Harbison and his Mottetti by David Stevens

On March 4th, Collage will perform Harbison's complete 'Mottetti di Montale', a rare and must-hear experience. Fellow Joseph Sowa, whose work 'Islands on Fog' is also on the program, interviewed John about his work and this truly special event.

 John Harbison, Pulitzer-prize winning composer

John Harbison, Pulitzer-prize winning composer

Joseph Sowa: Your association with Collage New Music and David Hoose goes back decades. Among other collaborations, Collage premiered the complete orchestrated version of Mottetti di Montale in 2006, the recording of which garnered a Grammy nomination. How did that opportunity come about? What excites you about repeating the collaboration on that work a decade later?

John Harbison: My connection with Collage goes back to the second year of the group’s existence, my first professional performances in Boston. I was, for awhile, Music Director of Collage. Among many memorable and challenging pieces were premieres by Lerdahl, Rzewski, Sur, Wyner, and Helps. David Hoose was beginning his long and distinguished run, fortunately still in progress, when I conducted a 1987 CD of my Mirabai Songs with Janice Felty and the group, my last work with them as a performer.

Since then I have had the benefit of many collaborations with David and this remarkably resourceful bunch of players. The 2006 performances of this 50-minute song cycle was then, and still is, to date, the only complete performance of the chamber ensemble version. There have been many performances of the final two books, which I first assembled as Due Libri, and Books I and II have had separate performances. But the piece is based on a series of poems described by the poet as “a novel in verse,” and its very unusual narrative emerges only in traversing all twenty poems.

Performances of the original version for voice and piano, daunting for both performers, have also been a bit scarce: Janice Felty and Edward Auer in Santa Fe and New York for the premiere in 1981; Felty and Judith Gordon in Madison before their 2008 CD; and four singers with Lydia Brown, pianist, at Songfest LA in 2017.

"The 2006 performances of this 50-minute song cycle was then, and still is, to date, the only complete performance of the chamber ensemble version." 

A piece written nearly forty years ago changes as listening habits, pace of life, and generational temperaments change. It is a fascinating to measure it again, in the expert company of a conductor and a number of players who performed it over a decade ago. It is also a matter of keen curiosity to find how it strikes new listeners. There is also, exceptionally, in this case a recording available to anyone who needs to hear it again [available on Amazon and at the concert].

JS: Mottetti di Montale sets poems from Eugenio Montale’s Le Occasioni. In the piece’s program note you say you are “deeply interested in Montale's poetry.” What interests you so much about his poetry? And what about it did you find musically inspiring?

JH: I first came across Montale in a book of “translations,” Imitations by Robert Lowell, which I bought in 1958 while I was in college. I later discovered that Lowell’s versions of Montale poems were very loose paraphrases, but some flavor emerged which I never wished to relinquish. In a New Directions volume of selections from Montale’s poetry I found some of the Mottetti, translated by various authors, and was immediately gripped by the cycle, a broken love story told in images; flashes; and shared, barely discernible memories. I looked quite a while for the poems in the set not included in the ND collection, and found the missing ones (these only) in Edith Farnsworth’s Provisional Conclusions. When I could piece together the whole sequence I could barely believe that I was thinking about setting them all. I told myself I was trying just a couple of them, but during the summer of 1979 I composed all twenty.

I sometimes think my incomplete command of Italian opened my imagination to the very unusual situations, scenes, barely suggested intensities and anxieties I heard in the poems. In any case each motet seemed its own world. I worried about how fast I was working, but felt that the Wisconsin farm I inhabited was for those months somewhere in Italy.

JS: You have said, “My vocal music is shaped by my work as a performer of Bach cantatas. The Bach aria, with its combination of philosophical, dramatic, and sensuous texts, is more my ideal than that of the Schumann or Strauss Lied.” In what ways do you see Bach’s influence in these Mottetti?

During my work on Mottetti di Montale I felt a distinct distance from my usual Bach-consciousness. The Montale poems did not share Bach cantata issues, their landscape, so determinant of the chords and shapes of the music, was so involved with sea and shore vegetation, their moral universe so free of judgement and guilt (though full of loss and blocked passion) that Bach is far.

In my vocal pieces where I set up the sequence — Simple Daylight for voice and piano, or The Seven Ages for chamber ensemble and mezzo soprano — I have constructed Bach cantata-like text sequences the better to include his beneficent presence.

