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Eliza Brown: Interview
Eliza Brown’s In Hora Mortis Nostrae will be performed on Wild Rumpus’ upcoming concert on May 3, 2014 at the Center for New Music in San Francisco. I recently spoke with Eliza about her music and her interest in historical and literary influences on her music. More of her work can be heard her website: http://www.elizabrown.net/Site/Home.html. – Sophie Huet
SH: Thanks so much for talking with me. We are really looking forward to performing your piece, In Hora Mortis Nostrae on our next concert. To begin, what got you started as a composer?
EB: It goes way back. I started playing cello when I was seven, and I went to an elementary school that had a really strong writing program. They had this sort of mantra of writing a lot. My mom’s theory is that I just applied this mantra to cello lessons and assumed that if you play an instrument that also means you write music. I started composing pretty much when I started taking cello lessons.
SH: What made you you decide to focus on composition instead of cello?
EB: Well, I went to the Walden School [a summer camp for young composers]. I applied one summer to a string camp and a composing camp, and I was accepted to composition camp, not string camp. It’s nice to be wanted, but also Walden School is a great place. I think I felt because composing and music were so integrated to the life of the campers, it could be something integrated into your whole life rather than a side thing. It was an empowering experience, to imagine that music be infused into your whole existence.
SH: That’s very Walden – this idea that music is part of everything and not separate from anything else in life.
EB: There’s a bridge between the social element of summer camp with lots of kids who don’t know each other from all different places and turning that into a cooperative unit of people. You can’t separate the music making of Walden School from that project of trying to make a cooperative group of all of these people from different places.
SH: Does that sense of social element inform your compositional process?
EB: Definitely. I think that I’m always asking how it can be more that way. In a very real way I think that’s affected my whole life as a musician. Teaching for me is all about creating this collaborative environment in the classroom, where my students feel like they are part of a conversation they can contribute to that conversation.
SH: I feel like this sense of conversation and collaboration definitely plays into the piece you wrote for Wild Rumpus, which is based on an Ave Maria by Gletle.
EB: The piece for Wild Rumpus is, like many things I write, a conversation with some elements that are from another time or place. It’s influenced by trying to communicate across time and space and empathize with where these objects come from and what was the reality for the people who created these things originally.
SH: It’s a beautiful piece, but what drew you to the Gletle and inspired you to use this particular piece?
EB: I found the piece because I met Michael Leopold, the theorbist, when he came to Chicago to play theorbo for a production of Dido and Aeneas. I was looking up more of his work on the internet later, and I found this video of him playing this Gletle piece with a singer, Marina Bartoli. The piece is beautiful but I think if I had just encountered the score and the piece as it exists on paper I wouldn’t have gone through with it. It was really their performance that put it over the edge for me. They are just both such great performers and the performance is idiosyncratic in some really nice ways. They are really tasteful in the way they pull the tempo around, but they don’t hold back! I mean, their tempo is sometimes pushed almost up to double time. It’s bold and ends up feeling very organic. Sometimes you really lose the sense of meter or you’re just sort of floating in these arpeggiations and soaring vocal lines, but they always come back in at the right moment when you need to land on a cadence. The sense of meter returns just enough for you to feel you’ve arrived where we expected to arrive.
That type of interpretation is already doing some of the kind of work I like to do as a composer, to take things and stretch them in time or by expanding their spectral bandwidth so that things get pulled in and out of recognition or familiarity. The conversation is actually bigger – it’s Gletle and two interpreters who did the Gletle and now me and Wild Rumpus also, because this piece is also very much filtered through my love for that particular interpretation.
SH: So it’s this interpretation in particular that you’re exploring – how does Wild Rumpus fit into the conversation for you?
EB: This conversation with Wild Rumpus is the one I felt most intensely about. The instrumental parts are pretty spare in the score and there’s actually less fussy composer-ly details in this piece than in some of my other scores.
SH: You mean fewer markings on the paper, right?
EB: Absolutely. I think that comes from my awareness of how important interpretation is to the Gletle or any piece that’s melody and continuo. I’m trying to leave space for the ensemble to make some decisions. It’s not as open-ended as actual continuo, but there’s a lot more room for interpretation in the score than in some of my scores or in some other new music composers’.
SH: Yes, I remember you saying in the reading session how you wanted there to be more play with the edge of playability with the fragility of the parts, to explore that sound area, even if the piece ends up sounding pretty different every time.
EB: That sort of momentary presence is very important to me, and I think that also relates to my interest in communicating with the dead. We can’t actually talk to Gletle, because he’s not around, he never will be around, and if he were around now, he wouldn’t be the same composer who produced this music. If we want this music to exist then we can’t actually talk to Gletle.
SH: That is something I’ve never thought about, and it’s also a little creepy.
EB: It is totally creepy! I’m always so interested in history, getting close to the human experience, and understanding what was lived human experience for someone in another time and place. What do I have in common with that person and what is unbridgeable between me and that person. Thinking about historical people magnifies some of the pathos of interacting with people who are in our own time. You can never know someone as completely as you want to get close to them. Then adding the time element, there’s another dimension along which you can have this longing and this separation.
That relates to the idea that I like to create music-making situations that are somewhat fragile. The fragility of the sound or the unpredictability of the sound or the ensemble situation means that that moment is not replicable in a very intentional way. Any musical moment that you hear in the piece also has this quality of longing for it to return but it will never return.
