Carter Pann may be the youngest of the five Masterprize finalists, but you wouldn’t think it possible after reading through his list of honors. The 28-year-old composer has been recognized with first prizes in the Zoltan Kodaly and Francois d’Albert Concours Internationale de Composition competitions, a concerto commission for clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, a Grammy nomination, a Charles Ives Scholarship, and four ASCAP composer awards. In February 2000, Naxos released a disc of his four orchestral works recorded by the Czech State Philharmonic of Brno under Jose Serebrier as part of its American Classics series.
Still, Pann remains demure, admitting that when he entered the Masterprize competition, he never imagined he’d get to the finals. Now he’s anticipating attending the Gala concert in London. “It’s going to be wonderful. [The competition] really is like the lotto, and out of 1150 pieces, hearing the other four is just going to be spectacular.”
Pann’s entry, Slalom, was born of the desire to write a big orchestral work about an aspect of nature. While downhill skiing in the Rocky Mountains he decided that was the natural scenery he wanted to try and capture in sound, and the result is a ten-minute scherzo for orchestra. Even at that length, he says, “it’s a lot for the ears to hear. What the piece tries to do, inside of ten minutes, is give you almost video images of what it’s like to ski in among pine trees and over obstacles and through big meadows where you can be up to your thighs in powder. It’s a cinematic-type tone poem.”
Though he hasn’t heard from IMAX about producing film for it yet, that’s the idea, he explains. “It’s sort of what I get hearing it. It’s a ten minute explosion and it puts you right there in the scene.” He’s toying with the idea of adding two more ten-minute images to form a triptych.
Pann completed Slalom just in time to be considered for the American Composers Orchestra Whitaker New Music Reading Sessions in 2000. The work was selected and Pann remains amazed by the experience. “The ACO, inside a half an hour, just read the thing down. It was the first experience I’d ever had like that where I hadn’t heard the piece at all and a half hour later you’ve got a CD of it and it’s almost perfect.”
Though Pann has had considerable success as a composer, he originally set out to be a pianist. It was his piano instructor who steered him towards composition and his first teacher, Howard Sandroff. Pann remembers with a laugh, “So there I was, 17 I think, talking my first composition lessons ever with a man who sort of lives by Morton Feldman composition technique, which is five pitch objects and vectors and the usefulness of pitch grouping.” His real inspiration came after he heard Steve Reich for the first time. “I had no idea who he was, and I listened to his Octet. I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I couldn’t believe that music could be this beautiful today. I thought it was sort of dead.” From then on, he was like a sponge. “I would just absorb these new scores and these new pieces like a child. I couldn’t enough. Old and new, I was just sopping it up and I wanted to try my hand at writing some of it.” The experience prompted him to seriously pursue studying composition and he landed at the Eastman School. Since then, it’s “snowballed to where I can’t imagine doing anything else at this point.”
Like many composers at the beginning of their careers, Pann found himself mimicking others in his early works. “It’s taken some maturing to really break free from that and do something that’s completely me. No quotes, no tips of the hat.” But at the same time, Pann isn’t out to get too radical. “At this point in my life, I’m not looking to shock myself or shock any listeners. I’m much more looking to pull them in instantaneously. I want to pull you in to hearing this piece all the way through.”
To explain where he hopes to take his craft, Pann launches into an extended metaphor. “Right now I’m sort of playing with a pallet of colors. My music ends up sounding like broad paint strokes of primary colors. Eventually I’ll start really mixing them I guess and then painting larger and larger canvas. I think I’m honing a technique right now and dreaming about a different technique that I will be able to do in the future.” To his mind, Slalom is done in primary colors on small canvas, but eventually he hopes to get to something along the lines of Picasso‘s Guernica.
As far as process goes, no matter where an idea comes from, Pann will quickly begin working at the piano. “I’m very keyboard based because it’s where I can get my hands into the dirt. Then, like a culture, it opens up and if I’m lucky it just keeps going.” Composing then becomes “just a series of yes/no questions, almost binary, and the piece is sort of writing itself. You just have to ask if you’re going to do this or not.” For Slalom, he wrote the complete orchestra score from left to right. “It’s not better or worse because of it, but it would have been different” if he had gone back and orchestrated it after the fact.
Ask him what his dream commission would be and you get a tumble of ideas, but in the final analysis it would likely be to write a full-length symphony for a great orchestra. “You know what, that’s it right there. Dream number one — the Chicago Symphony Orchestra asks me for Symphony No. 1. Or a violin concerto for Hilary Hahn,” he amends, shifting gears again. Referencing working with Richard Stolzman on the clarinet concerto commission he adds, “writing for any soloists that is just world class is it!”
As Pann develops his voice, he expects to hold on to the subtle element of humor that many critics have noted in his work. He explains, “I really want to hear a person behind the music and I think humor sort of breaks that iceÖone little grain of salt or pepper in a piece that makes it really alive and puts a smile on your face.”