JS: As you orchestrated and worked with the songs over the decades following the original version, did you make any discoveries about the music you wrote? How much of the original remained the same and how much did you revise/recast?

Quite a few years after completing Mottetti di Montale, I decided to make a version for chamber ensemble. Voice and piano recitals are more rare at least in schools than chamber ensemble concerts. I had also been given a chance to experience first hand the locales of Montale’s poems, the segment of the Ligurian coast that inhabits Montale’s cycle. Walking above the small towns on the coast below Genoa, the frogs croaked, the lizards slithered by, the boats blew their horns, and I was happy to hear the piece up close again.

 Joseph Sowa, Collage Fellow

Joseph Sowa, Collage Fellow

But initially I thought I was not the right person to do it. I would hire someone with a more elegant instrumental hand. I found exactly the right person and asked for two movements, just to confirm we were on the right track. They were marvelously done, but way too poised and polished. I realized I wanted something quite plain, very much the original notes with quite literal textual references.

Come to our concert Sunday, March 4th, 8pm (pre-concert talk at 7pm) to experience this rare performance. In addition to Harbison's Mottetti, Collage will premiere Islands on Fog by our Fellow Joseph Sowa and Stephen Hartke's Wulfstan at the Millenium.

Tickets are available HERE.

Helen Grime's Piano Concerto (2017) by David Stevens


On, February 5th, Collage is honored to give the first performance of Helen Grime's piano concerto in the United States, with our beloved pianist Christopher Oldfather. A big thanks to Helen for taking the time to give us a sneak peak for this new and exciting work.

 Helen Grime, composer

Helen Grime, composer

Collage Fellow Joseph Sowa: Congratulations on the upcoming US premiere of your Piano Concerto by Collage New Music! According to your publisher, this will also be the work's third ever performance. How do you feel about the piece a year after its premiere?

Helen Grime: I often need a bit of space after the premiere of a new piece to decide how I feel about it. Hearing it again after a period can feel completely different. There is so much obsessive focus on a piece on the run up to its premiere that I feel better about the piece now than I did a year ago.

JS: In the program notes, you explain that your Piano Concerto is “a sort of mini homage to Elliott Carter and Pierre Boulez.” What was it about the specific works you mentioned (Triple Duo and Sur Incises, respectively) that spoke to you? How did you make them your own?

HG: When programming the concert where the piece was first performed, the Carter was suggested to go alongside. This influenced the choice of instrumentation. It is a piece which I have loved for many years for many reasons. The way Carter treats the duos is something that I was drawn to but have approached in quite a different way. For example, in the first moment, the clarinet and flute pairing and violin and cello duo play very different music with violin and cello not playing at all until quite far through the movement. Sur Incises is another piece that made a strong impression on me as a student. I wanted to amplify and expand the piano by pairing it with percussion and harp, almost like one-third of the Boulez.

JS: How do you see the relationship of the piano and ensemble in your piece? What prompted you to title it a “concerto”?

HG: It is a very intimate piece with a constant discourse between the piano and its associated duo of percussion and piano and the other two duos. However the piano is very much the leading force even if it is not always playing virtuosic material.

JS: What projects are next on the horizon for you?

My next big project is an orchestral piece for the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle to be premiered in April. I have a new song cycle for Ruby Hughes and Joseph Middleton in Wigmore Hall in February.

Please join us MONDAY, February 5th at 8pm for our All-British Program, featuring works by David Horne, James MacMillan, and Peter Maxwell Davies. There will be a pre-concert discussion about the unique musical landscape of the British Isles at 7pm. For our pre-sale discounted tickets, visit www.collagenewmusic.org/ticketinformation

Expressivity in Etudes: A Lerdahl/Collage Conversation by Collage New Music

"This continuity [with Collage] has constituted one of the most meaningful relationships in my professional life."  

- Fred Lerdahl

Please enjoy this brief and poignant conversation with composer Fred Lerdahl and Collage Fellow Joseph Sowa. Collage will be performing his Fantasy Etudes (1985) at their season opener on October 15th, 3pm in Longy School of Music's Pickman Hall. Come join us for a pre-concert conversation with our composers an hour before the concert (2pm).

Joseph Sowa: It’s been a little more than thirty years since you wrote Fantasy Etudes (1985). What were your artistic goals at the time and how do you feel about the piece in retrospect?

