Sebastian Currier: Reversible Time
A conversation at Currier’s Harlem apartment on September 6, 2012 — 2:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Considering how deeply composer Sebastian Currier has thought about time, and how important time is to music (according to him, “music is [...] really nothing but time and air, literally”), his own relationship to time, at least in the chronological sense of music history, is somewhat ambiguous. While the myriad details that are crammed into his scores are reminiscent of the elaborate layers found in the Romantic music of the 19th century, and his detailed conceptualizations for pieces seem as thoroughly plotted as those of a post-War total serialist, Currier writes music that very much belongs to our own less certain times. It doesn’t fit neatly into any particular rubric and—in terms of both the ideas that inspire it as well as the actual way it sounds—it clearly relates to the here and now.
The sonic information overload that is contained in so many of Sebastian Currier’s pieces is perhaps attributable to a childhood spent completely immersed in the standard repertoire. His father was a concert violinist, and his mother Marilyn and brother Nathan are both active composers to this day. Young Sebastian and Nathan at first gravitated toward rock in their youth, but their heroes were Emerson, Lake & Palmer who, in turn, were inspired by composers like Mussorgsky. After a while, they were both much more attracted to the larger forms and listening modalities that were more clearly associated with classical music.
As much as I loved rock music, I felt this other thing had this breadth where you could go anywhere. It seemed to be so rich in terms of motion, character, whatever word you want to say. It was about that sort of travel. A pop song sets up a parameter, and it sort of is what it is. It sustains that and there are minor articulations. But with a piece of orchestra music, if you’re talking about Mahler or something like that, you get on here and you get let off over there and taken all around in between.
However, like most composers in the century since Mahler died, Currier carefully molds his music’s journey in a highly idiosyncratic way. In his particular case, that molding is very elaborate. It’s no surprise that during his formative years, his principal composition teachers were Milton Babbitt and George Perle, two of the towering figures of American twelve-tone music. Yet Currier’s sound world most of the time is very far removed from modernism. In fact, it’s sometimes downright anti-modernist as well as anti-traditionalist. In both so-called common practice-era tonality and in the highly organized serialism that reached its zenith in the middle of the last century, a goal oriented approach was often a driving force. For composers of Currier’s age and younger, that kind of overarching directionality—whether a resolution toward a clear tonal center or a combinatorial approach to a specific chromatic aggregate—carries much less weight. In fact, many of Currier’s pieces seem like multiple answers to the same question, and none of those answers offer the certainty of absolute correctness.
We live in a multifarious world. I don’t like and don’t respect [...] the sort of closed feeling that [...] it’s this way or the highway. It just doesn’t make sense to me as a conceptual framework for the way the world is.
While he has amassed an impressive catalog of orchestral, solo, and chamber music compositions (he is the only composer ever to receive a Grawemeyer Award for a piece of chamber music), in recent years Currier has also been involved in several multimedia projects which offer a whole new array of expressive possibilities. (In November 2012, the American Composers Orchestra will release a digital download of Currier’s apocalyptic post-Katrina inspired Next Atlantis for string orchestra and pre-recorded electronics created in collaboration with video artist Pawel Wojtasik.) But whatever he is working on, whether he is creating something that will be coupled with constantly shifting images or setting a text, what always comes first and foremost for him is the music. In that sense, he is a very old-fashioned composer, and it is in the company of the music of the composers of the past that his music most frequently lives. Among his most ardent champions is the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter who is most often heard playing Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn; in fact, Currier is the only living American-born composer whose music she has recorded with an orchestra. More recently, his music has been performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, again a rare occurrence for a composer who is both living and from the United States.
But in the end, despite this very clear link to the past, his music and the way he creates it is very much a phenomenon of the present. The most prominent objects in his Spartan apartment are his computer and his electronic keyboard.
I have no nostalgia. I think computers help me [...] to work broadly, and then to zero in. [… If] you meet somebody you don’t know and they ask you what you do. [...] It’s a funny thing. Here I am in my 50s, and I still don’t know how to deal with that question. When you just say classical music, it tends to sound like a throwback. [...] I feel connected to that, but I think when you say that there are also some associations that may be can give the incorrect feeling, too, because it’s all about doing something new, but relating to something from the past also.
Frank J. Oteri: Whether it’s an orchestra piece, a chamber piece, or a solo piano piece, there is such incredible detail in everything you’ve written. To my ears that detail belies a very deep and thorough understanding of past music, the so-called common practice standard repertoire of classical music. Yet at the same time, the music still sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been written at any other time except now. Still I find that deep immersion striking, because it’s something I don’t hear in very much contemporary music. So it made me wonder how important it is to you that a listener be familiar with that tradition in order to fully understand how your music is, in some way, a response to it.
Sebastian Currier: That’s hard to answer. I’m going to agree with everything you said. I grew up listening to Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Scarlatti—just endless hours. It’s something that’s in me. Though it is something I do less of now, I did it obsessively at certain times and I think the level of detail does relate to that. I also think sometimes that maybe I am too detailed, because a lot of music written today isn’t, and it leads to a different type of listening. When you have the detail that I do, it’s sort of more like reading a novel. You need to follow it through. You can’t just let it pass by. So I agree with all that, but whether a listener needs that background—I’d like to think they didn’t, but maybe they do. It’s hard for me to know about that. And I’m not surprised when people don’t respond to my music; that tradition is something that doesn’t mean anything to them. So in a negative way, I see that those two things are related.
FJO: So do you embrace the term classical music to describe what you do? Is that what your music is?
