Wednesday, January 31, 2018

EarShot Fort Wayne Philharmonic Readings: Composer Spotlight - Robert Rankin

Robert Rankin (b. 1994) is an Indiana-based composer who writes music characterized by colorful orchestration, a neoclassical nod to the past, and a deep love of narrative storytelling through music. Commissions and performances have come from the Burning Coal Theater Company, the Lux Quartet, Split The Lark, and in 2015 Robert was named “Emerging Composer” at New York's Tribeca New Music for his Clarinet Quartet.

Robert was selected for the EarShot Fort Wayne Philharmonic Readings for his piece Nijinsky Dances, which will be workshopped and conducted by Music Director Andrew Constantine in a final read-through on Wednesday, February 7, 2018. Details here.

Robert spoke with us about the piece and what he looks forward to at the readings.

Composer Robert Rankin. Photo by Kevin Madison

American Composers Orchestra: Your piece Nijinsky Dances is named after 20th-century choreographer Valslav Nijinsky, who choreographed landmark ballets such as Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune, Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Trying to set aside the incredibly evocative scores, is Nijinsky's choreography something you take inspiration from as a composer?

Robert Rankin: I thankfully figured out in my undergrad that an “artist” can learn a ton about the creative process by watching people from the other arts do their thing. For instance, taking a poetry class taught me so much about how to think about form and narrative in a unique way and how that relates to music. Regrettably, I know very little choreography but the one aspect that continues to shock me is that there is no formal notation per say for preserving ballet. So in turn, as a composer, it makes me think that the product that the audience hears (sees in the case of dance) is more important than the notes on the page.

Specifically speaking of Nijinsky’s choreography, I think most people are familiar with his work in Le Sacre, but there is this amazing video on YouTube that shows the original choreography for L’après-midi d’un faune and it is as radical if not more so than Le Sacre. It was really surprising to me! I watched a lot of really grainy archival footage of Nijinsky while writing the piece.

ACO: You write in your program notes that the piece makes subtle reference to the masterful orchestration of these scores. Can you talk about the ways in which you do this?

RR: The way I basically learned how to compose was by checking loads of scores out of the library when I was in high school. Most were large orchestral scores so I’ve been in love with this quintessential early 20th century style of shimmering, colorful orchestration for a long time. Ravel, Stravinsky, and Debussy all had an uncanny sense of mixing orchestral colors in a brilliant way but never overloading the entire piece with constant tutti passages to weigh it down. In turn, in my piece, I tried to give the orchestration that colorful shimmer and gestural flare that is so iconic in those early ballet scores of especially Ravel and Stravinsky. And there is a section about a quarter way through that is just straight up quotation of Petrushka and Daphis and Chole (just as nudge nudge wink wink moment to the audience).

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the workshops and readings? What aspects of Nijinsky Dances do you hope to improve or fine tune?

RR: I’m really looking forward to the whole experience to be honest. I hope to sponge up as much information as possible. The people I know that have been through similar Earshot Readings have had nothing but positive things to say about the entire experience. Additionally, this has given me the opportunity to rework a few moments in Nijinsky Dances that didn’t quite work when it was initially played.

The EarShot Fort Wayne Philharmonic Readings culminate in a final read-through which is free and open to the public -- Wednesday, February 7, 2018 at 7:30pm. Details here.

Follow Robert on Twitter and Instagram.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Fellow Travelers: Q&A with composer Gregory Spears

Gregory Spears is the composer of the critically acclaimed new opera Fellow Travelers, which receives its New York premiere January 12-14 at PROTOTYPE Festival, co-presented with John Jay College of Criminal Justice and American Composers Orchestra.

The work of Gregory Spears, whose relationship with ACO extends back to his participation in our 2001 New Music Readings, has been called “astonishingly beautiful” (The New York Times), “coolly entrancing” (The New Yorker), and “some of the most beautifully unsettling music to appear in recent memory” (The Boston Globe). Based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers is an extraordinary personal journey through the intriguing, gut-wrenching world of the 1950s American witch-hunts, and the often overlooked “Lavender Scare.” Tenor Aaron Blake stars as Timothy Laughlin, a recent college grad eager to join the crusade against Communism. A encounter with handsome State Department official Hawkins Fuller (baritone Joseph Lattanzi) leads to Tim’s first job, an illicit love affair with a man.

Gregory was kind enough to answer a few questions about the opera, as well as his relationship with ACO over the years.

Composer Gregory Spears. Photo by Dario Acosta

American Composers Orchestra: When did you first read Thomas Mallon's 2007 novel Fellow Travelers and what was your initial impression? Did you immediately realize its potential to become an opera, or was that sometime later?

Gregory Spears: [Director] Kevin Newbury and [Executive Producer] Sterling Zinsmeyer first introduced [librettist] Greg Pierce and me to the book, and asked whether we thought it could be an opera. I think I was most drawn to the way Mallon depicts the excitement and danger of first love, and then shows the effects of the political turmoil and homophobia swirling within the state department in the 1950s on that relationship. I also really wanted to write an opera about ordinary people, so I liked that the central characters weren’t historical figures.

ACO: In your program notes, you write that in the music you “looked for ways to express the innuendo-driven world of Hawk and Tim while maintaining a relatively cool musical surface.” Since opera is not often associated with a “cool musical surface,” can you talk about this stylistic decision? Was there any part of you worried about not having enough of the traditionally big, dramatic opera moments?

GS: Well I would like to emphasize the word “relatively” as there is still a fair share of anguished singing in Fellow Travelers as well as orchestral outbursts. But yes, in opera specifically, I try to avoid writing music that tells a listener what to feel or music that directly represents or underlines a character's feelings from moment to moment. I agree with John Cage who once said: “I don’t mind being moved, but I don’t like to be pushed.” So I think a lot about how one might create dramatic tension without underlining a character’s emotions in a typical 19th century way. For me it’s an interesting paradox to ponder. I’m also really inspired by the many American composers who use what I think of as a “cool musical surface” to create what I find to be moving and dramatic music. Meredith Monk, Robert Ashley, and of course David Lang are just a few examples.

ACO: This is not the first time you and ACO have crossed paths. You were a participant in our 2001 New Music Readings, where you workshopped your orchestra work Circle Stories, and the ACO/Penn Presents New Music Readings in 2007, where you worked on Finishing. Can you talk about the influence these experiences had on your musical career? Was there anything that carried into your compositional process for Fellow Travelers?

GS: Those were both wonderful experiences, both as a chance to hear those pieces read by pros but also as practice for all the technical and editorial challenges involved with music preparation. Visualizing an orchestra in an actual space is the best way for me to begin thinking about orchestration. And in many cases, I visualize the ACO in the same room where my orchestral piece was read back in 2001. That’s how vivid the memory is!

ACO: What has working with George Manahan and ACO been like for this production?

GS: Working with George and the ACO have been wonderful! George has the calm confidence and experience which is absolutely necessary in the theater where there are so many things happening at once. That  comes with lots of experience and sets the singers and also the composer at ease.


Fellow Travelers opens at the PROTOTYPE Festival on Friday, January 12, 8PM at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Additional performances on Jan. 13 (2pm & 8pm) and Jan. 14 (2pm). More information here

Learn more about Gregory Spears at