 Fred Lerdahl,  composer

Fred Lerdahl, composer

Fred Lerdahl: Before writing Fantasy Etudes I had avoided the standard contemporary chamber ensemble of “Pierrot plus percussion.” My first thought was about how to make this heterogeneous group of instruments sound good. My second thought was to broaden the syntax of the string quartets that I had been composing. My third thought was to cast my formal method of expanding variations in a new way. My feeling about Fantasy Etudes in retrospect is that it was a watershed piece in my development. 

JS: In the program notes for Fantasy Etudes, you explain how the piece’s construction creates a sense of fantasy. What can you tell us about the other part of the title? What makes the interlocking sections “etudes”? How are these etudes different than, say, Chopin’s piano pieces or Elliott Carter’s wind quartet?

FL: Fantasy Etudes has nothing to do with Chopin (whose music I love) or with Carter except that I wanted to make his practice of tempo modulations perceptually palpable and visceral. The “etudes” in the title refers to my conception of composing expanding variations out of separate musical streams that overlap from one to the next. This was the first piece to do that. Each etude explores a different pitch syntax. The etudes are studies not for the performer but for the composer. The formal unity of the piece comes not from development of a kernel motive but from the similarity of process from one etude to the next.

JS: To NewMusicBox you said, “I got into theory because I wanted to make foundation for myself as a composer.” You then gave the example of how seeking to understand the harmonic syntax of your first string quartet culminated in your book Tonal Pitch Space(2001). How has exploring such theoretical issues affected your composing? What relationship do these technical questions have to your expressive concerns?

 Generative Theory of Tonal Music by Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff

Generative Theory of Tonal Music by Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff

FL: As a young composer I went through a crisis of style and aesthetics. The contemporary music scene was bewildering. I couldn't believe in any version of historical justification that this or that compositional school propounded. I pursued music theory in order to build a foundation for my musical thought not on historical influence but grounded in the realities of music perception and cognition. My work on A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (written with Ray Jackendoff) and, later, Tonal Pitch Space had a profound influence on my composing, not only in general attitude but also in many technical ways. At the same time, my intuitions as a composer influenced how the theory developed. As for how technical questions bear on my expressive concerns, let me say that without a coherent syntax musical expression can only be crude. The development of the technical side of composing goes hand in hand with what the music can express. In the best music, technique and expression are inseparable.

JS: What has it been like to work with Collage New Music over the years? Is there a specific highlight in your collaboration with the ensemble? 

FL: I have been most fortunate to work with Collage many times. This continuity has constituted one of the most meaningful relationships in my professional life. I think of two highlights in particular. The first was when I conducted Eros with Collage in the late 1970s, both in Boston and at Tanglewood. I wasn't much of a conductor, but they tolerated me and we had a wonderful time performing the piece. The second was when Collage featured my music on its concerts throughout an entire season a few years ago. The performances were fantastic.

See you October 15th! For more information, visit HERE

The Voice of the Sibyl in Boston: A Conversation with James Primosch by Collage New Music

 James Primosch, composer

James Primosch, composer

Collage anticipates premiering James Primosch's "A Sibyl" at our season opener. In this interview with the composer, Collage Fellow Joseph Sowa dives into this new commission, the collaboration with renown poet Susan Stewart, and the exciting "Primosch Day" on October 15th.

To learn more about this work and the other great composers on our first concert, please join us prior to the performance at 2pm on October 15th for a pre-concert conversation led by David Hoose.

Congratulations on your upcoming premiere with Collage New Music! Your latest song cycle, A Sibyl, will be premiered this October 15. How did the commission come about?

The project came about as the result of a commission awarded by the Fromm Music Foundation, which is based at Harvard, and has long been a generous supporter of new music. I contacted David Hoose and Frank Epstein about the possibility of applying for a Fromm [Music Foundation] commission, asking if they would commit to performing the piece if the grant came through, and they agreed to do so. The application was successful and here we are! I’m grateful both to the Fromm and to David and Frank for putting their faith in me and committing to a piece that didn’t yet exist.

What has it been like to work with Collage New Music over the years? Is there a specific highlight in your collaboration with the ensemble?

