Jon Magnussen’s E-mail Correspondence with Molly Sheridan

Molly Sheridan corresponded by email with Magnussen to find out more about his plans for the residency in addition to asking him a few philosophical questions about being a composer. A transcript of that exchange appears here.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: The artist-in-residence position at the Institute seems like an amazing opportunity for a composer to both compose and have work performed. How did you come to be invited to fill this role? Were you actively looking for such an opportunity? How do you expect to fit into the Institute community as a whole?

JON MAGNUSSEN: It really is an amazing opportunity for a composer, not only to compose and have work performed, but also to be in an environment where there are other people doing creative work in different fields. As it turned out, I was invited to interview, and they were looking for a composer to plan and host the concert series while pursuing a career in composition. I’ve always been interested in producing concerts, so this seems like a perfect fit. When I was at Juilliard I was active in John Corigliano‘s graduate composition seminar, where our small group of composers would plan and compose theatrical concerts that involved Juilliard musicians, dancers, actors, choreographers, and playwrights. We would produce the concerts in one of Lincoln Center‘s black box theaters, and it was really our way of trying to infuse something new into the performance of new music. I eventually ended up teaching the course under Corigliano’s supervision.

In terms of how I fit in at the Institute, there are a lot of opportunities for interaction with the community. Besides the concerts and the talks that I’ll be presenting, there are other open lectures and seminars, as well as a very good dining hall (this is a great place to fit in!). The people here are very knowledgeable, and they know how to ask good questions, so conversations tend to be very interesting. In fact, I’ve made some wonderful discoveries here. For instance, before coming to the Institute, I didn’t know that pure mathematicians have moments when inspiration just hits, when they’re able to solve a problem they’ve been working on for days, months, or sometimes, even years. I can relate to this, because as a composer, now and then I’m struck with an idea that suddenly makes sense of what I’m trying to create. Sometimes conversations give me new ideas that point my music in a new direction. A theoretical biologist was showing me a model she was working on which studies natural pattern formations in tidal sand waves, and this gave me an idea of how I could approach a new piece inspired by waves.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: What has attracted you as a composer to dance and to the ballet of José Limón specifically?

JON MAGNUSSEN: I’ve been attracted to dance ever since I can remember. When I was a child living in Sierra Leone, I remember seeing a group of “devil” dancers perform in the street. (It was kind of scary, but I was really fascinated.) While growing up in Hawai’i, I saw quite a bit of Polynesian dance. In college I improvised at the piano in a dance improvisation classes and had my first collaboration with a choreographer. When I finally saw my first professional modern dance performance about ten years ago now (this was an American company in Budapest), I was blown away. I thought, “What an incredible way to communicate with an audience!” A couple of years later I found myself at Juilliard collaborating with student choreographers, which was a great way to get my feet wet.

In 1995, The Juilliard School commissioned me to create a new score for “The Winged,” José Limón’s 1966 ballet. I immediately fell in love with the Limón style. Just watching the movement is deeply satisfying. It’s so musical – so round, rhythmic, and very contrapuntal (he loved Bach). For nine months I worked with a video reconstruction of “The Winged,” and then helped it move from the studio to the stage. It was almost like composing for film, and then watching the film come to real life.

I’m now composing “Psalm” for the Limón Company, which will be premiered at the Cultural Olympiad in Utah next February. It’s a reconstruction of 1967 Limón ballet, and it’s very moving. In his notes, he wrote about the work as the “triumph of the human spirit over death itself.”

MOLLY SHERIDAN: What have been the challenges and the inspirations of working across disciplines like this?

JON MAGNUSSEN: I enjoy working across disciplines because it’s a great way to discover new ways of thinking about music. Because dance and music are time-based arts, ideas that work in one usually translate well to the other. So a choreographer might have an idea of multiple groups of dancers performing the same series of movements simultaneously, but at different speeds. The translation into music might be a multiple-voice “canon” at the octave (but all voices beginning at once and progressing at different speeds) which can sound really interesting given decent material.

