A few moments with Alastair Putt

alastairbanff photoshoot1


Of all the pieces in our concert this Friday, only two will be ‘non-first’ pieces.  One of these will be Harrison Birtwistle’s second wind-quintet Five Distances for Five Instruments, and the second will also be a wind quintet: the very beautiful Halazuni by Alastair Putt. (Here performed by Martha Long (flute), Graham Mackenzie (oboe), Danny Goldman (clarinet), Elyse Lauzon (horn) and Andrew Brady (bassoon) at Tanglewood Music Center on July 22nd, 2012)

I know the Atea Quintet have hugely enjoyed preparing Alastair’s work for our concert on Friday, and it was my pleasure to sit down with him and ask a few questions about this piece, and his wider work as a musician and composer.

AHN: Alastair, thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions – and for your great piece!  I think it would be fair to say that – as with this piece – the majority of your music primarily focuses on ‘musical’ parameters (harmony/rhythm/etc…) eschewing extra-music things such as noises (rustling paper, key clicks, breath sounds, etc…)  As composers, we are surrounded – both in everyday life and more and more in the repertoire – by extra-musical sounds.  Do they influence you and are they in any way significant for your compositional work?

pretty good composing advice!

pretty good composing advice!

AP: In short, no. More than anything, I’m interested in harmony, and I feel that there are already enough decisions to be made as a composer using only the 12 notes of the chromatic scale (occasionally more!), let alone bringing in the potentially endless spectrum of extra-musical noises into the equation. Which is not to say that I shun music that incorporates such sound, only that I don’t feel I have anything new to bring to the table, in that regard.

AHN: You’re active in contemporary music as both a composer and as a performer (a tenor, and occasionally as a guitarist), does your activity as a performer affect what you do as a composer?  

AP: Not hugely, I don’t think, but I do try to be as considerate as possible towards performers- even if I don’t know how to play an instrument, I will always try to imagine the basic actions that a line of music might require of them. On, say, a string instrument, those can be relatively easy to visualise, but it’s harder with wind instruments because of all the fiddly fingerings!

AHN: And do you think of the audience when you compose?

AP: Not explicitly, but I do care about how the music sounds in real space rather than in some abstract, formalised sphere, so in that sense, yes. Ultimately, I try to write music that I would like to hear, rather than analyse.

AHN: Could you tell us a little bit about how and when you wrote Halazuni?

AP: Halazuni was written for the Richmond Concert Society in 2011; it takes its inspiration from arabesque decoration in Islamic art, and the patterns and lines therein. I’ve always been drawn to the beautiful abstraction of such art, and its juxtaposition of rigid patterns and shapes with more florid, elaborate elements. In the piece, a rhythmically regular background texture is overlaid with slower, more flexible lines. Much of the pitch material is derived from the Fibonacci series, so often a building-block in geometric art: here, the numbers from the series determine the successive intervals heard in the opening motif, which rises by 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and 13 semitones. That ratio is also used rhythmically, at the very end of the piece, as the five parts play the same (but transposed) material in the tempo relationship 1:2:3:5:8, which creates a rather wild heterophony.

AHN: Many composers (and musicians) consider the wind quintet to be a rather difficult ensemble to write for.  How did you find the wind quintet and how did you go about solving some of the problems it presents? 

AP: I’ve always liked the somewhat bracing sound of the wind quintet, and I remember it as being quite a fun piece to write! I don’t think it’s a particularly problematic ensemble, really: all the instruments are naturally pretty agile (though the horn less so) and can handle a variety of articulations. That said, I have no experience of playing wind instruments, so I can’t vouch for how nicely it sits under the fingers; I suspect that the final, dance-like section contains some nasty little corners for everyone. As for the potential for balance problems resulting from a brass instrument masquerading as a wind instrument, I didn’t really attempt to tackle that in the score, figuring that a good wind quintet is perfectly aware of issues specific to their ensemble- it’s not the composer’s place to butt in and try to ‘solve’ anything!

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).