My relationship with Collage actually goes back decades as the late Gunther Schuller conducted my Septet on a Collage program back in the 1980s. Later David Hoose conducted my Four Sacred Songs, with Janice Felty as soloist, and most recently Christopher Oldfather, the fabulous pianist with the group, gave the Boston premiere of a set of piano pieces that he had co-commissioned. (In fact, that most recent performance was the last time I saw Gunther, sad to say.) I can’t single out any one of these concerts as a highlight; I’ve been terrifically pleased every time with the high standards Collage brings to its performances.

In addition to working with Collage over the years, you’ve also had a long working relationship with Susan Stewart. A Sibyl marks the fourth time you’ve set her poetry. What initially drew you to Stewart as a collaborator? For this most recent work, what about the Cumaean Sibyl spoke to you and Susan?

 Susan Stewart, poet

Susan Stewart, poet

I came upon the work of Susan Stewart about 20 years ago thanks to a newspaper article in the Philadelphia Inquirer on the occasion of her receiving a MacArthur Fellowship. The article included a short poem of Susan’s called “Cinder.” As soon as I read it, I knew I wanted to set it; it spoke to me that powerfully. I did not realize that Susan was at the time a professor in the English department at Penn, where I also teach. We met, she gave me permission to use “Cinder,” and my setting of her text became the fulcrum of my song cycle Holy the Firm, composed for Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish — in fact, my setting of “Cinder” is my most performed piece. Subsequently, I used two of Susan’s poems in a cycle with baritone entitled Dark the Star, and she wrote new poems specifically for a piece with baritone and orchestra, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony, Songs for Adam. The poems of A Sibyl were again created especially for this project.

Speaking for myself, I understand the sibyl as an archetype of a singer, her voice guiding us to moonlit places, speaking of fate and the mysteries of life, death, and love. Susan’s poems reflect on the mysteries the sibyl utters, but also ponder the vulnerability of the sibyl herself and how her power and identity are embodied in her voice.

You’ve noted the “amazing trifecta of good luck” to have two other Boston performances on October 15. In addition to the afternoon premiere with Collage New Music, Emmanuel Music will present one of your motets in the morning and Winsor Music will play your Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano in the evening. What would you say to a Boston music lover considering to undertake the full Primosch marathon? What kind of experience might they have hearing these pieces back to back? Do you have any favorite Boston restaurants you might recommend between concerts?

I will certainly be delighted — thought a little surprised — if anyone wishes to attend all three performances. There is a nice variety of performing media with these three pieces: choral, solo voice with ensemble, and purely instrumental ensemble. There is also variation in the age of the pieces. The work for Collage is a premiere, while the piece Winsor Music will play is receiving its second performance, having been first played earlier this year. In contrast, the motet that will be done at Emmanuel’s morning Eucharist dates from twenty years ago. I don’t see a lot of stylistic difference between the recent pieces and the older one, but maybe that will become apparent by hearing the pieces in close succession. Certainly all three pieces, written specifically for these organizations, have deep Boston connections, as I have been lucky enough to have all three groups engage my work over the years. (Even the text for the Emmanuel piece has a Boston connection in that its author is Denise Levertov, who attended Emmanuel for a time.)

As for dining options on October 15, I will leave that kind of advice to those more informed than I. I’ve certainly had lovely brunches within walking distance of Emmanuel over the years, as well as some fine dinners in Brookline, not far from St. Paul’s, where Winsor Music will perform. I hope my contribution to the music of the day provides its own kind of nourishment.

Join our email newsletter to stay tuned for more exciting news, interviews, and promotions. We hope you join us for our first concert on October 15th, 3pm. 

Announcing our Collage Fellow: Joseph Sowa by Collage New Music

Congratulations, Joseph, on your appointment as Collage’s Fellow for our 2017-18 season! We are looking forward to premiering your work in March and welcoming you into the Collage family. Can you tell us a little about your background as a composer? Where are you currently studying? With whom?

Joseph Sowa: Thank you! Growing up I was a violinist and science-fiction nerd. I was also always making things. In sixth grade that meant computer programs. I made this Tie Fighter computer game that my classmates loved and my teacher couldn’t figure out how to remove from our class computer.

A couple years later, I decided to try my hand at writing music. I was already playing and listening to it. In the 90s and early 00s, all these classic sci-fi/fantasy scores were still recent: Star Wars, Star Trek, E.T., Tron, The Dark Crystal, and many others. I loved that music and orchestra music generally. The natural response seemed to be to make more of it. One of the top three moments of my musical life was when my middle school orchestra premiered my “Scene for String Orchestra.” Hearing that first live performance of my music was utterly thrilling. I was hooked. I enrolled at Brigham Young University as a music composition major, and I’ve stuck with it ever since.