SC: You know, you meet somebody you don’t know and they ask you what you do. What kind of music do you write? It’s a funny thing. Here I am in my 50s, and I still don’t know how to deal with that question. I think the answer is yes, I feel connected to that, but I think when you say that there are also some associations that maybe can give the incorrect feeling, too, because it’s all about doing something new, but relating to something from the past also. When you just say classical music, it tends to sound like a throwback, and it doesn’t point to things like different new media stuff, as I’ve done in the last eight years or so. That would seem to be not included in that sort of description. So I guess I’d say I reluctantly accept it, but it doesn’t seem really perfect.
FJO: We don’t really have a good term.
SC: It always seems to be symptomatic of the slight awkwardness of our place in society that there’s not a name. Even “new music” is something that’s been appropriated to pop music quite a bit. People use that term, or modern music.
FJO: So to get back to those folks you mentioned who don’t respond to your music who you feel might not be grounded in classical music and therefore perhaps don’t quite get what you’re doing in your music. I think this might be about the commitment to listening that it requires. The more concentrated and more focused you are on the details, I think the more someone can get from listening to your music. But by the same token, when you mention that the multimedia stuff doesn’t connect to classical music, I wonder if there’s a lack of comprehension that goes the other way. For people who are so versed in classical music, and the specific tradition of how they experience it, to be suddenly confronted with visual input can be a distracting information overload.
SC: I haven’t found that so much. That seems to be something people readily embrace, the allure of the image and the projection and video as something of our time.
FJO: But I’ve so often heard some people in the classical music community grumble that when there’s a video it interferes with the listening experience. They don’t need to see these things to imagine what the music is. They want to be able to imagine what it is for themselves and let their minds create their own images, especially when video is projected to go along with performances of standard repertoire pieces.
SC: Well that certainly is true, but doesn’t that relate therefore to just what’s being done, and how it’s being done. I mean, if it was done in a thoughtful way that did expand it, they probably wouldn’t say that. But obviously it can seem gratuitous, without a doubt.
FJO: I’d like to return to your multimedia pieces a bit later, but first I want to take it back to what you were saying about growing up being immersed in classical music. Your personal story is somewhat unique—your mother being a composer and your father being a professional violinist. Your brother is a composer also. That’s a competitive environment to grow up in: three composers and a performing musician. How do you create a unique musical identity within that kind of family dynamic?
SC: You mentioned it’s competitive, but it’s also the opposite. It’s also sort of nurturing. You have this common element. I think the competitive part obviously deals more with my brother than my mom, who’s from a different generation. But it happens more coming from the outside, not internally. At a certain time, you’re applying to the same things. [My brother and I] were at Tanglewood together and we went to Juilliard at the same time. So that is where that sort of stuff happens. But otherwise, growing up, I think that was a great thing, because we’d be sitting there talking about and listening to music. And when we were quite young, maybe 10 and 11, my brother and I had this rock band.
FJO: Who started writing music first?
SC: I think we probably both did, and it related really to, again, the pop stuff, because we wrote our own stuff. Whereas, you know, when you’re young with classical, you start to learn an instrument. We liked bands like Emerson Lake & Palmer that had this mix of classical stuff. I remember us waiting outside a big performance space in Providence after an Emerson, Lake & Palmer concert. My brother had a score of something he had written for them, and we gave it to them in their limousine at the back. They were very sweet. I’m sure they were looking at us like, who are these little kids, you know. But that might have been one of the first compositions, between the two of us.
FJO: What did your parents think of your interest in rock?
SC: Well, they supported us in a lot of ways except the fact that we had these big Marshall amplifiers, and the police came, and that’s stuff they could have done without. Otherwise I think they were pretty open.
FJO: But you gave up rock.
SC: Yeah. I gave up.
SC: No precise reason, except I remember this very, very well. I played violin when I was very young. That didn’t take. We were into rock stuff; we were totally into it like kids are, just all day all night, totally obsessed. But there were all these records in my parents’ house of classical stuff. You know, Beethoven, Brahms, whatever, and contemporary stuff—a whole bevy of stuff. And I remember us starting to listen. My brother and I sort of happened at the same time to be listening to this stuff. And as much as I loved rock music, I felt this other thing had this breadth where you could go anywhere. It seemed to be so rich in terms of motion, character. It was about that sort of travel. A pop song sets up a parameter, and it sort of is what it is. It sustains that and there are minor articulations. But with a piece of orchestra music, if you’re talking about Mahler or something like that, you get on here and you get let off over there and taken all around in between. So I was very taken with that. Again, when you talk about detail in my music, those were the things that I think were very formative for me, that feeling of what this music, whatever we want to call it, does.
FJO: It’s interesting hearing you describe exposure to classical music being about learning to play an instrument whereas rock was about creating your own music. The idea of coming up with something original is something very attractive for a creative mind, but often people will get exposed to classical music and think this is just music by all these dead guys and they do not get exposed to the fact that such music kept going into the present time and that there are living composers who are still doing this stuff now. But your mother’s a composer. So how much of an influence did she have on the music that you eventually wrote?
SC: I’m not sure that much, but maybe some. Obviously in the sense that we grew up with it, there was the model right there for sure. In terms of the actual music, I’m not sure you know. Maybe yes, maybe no. I think I’d need an outside assessor to figure that one out. Have you heard any of her stuff?
FJO: No, but I would very much like to hear it. I do know your brother’s music, but I don’t know your mother’s music at all.
SC: Some of her stuff uses jazz in a way. That’s sort of not my world to do that.
FJO: Except that I’d argue that your Piano Sonata is very jazzy.
SC: O.K. There are elements of it in the rhythmic nature of it, I guess.