I guess the biggest challenge in working across disciplines is communication. The language I use to talk about my art, as a musician, is different from the language a choreographer or a theater director would use. So understanding the intentions of my collaborator and being able to communicate my own ideas so that my collaborator understands me – this has become very important to me. I’ve found that being open to new ideas and not becoming too terribly attached to my work can help the process a great deal. One of the difficulties a collaborative composer has is the moment when it becomes necessary to cut the score here or there, or to change the orchestration slightly to make a rhythm more readily perceptible to a dancer. But this is theater, after all, and in theater the music has got to serve not only itself, but also the whole. (My teacher at Juilliard, Robert Beaser, would tell me that in theater, your best work usually ends up on the floor.) As long as there is trust between collaborators, and a willingness to serve the whole work first, the experience ends up one worth repeating.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: I read about the real time programming aspects of your composition, “Death and Eros.” Can you speak about what inspired you to create such a work? Your motivation to use MAX/msp and how it worked practically during performance?

JON MAGNUSSEN: Donald McKayle was the choreographer for “Death and Eros,” and he based the ballet on “Skeleton Woman,” an Inuit story told by Native American contadora Clarissa Pinkola-Estes. Donald was wonderful to work with. He gave me quite a bit of latitude in terms of instrumentation, and as I started composing, I began hearing “concrète” sounds – sounds that could only come from a digital audio source. In the story, the action takes place on the ocean floor, above the surface of the water, and on the beach next to the ocean, so I was hearing sounds from the ocean and a few other-worldly sounds. In order to inhabit this world of amplified digital audio, the performers (flute, ‘cello, percussion, keyboard, and male and female vocalist) also needed amplification.

I had some experience using MAX/msp, a Macintosh-based program which allows you to basically control anything with anything. (The program is a graphical programming environment for music and media applications made by Cycling 74.) So, for “Death and Eros” I assigned the keyboard player – playing a MIDI synth controller – and the conductor – armed with a MIDI pedal – the job of communicating with MAX/msp by sending MIDI messages to the computer.

Practically, it would work like this: the keyboard player plays a note that sends a MIDI message to MAX/msp to, say, increase the delay of the amplified sound by a few hundred milliseconds. The percussionist softly begins a series of very fast crescendi on various drums and cymbals. The sound is distant at first, but MAX/msp is given another signal to begin increasing the amplification and the delay of the sound. At this point in the dance, the night has passed and the dawn begins to appear, with the sound becoming fuller and fuller, almost as if there are two or three percussionists. The keyboard player hits the button again, and MAX/msp plays a sound file which sounds like a growing storm, bringing the return of the main theme. Essentially, MAX/msp is another player, performing tasks throughout the ballet such as mixer fades, effects changes, and digital audio playback.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: How has technology influenced both how you compose music (your process) and the music you compose?

JON MAGNUSSEN: I started using music technology at around the same time that I began to have ideas about pursuing a career in composition. So my process has always incorporated some aspect of MIDI technology (except for three years I spent in Paris studying harmony, counterpoint and fugue). You could probably say that characteristics such as quick and sudden directional changes and dynamic changes are a direct influence of technology. These are so easy for the computer to perform (and they’re also a reflection of the time we live in). An argument could be made for the ease of cutting and pasting having some responsibility for unexpected juxtapositions in music, since experimentation with different orderings of sections is so easy to do on the computer.

As far as my own process is concerned, I use technology in essentially two ways: as a tool to write notated music for acoustic instruments, and as a participant in the performance. For both kinds of music, I usually start with pencil and score paper, writing down ideas as I hear them, or working them out. At some point, when I’m writing for acoustic instruments, these ideas are either entered into a notation program (I use Finale), or a sequencer program. The sequencer allows me to experiment easily with these ideas in different combinations, and the notation program lets me print different versions of the “sketch” and orchestrate easily. The advantage to using a notation program is mainly legibility, and also being able to make parts quickly. There are also error detectors that help speed up the process.

