Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Phenomenal Women - Composer Spotlight: Joan Tower

American Composers Orchestra (ACO) performs Joan Tower's Chamber Dance, led by Music Director George Manahan, as part of its program Phenomenal Women on Friday, November 2, 2018, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. More information here

Joan Tower is widely regarded as one of the most important American composers living today. During a career spanning more than fifty years, she has made lasting contributions to musical life in the United States as composer, performer, conductor, and educator. Her works have been commissioned by many of the world's celebrated ensembles, soloists, and orchestras.

In 1990, Tower became the first woman to win the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Silver Ladders. Tower's 2008 album Made in America, featuring three works recorded by Leonard Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony, collected three Grammy awards: Best Contemporary Classical Composition, Best Classical Album, and Best Orchestral Performance. Nashville’s latest all-Tower recording includes Stroke, which received a 2016 Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

We spoke to Tower about her first orchestral work, Sequoia, as well as Chamber Dance, written in 2006, which is featured on ACO's upcoming program Phenomenal Women on Friday, November 2, 2018, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. More information here

Composer Joan Tower. Photo by Bernard Mindich

American Composers Orchestra: Your first orchestral work, Sequoia, was commissioned by the Jerome Foundation and ACO and premiered with conductor Dennis Russell Davies at Carnegie Hall in 1981. We’d love to hear any memories that stand out from that experience. How did it affect the trajectory of your career? 

Joan Tower: It changed my entire life! Francis Thorne [ACO’s co-founder] kept bugging me to write a piece for ACO. I kept saying “no” because I felt wasn’t ready, but he was very persistent. He said, “Joan, you are ready! Just go for it!” So I wrote Sequoia kicking and screaming and not knowing what I was doing.

I remember Keith Jarrett was on the program, the famous jazz pianist, and the place was sold out basically because of him. Dennis decided to reorder the program so that I was right before intermission, following Keith Jarrett playing Alan Hovhaness. I was a total wreck. I thought, “Why did you change the order of the program? You can’t do this to me!” So, of course, Keith Jarrett finished playing this piece by Hovhaness and the place went bananas, because it was Keith Jarrett, and I thought, “Ok, that’s it, I’m finished.” Then my piece was played and they went nuts again! I thought, “It must be the energy of Keith Jarrett or something that’s carrying over.” I had all these explanations.

But then Zubin Mehta picked it up with the New York Philharmonic. [Sequoia] just launched this completely, incredibly crazy life. Then Leonard Slatkin picked it up with the St. Louis Symphony. He said it was a really unusual piece and asked me to be Composer-in-Residence in St. Louis. I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I was from the chamber music world, not the orchestral world. All I had was that piece [Sequoia], an orchestration of another piece, and that was it. I told him [Slatkin] that. I said, “You’re taking a big risk with me.” He said he was willing to take the risk. He wanted to help me write some more music for orchestra.

So Slatkin took me all over the place, recorded the piece, made me Composer-in-Residence … I wrote a Concerto for Orchestra for them and several other pieces. [Sequoia] did literally change my life.

Listen to Sequoia, performed by Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic:

ACO: Chamber Dance, which ACO performs on November 2 at Carnegie Hall, was commissioned by Orpheus in 2006. Can you talk about your experience writing this piece and working with Orpheus? How did you come up with the title?

JT: I think Chamber Dance is a really good title. It's one of my better titles actually, because it is, to me, a dance between the musicians. It's a real chamber music piece, and it requires a lot of listening to each other, which is what Orpheus did. Writing for them was such an honor because they had figured out how to do that with fairly complicated music. I decided this definitely had to be a larger sounding chamber piece. It has duets and solos and groups and it covers a lot of different textures in the piece, where people are brought forward out of the group. They took it to Korea and they took it to Europe. I couldn't go to Korea because I fell on the platform at Penn Station and broke my knee, so I couldn't go to Korea, but I went to Europe with them, which was such a pleasure. It was like traveling with a large chamber group of terrific players, and I was even able to make changes to the piece here and there. So that was a fun piece to write.

