Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Orchestra Underground: Monk's Sphere Composer Spotlight – A.J. McCaffrey

Motormouth, a world premiere by rising-star composer and ACO’s 2013 Underwood Commission winner A.J. McCaffrey, will be performed at Orchestra Underground: Monk's Sphere on November 21 at Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall. A.J. has kindly shared with us the personal story that has inspired his work and some of the strategies he used in the writing process.

Composer A.J. McCaffrey

American Composers Orchestra: What was the inspiration for Motormouth? Can you tell us about your creative process for this piece? 

A.J. McCaffrey: Just around the time that the ACO commissioned me to write this piece, my then-four-year-old son began telling jokes. He would start off by telling the jokes the way he had heard them. Then, excited and emboldened by the laughter they generated, he would look for ways to make the jokes bigger and better, repeating them over and over and adding his own variations. The jokes would become these manic, absurdist, free-association epics, with tigers and fire hydrants invading jokes about astronauts (and vice-versa). I’m a sucker for this type of humor, and I would egg him on during car rides, passing mutations on various knock-knock jokes back-and-forth with him until the punch lines were as far away from the set-ups as possible and we were both laughing our heads off.

When I sat down to compose, I very much wanted to convey this hyperactive, overjoyed (and exhausting) energy in the music I was writing. I saw this piece as an opportunity to write “about” or “for” my son, although I also recognized that this was not the first time that I had been drawn to this type of playfulness with language and momentum. I love taking rhetorical musical devices (like certain phrases or melodies) and ratcheting up their intensity until the frenetic emotional state of the music seems completely at odds with its grammar or logic. I feel that there is similarly mischievous, slapstick, or satirical quality to the music of some of my favorite composers, like György Ligeti and Gerald Barry, and I often find myself paying homage to them in my own works. In Motormouth, a few melodic lines are taken through a myriad array of moods and levels of activities – from giddy to frustrated, from manic to calm – that one might experience in a typical day as the parent of young children.

ACO: You say that Motormouth is inspired by your experiences as a new father. Can you describe any specific moments with your child that have found their way into the piece?

AM: The first image I began composing with was that of “coloring outside the lines.” I tried to convey this concept through a melody in which the intervals kept getting farther apart, like widening scribbles, but I was unhappy with the actual sound of it. I kept paring the melody down until it was just a rising and falling major third (which is heard all throughout the piece). It was my wife who pointed out that this sounded exactly like a fire truck siren, or at least a boy’s imitation of a fire truck siren – one that will be very familiar to anyone who has visited our house in the last two years.

Perhaps more consciously, there is a section about nine minutes into the piece in which I most overtly tried to channel my son’s joke-telling: a repeated series of herky-jerky, falling-down-the-stairs melodies that are routinely punctuated by what I thought of as two loud “ta-DA!” chords.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the performance of your piece at Carnegie Hall by the American Composers Orchestra?

AM: Given the level of skill, talent and devotion to new music exhibited by Maestro Manahan and the ACO, and the history and prestige of the venue, it is extremely difficult for me to narrow down what I’m looking forward to. I am absolutely thrilled and honored to be part of this concert.

ACO: What should the audience listen for during your piece? 

AM: Although I think it can be helpful for an audience to hear how composers approach their own works, I never want to impose my own agenda on someone else’s listening experience. When writing, I try to make sure that the concept never overwhelms the music, and I hope listeners can enjoy the sounds for their own sake without feeling beholden to any particular narrative.

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