Oddly enough, even though film music played a large roll in getting me composing, I never seriously pursued it but instead dug deeper into the concert world from high school onward. After completing my bachelor’s and master’s at Brigham Young University, I came to Brandeis University in 2013 for my doctorate. I’m currently writing my dissertation with Yu-Hui Chang and David Rakowski as my advisors.

I hope you have had a chance to encounter some of Massachusetts’ music scene since beginning at Brandeis. Have there been any performances/lectures/meetings that have stood out to you?

JS: The scene in Massachusetts has been fantastic. Orchestra being my first musical love, it’s been a dream to see to one of the world’s great orchestras, the BSO, as often as I can. NEC’s orchestras are also quite good, and soon after I came to Boston, they helped me cross John Adams’ Harmonielehre off my concert bucket list. The roar of the orchestra in Jordan Hall at the conclusion of that work was thrilling.

Beyond that, there’s just so much going on that many nights you can literally stumble unaware onto great shows. Several years ago, a friend was visiting me from out of town, and we did just that. We couldn’t get tickets for the concert we were planning to see but instead came across one of Joseph Summer’s Shakespeare Concerts. It was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen in Boston. The musicality and showmanship were totally engrossing.

Who and what are some of your compositional influences? What kinds of non-musical interests affect your composing?

JS: My biggest musical interests are color and texture, and my influences echo that preoccupation across genres. I’m just as inspired by the niche work of John Adams, Oliver Knussen, or Anton Webern as I am by the more broadly familiar music of John Williams, Stevie Wonder, or Coldplay.

Outside of music, I find my composing most affected by the natural world and my training as an editor. I specialized in magazine editing in my undergraduate minor and worked in public relations before I came to Brandeis. How I think about words has suffused my musical creative process. For instance, I approach composing more in terms of revising drafts than in writing linearly and perfecting the details along the way.

The influence of nature on my work is just as strong but more of a mystery to me. I like hiking and being outside, but I’m neither a naturalist nor an avid outdoorsman. Still, whenever I title my pieces, many of the associates I make to my music are natural ones: “A Field Guide to Natural History,” “Summer Has Ten Thousand Stars,” “Under an Orange Sky,” “Coruxa en Carbayu” (Asturian for “the owl in the oak”), and others.

For those unfamiliar with your music, what would work of yours should they check out? Why?

JS: My most recent piece, “Blossom Music,” captures all of the features I described: a love for layers and colors, echoes of Oliver Knussen’s music, and the influence of literature and nature. I had been asked to write a Pierrot ensemble piece for the fresh inc festival. It took me a few weeks to find a suitable text, but when I settled on Emily Dickinson’s poems about flowers, the musical ideas just flowed.

In her lifetime Emily Dickinson was better known as a gardener than as a poet. To Susan Dickinson, a “Love of flowers” was her sister-in-law Emily’s primary attribute. Susan was one of a tiny handful that knew Emily intimately. Only when Emily’s poems were posthumously published did others discover that the reclusive ”Myth of Amherst” had vast knowledge of human heart. My piece "Blossom Music" seeks to capture this hidden intensity of feeling in two of Dickinson's flower poems.

To learn more about Joseph’s burgeoning and diverse career, visit his website at www.josephsowa.com.

*This interview was conducted by Collage Manager David Stevens 8/10/2017

Eric Moe discusses composing and his work SUPERHERO by Collage New Music

 Score Cover for Eric Moe's SUPERHERO (2006)

Score Cover for Eric Moe's SUPERHERO (2006)

We look forward to presenting Eric Moe's SUPERHERO for our upcoming concert "Heroes and Anti-Heroes"! A big thanks to our Collage Fellow Yi Yiing Chen for conducting the following interview. 


Yi Yiing Chen: How did you become a composer?

Eric Moe: After some unsuccessful attempts to teach myself, I took a course with Paul Lansky when I was an undergraduate at Princeton. He was a wonderful and encouraging teacher.

Chen: What do you remember about the first piece you wrote? Did you know at that point that you would want to make this your profession?