FJO: I was listening to it back to back last week with some Herbie Hancock recordings, so maybe it helped me make a connection.
SC: That’s interesting.
FJO: But as long as we’re talking about the Piano Sonata; that’s a title that clearly relates it to classical music. Terms like piano sonata, concerto, string quartet, or symphony are loaded with historical associations. Say the word symphony, and people will immediately think Beethoven, Mahler, etc. So when you use such a title, you’re automatically connecting yourself to those precedents. You subverted it a bit when you named a piece Microsymph. You were saying that you’re attracted to music that takes you on this long journey. Here’s a piece that takes you on a journey, but it does so very quickly…
SC: Exactly. Mahler for modern times, right?
FJO: So why reference those titles now?
SC: Well, the Piano Sonata is an early piece—I think I did it in ‘88 or something like that. I think I wanted to reference, not just going back to Beethoven, but also obviously there’s the Barber Sonata, there’s a contemporary American practice that relates to that, too, or Prokofiev sonatas. I think it came from a kinship with that. However, in the case of the Piano Concerto, that was more of a conscious choice to do that when I’ve mostly had titles that referred to some conceptual component of the piece. There I wanted to banish that and just work within this simple tri-partite structure. That sort of seemed the logical thing to do. But I had alternate titles that I considered that I can’t remember now.
FJO: Yet you’ve written many pieces for soloists and orchestra over the years and you don’t call any of them concertos; each has a unique name, like your most recent one for harp and orchestra which you titled Traces. So is that piece somehow not a harp concerto?
SC: It is a harp concerto in structure, I think. That’s a complicated thing, the history of the concerto in the 20th century—really great pieces that are sort of un-concertos or something like that, like the Ligeti concerti where the instruments aren’t meant to have this 19th-century heroic stance of the individual to this mass and so on. To me, if you’re writing for a soloist with orchestra, wanting to undo that or to totally negate that is a little perverse. It’s about finding a new way of relating. And, of course, the case of harp is interesting because harp with orchestra is so problematic acoustically. So I wanted to find my own way for that. And the way I looked at it for Traces is that harp, in its sheer volume, can never win over the orchestra. But what it can do is lead the way. I have the harp being the initiator of everything. I thought that was a new way to deal with that relationship of the one to the many.
FJO: While the harp can easily get drowned out, if you orchestrate a certain way, it cuts through. That’s how it was traditionally used in the orchestra, as a punctuation that cuts through just now and then, but you’ve made that cutting though the focus of the piece.
SC: I know. Exactly. And it was a matter here of having this incredible opportunity to work with the Berlin Phil, but I also felt I had to sort of act with restraint. So I set up the framework of the piece such that that aspect of it would happen to some extent more naturally.
FJO: And if you get asked to write a piece for Anne-Sophie Mutter, as you did, even though you called it Time Machines and not “violin concerto,” you certainly wouldn’t write an un-concerto for her.
SC: Indeed, and I wouldn’t want to.
FJO: So how did you get connected to her?
SC: It’s a totally random thing. And it just goes to show you can never predict the way things happen. Do you remember—I’m sure you do, but many people wouldn’t at this point—the Friedheim awards?
SC: I had a piece there, and it was sort of a little bit like Survivor. There are four people, and then they ranked you there, and you won or didn’t win and got sent packing. So there are four pieces, and I was three of four, so it wasn’t total humiliation, but it didn’t feel like the greatest night. And it was my violin and piano piece Clockwork. One of the jurors was Lambert Orkis, and he came up to me afterwards and he said, “I quite like that piece; I’d like to send it to Anne-Sophie Mutter whom I play with.” And I thought, “Sure, right.” You know, it seemed so unlikely. But I sent it to him like he asked. And then a few months later, I got an email from Anne-Sophie’s secretary saying that she didn’t want to play Clockwork; she’d like to commission a new piece instead. So that’s how we started the association. It turned out—even better—she never even told me, once we had the commission in place, she actually played Clockwork in Asia. It was also this fortuitous thing where the year that she was playing the piece I wrote—which was Aftersong—I was in Rome. I was close by in Europe, so I said, “Can I come to the concerts?” And she actually had me come; I came around to almost all of their concerts. Later she admitted that she wondered if it was a wise idea. Like, you know, was I total nut or whatever. But we actually had a great time, and she’s been really important to me in so many ways since then. It was really one of those things that no amount of planning would make happen; it was a very important, fortuitous chance thing.
FJO: It’s invaluable to have the advocacy of such a world-traveled European soloist who doesn’t play a lot of American composers since she’s really not exposed to what’s happening here very much. So you have your foot in the door in Europe in a way that is extremely enviable for a composer. And Traces just got done in Europe. I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation.
SC: I think there’s probably some. As you know well, it is a very different world. But sure, I am getting played there. She just did Time Machines with the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, which was really great. So one can hope that will continue on.
FJO: There’s another aspect of your pieces for soloists and orchestra that I’d like to touch on here, specifically Traces and Time Machines. You used the name “Piano Concerto” for your piece for piano and orchestra, and when you mentioned why you did so you talked about it having a “simple tri-partite structure.” Three movements is standard concerto form. But these other pieces, which you did not call concertos, unfold quite differently. In both of the pieces we’ve been talking about, you really do an experiment with the form by having many smaller movements and tying them together and having material from one movement be interpreted in a different way in another. It’s a very different approach to form. So in that sense, also, they’re really not concertos.
