A few moments with Christopher Theofanidis

Christopher Theofanidis

Christopher Theofanidis is certainly one of the most prolific and decorated American composers.  He is currently working on two (different!) operas for the San Francisco and Huston Grand opera companies, and has received (among other awards) the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright, SIX (!) ASCAP Morton Gould Prizes, and the American Academy of Arts Charles Ives’ Fellowship.  He is on the faculty of the Yale School of Music, and it was my pleasure to meet him during the highSCORE festival in Pavia, Italy (in 2012).  His work Rainbow Body has been played by more than 100 orchestras internationally, yet it was still the pleasure of The Riot Ensemble to programme the English premiere of his first string quartet, Ariel Ascending.

You can watch the performance the first movement of Ariel Ascending above.  While reflecting on the performance, it was my pleasure to have the opportunity to ask Christopher a few questions reflecting this piece, his work, and music composition in general:

Christopher, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me.  We really enjoyed hearing Ariel Ascending at our Shapes of a Square concert and I’m keen to ask you a few questions about this piece in the context of your work since then.

Thanks for having me Aaron, and thank you to the Riot Ensemble and the Navarra Quartet for programming and playing the work.  I’m particularly delighted you chose this piece as its only been played a handful of times since I wrote it.

Ariel Ascending is actually a relatively ‘old’ work of yours – your first string quartet and so on.  Could you firstly tell us a little bit about why you wrote the work and what you were thinking about at the time?

I wrote Ariel Ascending in 1995 as a commission for Tanglewood.  I had been a fellow there in 1994, and they gave me the Fromm Commission to write for the Henschel String Quartet.  The Henschel Quartet have all gone on to become good friends of mine and they still play the piece today.

I had just finished my Doctorate studies at Yale at that time, and on my mind were things that didn’t seem to normally go together in a single piece – the impressionism and orchestrational approach of Jacob Druckman, the kind of angular melodic harmonisations of Balkan Music (non-western music, as a whole, was very much in my field of vision at the time), the idea of silence in music and – above all – the idea of heterophony[1], where many lines become a single organism.

The Sylvia Plath poem was the spark and catalyst for the piece. I was so taken with that work and how she created a kind of wind in the words.

It’s fascinating to hear what you were thinking about when you created this piece.  Your colleague at Yale, Martin Bresnick, once told me that he never changes a piece once it’s finished because a finished work is an artistic statement about what Music (with a capital ‘M’) is (or was) to that particular composer at that particular time.   I’m interested in asking about what it is like to listen back to a work you wrote so long ago?  Do you ever want to change things about the piece in a situation like this?  Do you find new things in the work?

Martin is very principled!  I have changed pieces from my past, but it is true that it is very difficult to change things structurally.  The things that make music organic in the end have to do with structure and large-scale time, and that is the thing I find most tied to the period in which a piece is originally composed.

I suppose it is the Stravinsky 1947 version of change[2] that I can live with – the details, sonice brilliance, those kinds of things are fine for me to change

Looking back from where you are now, do you recognise early elements of a ‘personal style’ in Ariel Ascending?

Yes, very much.  The Henschel Quartet just played a full concert of my quartets and quintets in New York and here at Yale, and the newest work, At The Still Point[3], for me grows out of the same world, though it is more stark than Ariel Ascending.

I’m beginning to think of my early attempts at writing as having all of the elements of my musical values latent in them in one form or another, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

That’s particularly fascinating to me as a younger composer. You teach and have taught a lot of young composers.  Do you think it is important for composers to develop a personal style?  Do you have advice on how a young composer can achieve or go about this?  And when does the idea of ‘personal style’ simply give way to self-repetition?[4]

I think that personal style is a byproduct of the things that you love.  As art historian Michael Fried once eloquently wrote: ‘The essence of something is in its conviction.’[5]

I see my role as a teacher as empowering and pointing out the things that a student loves, and helping the student take that rare concoction of qualities to as deep a level as they are capable of.  The issue of repetition between one’s own pieces is a difficult balancing act.  For me personally, depth comes from continuity, and only the artist can understand when they need to push forward in their work and when to leave things behind.  This, though, is as much an issue of taste as it is personal growth and maturation.  I think in the end the artist must liv with themselves in a state of balance with respect to how they evolve – we are restless beings after all!

[1] Heterophony is a type of musical texture where variations of a single melodic line happen at the same time as each other, overlapping and interweaving.  This technique is particularly audible in the first movement of Ariel Ascending.

[2] Christopher is referring, here to Stravinsky’s 1947 revision of Petrushka.   Stravinsky made  a number of changes of the kind Christopher mentions: reorchestrations, removing some metric modulations, and so on.  Meanwhile the large-scale structure of the work remained (almost) entirely intact.  Both versions are now widely available on recordings.

[3] A piano quintet written in 2012.  I didn’t have the chance to ask Christopher about this, but interestingly I think this title is also a reference to poetry (T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartetscf. the 2nd quartet “At the still point of the turning world….”).

[4] This question mirrors the third of Bálint András Varga’s three questions asked to 65 composers in Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers.  Each of our interviews with composers includes one of these questions as they often draw out unusual and insightful thoughts from the composers in the book.

[5] I was unable to track down this exact quote.  This is not to say Fried has not penned these exact words and it is, at the very least, an accurate paraphrasing of the thoughts expressed by Fried in his seminal essay Art and Objecthood (which gives the quote at the top of this interview).