Moe: I don’t remember whether it was the first, but I remember writing a piano piece modeled on Chopin’s Thirds and Sixths Etude. For Seconds and Sevenths. Not such a great piece, probably, but it was fun.


Is there a specific time of day that you like to compose? Do you have a fixed schedule for when you compose? How long do you spend for each composing session?

Whenever I have some free time. Artist colonies and residency programs are great, since they offer the opportunity to work whenever for however long is productive and they tend to be in beautiful or interesting natural settings. I probably do my best work in the mornings, though, work until I get stuck, take a break, repeat until exhaustion.

What is your composition process? Is every time different, or do you follow a pattern? (E.g. Do you construct the melody first, or do you think about the overall structure first?)

It's very dependent on the nature of the piece. Some consistent things are that I prefer an improvisatory work method and avoid pre-compositional schemata. I tend to start at the beginning and keep adding to it.


How do you balance being a composer and a performer?

As best as I can. I tend to not pursue performance opportunities but let them come to me. I’m more proactive with compositional projects.

What do you love most about your career?

I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. It’s all great - making something out of thin air (literally: pressure waves of air molecules); working with performers or as a performer myself; seeing it make a difference to a listener.

What do you like to do other than composing, performing and teaching? How much do you think your keyboard training has influenced you?

It's hard to imagine a musical life without a keyboard, since it’s been with me in my earliest memories. But I’ve written plenty of pieces where keyboard skills are useless - works for unpitched percussion, electroacoustic pieces. Outside music, I like scrambling up mountains.


What’s the initiation of the work? Did you choose the theme heroic narrative theme for SUPERHERO on your own? Are you interested in the comic book genre?

I came up with the idea on my own. At some early point in the process I was considering the superbly skilled performers who would be playing the piece and was thinking of them as a league of superheroes.

I’ve been consciously interested in and inspired by a variety of "universal" narratives for some time, but the superheroic narrative is particularly resonant. I was fascinated by mythology as a youngster and read comic books avidly. My favorites were ones that explicitly combined them, and as an adult I can appreciate that the same myths inspire Götterdämmerung and Thor, that both high- and low-brow art can drink from the same stream.  

Have you found any other universal narratives to be as suggestive as the heroic narrative?

A number of narratives have musical analogues - the voyage and return, a stranger comes to town, spaghetti can talk. Common to all is the element of surprise - when will the voyager return? How will the mysterious stranger affect the lives of the townspeople? What’s on the spaghetti’s mind?

What have been your major influences (as a musician)? Are there places in SUPERHERO we might hear any of these influences? Are there any influences coming from any heroic narrative works by other composers?

Sure, I’m indebted to earlier composers and like to acknowledge that in the pieces themselves. I don’t think there are any literal quotations in SUPERHERO itself, but the idea of the piece is directly inspired by Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. And the “theme as hero” idea can of course be found all over the place - Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasie, the Liszt Eb Piano Concerto, etc.

Do you mind listeners or performers have different literary interpretations of your work?

Certainly not. My own interpretations of pieces are subject to change and modification. If I wanted the meaning to be fixed verbally, I’d be an essayist rather than a composer!

Do you have any advice for a musician who would like to pursue a career as a composer?

It's tough economically, but rewarding in every other way. Except for the untold bucketfuls of rejection letters that you will accumulate throughout your career.

We look forward to seeing you at our concert, April 2nd. Tickets are available HERE. In addition to joining our pre-concert talk, Eric Moe is on our composers panel for the composition workshop that day at 4pm. Tickets for auditing the workshop are $5 on top of presale discount tickets and include a pizza dinner.

John Harbison on Donald Sur by Collage New Music

In our upcoming concert, April 2nd, Collage will be performing four works by Korean-American composer Donald Sur. In the pre-concert talk (7pm) led by music director David Hoose, John Harbison, a close colleague and friend of Sur's, will expand upon his enigmatic persona and importance as a composer. John along with Collage pianist Christopher Oldfather will present the audience with a passage of Sur's one-act play Duologue. The proceeding article was written by Harbison gives a personal introduction to Donald Sur, who passed away in 1999.

