitar. He’s had some kind of a rock and roll background. So I feel he developed his ideas by playing them and feeling them. Like getting a groove and feeling them in his fingers and then he’ll kind of come up with improvisations. And I think he will more or less transcribe what he is playing and some of his music is quite complex and very interesting, very multi-layered. Sometimes he has odd little conceptual things he will put into his music. I remember he had a piece in which all of the movements were meant to be in between movements by Mozart – a flute quartet – and he wanted it to be seamless, where you couldn’t even tell where the Mozart left off and then became Steve Mackey and back. And then he had other pieces with interesting concepts like this big piece for orchestra in which there was this wild chaotic thing, and I think he has theatrical thing happening where a pizza man comes on stage to deliver a pizza to the percussionists. These very wild things. I feel like every piece of his is very unique, every piece is its own statement. And I know that performers love his music because since he is writing with the perspective of a performer, he comes up with things that are really interesting, and really challenging, and really fun to play. And I admire him for that. I don’t think he and I do exactly the same thing. And what was really great about working with Steve was that I would bring him something and he would be able to see it through my eyes a little bit.
I’ve come to the point, when I’ve done a lot of different things, and I’ve done a few experiments that I like or don’t like, and I’ve just come to the point where I kind of know what I want and I know what I want to do and I really believe, I’ve come to the point in my life where I would be willing to do anything, like if any group comes along and wants to commission me, I’m open for so many different things, but my heart is in vocal music. My heart is in writing for wonderful sopranos and wonderful mezzos and you know whomever.
What interests you about writing for the voice? And how did you first discover this interest?
It came through the group called American Opera Projects. They have a program called Composers and the Voice. So I applied and got in. It is about a year-long program in which 6 composers each get to write for 6 different voice types. And you get feedback from their music director named Steve Osgood and from the singers and composers. And so you write solo pieces for these 6 different voices. And all along the way you are really learning how to write not just music, but vocal music. Because I think it’s different. To write well for the voice is its own art I think. And it’s different from writing for any other instrument. It’s a really unique thing. I had written vocal music before. But I hadn’t ever thought about it in that way. And I sort of fell in love with vocal music. And right after I finished that- that program ends with writing a 20 minute one act opera, like a mini opera. And I just really loved it. And by some amazing stroke of luck, American Opera Projects immediately asked me, would you do a full evening length opera that they wanted to commission me to do. That was Darkling. And that was just when I was finishing at Princeton. And I kind of fell in love with writing opera and vocal music.
Dan was mentioning as he was developing this program that what ties you O’Halloran and Mackey along with the rest of the composers on the program together is your approach to emotion and developing those approaches musically in a contemporary way. Can you elaborate on that in terms of your own music?
What makes vocal music, I don’t want to say good or bad, but speak to me is it’s a person performing, to me vocal music, even a song, because it has the words to it, it has theater, it has to be getting something across, and the bottom line is it has to get something emotional across. Emotional doesn’t always mean tragic or sad or heart-felt. It could be comic. It has to have a really clear point of view. A human perspective. For that reason, I think Dan is right, the particular piece I wrote for you has its own special quality.
We should tell the audience that you asked me to choose a text that I love, and I have always dreamt about Molly Blooms soliloquy being given a musical setting. I always felt that it was already a piece waiting to be created.
The soliloquy has a clear direct feeling to it. It is really good as a stand-alone piece. I actually sat with the text for quite a long time before I started figuring out what the music would be and it wasn’t a terribly long text, but I read it again and again until I started to feel like it was my own.
I love how that tempo change creates the structure of it. And how the heart beat going along with the sexual excitement that would be natural to a person, I love how you tapped into that part of nature that is universal.
And beyond that I had to find a way to fill it with music and started with the vocal line. I tried to sing it through to myself trying to find a vocal line and some harmonies. Its hard to explain it. I remember there were a few times that I had second thoughts. I think at some point I had it in a different key. I think it was a step or a third lower and I re though that when I realized it was to low. And I transposed it up.
Join us on Friday, May 29 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for the final concert of Wild Rumpus’s fourth season! One of the pieces we will be premiering is “Endless Deeps” by Irish composer Emma O’Halloran. Wild Rumpus conductor Nathaniel Berman interviewed O’Halloran about her piece, life in Ireland, and other great projects she is working on. For more information on O’Halloran, visit her website.