SH: I wonder how this emphasis on the exact moment and fragility of sound affects your attitude towards recordings of your pieces. I imagine it complicates your feelings toward them.
EB: There are recordings of my pieces that I really like and are fantastic. I don’t know. Recordings are sort of practical to have to show people something about what we do. But I guess as much as I am grateful for the presence of recordings and the ability of recordings to get my music to more people, I feel like ultimately they aren’t really are my piece. Ultimately, a recording isn’t really – I feel like this is mean to say – isn’t really a real instance of my piece. It’s one potential instance of my piece, but there’s no such thing as a real instance of my piece.
SH: That’s really interesting to think about. It reminds me, going back to Walden, of Pauline Oliveros and her pieces or even John Cage’s music, where the pieces are different each time they’re performed. This idea that there is the score and the recording but neither is really the piece what is a piece of music, and what does that even mean?
EB: Absolutely. I’m very interested in those questions. There are composers whose work probably asks those questions in much more overt ways than mine does, but if I problematize those questions, it’s on this level of sonic detail. The detail of the moment is only here once and then it’s gone forever. It’s not so much a structural part of the work, the way Pauline Oliveros or John Cage might do, but it’s an internal questioning of the work. I got that from continuo, and from history. How far can you stretch a piece for solo instrument and continuo until it’s not that piece anymore, and what are the limits of interpretation of that piece?
SH: What do you hope the audience takes away after hearing In Hora Mortis Nostrae for the first time?
EB: Well in a way they’re part of the conversation too! I have no agenda for what people get out of it. On a purely sensual level I hope that there is some sensual beauty in it. I think that’s something that many people could access in the piece. I recognize that all of these layers of meaning that a piece like this has for me are not going to be the same for everyone. I’m always interested in hearing what layers of meaning other people put into my music. It’s very flattering that they would even spend the time and headspace to think about those layers of meaning. I think I’d just like to let people participate in the conversation.
SH: This idea of a non-definitive meaning makes me think about novels and writing – the idea that when a writer writes something there is meaning and interpretation they didn’t necessarily intend but that is still present in the work beyond the author’s intentions.
EB: This is partly why I’m very interested in 20th century literary criticism! Sure, there’s something of that there. If I was a hardcore semiologist, I would say that the work is a collection of signs and their interpretation is culturally contingent, and there’s a limit to intentionally constructed meaning on the part of an author.
SH: Does that limitation of intentional meaning on the part of the author – is that freeing for you as a creator or is that frightening? That you don’t have control over the meaning of the work you create?
EB: Part of it is that the work that we do is in new music is ultimately in a small corner of the world. The idea that I can’t control interpretation would scare me more if I felt like people’s lives were at stake or something, you know? But since I don’t think that lives are at stake, then it’s freeing. I sort of can’t imagine thinking about it in any other way, partly because I am a story-telling, music-making thinker. I can’t imagine thinking about what I do without thinking about what it means. I also recognize how convoluted and subjective a lot of my own meaning-making process is. I can’t ever imagine my thought process being duplicated. Not that mine is so great, but it’s so specific. We all have these thought processes of what something means that is very specific to us.
There’s this Borges story about the guy who wants to write Don Quixote [“Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote”] but he wants to do it authentically from his time and place. Just produce Don Quixote because he needed to. The absurdity of this premise is so apparent, but I think when you take that away, it comes back to the question of whether people are going to interpret things the same way.
SH: I always think of that story being more about the absurdity of literary criticism, this idea that we can interpret the same text in such different ways by pushing criticism to its absurd limits. The story to me is just as much, if not more, about poking fun at critics than at authors.
EB: I agree with you, and here we are proving my point. We both read this Borges story and I don’t think either of us is wrong! But we get out of it what is most meaningful to our own purposes. For me, I create art and I’m really interested in history, so it’s like a cautionary tale. It’s saying, okay, you can love this stuff from history but, there’s some cliche quote, history is something you reference, not a place you live. I don’t know the exact quote.
SH: To bring this conversation back to the beginning, what other projects are you working on?
EB: I am working on an opera scene that will be part of the Darmstadt Festival’s contemporary opera workshop. Speaking of history, it’s about a Spanish noblewoman who was a potential heir to the Spanish throne in the 1500s. She was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, and she was on paper heir to Isabella’s throne. But she was labeled as crazy and imprisoned for the last 40 years of her life. There’s a question in the historical record as to whether she was actually crazy or whether this was a plot on the part of other men who resented her power to get her labeled as crazy and out of the way.
SH: That’s really fascinating. And it definitely plays into this idea of unreliable stories and conversations.
EB: That’s an expression of this sort of gulf. I feel so much compassion for this woman and what must have been a horrible situation. She was imprisoned, and they took her daughter away. And so she said, “I’m not going to eat until you bring my daughter back,” and they said, “Oh, the queen won’t eat – she is crazy!” There’s this psychological war going on and people’s lives are in the balance when you’re talking about political intrigues in Renaissance Europe. The subject is fascinating, but we can’t really know what was going on in this situation. We can try to uncover it – there’s a really fantastic book about her by Bethany Aram [Juana the Mad], but even the best history can’t tell us whether she was crazy or not, or whether the story was more complex than that. We just can’t know entirely what happened.
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