ACO: The Boston Globe recently wrote that in the early 2000s you thought you were finished writing for orchestra, quoting you as saying, “I thought I’d spend my time in welcoming worlds.” What made you change your mind?

JT: I did think that was it and I was not going to write for orchestra any more. It was because I didn’t think the world was as welcoming as some chamber music worlds, the band world, the choral world ... At that time I really felt I wanted to spend time writing for players who were more welcoming.

But then, along came the Made in America project. It was a commission for community orchestras, which I had not dealt with before. I wasn’t sure about that world, I didn’t know what it was about, so I asked a violist who actually played in community orchestras. She said they don’t play as well as the professionals, but they actually love to do what they’re doing. That’s what they look forward to, coming to the orchestra rehearsal at night, which is more interesting, sometimes, than their day jobs. I thought that was really interesting. In fact, it made the decision for me and I decided to accept the Made in America commission.

What she [the violist] described was true. I went to 20 orchestras out of 65. I traveled around the United States to these smaller communities and I had a ball with these people, because they really did love what they were doing. It was mostly volunteers and they were there because they wanted to be there. They loved playing in the orchestra. There was a deep kind of care about not only their playing in the orchestra but also their community. They were very proud to do a good job as best they could. It was just a very different kind of world.

The first performance was by one of the most amateur orchestras [in the commission consortium]. He [the conductor] called me and said, “Look, my orchestra is probably going to struggle with this piece. Can I have the score a year early?” And I said, “No, because I haven’t even written it yet.” He said, “Well, can I be the first? You can use me as a guinea pig.” I said, “Absolutely. That I’m up for.” So I would send the work-in-progress to him from time to time. Then I checked out the parts I had written with some professional musician friends. They said, “This is too high for the first violins, this is too fast for the trumpet, blah, blah, ...” They really helped me. They saved me actually, because I wanted all these orchestras to be able to play the piece, of course.

The conductor who was my guinea pig was one of first to perform the piece with his orchestra. I went out there, Illinois I think, and I’ll never forget it. They treated me like a rock star. They picked me up at the airport and they took me to the best hotel and they took me to the best restaurant. I walked into the hall and the orchestra cheered me like I was some kind of rock star! This never happens in a major orchestra situation, never. They were so nervous because they had worked for six months, every week, twice a week on the piece and they wanted to do a good job. And they really pulled every bit of weight they could come up with to make this happen. It was just such a joy to watch the effort and the care of that kind of energy. So, I passed the test with one of the most amateur orchestras in the commission consortium, with the conductor's help too. From there the Made in America tour went on like that in all these communities, and it was a joy actually. The whole trip was wonderful.

Then Orpheus came along and said they wanted a piece from me. I thought Orpheus is this wonderful, wonderful chamber group. I couldn’t turn them down. So that kind of broke the ice for me to get back into more welcoming situations. Then Pittsburgh [Symphony Orchestra] came along a few years later and wanted a piece from me. So by that time I thought, “Ok, you don’t have to be so hardcore about this.” So I did two pieces for them, actually: Tambor and Stroke. And now New York has asked me, so I’m writing a piece for them.

ACO: A big part of ACO's seasonal activities are our programs for emerging composers, such as the Underwood New Music Readings, EarShot New Music Readings, and our Composer Yourself! program for high schoolers. What is some advice you think is important to give emerging composers?

JT: The musical advice I can give is to make sure you know what you have. You need to have musical control over the piece, and the only way you can have musical control over anything is to know what you have. You might not always have control over the orchestration, because that’s often new to emerging composers, but you should always know what the music is supposed to do. For me, that’s very important for writing an orchestra piece. That’s what I did with my first piece Sequoia. I knew I had control over the music. I didn’t have control over the orchestration as much as I wanted to, but I figured if I had control over the music itself, the orchestration would follow even if it was a little awkward. Orchestration doesn’t make the music, it’s the music that makes the orchestration.

