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Christopher Cresswell: Interview

cresswellJoin 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.

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