SC: Right, but except for an early piece like the Piano Sonata, I’m not sure I came from that sort of literalism. When you’re talking about a concerto, yes, there’s a three-movement structure, but there is also that broader idea of what does it mean to be a concerto, which you don’t need to really think about in terms of the three-movement structure, but more the dynamic relationship. I think actually the history of the word itself comes originally from sort of a cooperation. When you think of the Baroque concerto, it’s a very different relationship than the classical one, which is when a sort of a proto-Romantic concerto happens.
FJO: Another loaded genre name is the string quartet. I love the two pieces you wrote for the Cassatt, neither of which you called “string quartet,” but you actually composed two pieces before those, which I’ve never heard, that you did name string quartets. I find it interesting to call something String Quartet No. 2, because it not only gives listeners an association with Mozart or Shostakovich, but it also ties to your own history. You know, what about String Quartet No. 1? But you didn’t call Quartetset—the first of the pieces for the Cassatts—“String Quartet No. 3.” You view it as something other. And I’m curious about what that other is.
SC: Well, the First Quartet is so old, but I felt like I needed to acknowledge it and call the other one the second. But those aren’t pieces that I [now] have played; I was learning at that time. By the time of Quartetset, I was sort of in a different place. We are talking about titles now, it relates to how a title helps you get into a piece and relates also to the concept that surrounds it. At a certain point, I ended up using that as a method most of the time.
FJO: But it’s interesting, because Quartetset is still sort of a generic title, even though it’s a title only you’ve used—well, you and Lou Harrison, who wrote a piece he called String Quartet Set. But calling it a set perhaps calls attention to its having many shorter movements, just like Traces and Time Machines.
FJO: Yet when you wrote Quiet Time, which is ostensibly your de facto String Quartet Number Four, if I may, it has a similar structure. Like Quartetset, it has seven movements. And, in fact, you have described it as an attempt to go back and create the same kind of piece a decade later, so I’m curious about what your two approaches were to writing the same piece.
SC: I’ll answer that, but to go back to Quartetset, I think that’s one of the few cases where I sort of got distracted in terms of the title. Usually I conceptualize what a piece is, and I generally end up doing that. You know, of course, it’s always sort of T.S. Eliot—between the idea and the reality there’s a shadow, stuff changes. But that was a case where what I really wanted to do, which I mean I think I should have done but I didn’t, was to write a bunch of short pieces. It seemed to me that string quartets [ensembles] only have string quartets [compositions]. So I wanted to write the equivalent of Chopin etudes, or preludes, or mazurkas, things that could be excerpted that were short pieces that made a collection, hence the name Quartetset. But then I got going on it, and I got these sort of expansive movements, and it ended up being more like just a quartet. It sort of morphed. I remember I had problems writing that piece. For some reason, it was a little bit tortured to get it to happen.
FJO: When you talk about movements existing on their own, I can’t imagine any of them doing so except for maybe the sixth movement, which is so hauntingly beautiful.
SC: It is being done as a dance thing.
FJO: The viola seems to have an extremely prominent role throughout Quartetset, but particularly in that sixth movement. It leads in a way that the viola rarely does in the string quartet literature.
SC: I can think of places now that you mention that, but I don’t know if that was intentional. Maybe. My father was [also] a violist. He played viola more later in life, so there was a lot of viola around.
But getting back to how Quiet Time and Quartetset are related, there is an answer to that that might not be apparent. I always thought of Quartetset as part of a group of pieces along with Vocalissimus and Entanglement and Theo’s Sketchbook that sometimes I talk about as music in the third person. When you read a novel—even if there’s a first person narrative—you don’t assume it’s the novelist. It’s somehow distant. And obviously, there’d be other novelists that would have many different points of view, even maybe characters that serve as narrators. In music, however, there’s sort of a presumption—I think—that it’s a first person thing. It’s like memoir all the time. And so I wondered if that needs to be true, or if there’d be an advantage from stepping back from that a little bit. That’s very clear in something like Vocalissimus, where it’s 18 settings of the same Wallace Stevens poem so it becomes very much about that. Entanglement is sort of a basic concept for a piece that two composers have, but they’re very different, so it’s borne out in different ways. Theo’s Sketchbook is a compilation through the lifetime of a composer, so it gives a sense of a narrative arc—a lifetime of a composer’s music.
Quartetset is more abstract, but I suppose follows that in some way. I don’t think I executed it that well, but I thought of it as somehow the past and the present being the two voices. When the piece begins, there is this sort of almost Viennese little thing that it begins with and the violin comes in on this one note, and it crescendos to this note, and when it gets to the top of the note, it moves to the next note, and a chord comes in. You really feel like, right before you, it sort of morphs between two worlds. I don’t think I did it extremely enough, or consistently enough through the piece, but that was my idea. So in Quiet Time, I was following the idea of this sort of dialogue between two things, but that dialogue was between natural and artificial sounds. The beautiful full-bodied sound of the quartet, then the things one does in digital signal processing—some sort of filtering, some sort of harmonic thing, pitch shifting or remodulation, compressing time or expanding time, resonances like reverbs and delays. So basically my dialogue was between the natural quartet sound and then these, in my mind, processed versions. So I somehow related that dialogue to being like the past and the present for Quartetset. But it’s not something that is very readily apparent when you just listen to it.
FJO: This idea of writing in the voice of another imaginary composer is a very strange one, I think. But what’s interesting is that each time you’ve explored that idea in a very different way. Entanglement isn’t a sonata for violin and piano; rather it’s two sonatas fused together.
SC: Exactly. Right.
FJO: But obviously both composers are you.
FJO: In a way, every composer is writing toward a specific musical solution that works for whatever idea they may have for a piece in advance, whatever the style or compositional system. In these pieces, you question that process by offering multiple solutions. In Entanglement there are two, in Vocalissimus you offer a total of 18, which is weird. So how are these hypothetical composers you’ve created not you? How would you have done things differently?
