The Cleveland Plain Dealer calls your music "both mature and youthful, bristling with exhilarating musical ideas and a powerfully crafted lyricism". How would you describe your music in your own words?
My music draws a lot of inspiration from the American vernacular tradition, by which I mean everything from rural folksong to jazz and rock. Many of my works are characterized by an improvisatory streak, and I have sought to bring some of the spontaneity of popular music to the classical concert hall. Across the many languages of the vernacular, I am continually astounded at the sheer variety of genres, styles, and musical characters, each defined so clearly yet with such endearing personality throughout. I strive for my own music to have that same home-grown quality, something chock-full of flavor and attitudes, something that is specific rather than generic.
What is your approach to composing?
When I was still very new to composing, the contents of my techniques were extremely limited, and most of my early works began as melodies, which were then varied, elaborated upon, and extended into something approximating a complete piece of music. I certainly have not stopped writing melodies, but since I have acquired more compositional techniques I do not always choose to let the melodies lead. Why should the structure of the whole always be determined by its initial building-block? So sometimes in my more recent pieces the whole structure is conceived first, with the specific details of melody and pitch worked in at a much later stage. I consider myself lucky to have experimented with many ways of working. It has allowed me to approach each new project with relatively few assumptions.
What is your newest composition about and how does it encompass any new directions you're taking with composition?
My newest composition is a work for string quartet in several movements, titled "Ballads and Broken Rhymes." The piece was commissioned by Chamber Music America. This time around I chose to eschew the complex textures I had been exploring in my most recent works and focus on simply writing some memorable melodies. In the days before rock stars and American Idol, it was songwriting – not a recorded performance or charismatic singer – that fuelled the pop music industry in America. New York's Tin Pan Alley publishing houses pioneered a novel approach of advertising their sheet music: they turned tomorrow's hits over to "pluggers," freelance singers and pianists who would perform the current crop of songs in public spaces, which led to increased familiarity and demand. This unique period in American musical history has always fascinated me, perhaps because the sheer importance placed on song craft has lately been eclipsed by our culture of super-stardom. In "Ballads and Broken Rhymes" I wanted to pay homage to Tin Pan Alley by creating a set of "songs without words," a medley of short, tuneful movements that find their inspiration in the spirit of early 20th-century pop music. Outwardly simple and uncomplicated, each song puts a contemporary twist on the styles and gestures typical of old parlor songs. The first movement begins with a simple rising scale that quickly turns back upon itself in a series of unexpected harmonic resolutions; another slows dance rhythms down to an un-danceable, almost glacial chorale; and in another, a sweet gospel-tinged tune becomes invaded with increasingly discordant cascades of notes that threaten to obliterate the melody entirely. Sometimes finding a "new" direction for me is really about returning to the past and coming to see it in its new context. And with so much of the past available at our fingertips nowadays, it is no wonder that many composers of my generation have concerned themselves with integrating the past into the framework of their own experiences.
In 2006, the Kronos Quartet commissioned you to write the piece "Love Bleeds Radiant" for amplified string quartets and live electronics. Combining acoustic and electronic is often described as trying to make two things fit together which naturally do not belong together. What is your opinion of this?
Combining disparate materials in a personal and convincing manner is one of the main challenges of musical composition, and I have never regarded the supposed dichotomy between acoustic and electronic sources as any different. Especially in Western music, composers have always employed contrast as one of the principal organizing factors in music, and whether these contrasts are subtle or extreme. In fact, "trying to make things fit together which naturally do not belong together" is quite an appropriate, if cryptic, definition of composing. In my piece for the Kronos Quartet, the acoustic and electronic elements help to define two different layers of activity. The electronic parts which collectively recreate the feel of an old phonograph, and the live players who comment on this relic of the past. In this case, organizing the music into two elements that don't mesh was a choice I made to more sharply delineate the piece's central drama.
You will stay for a whole year at the American Academy, and you will be mentored by Nikolaus Lehnhoff and Peter Riegelbauer. How do you perceive the fellowship with regards to your development as a composer?
I am sure it will not come as any surprise that I am absolutely thrilled to receive mentorship from these two knowledgeable and highly accomplished individuals. As a composer it is very important for me to receive feedback on my work, just as it is also important for me to take advantage of the new experiences I am looking forward to in Berlin. I already have a few commissioned works slated for completion during my stay, but I am expecting that my experiences outside of my studio will be the most rewarding for my development.
Can you share some insights on a project or piece you will work on during your stay?
I will be finishing up a piece for the Minnesota Orchestra following my arrival in Berlin. It's a completely acoustic piece inspired by electronic sounds, more specifically, the electric guitar. It will be a real thrill to conjure up the hot, overdriven tone of rock guitar playing with the sonic possibilities inherent in a full orchestra.
–– Interview conducted by Malte Mau
is a composer from Virginia and the
Leonore Annenberg Fellow in Music Composition.