Dear Timo, it's such a pleasure sharing your talent with our HocTok community.
Let's talk about Wednesday, October 19, the New York premiere of your work Words Fail at National Sawdust. Celebrated violinist Yevgeny Kutik who commissioned the piece has described it as “something both folk-like and occasionally medieval.”
What was the creative journey you followed for this particular work? Being approached with a commission request must be the ultimate compliment for a composer. Was it more special coming from someone like Kutik whom you had met at Tanglewood and reconnected not long ago just for this project?
Yevgeny and I hadn’t known each other well prior to him approaching me about this commission—even though we’d crossed paths at Tanglewood and earlier in the Juilliard Pre-College division. But his “words fail” prompt was kind of perfect for me—I tend to think of words as something of an intrusion in music anyway. “Words Fail” had already been on my list of ideas for piece titles for a few years (I hadn't realized that Janáček also wrote a “Words Fail” in On An Overgrown Path).
The “occasionally medieval” quality Yevgeny mentions is not far off, though I think it’s the same way in which Arvo Pärt or Ingram Marshall’s music sometimes sounds temporally disoriented. The basis of the piece is a long “lament” melody, a minor scale which plods downward in little sighs—It’s a “grief trope” going back centuries. The scale gathers up additional voices and harmonies around it, a bit like Pärt’s early pieces in the “tintinnabuli” style, or the beginning of Ingram’s Kingdom Come.
On the same night, Kutik will also give the world premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s Arioso Doloroso/Estatico, another of his commissions for his new album, Words Fail (Marquis, October 2016). The program will also include works by Nico Muhly, Mendelssohn, and Stravinsky. A truly impressive lineup! What was the framework of ideas and feelings you worked with for the final selection? You’ll be satisfied with your National Sawdust curatorial debut if…
I like a program which is at least 50% living composers. When I design my own recitals I’ll usually start there and then choose older music that either creates unexpected parallels or stark contrasts. I also like concerts that are on the shorter side, with no intermission, which lets all the music kind of marinate better.
The selection of music on Yevgeny’s new album was already right up my alley, and then we decided to add Nico’s piece Compare Notes and the Stravinsky Pulcinella suite, which I think elaborate on the theme. Nico’s music is all intensely verbal—this piece is a kind of dramatic scene and reconciliation between the violin and piano. And of course several of the numbers in Pulcinella have lyrics, which we’ll be conveniently forgoing, so I suppose that puts it in the “songs without words” category.
I will be satisfied with the evening if people show up and buy drinks and clap and then come and say hello afterwards. I’m very easy to please.
2016 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Music!!! Congratulations! What was your reaction when you got the news?
Thank you. I was quite surprised. I had never sent anything to The Pulitzer before, mainly because of the $50 application fee.
Dream Job is the title of the album you made with Gabriel Kahane which you’ve said it’s about “summoning the spirits of Charles Ives & Benjamin Britten, leading to inevitable fisticuffs.” We love the title and your aim. Whose idea was it or did you come up with it over coffee somewhere in Brooklyn? Taking flight from your title, do you wake up every day feeling like you have achieved finding your dream job of making music, playing the piano, and collaborating with some of the most amazing musicians of our time? Is there ever a downside to any of this?
The Ives & Britten pairing was the core of our first show together, at the 2011 Ecstatic Music Festival. It was, as you suggest, likely conceived over coffee in Brooklyn. Over the years, we’ve been working towards an idealized version of that show. It was Gabe’s idea to make a little record to go along with our tour in Spring of 2016. I almost never think in terms of records, I usually need somebody to tell me I should make one. Though it’s named for one of Gabe’s songs, we felt that the title “Dream Job” was fairly autobiographical for both of us. Every job comes with its own particular set of annoyances, but there’s nothing in the world I’d rather be doing.
Composing for the Boston Symphony: an expected high point in the projected trajectory of your achievements or just another reason to feel excited and nervous with good reason?
Excitement and nervousness, certainly, in spades.
I don’t “project” a “trajectory”, I’ve never thought in terms of concrete goals or having a “five year plan” or anything like that. It sounds rather too calculating, doesn’t it? I think I’d become one of those people who comes up to you at the party and says "hey, remember me?"
You have a solo piano piece titled, It Takes a Long Time to Become a Good Composer (2010). You were really young when you wrote that piece, you’re still very young. But what was the intention behind it? What are some indicators that someone is on the right path?
The title was something that one of my composer friends, Chris Cerrone, said to me in passing (we were roommates at the time). I thought it was, of course, so true, and I wrote it down on my list of ideas for titles.