SC: Isn’t it reflective of you to say there’s one solution? If you went back to the 18th century, that would be pretty apparent. But since the 20th century, I’m not sure that would be apparent. We live in a multifarious world. So I think that’s part of it. There’s a certain strain today even in European modernist stuff. I was at Columbia University, and there’s [some modernist] music I very much respect and like. But what I don’t like and don’t respect is the sort of closed feeling that that’s the only way, that it’s this way or the highway. It just doesn’t make sense to me as a conceptual framework for the way the world is. All of these things, going back to the different characters, can reflect that point of view. And I don’t know how weird it is. It’s not weird at all to ask that question if there’s a character in a novel. It’d almost be absurdly naïve to say that a character has nothing to do with the author. The relationships that are set up are all from the author, and the story that’s being told as a whole is the author’s, right?
FJO: I take your point, but this is music. I think the piece where it’s the most apparent is Theo’s Sketchbook. You’re creating this world of a composer from his juvenilia to the last piece that he writes, and you’re saying this isn’t you. You’re saying that if you were the composer writing all of these pieces, they’d be much different than this.
FJO: So, to get really specific, how are you a different composer than Theo?
SC: Well, to get really specific, I’m mid-career, he’s done his thing. One of the things in that particular piece that was the starting point for me was whether we can hear maturity; that’s an attribute that we hear in music. An early Mozart piece sounds different than a late Mozart piece. We feel something. You don’t even need to be told that much. You figure that out. And the question is, why? What is it? So that’s what the impetus was for scoping out that piece. And that just seemed like a way. How else would I do it, but to distance myself and have that sort of fictional narrative?
FJO: It’s funny that you mention Mozart who died at 35.
SC: Right, but Bastien et Bastienne or something like that is different from—
FJO: —the Jupiter Symphony or the Requiem.
SC: Exactly. Yeah.
FJO: But can you write the music of a 70-year old if you’re not 70?
SC: Well, can a male writer take the voice of a woman? Sure. You can, but it is fiction; it’s posed in some way. Everybody knows it’s the nature of fiction; we know we’re reading a book that’s not real. It’s about entering into that world and having that relationship between the actual and the imaginary, right? So I’m asking the same thing. I think you could say that yes, I think I have pieces that maybe in some ways are program music, but that I don’t want to have be program music. So this adds that element, because you’re having to imagine this relationship.
FJO: Let’s continue this analogy of a novelist writing in someone else’s voice. An extremely effective novel written in such a way which immediately comes to mind is Robert Graves’s I Claudius, which is a first person narrative by the Emperor Claudius, somebody from 2,000 years ago. Graves had to get into the head of this guy, who’s not 100 percent likeable at all times, but he has to find a way to make him sympathetic. Graves really had to deeply empathize with Claudius and get into his head and make the reader believe in him somehow. How did you become Theo? How do you get into that zone where you write music that’s not you, to write the music of a teenager again, or, even more difficult, to write the music of an old man decades before you’re one yourself? How did you get to that place and say, this is Theo’s music, for yourself, to make it work?
SC: I don’t know. I think I did that relatively intuitively. There wasn’t that much thought in a way—it’s disappointing to say—in terms of that. But part of it was setting it in the Northwest and there’s Eskimo music in it. As a composer, I generally don’t do that sort of thing. So that sort of allowed me to try it on, within the context of stepping back a little bit. The other thing was having something sort of childish that seems to sort of blossom into something and then move into something else; that was part of the whole formal nature of the piece because it dealt with the full arc of a lifetime.
FJO: I love this idea that writing this piece allowed you to write music you were interested in writing but which you felt you couldn’t write as yourself.
SC: Not music I couldn’t write but don’t write, and that I could maybe dip into in a way that I wouldn’t normally. Maybe I will someday. Who knows?
FJO: Could this be a way to go back to writing for rock band, say, writing a piece that’s in the head of a guy who stayed doing rock?
SC: There we go, my next piece. You never know. But I should say, because we’re talking about it a lot, that idea was sort of a passing thing. I haven’t done that in some time, but it interested me for a while. It really started with Vocalissimus and with the particular idea of text setting. Actually, because I heard some I thought god-awful setting of Blake’s “The Tiger”—
“Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night”
—and thought why would anybody set that like that. I’m sure that composer, who luckily I’ve forgotten, had reasons for why he did what he did. But that made me realize that when we set stuff, it’s sort of like a mirror of ourselves. We think we’re interpreting one thing, but in fact we’re really more reflecting who we are. So that was the core of where I started. And then Vocalissimus branched out from that. Finding, I thought, a cubist point of view to a text. Then that gave me the idea that I can scope this out in other ways.
FJO: So is a listener going to be able to get that from just the music? How important is it to you that listeners know what the idea is that generates the piece?
SC: I think anything should work. I often go to a concert and I don’t read the program notes. I just want to hear the piece. Maybe if you’re interested, you’ll explore stuff. The one thing I would say, if you’re hearing Theo’s Sketchbook and you know nothing about it: You hear this childish little thing, you hear it change, by the end it sort of broadens out, and then you hear something that sort of is a much more mature version of this childish thing you’ve heard before. I think that would give you signs of something going on. You don’t need to know the rest, but that’s sort of inherent in the shape without having to know any sort of extra-musical, textual thing. I would hope that every piece I do has some conceptual component. In Quiet Time, you might not know that it’s a dialogue between natural and artificial, but once I told you that, you could think, “Oh yeah, I heard that first phrase like this, I heard that same phrase again, but sort of like it was weird and twisted in a way that I guess I can imagine was remodulation.”
