“I just try to write the music that I want to write, and I’m glad the people seem to like it,” modestly claims Eric Nathan. It is a remarkable understatement. In a relatively short amount of time, the composer (who just turned 30 this past December) has already garnered the ASCAP Foundation Rudolf Nissim Prize (2011), the BMI William Schuman Prize (2008), the first prize in SCI’s National Student Commission Competition (2008), Aspen Music Festival’s Jacob Druckman Prize (2010), and a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (also in 2010). He has additionally been the recipient of a Leonard Bernstein Fellowship to the Tanglewood Music Center, was one of five composers selected for the American Composers Orchestra’s 2009 Underwood New Music Readings, and is currently the 2013-14 Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize Fellow in composition at the American Academy in Rome. When we met up with him, he was in Bratislava, Slovakia, for a performance of a large chamber ensemble composition at the 2013 ISCM World New Music Days festival, a commissioned work that was the result of his winning the 2012 ISCM/IAMIC Composer Award.
While Nathan doesn’t have a secret strategy for garnering all those accolades, he is extremely pragmatic. According to him, “[What is] important is making the score as clear as possible. If there’s nothing that’s in the score that could be dismissed, you get more of a chance to be looked at on the music.” But Nathan’s music is not just a by-product of honing his compositional skills and being extremely accurate about what he wants to convey on the page. There’s also something of an element of whimsy that fuels his creative process:
Whenever I start a new piece, I open an iPhoto album and put images there. It could be of the place that I’m inspired by, like the piece I wrote for the [ISCM] festival, Paestum, which is a place in Southern Italy that is a site of Greek ruins. But also, for ensembles, I put pictures of conductors that I’m inspired by or orchestras and when I look at the pictures I hear sound in my head.
Because ocular cues have been such an important muse for him, it is no surprise that Nathan is a deep admirer of visual artwork. Details he has observed in his encounters with specific paintings and sculptures have directly helped shape pieces of his music, but in a way that’s more personal than technical. The impetus for the form, as well as some of the melodic shapes and timbres Nathan used in his sextet Onement (2007), came from the “fiery zip down the middle” of Barnett Newman’s seminal 1948 abstract expressionist painting Onement I. Icarus Dreamt, his attention-grabbing 2008 orchestral work, had a couple of equally important stimuli: the “broad lyrical gestures” of Henri Matisse’s paper cut-out “The Flight of Icarus” from his famous book, Jazz combined with the “fluttering and clattering of the gears” of contemporary American sculptor Arthur Ganson’s kinetic contraption Machine with 23 Scraps of Paper. The textures of Julie Mehretu’s 2009 ink and acrylic drawing Berliner Plätze are the source of the pitches that emerge out of trills in his 2010 brass quintet Spires.
In all of these works, Nathan’s deep affection for shapes and colors also has a direct correlation with his music’s meticulous attentiveness to orchestration. But his precision in crafting specific instrumental combinations has not prevented him from being open to multiple ways of exploring the same musical material. Last year, Nathan reworked Spires for wind quintet, and he believes that both versions are equally definitive.
Nathan’s combination of practicality with an openness and curiosity toward new experiences is ultimately why he has been so successful thus far. He sees himself not as a maverick composer but as the inheritor of a great tradition to which he hopes to add his own contributions:
I think of my music as a river. Everything that I hear is just adding to the river and makes it broader. I may choose to sail down one part of the river, but it’s not my goal to make a new river.