Chamber Dance is featured on ACO's upcoming program, Phenomenal Women, on Friday, November 2, 2018, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. More information here

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Phenomenal Women - Composer Spotlight: Alex Temple

American Composers Orchestra gives the world premiere of Alex Temple's Three Principles of Noir – featuring singer Meaghan Burke, directed by Amber Treadway, with costumes by Storm Garner – on Friday, November 2, 2018 at 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. More information here

Alex Temple is a composer who loves both the Western classical tradition and the world of pop culture. Uncomfortable with stylistic hierarchies and the idea of a pure musical language, she prefers to look for points of connection between things that are not supposed to belong together. Temple's music has been performed by many prominent soloists and ensembles – including Mellissa Hughes, Timo Andres, Mark Dancigers, Chicago Composers Orchestra, Spektral Quartet, Fifth House Ensemble, Cadillac Moon Ensemble, and Ensemble de Sade – and she has appeared at venues such as Roulette, Exapno, the Tank, Monkeytown, Galapagos Art Space, Gallery Cabaret, and Constellation performing her own works for voice and electronics.

We spoke to Temple about her new commission from ACO, Three Principles of Noir, which premieres on ACO's program Phenomenal Women along with works by Valerie Coleman and Joan Tower – Friday, November 2, 2018 at 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. More information here

Composer Alex Temple. Photo by Marc Perlish

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about your process for coming up with the idea for this piece?

Alex Temple: The idea of the three principles of noir is something I came up with almost a decade ago when I was spending a lot of time on film messageboards.  Each one is based on a particular movie:  the Double Indemnity principle says that it doesn't matter how well you plan it, you won't get away with it;  the Detour principle says that it doesn't matter whether you actually do it or not, you won't get away with it;  and the In a Lonely Place principle says that it doesn't matter whether you actually do it again, cause you're a bad person anyway.

The plot has been floating around in my head for quite a while too.  It was inspired by the moral unease of film noir, of course, but also by my longstanding love of time travel stories, by Erik Larson's account of the 1893 World's Fair in The Devil in the White City, and by the seething wit of Sweeney Todd and the feminist bitterness of Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs.  I thought about turning the story into a piece of music for years, but I never managed to find the right context for it until I got the commission from ACO.

ACO: How did singer Meaghan Burke, director Amber Treadway, and costume design by Storm Garner become involved?

AT: I've been friends with all three of them for a long time.  Meaghan and I have worked together before, when I wrote Switch: A Science-Fiction Micro-Opera for Cadillac Moon Ensemble in 2013, and the original plan for this project was to write a sequel to that piece.  Eventually I scrapped that idea and brought in this story of murder and time travel instead.  Meaghan's numerous vocal styles — sultry cabaret, melancholy Sprechstimme, dreamy spoken flights of fancy — had a huge influence on how I conceived of the protagonist.

Storm is a polymath:  not only a costume designer but also a singer, composer, photographer and filmmaker.  Her work is always imbued with an experimental spirit — including our one previous collaboration, a polystylistic film called And In Her It Danced: An Inheritance, which included my piece This Changes Everything! in the soundtrack.  Amber, meanwhile, has been doing great work in the queer and feminist opera world, directing shows like Kate Soper's Here Be Sirens and Griffin Candey's Sweets by Kate, the latter at the Stonewall Inn.  I originally know her from Twitter, which she is the official best at.

ACO: Your bio describes your tendency to “look for points of connection between things that are not supposed to belong together” in your work. What are some things that “don’t belong together” in Three Principles of Noir?

AT: There are all kinds of styles and reference points at play in the piece:  tango, Weimar cabaret, atonal counterpoint, the Great American Songbook, Straussian Romanticism, Robert Ashley monotone singing, Andriessenish sound masses.  All of them relate in some way to the story, the mood, or the period(s) that the piece takes place in.  Theatrical music is a particularly good venue for this kind of eclecticism, because you can use the narrative to unite all the disparate elements.

