First, we at HocTok would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. You left your hometown of Homer, Alaska, for NYC. How different are these two worlds and how saying goodbye to one helps you navigate in the wilderness of other? It takes more deliberate effort to participate in an urban community. When I visit Alaska in the summers, I love the easy pleasure of exchanging favors for friends, family and neighbors. In a city, one has to elect one’s community: it’s easier to disappear if you want to. It’s pretty hard to vanish in a small town, even in Alaskan towns where some people try to disappear.
You are one of the founders of New Music Festival in Homer: Wild Shore New Music joining forces with two other Alaskan-cum-New Yorkers, violinist, Andie Springer and flautist Katie Cox. Can you share a few words about Wild Shore New Music, the story behind it, your projects so far and the future ahead? Andie, Katie, and I—though separated by 600 miles and the Alaska range—grew up surrounded by the arts, but not at all by new classical music. All three of us desired to do projects back home. It made the most sense to us to bring new work to the south-central Alaskan arts scenes. So far we’ve produced three great seasons, working with TRANSIT, Concert Black, and the musicians of eighth blackbird. We’re very excited to partner with the National Park Service for our 2016 season. We’ll be presenting music inspired by national parks and by the NPS dual missions of preservation and conservation, both ideas which have strong musical analogies.
You have composed for Alarm Will Sound as a resident composer for this summer’s Mizzou International Composers Festival in Saint Louis, Missouri. What was the biggest revelation you enjoyed throughout that experience? AWS has a unique presence in Missouri, attracting vigorous support for new classical music and specifically for composers. I have to say that MICF is truly new music Lake Wobegon: the composer respect each other, the band plays with super commitment and marathon intensity, and all of the musicians’ children are above average. In recent works I’ve been juxtaposing multiple sound worlds and playing with the space between those sound worlds, and I was able to go much further with Virgin Soil than I previously had. Because the band knew the notes from the first rehearsal, we were able to develop a performance practice for the music.
American Composers Orchestra premiered your work Joint Account for video and orchestra essay at Zankel Hall, at Carnegie. What can you say about your choices of collaborators and what's the role of visuals accompanying your music?
I think visuals are useful if they direct our attention to the performance actions on the stage. If it’s live, it should be necessary to watch musicians make choices about how to play the music. Visuals in the way of multimedia elements, sets, and costuming and are unhelpful when they distract us from the work of the musicians. In those cases, I’d rather watch a music video at home.
Joint Account—which will be streaming later at Q2 music— deals with Baroque affects, the strict separation of feelings, then splicing those affects to create another sort of music. The projection designs, created by Paul Lieber, a musician himself, initially acts independently from the music, setting up moods in the percussive spaces between affects, then disappears into the music.
For your piece titled LOVE, you made good use of an epigram by François de La Rochefoucauld. How did you come across this writer, this piece of writing and why did you find it compelling enough to write your own Love.
You find websites with thousands of epigrams like those of Rochefoucauld. Many are silly. This one’s on the verge (“Love, like ghosts, much talked about, seldom seen”). But I liked crafting a musical structure that mirrors Rochefoucauld’s wry observation about the rarity of love in the world. “Seldom seen” appears only once at the end, while the other words are repeated endlessly.
For All the Cities So Bright, inspired by “Home on the Range,” you say that the “music lurches among nostalgia, agitation, and longing.” When you’re in Alaska, do you ever get the jitters wanting to return to NYC?
Ha! Longing for the city: that’s a good question. I can see that my music from the past few years has a nervous, FOMO [fear of missing out] motor behind the rhetoric of the music. Which I would ascribe to being in the city. Honestly, I hope that my thirties bring an ability to sit in one expressive place for longer.
Sonata for a Northern Sea Town – you describe as a meditation on two aspects of life in your hometown, Homer, Alaska…Have the people of Homer heard this piece live?
This piece closed a circle: I was better able to understand my origins in relation to my current direction. We premiered this work in Homer on a floating stage in a little ocean cove. It was pretty special.
Inspired by anOld Motion Parade, that Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times described as “a short, compelling orchestral essay,” can you say a bit more about the process: composing, rehearsals, performances, reading reviews?
Composers control everything on the page, a little bit in rehearsal, and nothing in performance. So it’s very difficult to know when you’re finished. Orchestra players practice at home, play at rehearsal, and then go to happy hour or whatever—the point is that they’re done for the day. Composers figure out what to say and what not to say in rehearsal, make sticky notes for the players on their breaks, draw up a long list after the first rehearsal and then figure out what’s worth taking up 5 minutes in the next rehearsal. There isn’t the satisfying punch of clocking out. Composing is an act of ventriloquism, right? So I think having an outlet as a performer—of your own music or of others’ music—can help with the anxiety of giving up control. Also, this process has gotten much easier with each orchestra piece that I’ve written. Learning the politics of time and personalities is a major component of what Sean Shepherd calls one’s orchestra “flight hours.”
What are the key lessons you have learned from your experiences studying with John Corigliano at Juilliard where you earned your Master’s Degree in Composition, from Justin Dello Joio who was your professor at NYU where you earned an M.M. in film scoring, and Daniel Crozier at Rollins College where you earned an Honors A.B. degree in Music? Daniel Crozier can spot a perfect harmony from 500 yards away. Justin Dello Joio taught me how to make any gesture speak in the orchestra. And John made me realize that architecture is why I write music. I wanted to be an architect when I was a kid. I made a series of houses when my dad was working construction in Kauai and Alaska. The principal desire to design experiences is the same for me now as it was then.
You’ve said that you were so impressed by “a thriving ecosystem of new classical music, and encountered musicians passionate about interpreting it” that you decided to make music your priority. How do you see yourself positioned in the ever growing map of new music in New York City and beyond?
The simple answer is that I don’t know how I position myself. But working in the city is important right now because there are many artists working at cross-purposes. And conflicting poles of thought send me to deeper questions about my own work. And the music improves. Every so often, you mention literary works and specific authors inspiring you in your music. What is the main literary quote you try to remind yourself every so often? At the end of the day, how do you see the role of music and arts in the world and what do you want your footprint to be likened to as a result of your music? This description of Thai architecture by William Warren that I found at the Watermill center is the answer to all of your questions: “The sinuous elegance of curves, contrasting with the formality of these geometric patterns; an occasional sense of grave restraint, almost but not quite amounting to severity, relieved by moments of exhilarating artistic abandon; now and then a sudden touch of pure whimsy, sometimes expressed through bold colors, sometimes through odd forms, so unexpected and lighthearted it brings an involuntary smile of delight."