Worth Fretting Over

Working with Other Composers

MARK STEWART: I used to play a lot of very thorny serialist music on the cello, in fact most of my New York gigs in the late ’80s and early ’90s was playing Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt and everybody…Rolv Yttrehus wrote a terrifying piece that I spent, you know, eight months doing nothing but. A reviewer came and said lovely things, but of course the polyrhythms in the clapping of the audience were almost as interesting as the polyrhythms in the music. I didn’t regret a single moment, but it got to a certain point and I had to make a call like that too. I say youth is not wasted on the young when I see scores like that now, and I salute everyone who is not young who is still spending that kind of time and energy, but I can’t play that kind of music any more. And I get choked up just like I get choked up about how little Brahms I play. When I hear a great performance of a new work of Charles Wuorinen, who I loved—he was one of my absolute favorites. I remember doing his String Sextet: two cellos, two violas, two violins up at June in Buffalo with him conducting on NPR. It was just…I was the bottom, and Josh Gordon was the other cellist and we were ripping it, and that was…wow, talk about being alive, but man…it’s a tough road.

DAVID STAROBIN: For me it was always the composer god, and if I found someone who I thought was saying something that I really felt was important and great, for me there’s no greater thing than to be able to serve that person through an interpretation. I’ve got my handful of guys that I’d go to the end of the earth to play their music and to convince them to write yet another piece. I think it’s just very much what your personality is like.

DOMINIC FRASCA: Have you gotten yourself into the situation where you asked somebody to write something and you get it and you just go, “I have to learn this?” You’ve committed to it and then just as you’re working on it you’re thinking, “I’m going to play this and this is not really what I want to play.”

DAVID STAROBIN: I have, absolutely. It happens. But each time it happens, it’s a lesson for me in being a little more careful, a little more selective, and making sure the person you’re hooking up with is someone who is going to produce something that has a good probability of being something that you’re going to want to play. And that I guess is just getting older and finding the right person and going with that. But sure, it’s happened to everyone in this business who gets a new piece.

MARK STEWART: Well, I remember when I was playing trios for Gil Kalish and he was describing when he and Joel Krosnick would get a new piece you know from…it was the Ralph Shapey, actually. He’d just gotten another one and he was tuning the low C down to low A all the time now, got the new piece and went through the score [saying] “What was he thinking!” and it was so heartwarming because, of course, that’s what I was doing when I got a new piece, you know, throwing it across the room. Then you put it back on the stand and you start fighting the good fight and if you stay in there then you find out what they’re thinking.

DAVID STAROBIN: There is still music that I won’t touch because [it will take] three years to prepare and then it’s over. I think we all know who the composers are who have big reputations for being that way and, you know, if it’s something you can’t handle then you just steer clear and there’s always someone 20 years younger who will do it, so…[laughs].

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: You spoke earlier about this composer as god perception, and does that also imply that you have a very hands off approach when they’re composing, that you wait until you have the product and you look at and only change what’s absolutely necessary or is it a product more of a collaboration?

DAVID STAROBIN: Well, that’s a couple of questions with different streams and answers. I would say composers that I’ve tended to work with have been really crafty composers who don’t make too many mistakes, so the kinds of adjustments you’re talking about are generally minimal. As far as hands off in the creative process, I’m pushy, and so if I’m talking to a composer pre-compositionally and I think I have an idea, I try to get that across in terms of length of piece I’m talking about or, in the case of my closest friends, occasionally stylistically maybe pushing them in a certain direction. But that said, once they start the piece, it’s their piece and I’m out of the picture until I get the score. I can be a yenta and kind of pre-compositionally say what I want and bug ‘em, but once they’re writing the piece, it’s all theirs and that’s it.

DAVID LEISNER: I think the better composers that I’ve worked with tend to be more open in general to what they deliver as a finished project. I think they consider it kind of a first draft in a sense and sometimes, you know, there’s little or nothing to be done and sometimes you do have to work things. So far in my experience the better composers tend to be very flexible. It may be something technical or it may be a structural thing. You might say, “Well, this is going on for too long, what do you think about that?” And they may say, “Yes, you’re right,” or they may say, “Well, I’m not sure that’s really true. Why don’t you live with it a little bit longer?” and then they’re absolutely right in the end, you know. But at least there’s a discussion that can happen, but I’m different than David in that I don’t like to meddle too much in pre-composition. I’d rather that the composers take it where they want to take it, but if they ask me, I’ll give them something.

DAVID STAROBIN: I’m talking about just a couple of people that I can do that with who I know very well, people who are more like family than anything else. Mostly someone like a Ruders who tends actually to have several different styles that he writes in and so if you can sort of hype him on a particular type of piece beforehand, you’re likely to get something in that direction. But that generally does not apply—it’s more like what David described.

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: When you talk about stylistic differences within a particular composer’s output with someone like Ruders, is it something about the way he approaches the instrument as a guitar or as a timbre? Some of his music seems to be guitar music to me and some of it seems to be a sort of absolute music using a particular timbre and instrument, but not referencing certain idiomatic characteristics of the guitar.

