Masterprize Finalist: Anthony Iannaccone



Anthony Iannaccone
Photo courtesy of Masterprize

Anthony Iannaccone confesses that he entered Waiting for Sunrise on the Sound in the Masterprize competition by default. He had intended to submit his faster and more dazzling (and more frequently performed) West End Express, but competition rules concerning the premiere date kept it out of the running. Initially he was afraid that a piece as slow and introspective as Waiting for Sunrise on the Sound wouldn’t make enough of an impression to stand out in such a large competition, but, he says, “it turned out that that was the better choice. It’s the more personal piece and I’m glad it resonated with them because it’s a piece that means a great deal to me.”

The work is based on a recurring childhood dream. On a moonless night, the dreamer is piloting a boat rocked by increasingly violent waters. Iannoccone writes that “at the moment when the fate of the boat and the pilot seemed doomed to drowning in the murky depths of the sound, the sun would begin to break through thick mist and the ocean would subside. As the friendly day star rose above the eastern horizon the mist disappeared and the water sparked gently with the radiant energy of the sun.”

Looking through a roster of his compositions, there are a conspicuous number of references to water in the titles. He laughs when questioned about the seeming fixation but explains that he grew up near the ocean and has always felt very connected to it. His work has also been greatly influenced by the poetry of Walt Whitman which he finds often “uses rivers as a kind of a metaphor for the flow of the human spirit, the flow of human life through time. I’m very much at home using this metaphor. The sea has an awesome presence in my mind, in my imagination.”

Currently on the faculty of Eastern Michigan University, Iannaccone balances teaching and composing while also maintaining an active conducting career. Though he has led a wide range of repertoire himself and learned a great deal from hearing others conduct his pieces, he says there’s something uniquely rewarding about being on the podium for his own works. “I get to communicate directly with the players and the audience and so I can shape things exactly the way I want without going through another translator. It’s a way of bringing to life the blueprint as I originally heard it in my head.” Even though he is the work’s creator, conducting the pieces hasn’t become a static activity. “Over the years I’ve changed. I will conduct a piece I wrote 20 years ago a little differently now.” But conducting, regardless of the pleasure he gets from it, does mean less time for composing. “I try to divide up the year so that I’m not conducting and composing in the same timeframe, frankly because I don’t have the ability to do both at the same time.”

Initially, Iannaccone’s influences were primarily European — Bartók, Stravinsky, Debussy. Time spent studying under Aaron Copland changed that. “I tended to write fairly complex and dense music and Copland was helpful in thinning some of that out and particularly helpful in orchestration.” On the other hand, it was while under the tutelage of Vittorio Giannini and exploring the standard repertoire that he developed an interest in conducting. Now, he finds that his music often fits into two categories, which he terms simply “small-audience” and “large-audience” music in an effort to avoid labels that carry value judgments. The former he describes as “a non-periodic, primarily gestural and textural music of abstract sound shapes with layered and aleatoric elements” while the later has a “strong melodic base, permeated by tonality, pulse and thematic development.”

The audience vote adds a unique perspective to the Masterprize competition, which Iannaccone finds especially intriguing. Ultimately, he notes, composers are “really writing music for ourselves, to express something in our own voice about our own experience in life. When it comes to a competition, you might be able to gauge what type of piece the judges are looking for, but a general audience is a dicey thing.” He finds that it requires not writing down to the public, but rather being more aware of what it takes to communicate with concertgoers. “I value that input. It’s one of the reasons I like to conduct. I like to have that contact with an audience and the performers. A committee’s response might be a little more predictable, but this is definitely creative.”

When it comes to prizes such as these, though, Iannaccone is careful to keep things in perspective. “Prizes can bring the music attention in a very direct way,” he says, “but essentially you’re the same person and your music is not suddenly better because someone has validated it with a prize.” He acknowledges that “prizes can make it possible to develop more fully as an artist, as far as commissions go, but it’s a mistake to equate that with artistic success. Sometimes it’s easy to confuse celebrity status and commercial success with artistic worth. You have to be mindful of that.” All the same, it can be nice ego boost.

Masterprize is an international competition, but remarkably three of the five finalists are American. Iannaccone finds that interesting, but not all that difficult to understand. “I think the reason there might be three Americans in that final collection is that American music is so diverse. There really are so many healthy, vibrant channels of expression in this country, so many different schools of thought, that you can have three Americans who write completely different music.”