FJO: Obviously when you add a text, you’re adding something that people get instantly: the words, unless you’re setting randomly generated words or maybe late Gertrude Stein texts, which are their own wonderful universes. But, as you said, people think they’re being pure to a text but often they’re just reflecting their own aesthetics. Two vocal pieces of yours handle this situation very differently from each other: Sleepers and Dreamers, your new piece for chorus and orchestra, and Vocalissimus. In Vocalissimus you’re setting the same line, over and over again, each time in a different way. It’s a strange idea; you calling it cubist is a very interesting way to describe it. In a way it totally subverts this notion of serving a text in a certain way and the music being a vessel on which this text lies. Instead, the text became a workshop for a wide variety of compositional approaches.
SC: That’s true, but it is something that I set up particularly for that piece. And it took me some time to get the right text, because I think one thing it needed was a certain openness and ambiguity and obviously brevity, too, to make that work. In that piece, it becomes more about the process.
FJO: So you had the idea for how you were going to set this text before you actually had chosen the specific text?
SC: Yeah. I was looking at another Wallace Stevens poem with the phrase “Look at the terrible mirror of the sky,” which seemed totally appropriate because I’m talking about sort of a mirror of oneself. But that phrase was set in three stanzas and I thought, I can’t do this; it was just going to be too long. So I kept looking for a long time until I found that very brief poem by Wallace Stevens that I could set many times.
FJO: Susan Narucki is just stunning on the recording. She takes on these different identities so effectively, which raises an interpretative issue. It’s not about having one sound and you really have to be kind of deliberate in order to deliver it.
SC: But I think that when you’re thinking about the performative aspect of it, that gives a singer something that’s sort of enjoyable to do. It extends what I said about my doing something that I ordinarily wouldn’t do. It’s the same thing in a way. It invites the singer to do things that would be out of her comfort zone and, as a matter of fact, I think the better performances are where singers are more willing to do this—to sing with a voice that they would not want to be heard, one that’s totally flattened and maybe child-like in [another] one, something like that. It allows you to try different things. I’m like giving you that license to do it.
FJO: In tying this back to our earlier thread in this conversation about interacting with the tradition of classical music, Vocalissimus connects with a specific legacy that’s 100 years old at this point: Pierrot Lunaire. You use the same instrumentation only with percussion as so many composers have done over the course of the last century. I wonder if the ghosts of those pieces were hovering over you in any way. Schoenberg has certainly been a huge ghost over all of 20th century music. He was a great figure, but he’s also been kind of used as a dart board by people who have certain attitude about what contemporary music should be. He’s the guy that gets accused of making music ugly and being cliquish, creating things that only a few people could understand. I wonder if in some way this piece was about exorcising those ghosts.
SC: The thing with Schoenberg is you have his importance, and then you have his music, and there are few pieces that I like a great deal and then a lot of it I’m not interested in. It doesn’t interest me that much to sit down and listen to a great deal of his stuff. I actually like Pierrot and I love the Five Pieces for Orchestra; the early stuff I like. But after that, I’m not sure it matters that much to me. But maybe you’re asking the question more broadly—what he stands for. The generation before were obsessed with it. It’s not really important for me.
FJO: Well, in terms of your formative years as a composer, your two principal teachers were Milton Babbitt and George Perle, both of whom were direct extensions of Schoenberg. Babbitt was taking Schoenberg’s ideas to their logical next level and Perle’s initial misinterpreting of Schoenberg led him to a whole new way of reconciling twelve-tone thinking with tonality. So I’m curious about how their musical ideas filtered through to you.
SC: Well, in the case of Milton Babbitt, he was, as I’m sure you know, an incredibly smart guy and he very much prided himself on letting people do what they wanted to do. So I enjoyed working with him, and I learned a lot. But his projects and the implicit project of the follow through of dodecaphony and the picayune sort of relationships with pitch and collections of pitches, that didn’t mean that much to me. Pitch is very important to me, but the way things are worked out in this pre-compositional mathematical way wasn’t ever that important to me. So I don’t think in terms of him. I don’t have a feeling of much influence. In terms of Perle, maybe just in terms of his trying to start from the ground up and look at other ways of looking at pitch structures was kind of interesting to me at a certain point. The very basic idea of interval cycles is still something that, I think, does play a role.
FJO: That’s interesting. I’ve immersed myself in many of your scores. I haven’t done too deep an analysis of it, but following along with the score as I was in listening to Broken Consort, it really did seem influenced by twelve-tone music.
SC: I know exactly what you’re talking about, but that’s from a different point of view. The whole idea of having some jagged line that’s moving around and uses all twelve pitches and is sort of complicated sounds great, right? But the feeling that you’re going to take that, and that it matters that later you have one hexachord that you’ve transposed up a fifth, that is the stuff that doesn’t interest me that much, to focus in on that. But yes, there are definitely elements of the sound world that are appealing to me.
FJO: And obviously, the listener is invited to conjure up that sound world from certain types of gestures, and I would contend, certain instrumental combinations, or more specifically certain ways of combining them. To bring it back to Vocalissimus and the ghosts of Schoenberg and Pierrot Lunaire—Pierrot Lunaire wasn’t a twelve-tone piece, but the Pierrot instrumentation became the sound world for so much twelve-tone music.
SC: Absolutely, but maybe it’s not always a choice. One just ends up writing a certain amount for that because one’s asked and so on. Static was written because Copland House came to me, and there might have been some wiggle room, like you could not use the flute or not use the clarinet, but it all sort of clustered around that type of combination.
