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Stefan Weisman: Interview
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.
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