Donald Sur Remembered

Soon after I met Donald Sur in Roger Sessions’ and Earl Kim’s composition classes, he invited Rose Mary Pedersen and me over to try his one-page piece Root, for violin, viola, and claves.  This was one of Donald’s first “eternal” or “perpetual” pieces, that is, it carried the instruction “Da Capo senza Fine.”  It was also, like so many of Donald’s pieces, very hard to play. The three of us began playing bravely and didn’t stop until we’d achieved at least thirty revolutions in Donald’s hot, crowded kitchen. The strain of the concentration on this strange fragile piece created a drug-like euphoria.

Root expressed in its one page so much of Donald’s personality. It was droll and spare, but also strangely insistent. The next year we all found ourselves in Cambridge, which for Donald was the prelude to his extended residence in Korea, one of the great adventures of his life. He left behind a number of disappointed and attractive women, some of his collection of instruments, and tapes of the Korean Court Orchestra, established in Seoul five centuries before. When he arrived in Korea he composed the first additions to their repertoire since the 1500's. He became in five years a recognized expert in Korean Court Music, an esteemed composer, and a personage of great consequence in Korean culture.

From an atmosphere of virtually senatorial privilege and respect, Donald brought a bewildered young Korean bride back to the squalid basement life of a Harvard graduate student. Donald seemed hardly to notice the change, his musical thoughts and philosophical ruminations then as later dominating his consciousness, but the young woman suffered from the acute cultural dis-junction, and the ensuing years were tragic and trying.

It was in this period that Donald attempted to make connections as a teacher with various local institutions. There were successful passages at Harvard, and at M.I.T., where he founded the now-thriving world music program and hosted many distinguished visiting ensembles. 

But academic institutions and Donald were at odds. He was the essence of an underground, free-thinking artist. One of the characters in his one-act play Duologue remarks, “the opposite of musical is not un-musical but literal-minded.” Donald’s elliptical, playful mind, which made him instant friends, sent off flares among those who would determine his academic fate. And Donald contributed difficulties. Once, calling from Amsterdam two weeks late for the start of the term, he said, “I’m paralyzed by guilt. I may have to stay here longer to really comprehend how late I am.”

So, out on his own, Donald started a business to help support his family, reproducing music by the old ozalid blue-print process. It was a world of close, chemical-filled rooms and late hours.. But many of us remember on some cold winter night bringing him a finished piece in which he took a shared pleasure, or picking up copies which he pulled miraculously from the chaotic rubble of his workroom. He later expanded to publishing, even, in the height of his business-man phase, affecting a rakish yellow pin-stripe suit. But as xerox replace blue-printing, Donald’s nomadic nature asserted itself and he crafted the bohemian strategy of more recent years – arts colonies artfully strung together, and in between visits to his mother, his son Matthew, and his friends.  When he became enmeshed in his largest piece, Slavery Documents, he truly lived for the piece, frugally and unapologetically, in his words, “making the sacrifices.”

Slavery Documents was the fruit of one of Donald’s series of obsessions. He became a pre-civil war scholar while researching the piece, producing, initially, a text that would have required about seven hours of music. Obsessiveness and delight also informed his exploration of the Vivaldi concertos, bearing fruit in his own violin concerto, and in the simpler transparent textures of his last music.

Friendship with Donald involved a long open-ended conversation which sought to understand music and life at the most practical and the most speculative levels. It was marked by Donald’s remarkable curiosity, and the strange, revealing angle from which he saw the world. I am happy and blessed to say this in my case, the conversation continued to his very last days, and remained open-ended. He was generous, without jealousies, judgments, and grievances.  During his illness his focus sharpened, his loyalties, personal and artistic, intensified. He remained above all curious and filled with wonder. Describing his appropriately musical and intricate hallucinations in his last hours he said, “I can’t decide whether to block them out or transcribe them into my piece.”

The language of Donald’s early work is different from the more recent music, but the aesthetic, the temperament, is certainly not.  The common ground is precision, oddly satisfying dis-proportion, and indirect-direct emotion. One of Speculum Musicae’s members, in the days when they often played Donald’s Cantenas, was Ursula Oppens. I remember her telling me, “Of all the pieces we perform a lot, these Cantenas are the only ones we never get tired of.”

In Donald’s little one-act play Duologue, the Monk says, “People no longer listen to each other so there is really no need for Silence.”  But Donald did listen, and talk, and ponder, trying to discover and make clear the necessity for silence, and for sounds.