Being an Irish composer currently studying on the East Coast, I’m just curious to know whether there are some interesting currents of new music in Ireland that might be distinct from what you are encountering on the East Coast, or even from the rest of Europe?
Because Ireland is an island, I would say there is not a necessarily a strong connection with what is happening in Europe. There is a great spirit of internationalism, with composers taking inspiration from the States and Europe. It also depends on where you go; in Dublin there is a certain scene, and in Cork you’ll find a different kind of music.
And what about your own emergence as a composer; did it come out of one of these?
I’m very influenced by electronic music, and I think many composers in Ireland are as well. That’s really where I found my way into composing.
I understand from our email correspondence that you are currently working on a theater piece. What’s the project?
Yes, this is actually my second theater piece; I’m signed on to do two productions in Philadelphia at the moment, co-composing music with my partner Alex [Dowling]. We actually have an electronic duo together, so we are used to working together this way. We just finished up a run of Hamlet, and right now we’re in tech week for a Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which takes some of its text from Hamlet and revolves around two peripheral characters from that play.
When you work on a theater piece, what is your process? Do you start from the script and try to create ambient music for the various scenes, or is there a different way in?
It’s interesting; I didn’t really know what to expect when we got into this, but the director that we’re working with, Blanka Zizka, has an incredibly strong vision. We brought her some things that we’d previously written to give her a palette of things that we’re able to do, and she sort of picked out some things that she liked that suggested a certain direction. That was for Hamlet, and so with much of the music that we wrote, she then worked with it and sort of choreographed the action around it. Then with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, since it’s a comedy, she was interested in some sort of clichéd vaudeville piano sounds, for example, and we went more in that direction.
And did you end up recycling some of the music from Hamlet, because of its relationship to R&G?
Funnily enough, a bunch of the music has been recycled, and that was at the request of the director. In R&G you have all of these entrances of characters from moments of Hamlet, and in those moments the music we wrote for Hamlet echoes back, and that is then blended into this sort of vaudevillian music.
Moving from theater music to more abstract music, let’s talk about the piece you’ve written for Wild Rumpus, Endless Deeps. This is ostensibly abstract music, and yet you have chosen a very evocative title, and I guess there is some relation to this sense of depth and direction that comes from the big swells that permeate the music, especially in the lower instruments. Can you tell us a little about the title, and its relation to what you’ve done in the piece?
Sure; so I don’t know whether it comes from my love of electronic music, but I feel like I’m really a textural composer to a certain extent. When I was a kid, my Mother’s side of the family lived on the east coast of Ireland, which would be Dublin, whereas my Father’s side lived on the west coast, which would be Clare. I remember from my early childhood visiting these coastal areas of Ireland. They’re strikingly different; the Irish sea is really pretty calm, grey looking and beautiful. On the west coast the Atlantic can be really rough; the waves can be harsh and cruel, but breathtaking as well. I think the textures of the sea were in my head when I was writing this piece, I wanted those crazy swells at points, and then at certain times you have these cross-rhythms, which give you a sense of being pushed and pulled with the currents.
You make use Wild Rumpus’ instrumentation, incorporating the electric guitar and trombone into a group with piano, percussion, winds and strings. How did you approach bringing their sound into the ensemble?
It’s funny, but there is a group in Ireland with a similar instrumentation, so I think of Wild Rumpus as actually a little more standard new-music group in terms of instrumentation. With the electric guitar, it has the ability to be more percussive, but it’s also a string instrument that can blend into the string sound to some degree. And the trombone adds to these amazing swells. I feel like they’re actually the glue that brings the other instruments together in this piece.
What else do you have coming up? What’s the next project for you?
I’ve been working on an EP with Alex Dowling, my partner, and we’re hoping to record that over the summer and release it. And after that, I will be writing a vocal work for an English all-male a cappella group Gallicantus. That’s sort of what’s in my head at the moment.
Thanks again to everyone who came to the recent Wild Rumpus concert! The turnout truly blew us away. Recently, I interviewed Ioannis Angelakis, whose piece, Dreamplay, was premiered at our concert on February 28 at the Center for New Music in San Francisco. This belated interview covers Angelakis’s piece and his life in New York.
How did you get into music originally?
