Pierre Jalbert: All Music Great and Small

In conversation with Alexandra Gardner
Rice University, Houston, Texas
June 2, 2011—2 p.m.

Transcribed by Julia Lu
Condensed and edited by Alexandra Gardner, Frank J. Oteri, and Molly Sheridan
Audio/video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan and Alexandra Gardner

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Pierre Jalbert (pronounced “JAL-burt”) will tell you himself that he has taken a somewhat traditional path as a composer. “I started playing piano when I was really young. I started to compose pretty early on… Copland was a big influence. We were playing his pieces in orchestra and youth orchestra and band, and he was the only living concert composer that I knew of that was making a living writing concert music.” And so with the inspiration of Aaron Copland in mind, the New England native entered into the world of music degrees, piano performance, and composition. After completing undergraduate studies at Oberlin, he went on to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with another composer hero, George Crumb. He now teaches at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston, Texas.

Along the way he picked up numerous awards and accolades, including the 2001 Rome Prize and the BBC Masterprize for his orchestral work In Aeternam. He cites his three-year residence with the California Symphony as his most life-changing musical opportunity, in that it gave him the chance to do in-depth work with an orchestra and its conductor in a way that is rarely possible with such a large group. “It wasn’t something where you just write the piece, and then they play it,” Jabert explains. “They actually would read through my work-in-progress as part of the program. So it’s kind of like in the theater world where you have run-throughs of things as works-in-progress.” That experience helped pave the way for future orchestral commissions and performances, most recently a work for the Houston Symphony commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11 which is slated for premiere in September.

Whether it is an orchestral work or a composition for chamber ensemble, Jalbert professes his affection for forms both large and small, and especially enjoys the back-and-forth of creating a large work immediately followed by a small one. His music is vibrant, lushly scored, and tautly constructed with thoughtfulness and precision. His Catholic upbringing and exposure to liturgical music gave him an appreciation for the sense of “suspended time” it creates, and his compositions often contrast this type of slow music with highly syncopated, bustling material that propels the work forward. In addition to the impact of spirituality on his writing, Jalbert has found inspiration in literature, as in his early Songs of Gibran for mezzo-soprano and ensemble, and from visual sources such as the stained-glass windows built by Louis Tiffany referenced in Les espaces infinis for the Albany Symphony, and the computer-animated films of visual artist Jean Detheux, with whom he has collaborated on several projects.

In his office at Rice University, Jalbert speaks about his working process, being a composer in Texas, and his collaborations with various orchestras and ensembles.

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Alexandra Gardner: Looking at the catalogue of works on your website, I see you’ve written a lot of orchestra music since the year 2000, and also a huge amount of chamber music that dates from much earlier than that. I’m wondering whether either serves as a primary sound palette for you?

Pierre Jalbert: Well, what I really like to do is go back and forth between writing an orchestra piece and thinking in that vein (which is, to me, a completely different way of thinking than chamber music), but then as a contrast, going to chamber music and getting back into more soloistic kinds of textures and things. So I really like the duality of going back and forth between doing those two things. There are a couple of things that got me started in orchestral music. One was the New York Youth Symphony commission, back when I was a student at Penn, and the American Composers Orchestra commission a few years after that. And then there was the Young American Composer in Residence program at the California Symphony with Barry Jekowsky. It was sort of a transformational kind of thing because it was a three-year program, and I really got to work closely with a conductor and work closely with an orchestra as a piece developed. So it wasn’t something where you just write the piece, and then they play it. They actually would read through my work-in-progress as part of the program. So it’s kind of like in the theater world where you have run-throughs of things as works-in-progress. I wish there was more of that in the orchestral world. That really got me heavily into writing orchestral music and I’ve tried to keep at it ever since.

AG: What would you describe as the difference in mindset between composing for orchestra versus composing for chamber ensemble?