ACO: Can you talk about your relationship with ACO and the path that lead you to receiving this commission?

AT: I first worked with ACO in 2011, when I wrote Liebeslied for Mellissa Hughes to perform with them at the opening concert of the SONiC Festival.  It was a great experience for all involved, so I was excited when we started talking about collaborating again.  It's taken several years to put all the moving parts together, including securing a grant from the MAP Fund, going through several different ideas for what the plot might be, getting collaborators on board, and — if I can be candid — delaying the whole project after Trump's election sent me into one of the worst depressions of my life.  I mention this because I believe that our cultural taboo against discussing mental illness makes it harder for people to find support, and I want to help erase the stigma by being open about my own experiences with it.

For a while I wondered whether I really wanted to write a piece with such a dark ending, under the circumstances.  One thing that helped me was Derek Bermel telling me not to let myself be defeated, and saying that now was my moment to be angry, to be vulnerable, to be subversive.  Three Principles of Noir isn't about modern fascism, but it certainly is about anger and vulnerability and subversiveness.

ACO: What can the audience expect at the world premiere of Three Principles of Noir, and what are you most looking forward to about the concert?

AT: Listeners should come prepared for bloody schemes, feminist rage, moral ambiguity, academic angst, memorable tunes, convoluted rhymes, electronic collages, and more swears than you'd probably expect to hear on stage at Carnegie Hall.  As for me, I'm just looking forward to finally being able to relax into the role of audience!

American Composers Orchestra gives the world premiere of Alex Temple's Three Principles of Noir on Friday, November 2, 2018 at 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. More information here

Learn more about Alex Temple at www.alextemplemusic.com
Follow her on Twitter

Friday, October 12, 2018

Phenomenal Women - Composer Spotlight: Valerie Coleman

American Composers Orchestra gives the world premiere of Valerie Coleman's Phenomenal Women – a concerto for wind quintet and orchestra featuring Imani Winds – on Friday, November 2, 2018 at 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. More information here

Valerie Coleman is among the world’s most played composers living today. The Boston Globe describes Coleman as a having a “talent for delineating form and emotion with shifts between ingeniously varied instrumental combinations,” and The New York Times has praised her “skillfully wrought, buoyant music.” With works that range from flute sonatas that recount the stories of trafficked humans during Middle Passage and orchestral and chamber works based on nomadic Roma tribes, to scherzos about moonshine in the Mississippi Delta region and motifs based from Morse Code, her body of works has been highly regarded as a deeply relevant contribution to modern music.

We spoke with Valerie about her ACO/Carnegie Hall commission Phenomenal Women. The work is inspired by Maya Angelou's poem and book Phenomenal Women, and honors Angelou, as well as Claressa Shields, Serena Williams, Michelle Obama, Katherine Johnson, and Immigrant Mothers, with solo interludes by members of Imani Winds. The world premiere is Friday, November 2, 2018 at 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. More information here

Learn more about Valerie Coleman at www.vcolemanmusic.com
Follow her on Facebook

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

EarShot Grand Rapids Symphony - Mentor Composer: Margaret Brouwer

Last week, the EarShot New Music Readings in Grand Rapids, MI, brought together four emerging composers; three mentor composers; and conductor Jacomo Bairos and the Grand Rapids Symphony for four days of rehearsals, feedback sessions, and recorded readings.

Emerging composers Emmanuel Berrido, Tyler Eschendal, Jiyoung Ko, and Daniel Leo were selected for the readings, and worked with mentor composers Bright Sheng, David Biedenbender, and Margaret Brouwer to fine tune their works and learn about the process of working with a professional orchestra as a composer.

We spoke to Margaret Brouwer about her experience during the program. Brouwer is an award-winning composer whose music has been performed by orchestras such as the Dallas Symphony, Detroit Symphony, and Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2008, ACO commissioned and premiered Brouwer's orchestral piece Breakdown!