I was ten years old. We had a family friend who was a guitarist, and my mother asked me if I wanted to take lessons on the guitar. We had no music education in our family – no one is a musician, so it just started by random. I took lessons with him for three or four years, then he told me that he’s not a professional teacher and I have to go to the conservatory. He recommended that I go to see a specific guitar teacher, and I was enrolled in the conservatory under his name. I got my diploma and graduated as a guitarist.
At the same time, while I was at the conservatory I started my theoretical studies – that’s how we call it in greece – I studied harmony, counterpoint, fugue, played the piano. During those years I decided that I want to be in music. When I was 18, I entered the university which is when I started taking composition lessons. I wanted to go to a specific university in Thessaloniki, and work with a specific composer, Christos Samaras, and I studied with him for 5 years.
Did you know before going to university that you wanted to be a composer?
When I was 15 or 16, I started improvising a lot. I didn’t write a lot of these things on paper, I did it sometimes, but I liked the idea of trying to develop my ideas on the piano. I discovered that I liked very much this process of having no idea what I’m going to do, sit at the piano, find an idea and then work on it for days.
Where are you living now?
I’m in New York. After I graduated in Greece with my bachelors, I went to Boston. I spent two years there for my Masters, at Boston University, where I studied with Joseph Fineberg. I applied for a doctorate and I got accepted at NYU, and I’m still there.
Do you like New York?
There are some cool things about New York and some not. I like the idea of having the opportunity to see so much music in the city. I’m studying at a university that offers so many possibilities, and I have so many chances to work with great ensembles and great players, and go and see what they play. Many composers from Europe come to New York very often. We have the chance to see how they work, to take lessons with them, so this is the good thing about New York. Many people come to visit, and we have the possibility to exploit them.
I was wondering if you could talk about your piece. What inspired you, what was the process of writing this piece?
The title comes from a play of August Strindberg, Ett drömspel in Swedish, Dreamplay in English. It’s one of his later works; he changed dramatically his style during the last years of his life. His classic works are like The Father, The Dance of Death, but later in his life he wrote 3 or 4 works, one is Dreamplay and another is Ghost Sonata where the themes are still the same, but he has a more poetic dimension. He believes that life is an illusion and our life within dreams is more real than our real life. He is trying to explore this, how crazy is our life, how vain, how irrational. At the same time compare it with the rationality of a dream.
How would you say that is reflected in your piece?
While the themes in his works remain the same, his work is a forceful critique against almost everything. He critiques family, sciences, morals of his time, religion, almost everything, art! But what is different is that he destroys the linear development of his events. He stops caring about time and about developing his ideas. His work is not an organic work of art; he is not a naturalistic author as he was in the past. The idea of destroying this linearity also comes into play in my piece. There are very different and contrasting sections, not logically connected. Sometimes there are whole bars that do not make any sense compared to what is happening before and after. In this way, it’s not linear.
If it’s not linear, how is your piece structured?
The piece is structured by a series of montages. There are different ideas constructing and you move very quickly from one section to the other.It’s the idea of montage that started in the beginning of the 20th century, not only in music, but in all arts. They wanted to do the same thing, destroy linear representations, whether that was in paintings or music. There is no obvious progression, no obvious linear development. it’s structured by the juxtaposition of contrasting material.
And yet, I find there is material that ends up repeating in your piece.
There are some obsessions. I have obsessions, and when we dream we also have obsessions, we keep seeing things again and again, something that we like, something we are afraid of. These things come back and forth all the time. What makes it irrational, or not logically connected, is the way that the sections follow one another. Not the material in the sections per se.
Can you elaborate on that a little?
I have my material and I work with it. There are repetitions, there are variations of the same material, but it doesn’t appear as a logical continuation or development. I’m trying to develop my ideas, to vary them a little bit, and then to cut them and do something else, go back again, and construct the whole piece with this process.
Recently, Wild Rumpus soprano Vanessa Langer interviewed Ben Richter, whose piece Water’s Edge will be premiered on Saturday, February 28, 2015 at the Center for New Music in San Francisco about his piece, his varied travels, and inspirations. There is also a fun video at the end of the interview! More information on Ben’s music can be found at his website.
What are you doing in Germany right now?