PJ: The orchestra is just a different beast. I think of it as an instrument in itself. Every time I start an orchestra piece, I feel like I’m starting over almost because there are so many infinite possibilities; whereas, with chamber music, I guess in some ways I think a little bit more about the specific performers and their instruments in a more soloistic context. It’s just, for me, a completely different mindset. It’s hard to describe. I mean, there are certain practical limitations too, obviously. When I write chamber music, I almost feel like the sky’s the limit because, depending on the group I’m writing for, if I know they have unlimited rehearsal time (you know, that’s theoretical, obviously they don’t have unlimited rehearsal time), I know they’re going to put in the time that it takes to bring off whatever I write. I might try some things that I might not necessarily try with the orchestra. Although even with the orchestra, I always try to take risks and try things that I may not have tried before, but that I am certain can be put together quickly—that it won’t take 20 minutes of explanation in rehearsal as to how to do this. It has to be something that can sort of be self-explanatory, and be put together rather quickly.

AG: It’s interesting—a lot of composers say the opposite; that with an orchestra you can do anything. But it sounds like for you it is chamber music that allows for endless possibilities.

PJ: Well, I mean that in the sense that for me in terms of the way you write it, and the ensemble, you know, even if you write something fiendishly difficult or completely aleatoric and whatever, they’re going to spend the requisite amount of time talking about it, and being able to put it together. It’s just easier to do that with three people than with 80 people. Certainly in terms of color, the orchestra has this gigantic palette, but just from a practical standpoint, they’re going to start rehearsing on Wednesday and perform it on Saturday. You have to factor that in, and of course there are ways of doing that without sacrificing anything in terms of creativity. But yeah, for me, it’s just a different way of thinking, that’s all. If they had 26 rehearsals, then I’d probably do something a little bit different.

I’m currently working on a piece for the Houston Symphony for the fall, which is a 9/11 piece, actually, for the tenth anniversary which was really a challenging piece to try to get my head around at first. So I’ve been finishing up this piece for the Houston Symphony for September, and now I’ll be writing a chamber piece for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, for clarinet, violin, and piano for November. They’re going to do the premiere in New York and also at Wigmore Hall in London, so I’m really excited about that.

AG: So is that an easy switch for you, to finish the work for the Houston Symphony and then start a chamber music piece?

PJ: It’s easier than trying to go right into another orchestra piece.

AG: Really?

PJ: I really need time between stuff. I think it actually helps because it’s just a different way of thinking, and I won’t get the same ideas as I got with the orchestra piece, because it’s just not that kind of instrument.

AG: Do your compositions arrive fully formed in your mind, or is composing more of an organic process of discovery for you?

PJ: It’s very much a process. And I’m not a fast composer. It usually takes me a lot of time sitting and thinking, going to the keyboard, going back to the desk. Sitting, thinking, and working out the strain, you know, the overall structure and the details within that structure. It takes me a long time to get started. And I suspect that’s the way it is for a lot of composers; the first few weeks of the piece can be agony, you know. But once you have something, and you can run with it, it’s sort of like the snowball going down the hill effect. Once I’m in the middle to the end of the process, it becomes exciting. It becomes a lot more fun because things are really starting to click. But until you get there, you feel like, at least I feel like, “Will I ever make it? Is this piece ever going to get finished?”

AG: You said that working with the California Symphony and other early experiences writing orchestral music and being able to spend more time with orchestras than you might otherwise have had were very significant to your growth as a composer. Are there other experiences, musical or otherwise, that you feel have impacted your music?

PJ: Well, I wrote a string quartet fairly early on in the mid-’90s for a group called the Maia Quartet. They were friends—I went to school with the violist. That was my first really big piece in terms of length and scope, and I’ve written quite a few string quartets since then. But I think that sort of got me into that world—that way of thinking. Again, it’s another different way of thinking for the string quartet than I think about other sorts of chamber music groups. And so I think that led to writing other quartets.

AG: The biography on your website states that spirituality is a big part of your work.

