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Per Bloland: Interview
I recently spoke to Per Bloland about his background and about his new work Solis Overture written for Wild Rumpus. The piece is receiving its premiere on Friday, September 5, 2014 at Old First Concerts in San Francisco. More information on Per’s work can be found on his website: http://www.perbloland.com/ – Dan VanHassel, Wild Rumpus artistic director
Why don’t you tell me a little about your background as a musician.
Sure. I started down the whole compositional path fairly late in life. I played guitar in a band in college, and that was great, it was really fun. This was back in the 90s, when alternative rock and grunge were all the rage. We were all interested in a variety of sounds, but generally I leaned toward the heavier stuff while a few others were more into folk. The result was songs in a bunch of different weights, you might say. After my undergrad years I moved to San Francisco to be a rock star, but that clearly didn’t work out, and I was less and less satisfied with that scene. At the same time I was working as a substitute teaching in the public school district. One day I arrived at what I thought was to be a day-long gig at a high school, and discovered the band director had just gone on medical leave. They heard I was a musician and asked me to give the music classes a go. So I started teaching band, though I didn’t really know what I was getting into. At least I knew how to read music, having played clarinet for a number of years. It was a great experience, and I can’t even express how much I learned. After that year I decided I needed to fill in all the holes, and actually get a degree in music, so I enrolled at San Francisco State. I already had an undergrad degree from the University of Michigan, so I didn’t actually need the piece of paper, just the knowledge and experience. One of the first classes I took there was the history of 20th century music, and I was completely floored. The music I was suddenly exposed to so thoroughly grabbed me I decided during that semester to do whatever it took to be a composer. Of course I had no idea if it was even possible at that point, and it certainly was a long slog to get there, but that was my beginning.
Then you went to Stanford for grad school.
Eventually, yes. I was able to get through the program at San Francisco State in just a couple of years, since I had everything but the music classes already. After that I spent a number of years building up my portfolio before even considering applying to grad school. I ended up going to the University of Texas for my Masters degree and then Stanford for my Doctorate.
The piece you wrote for us is from an opera you are writing. Can you talk about the opera and the piece’s relation to that?
I’ve written a number of compositions based on literature – specifically non-vocal pieces based on novels. I became very interested in the process of translating ideas presented in one medium into another. The process is problematic, and probably impossible anyway, but it is nonetheless a fascinating exercise. My research, which started during my years at Stanford, has focused on how other people have approached this task, and how to incorporate these ideas into my own practice. My dissertation at Stanford was a cycle of pieces based on a novel by the Norwegian author Pedr Solis: Stillaset. These pieces drew on my research on the novel itself, and on the author who was quite an interesting character. This has been an ongoing project – since then I’ve written several pieces based on his other novels, and on his life and ideas. When I was contacted by Guerilla Opera Company in Boston, I immediately thought of doing something related to all this. I met up with a former colleague from Oberlin, Paul Schick, who is a librettist and the artistic and executive director for Real Time Opera, and pitched the idea of doing an opera based on some aspect of this guy’s life. He made a connection with a play called The Tower by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and, fusing the two stories together, came up with a really amazing libretto.
There is a tremendous amount of backstory and research that has gone into the libretto, and many musical ideas from previous pieces. The goal is to selectively synthesize this material for the opera. The Wild Rumpus piece, Solis Overture, was a perfect opportunity for me to start sketching some new musical material for use in the opera. I’m calling it an overture in that I will revisit this material in the opera, but it’s atypical in that the composition of the opera had barely begun when I wrote the piece.
One of the things I’m really struck by in the piece is the electronics. Can you talk about your approach to using electronics?
In this piece I demonstrated greater restraint than I usually do in that my pieces are usually much too complicated electronically. I tend to end up with a really impractical piece that is very hard to set up with tons of strange electronics. For this piece I decided I was going to stick to pre-recorded electronics. There is a Max patch that plays back the pre-recorded electronics at specific times, so it did end up getting a little more complicated. The audio files were all generated by a Max patch as well, one that I wrote at the very beginning of the composition process. The patch has a fairly distinct character, and I plan to use it for much of the electronic material for the opera as well. It’s pretty noisy, and I have to say I was influenced by Bauhaus, – the band, not the art deco style. They’re one of my all-time favorite bands. When I started messing with the patch, some of the initial results reminded me of their sound, so I went with it. It’s not a bright and cheery piece.
It is very dark, and the electronics are very visceral and intense at some points. They sound almost like industrial music.
It’s a big influence on what I do. I actually call my recent works chamber industrial. Do you know about “saturation”, the contemporary French musical style? I didn’t know about them until after I’d started going down this path, but their stuff is really interesting. They have a very specific approach about saturating instruments and getting noise from the acoustics as well as adding electronics. For me it’s less about specifically saturating the instruments and more about achieving that heavy post-industrial sound world, often with electronics.
You mentioned that there was some Scandinavian folk music influence in the piece as well?
Part of the backstory is that this author, Pedr Solis, who the opera is named after, might be described as a Samuel Beckett-like character, a bit of an isolationist. His second novel, Stillaset, was released around the same time as another, much more famous Norwegian author, Tarjei Vesaas, died. This was in 1970. Unfortunately that event completely overshadowed Solis’ release. In fact there was no English translation until around 2004, but don’t quote me on that. He apparently started a third novel, but at some point before finishing, dropped the project and disappeared completely from the public eye. Apparently he moved up to the very northern part of Norway but he didn’t really communicate with anyone. That is a significant element in his ethos, this isolation in the north. And thus the perhaps tenuous connection with the Sami people, who inhabit a swath across the north of Scandinavia. I did some research on them and discovered this amazing vocal music called yoiking. I sought out as many recordings as I could find, and came across a traditional melody that I though would work for this piece. I took many liberties, the melody is altered, and slowed to a snail’s pace. It was incorporated near the last end of the piece – a violin-cello duo which slides around. I did run into the problem finding information about my recordings, which generally had very slim CD booklets. The melody I ended up using was performed by a Finnish vocal ensemble, and is not actually a yoik, though it certainly sounds to me as if it were heavily influenced by that style. The words to the song are drawn from the Kalevala, a collection of Finnish epic poetry based on folktales. This particular song looks to be a blessing to the sun and the moon. Which is definitely fortuitous as the images of the sun and of the moon are very important in Pedr Solis’s work. In fact his first novel is called The Electric Moon. It tells the tale of a village in Norway in which an unexplained sound eventually drives the inhabitants mad. Collectively they come to believe the moon is in fact the source of the sound. Stillaset, his second novel and the one on which I based my dissertation piece, is basically an investigation of literary Modernism itself, and the interaction between of subjective modernism and objective modernism. He uses the imagery of the sun and the moon to represent these two sides, though which represents which is constantly in flux. It worked out perfectly that this song is about the relationship of the mythical sun and the mythical moon.
Anything else you think is important for the audience to know about the piece? Is the literary influence important to understanding it?
I don’t think it is. With all these literary connections it’s important to me that the music be completely comprehensible, and most importantly interesting, as music. It’s not a vehicle for disseminating any greater extra-musical ideas. If you are interested there’s a lot of stuff to look into that will illuminate aspects of the piece, but that’s more of a research project. It’s by no means expected. I love to do that with other people’s music, dig into the extra-musical aspects and learn about the piece from those connections. If I’m not drawn to the music by itself though I wouldn’t bother, it has to start with interesting music.
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