Most people who play the marimba use four mallets, but Robert Paterson uses six. It makes him laugh when people who see him perform on the instrument this way call him “Edward Mallethands.” Though he admits he’s not the first percussionist to explore this technique, he might have devoted more of his energies to it than anyone else thus far. Using those extra mallets also seems to exemplify his entire approach to making a successful career in new music. Playing percussion is only one of the many things that he does. With his wife, Victoria Paterson, a concert violinist, he runs a new music ensemble in New York City—American Modern Ensemble—as well as a small, independent record label, the similarly named American Modern Recordings. He also conducts from time to time. But above and beyond everything, he’s a composer. For him, all of these activities are intimately connected.
“Exploring the timbres on the marimba and that sound world influences how I write for other instruments,” Robert Paterson explains and emphasizes that, above and beyond writing for any instrument, is the working notion that he is writing for other performers. “I like writing for people and knowing that people are playing these instruments. It’s going to end up sounding better if it’s written for people.”
As for the ensemble and the record company, these both developed slowly over a long period of time, but they evolved from the same fundamental approach he has to composing and performing. Paterson elaborates, “The reason I started an ensemble when I first moved to New York was I wasn’t getting as many chamber performances as I wanted. So I figured if nobody else is playing my music then I’ll just start my own group. A lot of other people have done it! I also wasn’t seeing enough American music being programmed and celebrated the way I wanted it to be. […] And actually I wanted an outlet to play as well, as a percussionist, and also to conduct a little bit, so I figured starting a group would be the perfect way of doing that. And the record company initially started out as a commercial record company where we made classical CDs ‘for the masses’—like a Christmas CD and a wedding CD—and those have done really well. We’re coming out with a divorce CD; it’s a funny CD. And what we do is we take the money from that and we help fund American Modern Recordings which celebrates new American music; and it’s working.”
Part of why it all works is that Robert Paterson hasn’t put all his mallets, so to speak, in one bag. Some of his activities not only help him but also further the entire ecology of new music. While there have been two American Modern Recordings releases thus far devoted exclusively to Paterson’s own compositions, AMR has also issued recordings like Powerhouse Pianists, featuring AME-affiliated pianists Stephen Gosling and Blair McMillen. AME’s concerts have featured an even broader range of repertoire. Paterson is particularly proud of the pieces the ensemble has presented by composers from all over the country—music that might not have otherwise been heard in New York City.
AME’s repertoire is also not biased toward any specific musical style. Despite Robert and Victoria’s use of the word “modern” for both the ensemble and the record company, there isn’t a specifically “modernist” agenda to the music promulgated. Inevitably, however, a lot of what the ensemble plays, as well as what the record label releases, channel Robert’s own compositional proclivities. Some of his music, like the Elegy for two bassoons and piano or the frequently ravishing The Thin Ice of Your Fragile Mind, belie a clear inheritance from the mid-century Americana of composers like Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson. There’s an almost Ivesian quirkiness to his Crimson Earth, a 1999 concerto for the somewhat improbable combination of violin and symphonic band, as well as a sense of humor worthy of Peter Schickele. On the other hand, works like the other-worldly Star Crossing and the off-kilter Quintus reveal a kinship with later timbre-focused composers like George Crumb and Joseph Schwantner. And while minimalism and post-minimalism do not seem to have had a direct influence on Robert’s own compositional forms, he professes a deep admiration for Steve Reich and a close listen to his own music reveals an undeniable familiarity and affinity with the aesthetics of composers like John Adams in its propulsive and often frenetic rhythmic drive. And, indeed, many of these composers have appeared on AME programs. Robert Paterson’s 2011 composition The Book of Goddesses, a hefty, nearly 40-minute trio for flute, harp, and percussion which has just been released on American Modern Recordings, further ups the ante; it is informed by the musical traditions of India, China, Ireland, Greece, Nigeria, Cuba, and Native Americans. However, at least with AME, Paterson’s focus is exclusively on music being made in the Americas.
“I think our group is open to anything,” exclaims Paterson. “As long as the main focus of it is—for lack of a better phrase—concert music, music that you are supposed to sit for and enjoy. If we feel we’ve gone down the minimalist road for too long, we’ll do something else. There are certain segments we haven’t explored enough; we haven’t done New Complexity that much, if at all. Serial and twelve-tone music we haven’t done a lot of, but there’s time and hopefully we’ll get to that. I’m pretty open to just about anything. The only two divisions we have in the American Modern Ensemble are that we don’t do any European or Asian music. But we will do [music from] Central and South America. I don’t think enough of us know what’s going on in South America […] and we’d like to try to fix that if we can. And we’re not into pop or jazz. That’s really not what we’re about, unless it’s worked into a concert music setting. There are some divisions that are being taken down anyway. Most of the composers out there are writing music where I don’t even know if they’d know what to call it.”
Given his seeming total immersion in the self-sufficient indie world of chamber music, it’s somewhat surprising that Paterson is also very attracted to the orchestra—an ensemble which virtually no one has ever managed to pull off as a DIY endeavor. In the coming days, he will have the opportunity to hear his Dark Mountains, a new composition for orchestra, in a total of eight different locations as part of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s “Made in Vermont” tour. These kinds of thematically oriented concert tours involving new music, which are commonplace for chamber groups, are all too rare in the orchestral community, but still it doesn’t come without hitches.
“I was limited to no percussion, only timpani, no brass except horns, a handful of winds and all strings,” admits Paterson. “Although there’s plenty of color you can get out of all those instruments, I felt a little sad about it. But it was O.K. […] There’s a grandness to the orchestra that you’re never going to get out of a chamber group even if it’s amplified. There’s something wonderful about looking at a stage full of people and seeing them all working together and creating these beautiful sounds—there’s nothing that’s going to replace that. I love orchestras; I played in orchestras when I was younger for many, many years. I’ve spent my whole life wanting to do this and it’s been hard, but if I had my way I’d do a lot more of this. I love interacting and collaborating, so I love working with conductors and talking with the performers and figuring things out.”
Paterson will get to do more orchestral writing later this season, also for musicians in Vermont. In May 2012 the Vermont Youth Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Jeffrey Domoto will premiere a new twenty-minute work by him. So writing another large-scale composition will be yet another activity to work into his busy schedule in the coming months.
“I do feel like my life is a little crazy,” Paterson acknowledges. “I do so many different things, I wear so many hats, that I’m constantly trying to balance everything. So I get up every day and I have to make myself lists. I have a little routine that I do. I check my email for a few minutes and then I’ll go to work and do some stuff for a while. I’ll compose or whatever. I’ll eat lunch and then I’ll compose some more, and then more email for the rest of the day unless it’s a non-composing day—I have some. I wish I had a golden formula; I don’t. Every day is a different set of circumstances.”