PJ: Well, I mean, having grown up hearing liturgical music. I didn’t hear a lot of Gregorian chant growing up, but every once in a while I did. And you know, especially the year I spent in Rome, visiting some different monasteries and hearing this music in a really reverberantly rich space, musically had an impact. And, you know, it’s imbued with this sort of spiritual meaning, too. So even if you don’t understand the words (it’s always in Latin) there just seems to be a meaning behind the music that always had a big impact for me.

AG: Overall, your music has a very rich, full quality, as well as a wonderful rhythmic sensibility–you can always find a pulse that weaves its way through a composition. Are there particular techniques that you employ in your music that you feel are very specific to you? That you feel communicate your personal stylistic touch?

PJ: Well, there are a couple of things. I think syncopation plays a big role, and I think that comes from a lot of places. I mean, it comes from having played some jazz, having played some popular music growing up. Having played and listened to a lot of Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Copland, you know. So I think it comes from all of those areas. And I tend in a lot of my fast music to use a lot of mixed meters, building on that idea of throwing things off a little bit. At least in my larger works, there’s always that contrast between the lyrical aspects of the music versus the more pulse-oriented, syncopated, faster, aggressive, rhythmic kind of music. And in the slower music, I think in a lot of it, there’s a sort of sense—at least I’d like to think so—of suspended time. And I think part of that may be that I have quoted Gregorian chant. I think in chant there’s that sense that time is almost meaningless. It almost stands still, and there’s just a sense of contemplation. And the contrast between those two things seems to be a recurring motif in many of my pieces.

AG: So given that, what does a day in the life of Pierre Jalbert composing look like, if we were peeking in the window to your studio?

PJ: Depends on where I am in the piece. If it’s at the beginning, I’m pacing back and forth between the desk and the piano. And a lot of sitting and nothing coming. During the school year, I do try to carve out time to compose every day. So I come into my office just about every day of the week. And when I’m not teaching, I’m working in my office. Pencil and paper, old school, trying to jot down ideas. And that just continues up until the end of the score. And I’d say I spend—at least at the beginning of the process—probably 80 percent of my time just sitting in silence. As the piece progresses, it’s a lot more of going to the piano. Checking out things. Making sure I’m hearing things right. And then at the end, I have my own sort of shorthand. So if I’m writing a large orchestra piece, I’m not writing out from the very beginning, on staves and large score paper. I’m sort of jotting down what I think the orchestration should be. It’s a lot of jotting down of rhythms and contours and figuring out what exactly those notes are, hearing them and then making sure I’m right about what those notes are. And then it’s coming up and writing out by hand the final score. Well, not the final score, but the final manuscript, and then sending it away to my copyist who lives in Maine. Then it’s a lot of back and forth via the computer. Proofing of the final score.

Pierre Jalbert shorthand page

AG: So your shorthand helps you remember things—you can go back to that later and—

PJ: —Know exactly where I am. I think a big reason I do that is because I can fit so much on a page. I’ll use a piece of 11 by 17 paper, and I can fit quite a lot of music doing it that way, so I can see it all at once rather than writing it on 40 pages. it makes it a little easier for me to keep the whole piece in mind. And that’s another thing I really strive to do, and I try to get my students to do, is towards the beginning of the process, to sketch out a structure within which you’re going to work. It may change as the piece goes along, but you can always keep that initial idea of the piece in your mind as you’re working. So you know where you are in the piece, and you’re not just poking around blind as to where something is going to go. Again, lots of things change as you move through the process. But if you can sort of keep that vision of the piece in your mind from early on in the process, it tends to make the process go a little quicker.

AG: So you write away from the piano, and then later go to the piano to check what you’ve written.

PJ: Some things come from sitting at the piano and improvising. I’ll do some of that too, especially if I’m not writing a piece that includes the piano. I find some things will come from improvising at the piano, but since I’m a pianist I automatically will do pianistic things. And that is not always going to translate to another instrument. So when I’m thinking about other instruments, I really try to imagine a) what the performer looks like on stage playing the instrument, and b) physically what it’s like to be playing this piece that I’m working on and how it sounds in that space, wherever it is. You know, I try to sort of imagine myself as an audience member and O.K., there are people playing something on stage. What is that, and how does it come off?