FJO: The Pierrot ensemble has actually been very good for you. Static won a Grawemeyer and you’re the only composer ever to win for a piece of chamber music.
SC: There you go. So my hat’s off to Schoenberg on that one.
FJO: But in a piece like Static, there wasn’t the conscious choice of your saying, “I’m going to write a piece for this ensemble since there are so many of these ensembles around.”
SC: Exactly. But in other cases it might be more a gray area. For Vocalissimus, I did choose that.
FJO: Specifically to conjure up Pierrot?
SC: No, I think more because it was a practical thing that I wanted in terms of getting performance opportunities.
FJO: Sleepers and Dreamers is a lot more ambitious in terms of instrumentation. But again, it’s a very unorthodox approach, I think, to setting a text. It’s a piece for chorus and orchestra, but you’ve set a first-person text. You don’t even have any vocal soloists; it’s always the full chorus.
SC: When you say first person, you mean many different persons.
FJO: Yes, but all the “I”s are being sung by “we”—always.
SC: Right. For the nature of the concert, that was partially practical. It wouldn’t have worked with soloists. And there’s no reason why a chorus couldn’t take on these different characters, it seemed to me, and to make that happen musically.
FJO: I found it interesting that one of the characters is named Sebastian.
SC: Well, I’ll tell you the story. I worked with Sarah Manguso, who is, I think, an amazing writer and a good friend. We did a piece that’s being done in Houston, Deep-Sky Objects, a then we did this piece. The concept was mine. I said basically what I want is the objective signs of sleep and I want to counter that with the subjective world of dreams. And so she gave me a text. I really liked the first part a lot; it’s what’s there now. But her dreams just weren’t right. I think there’s a thing with writers and dreams, because there’s so much license and one would tend to over compensate the other way. I needed the opposite. I needed the basic components of dreams: the exaggeration, the fear, the strangeness. So I ended up not using her text. There are these big dream databases for sleep research in California that I was going to use. I started to look for stuff there, but in the meantime I would just ask my friends, not necessarily about the dream they had last night, but dreams that they remembered from a long time ago. And I got so many good dreams that I ended up using them. So everybody in there is somebody I know; they’re all real people and real dreams. There was something obviously fun about that. I knew these people, but also I just thought they were great dreams.
FJO: So Sebastian is you.
SC: Indeed, Sebastian is me. There’s one where I change it around. Only one. The rest are all real people. Actually there were two that were mine, but I named one after my father instead.
FJO: The dream of yours you chose to include in the piece and put your name on deals with your own body, which is a very private matter.
SC: I’m not that private. It’s a bizarre dream.
FJO: But to have something so personal, whether it’s your dream or anybody else’s, become de-personalized in a way by having it sung by a group of people, rather than by one person, seems like a very unusual approach, at least to me.
SC: Yeah, maybe so. From a personal stand point now, or more of a compositional one?
FJO: Mostly compositional.
SC: It’s funny, I didn’t really even think of it beforehand. In rehearsals, I wondered if there would be joking. But it was fine, it never even came up really. It’s just what it was about. It doesn’t seem to me that it’s sexual. It’s personal, but it’s fine. I thought it was a weird dream, so I was proud of it from the standpoint of how weird it was.
FJO: But I’m noticing a similar attitude to the one you took with Vocalissimus when it comes to how you approach text setting. You had this idea for a vocal piece before you had the text. So the text didn’t inspire the setting. Instead, the setting you wanted inspired finding the texts.
FJO: So it’s much less about trying to find a common ground between a text and your own music and more about sculpting the language to fit your specific musical goals.
SC: Absolutely. Originally, the way the project happened, I was getting pressure to have a writer involved. I actually didn’t want one when I first started for that reason. I’m about to work on another project where I’m sort of avoiding that. I mean, it’s using other people’s text, but I’m dealing with it, because, yes, I think there is something to be gained from having total control or last minute control. If you’re just confronted with a text and setting it, there’s something that has been set up already. I think different things happen musically if you don’t have to have that environment. It’s funny because the other thing that can get in the way is simple legal stuff, like copyright, because you have to ask permission in advance. You can’t suddenly just change something on the fly, although I wish you could. So yes, you’re absolutely right that that interests me—to be able to make things with text where I’m making those choices in a way that is immediately responsive to musical things, rather than the other way around.
But I want to follow up with what you said about the chorus singing “I.” You’d probably know better than I do, but in terms of convention that probably happens a certain amount in choral literature anyway. But there was another maybe Jungian aspect to this piece. The first part is sort of a scientific, objective part. The second part—the dreams—alternates between vocalize—I think proportionally, in terms of time, more than half is simply singing on vowels—and these little moments where these dreams are. The reason I did that is obvious, it’s a night of sleep; it sort of duplicates in some way the process of sleep. Obviously it’s compressed. In 90-minute cycles, you move through deep sleep into stage three and sometimes stage four, and then you come up into REM, and then that repeats and so on. I wanted to duplicate that so when you think of it, in a way the whole thing is one night’s sleep. But then it’s all different people’s dreams, so there’s sort of a morphing of the collective with the singular in the nature of the way it’s put together. It is saying we all have our individual dreams, sure, but it’s also this basic component of being human, that we share in our own ways. And nobody really understands it.
FJO: So then how important is it to you that the words of the text are understood when an audience hears them sung? Is that even an issue for you?