Even though there’s always a certain vogue for youth, one thing I like about the classical music world is that it does give you time to build something at a sustainable pace—you don’t need to be a huge star when you’re 25. Institutions and audiences will give you a certain benefit of the doubt, and you gather your momentum little by little.
What I find encouraging in musicians I meet who are slightly younger than I am—current college students or grad students—is when the work shows strength of conviction. Not polish or technique—those are things almost anybody can learn—but a quality of confidence poking through.
You travel around the country performing your own works and favorite repertoire of your contemporaries and classical composers. It is really a great endeavor as there is nothing more exciting for audiences around the country to hear and see live performances of talented musicians who are mostly centered in big cities like NYC. But it cannot be easy. What does it take to stay focused writing your own music while having a packed calendar of live performances?
I’m beginning to see more and more how difficult it is to do both things at the highest level constantly. Writing music takes long stretches of uninterrupted work. If I’m too peripatetic it shows in the quality of the music—it’s just not as well-crafted as it could be. It would certainly be impossible for me to be say, a Yuja Wang or Yevgeny Kissin-type pianist and also write my best music. There are just not enough hours in a day. I will never be that kind of pianist, and that’s OK with me, because Yuja and Yevgeny exist. What I do as a pianist is apply my compositional thinking to interpretation. It’s a bit of a different way of hearing things, and putting myself in that mode does end up making me a better composer the rest of the time. It's just so difficult from a scheduling standpoint to have to constantly switch between modes.
Besides complaining, what else do you do when you have to write a piece but “each note you put down seems to bring you further away from having an actual idea…” I take walks or bike rides. Helps to clear the head, and the walking or pedaling gives thoughts a nice rhythm.
A few days ago, you posted a question on Twitter wanting to know what all your favorite musicians think about entrepreneurship. What do you think about entrepreneurship? Who has give you the best advice on the topic?
This was a joke; I apologize if it wasn’t clear. I don’t care what any of my favorite musicians think about entrepreneurship; I’m a bit baffled by the current obsession with it, as if there were some great mystery surrounding the exchange of goods and services for money. Plus, not many musicians have given me great business advice (Philip Glass being a notable exception).
Russell Platt of The New Yorker called you "A Modern Modernist". And is it how you see yourself?
It’s not how I would ever describe myself, but then, that’s not my job.
Platt’s review of your work, The Blind Banister, defines the piece “as a deeply complex tribute to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major…. at once gently private and powerfully communal in its gestures and devices”. How many martinis (or insert drink of choice here) did you order when you read that? In all seriousness though, how long and what did it take to write such a remarkable piece of music?
I always enjoy reading Russell’s writing; he’s a composer-critic in the Virgil Thomson tradition. It pleased me to read that because I know he’s engaging with the music on every level. But then, it pleases me whenever anyone tells me they’ve listened to my music.
The Blind Banister was a summer’s project, so maybe three months. Our air conditioning was broken that summer, so I did a lot of the orchestration in the bar around the corner, with a giant tumbler of iced tea.
Kirill Gerstein commissioned a piece from you after winning the Gilmore Artist Award in 2010. That piece is “Old Friend”. Gerstein has described the work as anything but a light treat to highlight or embellish his virtuosic power. In fact to him, it is “an artistic entity that satisfies audiences as well. It is enjoyable even for nonmusicians”. Do you factor any of these details prior to writing a work like “Old Friend” or do you let the creative process take the lead and show you the way?
I do think about how audiences will hear my music. It’s slightly disrespectful not to, right? They’re giving me their time.
Having an artistic process or idea is a separate thing from being able to successfully communicate it. If listeners don’t “get” your art, it doesn’t mean they’re bad or ignorant listeners, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to make your ideas simpler. It just means you need to work at becoming a better communicator of them.
How do you see your career developing in a decade? Whatever you do, you will give it your all to avoid … and you have your eyes set on…
As I said, I don’t find it useful to think in terms of long-term plans, certainly not ones based on avoidance. It’s easy to become jaded about the industry one works in—I feel it setting in, some days—but you have to be able to keep that separate from your feelings about the art form itself.
Music is too good, and too difficult, for me to imagine becoming tired of doing it. That said, I check in with myself periodically to make sure what I’m working on feels fulfilling and useful.
I want to become a better collaborator; I sometimes shy away from working with other people because it can slow down the process. But some of the collaborative projects I’ve worked on (Hand Eye and Work Songs, for example) have ultimately been some of the most fulfilling ones.