One of the challenges, though, in using notation and sequencing programs, has been dealing with their limitations. So, for instance, if I’m hearing a melody in a meter that has nothing to do with the prevailing meter, how do I notate it – so the player can easily read it – in a notation program that doesn’t have that flexibility built in? I either end up finding a way to deceive the software into visually representing what I intended, or I resort to handwritten notation for that portion of the score. I try to avoid handwriting at all costs, though!

When I compose music where technology is a partner in the performance – like my work with MAX/msp – the composition is much more informed by the technology and its limitations. I really enjoy the change of pace with this kind of work, because it’s much more about data manipulation and problem solving. But the goal is always to make music, and somewhere along the line, the fact that a computer is involved in the performance has to be secondary to the music itself.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: A few philosophical questions…

Considering all the different facets of the music industry today, what made you become a composer of “serious concert music” if you will? Do you think such labels really work anymore or have a use?

JON MAGNUSSEN: I think we can still use the term today – at least part of it – because there are still many composers who are only interested in composing for a very educated and select audience. I don’t define myself as a composer of “serious concert music,” though, but rather a composer of “concert music” or “modern classical music.” (The “serious” part puts a furrowed brow on my forehead, which makes me kind of uncomfortable.)

I began composing when I was in high school, and I had this idea that if I could do what Quincy Jones does (he was my hero then) – write music, assemble the players, coach them and record – this would be a great life. As I got older and came into contact with works like Stravinsky’sPetrushka” and “Symphony of Psalms,” Debussy‘s “Jeux,” Berg‘s Wozzeck and others, I began to realize that concert music had a depth of possibilities that just wasn’t there for me in pop music. I still enjoy a good pop tune, but I’m glad I am where I am musically.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: If you were going to label your music any way you wished, what would you call it and what other composers/music would you put in the category with you?

JON MAGNUSSEN: That’s tough. Early on I was very attracted to the surface sound of Minimalist composers like Steve Reich and John Adams, but it concerned me that sometimes this music required a different kind of listening – and sometimes a lot of patience! I’m kind of a musical polyglot. I’m a fan of Messiaen‘s celestial harmonies, Gubaidulina‘s free voice-leading and unconventional sound explorations, Corigliano‘s beautiful melodic lines and aleatoric ideas, Robert Beaser‘s shimmering orchestration and compelling rhythmic sense… I guess I’m an eclectic twenty-first century composer with no real category. Is there a category for that?

MOLLY SHERIDAN: I saw that your final lecture at the school will deal with what makes a work new. What are some of your thoughts on this topic?

JON MAGNUSSEN: It’s a very interesting question. Robert Taub, who will be performing the concert, suggested this title for the discussion (which will include composer Jonathan Dawe, Taub and myself). Does the fact that a composition is in C Major constitute grounds for labeling it “old?” Does a composition for synthesizer and kazoo automatically qualify as “new” because of its instrumentation? Given all we’ve been through in the last century, with the proliferation of new techniques and advanced doctrines, and then having Cage come along and say that anything is okay (Did he really mean that?) – the musical possibilities seem endless. And this is what really makes the world of a twenty-first century composer a great smorgasboard of possibilities.

I wonder, though, given that there are so many alternatives, if the anxiety to produce a “new” work has become less of a concern to composers. If the recent “Great Day in New York” concerts are any indication, there is a lot more to celebrate in the diversity of the music than in its “newness.”

MOLLY SHERIDAN: As we continue to rapidly globalize and develop technology, how do you see music developing over the next decade?

JON MAGNUSSEN: The changes in the transmission of music are exciting to watch, and I could see the CD becoming a rare item within the next ten years. With continued globalization, there’s bound to be more cross-fertilization of the world’s musics, but I worry that this will result in a loss of indigenous music cultures. I hope more quality recordings will document these music cultures for future generations.

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