AG: Of course you can probably imagine what the performers look like on stage even more easily if they are performers you have previously worked with and that also can affect the music you wind up writing for them.

PJ: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve developed relationships with certain groups and conductors who have done multiple pieces of mine. That’s always a special kind of relationship and the interaction I think makes so much difference in the way the piece turns out. When somebody really knows your style or the way you’re expressing things, and has done some of your music before, it’s amazing how things come together so much more quickly and just seem natural. And it makes things that much more conducive to the creative process, because you really feel comfortable, you know, working with someone like that. And they sort of naturally come to your music and read into the music beyond the notes right away. And that’s a huge thing.

And you know, it’s funny, my older son is a clarinetist and he’s gotten pretty serious about it. He’s in high school now. My younger son is a violinist. Of course, my wife and I both play piano, so if I ever want to try things out, here you go. Let’s see if you can play this. So it’s really a lot of fun now that the kids are getting older, to be able to play with them, to accompany them and really make music together. It’s really rewarding and special.

AG: The benefits of a music-making family. That’s great.

PJ: Yeah, absolutely.

AG: You’ve spoken about teaching and how you try to get your students to think about the broad picture of a piece. It’s a way that your creative life has influenced your teaching. Do you find that there are other ways in which this happens, and vice-versa; has your teaching influenced your creative life and the work that you do?

PJ: Oh, absolutely. I think it goes both ways. You know, in one of my orchestration classes, we sometimes try to pick a work that the orchestra is playing and really study that work. And it may be a piece that I’ve never really studied. So for instance, this past year, we did the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra that the orchestra was playing, and went to some rehearsals after we had really dug into the piece in class. And you know, all these student composers are going to be writing for the orchestra at some point, either as a master’s student or a doctoral student here, because the orchestra plays their master’s thesis or their doctoral thesis. It’s a great lesson in orchestration just going to a rehearsal with the score, having really studied the score. That’s one thing I did as a student when I went to Tanglewood. Before I went, I tried to get as many scores that the orchestra was playing as I could, and would go to rehearsal almost every day with the scores and that was one of the greatest orchestration lessons I’ve ever had. So I certainly encourage my students to do that sort of thing.

AG: Are there things that you tell your students as they’re finishing their education that you feel are really important for young composers to do or to know about?

PJ: Basically, you wish them good luck and try to help them land a job somewhere so that they can continue to compose. It’s a hard slog trying to find that first full-time teaching gig somewhere, at a place where you really want to be and that’s conducive to music making and gives you some creative freedom to do that. Just from a practical standpoint, I tell them to try to find time every day to compose. I can’t imagine a pianist graduating from college and then not practicing for six months. You have to keep up your chops, and I think it’s the same for a composer. It’s something you have to continue to do to get better at it, I think. And the most important thing, obviously, is to be able to hear your music performed. Not just with a MIDI file, but with real live performers and having that interaction. Most of them, after they’ve come through school here, have a base of friends that they can draw on and keep writing for who will keep performing their music. That’s lots of times how it starts. And so, we tell them early on, you have to be passionate about this. And they’re all like that, I mean it’s obviously something that they’re really passionate about. It’s something that they just have to do, whether they like it or not. It’s a calling and so we send them out into the world and hope for the best and try to help them as much as we can.

AG: And what about living in Texas? How has the environment in Texas played into your musical life?