SC: It’s very important. And with chorus, it’s hard. What I really want, and I hope in subsequent performances I can have it, is supertitles. I think the text is really important and I think the enjoyment of the piece will be increased by having it. I did my best with the comprehensibility. Maybe not totally, chorus is limited; it’s just the nature of chorus, particularly if you’re having anything that’s not totally homophonic. At that point it becomes very hard. There’s a history of that, too. Often the text is not as important in, you know, a mass, because it’s stuff that’s known already. Phrases get repeated a lot. The Kyrie is just six words total. The history of choral music is about dealing with that in different ways. I try to find my best balance of that.
An excerpt from the world premiere performance of Deep-Sky Objects (2011). Music by Sebastian Currier, text by Sarah Manguso. Performed on September 22, 2012 at the Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall in Houston, Texas, by Karol Bennett, soprano, with Musiqa. Videography by Bill Klemm, courtesy Anthony Brandt / Musiqa.
FJO: In a collaborative work, there’s always a danger that one element will overshadow the other. Music can be overshadowed, too, especially by visual stimuli since we are largely more acculturated to paying attention to what we see more than we hear. You’ve now done quite a few pieces that involve multi-media components, which, potentially, could distract people from the music. So I wonder in those contexts how much of the music you write is shaped by what your collaborator is doing with the video, or how much control you have to shape the images and make it work with your music the way you do with text.
SC: The answer is actually very variable. In the case of Next Atlantis, that’s actually a very complicated story. But the way it is now, I wrote the music entirely, and we edited the video images on top of it. So it wasn’t in any way dictated by the images. We’re used to music in film becoming subordinate. With Nightmaze, the whole idea was to set up something that had a rhythm of attention with a visual aspect. Most of the time, it’s this very neutral thing, you’re just going down a road and then these signs loom up and there’s suddenly attention towards that visual component. I wanted to have some way that you could let the music and sound predominate mostly. I was definitely conscious of that issue. And in terms of that, it doesn’t even exist as a video. It uses a program called Watchout; it’s basically a complicated queuing system. I did this to prevent having to use a click track. I was controlling when stuff would happen. It was predetermined, but not from a video. It was actually from a text of a friend of mine—Tom Bolt—one chapter of an experimental novel of his. I felt I had the space to do what I wanted, but I was also being directed by the images or the narrative basically.
FJO: The images of driving down a highway in Nightmaze fit really well with your music. Of course, driving and music really are an effective combination which is probably why all that music Bernard Herrmann wrote for Jimmy Stewart’s long drives in Vertigo work so well.
SC: Those are great scenes. I’ve even thought that the nice thing about driving is it’s about motion which also relates to music which is about motion, too. There’s definitely a good connection.
FJO: And of course, music is—more than anything else—about time, which has been a recurring inspiration for the titles of your pieces over the years. In the booklet notes for one of the CDs, you made some really fascinating comments about music existing in time, and how you want to capture time.
SC: In [the notes for] Time Machines, I was just saying that obviously any performative art unfolds through time. But music is even more simply made out of time because pitch is a function of time. And therefore, it’s really nothing but time and air, literally. A cycle of time, in the case of pitch, and then the time thing that we’re more used to, personal time unfolding.
FJO: And timbre of course, and harmony…
SC: Obviously all of those, hence my last movement is called “Harmonic Time,” and indeed, all of them are extensions of time, which we normally don’t think of at all. It’s sort of removed from our senses, but indeed it is made that way.
FJO: The very last area I want to talk to you about, and this again comes from just having been immersed in your scores, is that all the scores from the 1990s are these beautiful, hand-written manuscripts and that is how they are published. But the pieces from the last decade are all computer engraved. I see a computer hooked up here, and obviously you’re now using some kind of notation software. I’m wondering if you feel that’s changed your process in any way, especially in terms of working out details, to take it back to the very beginning of our conversation.
SC: I have no nostalgia. I find using a computer is great for all that. But I definitely write differently post computers. But I don’t usually copy a piece until the very end. That’s the last stage. That’s like draft seven, let’s say, or something like that. And not having to deal with musical notation that much until that point, I find very liberating. One thing that’s helped me over time is I’ve learned to sketch. And I think maybe it takes time. You need to know what you do to sketch. It’s always that sort of chicken and egg thing. But I think there’s something very difficult about—and I used to do this—having to notate stuff. You end up working very hard having to make local decisions of details early on. And then you’ve spent a week on this thing, and you suddenly say, wait a second. That doesn’t work. And yet you spent all this time. You make better decisions about local things when you know how it fits in the whole, and to have to make a local decision early on is hard. There was this show of Gehry at the Guggenheim a while ago and they showed all his models. Have you ever seen a Gehry model when he starts? It’s the most horrible looking scrunched piece of paper. There’s a piece of balsa wood that’s been sort of cracked in half, and you look at it and you think, “What’s that disgusting thing?” And then you look; that’s Bilbao! Because he would start with the idea you just need to get the form. He knew he’d figure out the beauty of the particular curve later, but he’s working to sort what the basic layout is. And once you get that, then you model it with a little more detail. So that’s how I work now. And I think computers help me do that, to work broadly, and then to zero in, and all the end decisions are when I copy it into Finale.
FJO: That’s certainly very different from the way composers worked in previous centuries.
SC: Indeed it is. Well, I think it is. Why do you say that?
FJO: Well, Beethoven didn’t have a laptop. Neither did Brahms or Chopin or Scarlatti. Some composers kept extensive sketchbooks, but I think that’s quite a different way of working than what you’ve just described.
SC: Beethoven sketched things. People improvised things and then sometimes half improvised a performance and then wrote it down. So just the presence of musical notation, let’s say if you went back pre-computer, that doesn’t mean that’s the same as before, either though, right? Those things relate to overall musical practice in a broad way. So sure, it’s changed, for sure.