First page of Anton Webern's Variations for Piano Op 27 (1937)
You’ve written works for an assortment of instrumental combinations in varying genres! How did your schooling and musical experiences contribute to your compositions? How different is it to write seemingly unrelated genres, like film scores to piano concertos?
Before I arrived at University of Illinois I spent a year and half at Tulane. I had a wonderful piano teacher there named Robert Zemurray Hirsch who introduced me to all the great 20th century composers and I most connected with Webern and his Opus 27. It was truly an epiphany for me to study and play Webern’s music. Since that time, my process has always included ideas of structure, symmetry, cycle, isorhythm, hocket and the like. Today, though, my musical language could not be more different than Webern’s. It’s the sheer brilliance and beauty of his constructions, as if he created these immense crystals, that I so admire.
After Tulane, I transferred to Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to completely focus on music. I was 19 and majored in music composition and piano. I used to love to browse through the stacks of scores in the music library and happened across Pithoprakta by Xenakis (coincidentally, also a string orchestra work). I fell in love with his sound world and also that of Ligeti’s. I was deeply attracted to large divisi scores where each member of the orchestra played a different part. Ligeti called it micro-polyphony. I liked large-scale constructions and “clouds” of sound. A few years later at Stanford, I wrote a grand scale divisi orchestral work with almost a 100 solo parts in some sections. It was reminiscent of Ligeti and Xenakis. This was the piece that caught the attention of Earle Brown at the BMI awards.
Listening to my music today you may not be able to tell that I had such a strong interest in the European avant-garde, yet it was that early experimentation for me that helped mold and discipline my process today. However, it was also not my language and I was lucky to realize this early on. I was mesmerized by their style but the ideas that created their music were not mine. My sound has gradually evolved over many years by trying to imbue each piece with my own ideas. I’ve written everything from piano pieces, string quartets, and wind quintets to vocal, chamber ensemble, choral and orchestral pieces. With each new commission, I feel I am developing my voice. I cannot say that about my pieces from my early 20s yet they somehow helped me get recognition.
The difference between writing a film score and writing a piano concerto is that I am working with a director and serving the needs of the film as opposed to working for myself. I have written many scores for documentary films. When scoring, I always try to give the music an organic connection with the film whether it’s using an instrument or borrowing a folk melody seen or heard in the film. For example, with the silent documentary Native New Yorker (which won the Tribeca Film Festival) I scored it with instruments you see buskers playing. With my recent piano concerto as with other concert works, I can focus solely on the abstraction of sound.
It’s only fair to ask: do you have a musical hero?
Schoenberg without a doubt.
Read the whole interview at Opus One Memphis