DAVID STAROBIN: I would say he’s first and foremost a contrapuntalist, and so those are his concerns, those are the things that interest him. The flamenco-based music, strumming and chords and stuff, it’s not his cup of tea, so the pieces are not going to go that direction. I think every composer really has strong preferences as far as extra-musical things, and so the kinds of effects-based composers, guys who really rely on a lot of effects and sound quality and things like that are in a completely different boat than guys who think about the instrument in a more traditional note against note way. And Poul Ruders specifically, he’s trained as a organist so I think he thinks contrapuntally first. We don’t have so many composers who are based in that aesthetic, so it’s nice to find one.

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: What is your experience of working with other composers who have written for you? What are the parameters that they give you? In jazz, I imagine, it is much more open…

JAMES EMERY: In particularly the kind of jazz that I’m associated with it’s really open, people like Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Muhal Richard Abrams—really forward looking people who are concerned equally with textures and colors and effects-oriented things. It’s refreshing to hear what you have to say because it’s kind of new to me. Most of what I’m doing concerns my own music, so I’m not really dealing with those issues. I’m basically doing my own thing and trying to bring out in what I do the kinds of things that appeal to me. And I was thinking about something that you [David Leisner] said earlier. You said you feel like you’re divided as a guitarist and a composer. To me, it’s all one thing.

DAVID LEISNER: I know that’s true! But that’s because you’re an improviser. I’m a terrible improviser.

JAMES EMERY: But I write a substantial amount of through-notated material.

DAVID LEISNER: I’m sure you do, but at the root you’re an improviser and that’s why for you it’s the same impulse.

JAMES EMERY: It really is. It’s really about what part of the process I’m working on: organizing the material and getting ready to perform and record, then I’ll be thinking about how I’m going to bring this out when I’ve already gone through the process of organizing it. So it’s really about how am I going to get my music out there in the most accurate and stimulating way possible.

DAVID LEISNER: It’s really an organic process for you.

JAMES EMERY: And then generally when something’s over—when it’s been performed and recorded—unless we’re going to keep performing it, which we do from time to time, I’m done with it. I don’t want to hear it again. It’s such an immersion kind of thing that it’s like: “Enough… Let’s move on to the next thing!”

STEPHEN GRIESGRABER: What’s it like working with the composers that write for Bang on a Can? Are all of your parts through-composed or do they require a fair amount of input throughout the process?

MARK STEWART: It’s different from person to person. It’s the other side of the spectrum in a certain way. With a lot of the composers we work with, it might be the first time they’re ever working with an ensemble that wasn’t their own and the kind of notation they use with their ensembles isn’t standard at all. It’s their own personal vernacular. Our job often times is to be translators and to find a way that they can present not only a piece that we can play but that many other ensembles would be able to play. I remember once crawling in a crawlspace getting very dirty and going and finding Glenn Branca‘s microtonal harpsichords that had been in storage for fifteen years—finding the right key, getting the covers open and then a flashlight and writing down what was on each key so that then we could play his score. Of course the harpsichordist was looking at C-sharps and Ds and G-flats and all that stuff, but of course that’s not what’s coming out. That’s just how he could make the translation. That’s just one description.

I have played James’s pieces and shared a stage playing them, so I actually took directions from the composer. The piece, Standing on a Whale Fishing, that was a good one, too.

JAMES EMERY: I have put a lot of effort into studying composers and how to write for other people so that they won’t have to decipher what I mean. The first time we ran through that piece…

MARK STEWART: It played! He was not someone we had to translate. All we had to do was listen to his excitation to even do more and to put a little more oomph in this spot. That was an example where we hardly had to do anything. So we do a lot of work like that. It’s these folks that are between the cracks that are not getting the Guggenheims, the MacArthurs—well, there’s some pretty wild folks getting MacArthurs—but a lot of times they don’t know about standard notation and so it’s a whole other thing.

JAMES EMERY: What you’re saying reminds me of something what Duke Ellington said. He didn’t write for instruments, he wrote for individuals. So what you’re talking about then is someone brings in a piece and they may not be so notationally astute. You’re talking about how to play their personal music.

MARK STEWART: Yeah, precisely.

JAMES EMERY: Something that’s really individual to them. Yet you play it with your ensemble and the challenge I would imagine is to retain this personal aspect.

MARK STEWART: It doesn’t always succeed. People say to me, “You play new music because it’s all wonderful and great!” Well, no. It’s not all wonderful and it’s not all great. “Well, then you play it because most of the music is fantastic!” Well, no. Most of the music isn’t fantastic. “Well, then what are you doing?” Well, it’s like homemade beer. It’s fresh. It’s now. It doesn’t have to be the great Belgian beer. I know where to get that. It’s not my choice to say this is great, this is bad. It’s really more me doing the best I can to make it speak. You know there’s going to be plenty of time to figure out whether it is great, or good, or lousy. Plenty of time, if that’s what you want to do.

JAMES EMERY: That the thing that you experience when you’re dealing with a living music, stuff that is coming out just right now, it’s really a lot like life itself. There are good days and bad days. I think to get to the good days you have to go through the bad days sometimes.

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