PJ: Well, in terms of new music activity, it’s not New York or Boston or LA, but there’s opportunity here. And some of my colleagues—Karim Al-Zand, Tony Brandt, Rob Smith, and Marcus Maroney over at University of Houston—we started a group ten years ago called Musiqa, and we do some concerts at the Contemporary Arts Museum. We do concerts downtown and the whole idea behind it was to get new music out of the university and into downtown, into the community down there. The music school here is just top notch. All the musicians here are really fantastic. So it’s a really conducive environment for thinking about music and writing music. And the nice thing about Houston is it’s in the southern part of the country, but it’s sort of in the middle—it’s only a few hours flight to LA or a few hours flight to New York. It’s pretty easy to get places and it’s a big enough city—it’s the fourth largest city in the U.S.! I must say the weather took some getting used to, having grown up in Vermont, but I find the summers actually conducive to working because it’s so hot out. Unless you’re in the water, you don’t want to be outside for the most part. Then the rest of the year is quite lovely, actually. I miss the snow, but I try to get up there in the winter and do a little skiing.

AG: Do you have a particular composition that you feel stretched you farther than anything else?

PJ: One piece was an orchestra piece I wrote for Barry Jekowsky with the California Symphony when I was a young composer in residence there. It was the second piece I wrote for them called Sinfonia Sacra, and it was the longest piece I’d ever attempted to write. It was 30 minutes long, and for an orchestra piece for me, the longest piece I had written was maybe 15 minutes. I had written chamber pieces longer than that, but to use a huge orchestra and to sustain something for 30 minutes (though it is in three different movements), it was a big challenge for me. I thought it really taught me a lot, and it really came out well. Another example was when I first worked with this filmmaker in Montreal named Jean Detheux, and we collaborated on a piece for computer-generated images and music. We wanted it to be done with live music. It’s a very colorful, abstract work. I had to look at these moving images and come up with music that not just fit the images, but fit the timing of the images. How to try to do this live? At 12 seconds, oooh, that happens. So I have to compose something so that at 12 seconds exactly, something will happen. And then at 1 minute and 20 seconds this happens. That was really challenging. It was really fun to write the music because the images for me conjured up all these musical ideas, but I had to make it fit. And the amount of time I had to spend on that, you know, I probably could have written a 90-minute piece! And it ended up only really 12 minutes of music. But it was just a lot of going back and forth and trying to refine this and that. We since have done a second project together in which the music was already done, and he fit his images to the music. So we reversed the process the second time around. He had all the work. So that was really challenging and a really fun project to work on. They’re both up on Vimeo. One of them is the live performance of our first project together, and another one is from a piece called Visual Abstract that I had already written a number of years ago that he did the images to. We’ve also performed that live with the images. We projected on this giant screen and then the players are on stage underneath.

AG: When a work of yours is being performed, do you think about what you want the audience to hear and feel as it’s happening, or do you prefer to just have the music happen and let the audience figure it out?

PJ: No, I’m constantly thinking about communication. Ultimately I’m after two things: writing a piece that works on its own musical terms and writing a piece that communicates something to an audience. I’m constantly thinking about that. Now having said that, an audience is not a one-person deal. There are all sorts of people with different backgrounds in your audience, but if you study comedy and you tell a joke and a whole room laughs, there’s something universal in that joke and the timing of that comedian. There’s something that works in that. And so communication is a big deal for me.

AG: Is there anything about your composing career that has just been really surprising to you?

PJ: You know, I took a pretty traditional path. I started playing piano when I was really young. I started to compose pretty early on. It was all piano pieces because that’s my instrument, and I just played them myself. Early on, Copland was a big influence. We were playing his pieces in orchestra and youth orchestra and band and he was the only living concert composer that I knew of that was making a living writing music. But that was sort of the path I thought I would take, was to somehow try to make a living in music by composing and teaching. In school, I played in the school bands and youth orchestra and all of that and went on to college, got degrees. I was out of school for a few years just trying to have teaching gigs here and there, until I landed a full-time job at a university. I mean, that’s a pretty basic traditional path, at least for composers. I think it’s surprising that I’m a pianist, and I really like to write for piano, but I’ve written maybe two solo pieces for piano in the last 11 years! I’ve written a lot of string quartets, and I’m not a string player. So that was sort of surprising. I’ve actually written quite a lot of string music, or strings with piano, because a lot of musician colleagues who have asked for music happened to be string players. I’ve been very lucky I think in my path thus far. I hope along the way there’ll be more surprises!

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