Working on my German, cycling around and trying not to get lost. I just moved from New York where I have my group “Ghost Ensemble” to Berlin. New York was pretty exhausting and hectic living there. I’ve been to Berlin many times. It’s really cool. There’s a lot of awesome art going on. I’ve been to a couple of concerts and for a new music concert there will be 50 people packing into a room and it astonishes me every time. People are actually coming to the concerts, so I was excited about that. It’s a lot less expensive, you can cycle around everywhere and it’s the vegan capital of the universe.
As a fellow Bardian i’ve gotta ask…What was your involvement in music at Bard? You graduated in 2008?
I was there at an interesting time because the Bard College conservatory started there my second year. They still have the music program, liberal arts music majors, like I did. I was pretty much the last year of only having the music department as opposed to the conservatory. The musical scene there was really changing a lot while I was there. So it started with a bunch of weirdos like me building instruments out of plywood and string – that was the scene. Those guys were still around my senior year, but you also had a chamber orchestra of classical musicians playing classical music. And composers who were accepted more in that vein. So the music department was where the highly experimental composers tended to go and the much more classically minded, especially performer-composers, in the conservatory. And then you also had Jazz guys and a great electronic music program with Robert Bielecki, Richard Teitelbaum, so there were a lot of different strains of things going gone and also getting going right during that time. Joan Tower and Kyle Gann were my advisers. Because they took alternating sabbaticals one or more of them was my alternating adviser and composition teachers.
Tell me a little bit about Ghost Ensemble.
We have fun. Ghost Ensemble is basically a group I put together when I got back from the Hague. I did my masters at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague. So, I can order falafel in Dutch! As soon as I finished my Master’s there I went back to New York and started Ghost Ensemble, which is a group of between 5 and 9, at any given time, contemporary minded musicians. Several of us are composers. Some of us are just awesome performers. I’m a composer and accordianist. We have flute, oboe, harp, percussion, bass and sometimes cello. It’s a lot of fun. We do a lot of new music, a lot of new works. Sometimes we do Medieval and Renaissance stuff. Experimentally minded, we try to think about the experience of being in a concert and play with that, like playing in unusual places and letting people lie down while they listen. We’ve have had some fun: we’ve played in caves in Inwood Park! Caves is a slight exaggeration they are really boulder formations but that was really fun! That’s part of the idea of the group, doing weird stuff.
Do you think of yourself as a composer first, accordionist second, or are both on an equal footing?
I love playing accordion and I do it all the time. I’m totally comfortable as an improviser, but as far as the formalized music world goes I’ve always participated as a composer not as a performer. I’ve dabbled in performing composed music on accordion and I certainly do with Ghost Ensemble. I’ve done notated music for us, but mostly I’ve done text scores for us– so I’ll do a detailed series of cues for each instrument. For Wild Rumpus, I wrote a fully notated piece and for other ensembles I usually do also. But another part of the Ghost Ensemble is it is a workshop of developing ideas and that’s usually what I personally do with the group.
When you formed this coming out of the Hague how did you find the people you wanted to collaborate with?
It came together very magically and organically. Our harpist Somna had been my friend for a few years. We met through performing with Pauline Oliveros.
Linguistics is a bit of a hobby of mine. I’m that much of a dork. At Bard I had a very cool linguistics professor. I did a music linguistics course and I took a traditional linguistics course that was fantastic with professor Ben Stevens who teaches at Bryn Mawr now. It’s fascinating. I’ve always been a little bit embarrassed not to really speak more than one language, but I speak a little bit of a whole bunch of languages. I’m curious about etymology and how they work. With French and German I can have a bit of a conversation and as I say I can order falafel in Dutch.
You were in Sardegna recently? What did you do there? Music?
No travel. I’m also a big map and atlas geek. This old sculptor/farmer invited us to his electricity-less hut on the mountain where he fed us his own homemade everything, olive oil and wine and myrto. I didn’t speak a word of Sardinian, we basically communicated in Italian tempos, andante vivace, piu lento etc. Drunk stories later. There was no water, just wine. We had an amazing time in this medieval hut and seeing the Nuraghi in the middle of January.
Sounds like you’ve done a fair bit of travel, what geographical place inspires you?