--John Harbison

Composer Daniel Strong Godfrey discusses his music and musical life with candor and intimacy. by Collage New Music

 Daniel Strong Godfrey, composer

Daniel Strong Godfrey, composer

Background as Composer

How did you become a composer?  What do you remember your first experience of making music? When did you know that you wanted to make this your profession? 

I was living in Ankara, Turkey at the age of eight. One day I became annoyed that my sister had decided not to practice the piano—something I looked forward to every day—so I decided to play the piano myself. Lacking any repertoire, I made up a composition (with a beginning, middle, and end that varied the beginning). My parents overheard this going on, and everything followed from there. (I had been listening obsessively to Brahms since age four, so they weren’t entirely surprised.)

Method of composition

Do you have a fixed schedule for when you compose?  Are there any locations that you find particularly inspirational? How has this changed through the years? What is your composition process? Is every time different, or do you follow a pattern? (E.g. Do you write melody first, and/or do you think about the structure first?)

I should have a schedule; the ideas always flow better when I plan my time. But life’s complexities have made that much more difficult in recent years. My journey now is getting back to a place where I can dedicate myself more consistently. As to composing itself, the process usually starts with a state of mind, after which an idea (rhythmic, melodic, harmonic…) that reflects that experience begins to emerge, after which I dive into, explore, wrestle with the material until (if all goes well) a totality comes into view. At that point my path lies before me.

Value of being an educator

You have taught and been affiliated with academic institutions for many years. Could you talk about how you teach composition and think about learning how to compose? Do you think it is crucial that a composer study the theory of the Common Practice Period? In your experience, what theoretical foundations have you used in your instruction and development of coursework?

This is proving to be a more and more difficult question in my mind the longer I stay in academia, the more I know how creativity really seems to work, and the more objectively I look at the history of music making in the culture we westerners inhabit. The most intelligently educated composers seem to be those who are preternaturally voracious and who have an inexorable compulsion to educate themselves from early on. When I encounter them as a teacher (always a joy), it’s apparent that I’m at best a supernumerary on their path to success. Given the mix of enthusiasm and inhibition that the ritual of earning a doctorate in my chosen art form created in my own case, I often find my biggest fear is that I will get in the way of my students’ imagination, no matter how open-mindedly I hope to encourage it. The most productive assignment I give to my students is to listen, listen, listen and to study scores with an active curiosity, and with a determination to discover where and why the music succeeds when it does.

Career and life

How do you balance being a composer and an administrator? What do you enjoy about being the Chair of Northeastern University’s Department of Music?

To balance being a truly dedicated composer and a full-time administrator requires a form of sorcery I have yet to master. I find the broadly conceived, entrepreneurial and intellectually heterodox view of educating musicians at Northeastern a stimulating change from the conservatory model I’ve been part of for over three decades. But implementing such a vision leaves precious little time to harness the wonderful energy in this Boston musical environment and apply it to my own life as a composer. I’m taking the situation as a new challenge to my capacities for self-discipline, so perhaps it will benefit me as an artist in the end.

Juliet at Her Window

What have been your major influences (as a composer)? Can we find these influences in Juliet at her Window?

My influences include Mahler, Sibelius, Ravel, Stravinsky, Webern (believe it or not), Copland, Barber, Slavic folk and liturgical music (which I perform periodically as a choral conductor), Middle Eastern folk music (from my youth), jazz (Bill Evans especially), and the notational, rhythmic and timbral innovations of post-war modernism, selectively applied when called for to my particular way of focusing on tonality. To my own ears, no one of these influences is more obvious than any other in the way I write, but I know they’re all in there.

This work includes Shakespearian text and there is an abundance of text to work from: What passages or themes did you decide to focus on and why? Were there difficulties incorporating the text into the music?

The four texts for Juliet at her Window are taken primarily from Act II, Scene II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with supplemental passages from elsewhere in the play. Lines are combined and/or rearranged in one way or another to form brief, thematically related stanzas in each song. The texts suggest states of mind on Juliet’s part, with no intention to represent the scene or play as narrative. Also, the words chosen and their musical context reflect only on Juliet — Romeo is not mentioned — and my intention was to focus on her breathless optimism and extrovert declarations of love, while hinting somewhere beneath the surface at the pathos, denial and isolation from reality that (in my view) underlie them. Ultimately, though, the point is not to interpret Shakespeare but to seek, as have so many composers, a musical path into and through the human spaces opened up by his words.

Posted by David Stevens, acting manager