Jonathan Russell: Interview

jon_portraitComposer Jonathan Russell’s piece Lament and Frippery will be premiered by Wild Rumpus on our concert this Saturday, May 11 at Salle Pianos in San Francisco. Jonathan is a clarinetist and composer currently studying at Princeton. I interviewed Jonathan while he was still in the process of writing his piece for Wild Rumpus. – Sophie Huet

Sophie Huet: Let’s start by asking you to tell me a little about yourself and how you got into music.

Jonathan Russell: Okay. So I started playing clarinet when I was nine. My dad was an amateur clarinetist, my mom’s a pianist and conductor. I grew up around classical music and started composing when I was fourteen. I went to music camp that summer, and they had a student composer concert there. I was like, oh, if my friends can do that, maybe I want to give it a try too. We also sang the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms that summer, and I went home and listened to the Rite of Spring, and it totally blew my mind.

Oh my God, I bet.

And that’s why I started composing because I was like, I want to do that. I want to write that piece. I had no idea music like that existed before, you know? I knew about Brahms and Mozart and all that, and I knew some pop music but the Rite of Spring really opened things up for me.

What about it was so inspiring?

Just the power of it, and the rhythmic vitality really excited me a lot. The harmonies that I didn’t know what they were, I couldn’t figure them out at all. I tried to imitate them at the piano, and I couldn’t really figure them out either. It was the mystery of it, too. All the orchestral colors, of course.

So then you went to school…

I was basically training as a classical clarinetist all through high school. But also other interests too – I was trying to decide whether to go to conservatory or a liberal arts school. I started playing bass clarinet in college, basically because I was the last chair clarinetist in the orchestra. I got stuck with the bass. The first time I played bass was on Daphnis and Chloe, and it was a disaster. It was on this not-very-well kept up instrument, too. I was just squawking and honking all over the place. I was not very into bass at all, at first. And then I took a class on Jazz music from the 1960s and I heard Eric Dolphy’s bass clarinet playing for the first time. And that was a Rite of Spring moment too, I had no idea the instrument could do that. I still had the school’s bass clarinet so I started improvising on it and fooling around with it and got really excited about bass clarinet from then on. So I finished my undergrad and came out here [San Francisco] to do a Master’s in composition and got much more involved in bass clarinet primarily through meeting Jeff Anderle and playing in Sqwonk and Edmund Welles.

Is that group still around, Edmund Welles?

Sort of. We haven’t played together in over a year, but we are going to ClarinetFest in Italy this summer. Theoretically, the group still exists if the right thing comes along, but I’m on the east coast now, which makes it hard, and Cornelius has gotten interested in other things, and he’s doing a lot of shakuhachi flute playing and more composing for other instruments.

I was in my early 20s, I was writing very Stravinsky/Bartok/Debussy influenced music, influenced by the early 20th century. That’s where my heart was in terms of music I liked and wanted to write. Then when I got out here I started getting more into minimalism and post-minimalism and Steve Reich and Phillip Glass and stuff like that. I was also more into experimental stuff like, I got burned out on classical music for a while and was doing free improvisation and started playing klezmer music and heavy metal bass clarinet quartet music. It was this very exciting period where all these new influences were coming into my consciousness. I really grew up only doing classical music. In my composing I started getting really interested in the idea of crossing genres together, bringing new influences from other genres into my music. Rock or jazz or klezmer music. With Jeff and Ryan we founded Switchboard Music Festival, which was related to that also. Highlighting music that was genre-crossing. San Francisco’s a very exciting place to be for that because there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in that regard.

That’s what I was really into for a while, and then I moved back East in 2009 to be with my now-wife, who’s in Washington, DC. A year later, I got into Princeton Composition PhD program, so I’ve been there for 3 years. I’d say my composing in the past several years has evolved in a way going back to my roots, combining some of the more groove-based post-minimal stuff with more narrative dramatic flavor of more traditional classical chamber music. That’s where I’m at right now.

Very cool! I know this might be a little bit awkward, but can you speak at all of what kinds of things influenced you for the piece you’re writing for us?

It’s still evolving, so it might end up going a very different direction from where it is now. My whole idea for the piece all along was, a year ago I took a class on Supercollider, which is this music synthesis programming language. I wrote a little 8 minute piece in supercollider, using these computer-generated sounds. You can make these patterns and set them in motion and record myself improvising with it. It was very difficult for me, I have no computer programming background at all, and there’s no interface for this program, it’s all just typing code. It’s pretty crazy. I hit a wall with it, but I was pretty excited about it for a while, and made this little piece. My whole idea for the Wild Rumpus piece was to basically take that piece and try and arrange or transcribe it for the ensemble. I was working on that for a while, and then, I totally got sick of it, and was like, I don’t want to do this anymore! I was fiddling around and came up with that thing we read the other day. I like that a lot, and now that’s become the impetus for the piece. I have a lot more sketches for the piece that we didn’t look at because they’re sketching out the general harmonic trajectory. That’s where I’m going with it now. It’s hard for me to characterize it at this point because I’m still figuring out where it’s going.

What I like about it is it has this rhythmic groove quality to it, but with these more discordant harmonies and these scratchy more textural tone colors. Alternating with these more aggressive heavy metal stuff. That’s the basic conflict of the piece. It’s almost like a dysfunctional music box, an evil music box. What I’m trying to figure out with the piece right now is how those things are going to play out with each other and interact.

What are some other projects you’re working on right now?

I’ve had a ton of projects going for a while, a lot of little chamber pieces. One of the cool things at Princeton is they have all these different groups you can write for. I signed on for a lot of stuff this year. This is my last one in a big batch of projects. And then things quiet down for a little bit. In terms of long-term projects, I’m going to write a bass clarinet concerto which I’m going to do with the Princeton student orchestra. In over a year, so a longer term project. I’m also working on a clarinet and cello concerto which I’m going to do with the Peninsula Symphony which is in the South Bay.

I’m really excited for both of those projects; it’s a really different process writing for yourself as the performer than writing for others. I like doing both, but I haven’t done that for a while.

How would you characterize the difference?

You can really take advantage of your own idiosyncrasies and strengths. You know exactly how it sounds because you play it yourself. Anytime you’re writing for an instrument that’s not your primary instrument there’s a certain amount of guesswork involved. You try your best to learn as much as you an about how the instrument works, but it’s still really different from being able to play it yourself. The flip side of that is you can almost be constrained by your own technique. It may be harder to come up with things that aren’t totally idiomatic or don’t come naturally to you. When I’m writing for myself, I try to also work at the piano sometimes, or more conceptually.

For my dissertation piece I want to write a big orchestra piece. Like, a symphony.

Good luck! Anything else you’d like to share? Working with Wild Rumpus?

The reading session was really helpful, especially from a harp perspective. I’ve always been kind of intimidated by the harp, and I’ve only ever written for it in an orchestral context. I’ve basically only written glissandos before. That was something I was really excited about with this piece. It was great to get to try out some of the preparations and stuff. It’s nice to meet the performers ahead of time, know who you’re writing for. Wild Rumpus seems really cool.

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