In two weeks I’m going to Ethopia. I’ve never been before so I can’t say if it’s inspiring or not, but I’m very curious to see. Sardegna was very inspiring actually, I titled a piece after that experience “Tresnuraghes” after a place that has three of these very ancient sites around the village. We wandered around there; it’s such a mystery. Apparently people know so little about that culture, even though it was so highly developed.
Favorite poet or author?
I was super into William Blake. I have some pieces inspired by Blake with his texts and also Rilke, I’ve used a lot of Rilke texts – I just adore them. Somehow I feel a little bit more comfortable setting text that isn’t in English somehow. German or French. Because I feel I get less attached to the meaning. There is this gorgeous Ammon’s poem that I want to set: “Rivulose”. He died recently, so I have to get permission. So if you want to sing this A. R. Ammon’s piece…so no I do like setting in English but I have this old conception that foreign languages are art languages whereas English is less so, but I’m starting to change that.
Tell me a little bit about the piece you write for Wild Rumpus? To start with what is it scored for and why?
The piece is called “Water’s Edge”. It’s got flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, bass, electric guitar, piano, and percussion. And I’m excited. It was actually a cool process. Jen asked for a couple of combinations I’d like to write for and I had five different suggestions ranging from trombone in one, some smaller and larger ones, etc… This is my sort of flavor of composition because you can play a lot with complex harmony and complex timbre and I really love to melt these textures slowly together and slow changes in timber, slow glissandi that make constant changes in harmony, that works with a larger ensemble like Wild Rumpus, and the more subtle options you have to change timbre and harmony.
‘Water’s Edge’ is one of 25 titles I’ve had written on a notebook for the past five years. It got written down on that page in 2009 when I was living on an island in Maine and I walked to the water a lot cause it was so nice. And there was this cool moment once where it was incredibly foggy and you could walk out to this point on the rocks and just be surrounded by grey. You couldn’t even see your feet. The entire world was this grey mist, sort of like the Never Ending Story where this grey mist is eating the entire planet and so you don’t know where the water ends, where the air begins. You don’t know if the world is still there.
‘Waters Edge’ the title isn’t really largely directly related to the piece itself, but there are kind of these waves that come and go. There are these lines…most of the ensemble is sort of getting a piece going and then there is this second little cohort with the percussion, guitar and piano that sort of bursts in in waves and interrupts that. And then gradually the two different groups sort of merge together. Spoiler alert. And then at the end of the piece it’s one sound. So I’m sort of playing with two different sound worlds that slowly merge together and it’s sort of like entering the water for me.
How does the process work for you? How do you sit down and write a piece?
When I have a new piece assignment or idea either it starts with an idea that is present or I go to my notebooks. In this case it was interesting because I’m including electric guitar in this piece for the first time which has been on my list of things to do for a while and when Jen wrote and back and said, “Ben here is the instrumentation we’d like you to do,” I did not have any idea for that particular instrumentation so I did go back to my pile of random ideas and started thinking Okay I’ve got chamber ensemble and electric guitar. How am I going to use the electric guitar? What role is it going to have? I think that was the first thing I thought about. And then I got the idea of having these two little groups: This sort of noise group and this melody harmony group. And they can intersect this way, you know related to this idea that I had already had some time ago and worked that out. So that’s how it began to happen.
What do you want the audience to know about this piece?
What don’t you want the audience to know about this piece?
I peek at program notes, and I like to be inspired to listen well to a piece, but I would like the audience to think as little as possible about the piece, to sit down and relax as much as possible and maybe fall asleep or something and hear it and not quite remember it and want to hear it again maybe.
In your eyes what is the job (for lack of a better term) of a composer?
I can say what I think music is for…
What is music?
For me music is for healing. And that’s why I do it, why I fell in love with it. Any time in my life I’ve made music, whether I’m sitting by myself improvising on the accordion and no one is ever going to hear that hour of music again or if I’m composing for an ensemble, that’s what it is. So, I guess I don’t want to say there is a goal, but that’s what it’s for. And hopefully I’m not the only one who experiences some kind of peace from that. I’m not going to say the word sacred. But when you compose there’s this other world that you can reach to, you know, and its not through your brain. It’s through some inner pathway that happens when you shut yourself up and play something accidentally. So I try to make accidents as much as possible. I try to make systems as little as possible. There is this endless ocean of universal music somewhere out there that sometimes you can shut yourself up enough to listen to for a little while. I’m someone who tries to do that.