Composer Margaret Brouwer. Photo by Christian Steiner
American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about your general reaction to the readings? We'd love to know your thoughts on the four selected works, any moments that stood out, and how you thought the orchestra and the audience reacted to them.

Margaret Brouwer: My reaction to the readings was very positive.  The Grand Rapids Symphony and Jacomo Bairos were not only excellent but completely enthusiastic about all of the music.  The four selected works each had its own personality, between them covering a range from expressive to broad cluster sounds to rhythmic and driving.  There were a total of 9 concerts!  Each was about 30 minutes in length.  There was a full house for each of the 9 concerts and the audience was completely engaged in the music and gave hearty applause for each work.

ACO: What kind of advice did you give the four selected composers? Was there anything that stood out to you as a particularly good teaching moment?

MB: Much of the advice that we gave the four selected emerging composers was technical advice about how to make each instrument sound its best.  Writing for orchestra effectively takes experience and these were the first orchestral works for them.  For overall advice, we talked with them about not using all of the instruments all of time.  There is such a wide range of colors available in the orchestra that it is good to feature different colors at different times.  When everyone plays at once, one does not hear the color differences.  We also advised them to limit the different ideas that they put into one short piece.  This is always a difficult thing for young composers to learn.  They love everything they write and sometimes leave unrelated motives in a short piece that should not be there.

Left to right: mentor composers David Biedenbender, Bright Sheng, and Margaret Brouwer; and participating composers Jiyoung Ko, Tyler Eschendal, Daniel Leo, and Emmanuel Berrido.

ACO: Can you talk a little bit about your experiences with learning to write for orchestra and getting your orchestral music performed? In what ways were these readings different than the opportunities you had as an emerging composer?

MB: It would have been wonderful for me as an emerging composer to have the ACO Earshot experience!  I learned about how to write for the orchestra mainly by the experience of hearing early works of mine played by student orchestras.  Also, I believe I had a great advantage because I began my money-earning career as an orchestral violinist.  Every day I heard all the sounds the orchestra can make.  Sometimes I would say to my stand partner – “Didn’t that sound great with those two instruments combined?”  She would look at me as if she didn’t know what I was talking about!  I had been composing since high school, but as a young person had planned on the violin (which I also loved) as career choice.  However more and more, I wanted to spend all my time on composition, so eventually I decided to give up making my living as a violinist and went back to school to get a DMA in composition. My first position after graduating was teaching at Washington and Lee University.  While in Virginia, I was very lucky to be asked to be the Composer in Residence with the Roanoke Symphony – a position I held for 7 years.  So I gained more experience writing for orchestra during those years, and other orchestras began to program my orchestra music as well.  As Composer in Residence there, I started a listening group for the symphony board members.  We met once a month at 5PM – had a happy hour, and I played recordings of new works and talked a little about them.  These people became part of the selection process for picking the new works that the symphony performed on each concert.  It was terrific to see them become invested in the new works.

ACO: Was there anything that you learned as a composer during to the course of the readings?

MB: More than anything, what I learned last week at the ACO Earshot readings is that new music is alive and well.  It is exciting to see how many young people wish to become composers!   It is also exciting to experience a terrific conductor, Jacomo Barios, who took on 9 new works to prepare and was completely in control and knowledgeable about each one.  And it was so impressive to see the enthusiasm of the Grand Rapids Symphony in rehearsing and perfecting all of these works!  Even during 6 concerts on the final day, they never lost their vitality, enthusiasm and expert playing.

ACO: What was your experience with the artistic community of Grand Rapids? How did it tie into the EarShot residency?

MB: It was extremely inspiring to experience the vibrant music and visual arts scene in Grand Rapids.  The involvement of the community, and the expertise of the Grand Rapids Symphony is all very impressive.  This was another reminder of how many excellent musicians there are in our country.   And it was so impressive to see how the Earshot program has developed, and to experience the expertise of the people running it!

Learn more about ACO's opportunities for composers and orchestras at www.americancomposers.org

Learn more about Margaret Brouwer at www.margaretbrouwer.com