Friday, June 15, 2018

Underwood New Music Readings - Composer Spotlight: Scott Lee

Composer Scott Lee earned his PhD in composition at Duke University, Master of Music degree at the Peabody institute, and Bachelor of Music degree at the Blair School of Music. His bio describes his music as "infused with the visceral sounds of popular music" and Scott has worked with many top orchestras and chamber groups: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, North Carolina Symphony, and Portland Symphony Orchestra; Jack Quartet, yMusic, and the Da Capo Chamber Players; and multi-platinum pop artist Ben Folds.

Notable honors include a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards, and winner of the Symphony In C Young Composer’s Composition. Lee has also received fellowships to attend the Tanglewood and Aspen Music Festivals.

Scott’s piece Anadyr was selected for the 2018 Underwood New Music Readings where it will be workshopped and read by American Composers Orchestra and maestro George Manahan. Scott spoke to us about the readings and his piece.

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are open to the public on June 21 and 22 at NYU's Frederick Loewe Theatre (35 W 4th St). RSVP here

Composer Scott Lee

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?

Scott Lee: I was absolutely thrilled to hear my piece had been selected. I've been a fan of the ACO for a long time, admiring all of the organization's amazing programs and activities from the sidelines. Now that I get to be a part of the action I couldn't be more excited. 

ACO: Your selected piece Anadyr is named after the Soviet Union's secret 1962 operation, "Operation Anadyr," in which Soviets deployed missiles and supporting forces to Cuba, prompting the Cuban missile crisis. You write that the piece "aims to evoke the deception and subterfuge that characterized this period." Why did you choose this incident as the basis for your piece? Why did you feel it was an important moment in history to evoke?

SL: There's an obvious connection between the subject matter of the piece and current world events, but I didn't intend to write a political piece. Instead, when writing music I most often begin with the musical materials themselves, letting them dictate the initial stages of the creative process. Once I start to feel a strong sense of character coming from the music, I then usually begin to find an appropriate subject matter to help guide the material in a specific direction. That's exactly what happened with Anadyr. After figuring out some of the initial material, I realized that the music had, despite my best intentions, turned into something resembling the opening credit music of a spy movie. After some trepidation, I decided to fully embrace this aesthetic, and dove headfirst into the world of spies. 

I was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the Cuban Missile Crisis has left a relatively strong historical presence. To me the Cold War embodies the romanticized idea of spycraft, so I thought it would make the perfect subject matter for the piece. As I was researching, I came across "Operation Anadyr," which described the most preposterously secretive mission. For example, all of the supplies to be taken to Cuba from Russia were loaded onto boats and submarines in the dead of night, disguised as farm equipment. The captains were given binders full of possible destinations, and weren't told which was the true one until they were already underway. Russian intelligence agencies gave false information about the mission to Americans, but fed true information to Cuban émigrés living in Miami, knowing the CIA would discount the credibility of that intelligence. The name of the mission itself, Anadyr, (which in and of itself was undeniably part of the reason for my choosing it) is the name of a remote town in Northeastern Russia near Alaska, and was chosen in order to suggest to eavesdroppers that the mission was taking place far from the Caribbean. 

While I didn't intend to write a political piece, it is impossible to deny the subject matter's resonances with our current international political climate. Having grown up in the post-Cold War era, my encounters with Russia were mostly through its role as a common and easy antagonist in films, novels, and video games. While for a time it has been replaced by other stock “bad guys,” Russia seems to be bending over backwards to reprise its role as nemesis of the West, perhaps sooner than historical cycles usually predict. Russia’s recent return to prominence in our cultural consciousness has made it a compelling subject to tackle in my piece.

ACO: There is definitely a spy movie feel to your piece. Were you inspired by or referencing any film scores when you were writing Anadyr, such as John Barry's James Bond film scores, or any other film composers?

SL: It would be more accurate to say that I stumbled into a spy movie aesthetic rather than purposefully took inspiration from any specific spy movie score. But the scores from the many James Bond, Mission Impossible, and Jason Bourne films I've digested over the years undoubtedly influenced the aesthetic of this piece. Another score that may have offered a more immediate, but also nonspecific, influence would be Darcy James Argue's Real Enemies, which I've listened to a great number of times since the recording was released. I intended the music to be a bit stranger than most spy film music, using pointillistic orchestration and intricate polyrhythms. I also wanted sections of the piece to have a certain swagger, which comes from the heavy groove that appears early on in the music.

ACO: What are you doing to prepare for the readings? Are there any changes you have made to your piece? 

SL: I have made a number of changes since the piece was initially read by the Aspen Conducting Academy Orchestra last summer. I had a really helpful phone call with Derek Bermel, the ACO's Artistic Director, which resulted in a number of edits. Most of these suggestions were pretty technical, like adding a double bar line at a specific moment to signify the start of a new section. Others were more about the more intangible aspects of notating music, like adding expressive indicators such as "sempre lyrico" to tell the strings to play out in certain sections. I also made some edits to the drum set part. Writing for drum set and orchestra is always a challenge (one that I seem to put myself through quite often), both because of the acoustic issues and because drum set parts often have to live in a liminal world somewhere between being precisely notated and being mostly improvised. I tend to write out the exact pattern I want at the beginning of a section, but then allow the player to make it their own as it continues. This often requires a number of adjustments after the first performance, and almost always benefits from close collaboration with the drum set player, which is a lot of fun.

ACO: What do you hope to gain from the Underwood New Music Readings? 

SL: First and foremost, I hope to have a productive and fun experience rehearsing my music with a fantastic orchestra and conductor. It's always an incredible experience to hear my music in the hands of top-notch performers. I'm also looking forward to being inspired by the exciting new works of my peers, as I'm sure all of our pieces will explore different aesthetic directions. I can't wait to meet and work with the ACO mentors, all of whom are leading composers that I have admired for a long time. Finally, I think I'll get a ton of useful career advice and information from the many seminars and discussions that are planned.

Hear Scott's piece at the 2018 Underwood New Music Readings. Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are open to the public on June 21 and 22 at NYU's Frederick Loewe Theatre (35 W 4th St). RSVP here

Learn more about Scott at
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