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

COME JOIN US FOR OUR CONCERT JANUARY 15TH, 8PM AT LONGY SCHOOL OF MUSIC TO HEAR DANIEL STRONG GODFREY's Juliet at her Window as well as  WORKS BY Marjorie MERRYMAN , GORDON BEEFERMAN, CARL SCHIMMEL, AND SEYMOUR SHIFRIN. VISIT HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION.

Interview with Composer Marjorie Merryman by Collage New Music

    Composer Marjorie Merryman  

    Composer Marjorie Merryman

 

A huge thanks to composer Margorie Merryman for being a wonderful interviewee and sharing with us these answers and insights! Our conversation is as follows:

-Yi Yiing Chen, Collage Fellow 2016-17

 

Background as a composer

Yi Yiing: How did you become a composer? What do you remember your first experience of making music? Did you know at that point that you would want to make this your profession? 

Margorie Merryman: I started inventing music to play on the piano when I was around 11 or 12. My mother volunteered at a church near my school, and I liked playing the piano there. But I didn’t know very much about music, and I didn’t know how to learn more, so I made pieces up. I could probably still play some of them. It didn’t occur to me that I was composing or that there was such a thing as a composer. Actually, I never really set out to be a composer, even much later. But music and the expression of thoughts and feelings through composing were very compelling to me, and the rest just happened.

Method of composition

Y: Do you have a fixed schedule for when you compose?  Are there any locations that you find particularly inspirational?  What is your composition process? Is every time different, or do you follow a pattern?

M: Most of my music has been written late at night, which is probably the most natural time for me – everyone is asleep, no one will bother you, and my mind can calm down and focus. But now that I’m older, I mostly write in the morning, before I go to work (at Manhattan School of Music). I like that time too, before I’ve had a chance to get distracted by all the cares of the day. The preferred location for me is home alone.

I can’t claim to have a compositional process per se. Every piece is different, but generally I start with some musical idea that has occurred to me. It’s most likely to be a gesture that contains specific harmony or specific melodic shape, and I work from there. Even if I begin with a more elaborate idea, very often that will be changed by the time the piece is actually written. Once I start working on something, I like to play it on the piano if possible. I play and improvise and change things around, not unlike what I did in my childhood composing. There’s a danger in that method, since it would be very limiting to write only textures for piano, so I do work against that tendency. I think about form quite a lot also, but mainly I try to be alert to the context the music is creating, and to shape the form around that.

Value of being an educator

Y: You wrote The Music Theory Handbook, a very useful text that I used when I was in college. Do you think it is essential that a composer study the theory of the Common Practice Period? Do you apply any kind of theory in your composition lesson?

M: I love tonal music and the language of tonality is magical to me. It’s also inescapably the context from which most of our contemporary music developed, and every composer can learn from the masters who preceded us and be inspired by their incredible imaginations and their technique. So I think it’s important. But not everyone agrees about the extent to which young composers need real mastery of the tonal language, and I don’t feel extremely doctrinaire about this. I don’t ask my students to do tonal exercises, although they may be studying this in other classes. I also don’t demand that my students apply some other theoretical approach, but I think they can learn a lot from newer theories about language, color, form and continuity. About tonal music, I find ideas that come from common practice, like phrasing and the notion of beginning-middle-and-end, the pace of harmonic change, voice-leading and salience of pitches in register, etc – these ideas are helpful for many students across a variety of styles.

Career and life

Y: How do you balance being a composer and an administrator?  What do you like to do other than teaching and composing?

M: I love working in music, and hearing music every day. I’ve been fortunate to be associated with music schools, and that’s an environment I enjoy – I’m involved with teaching, looking at scores, programming concerts, working with amazing performers in faculty and students, as well as composing and teaching composition every day. Although it’s busy, it’s also rewarding. In non-working moments I enjoy being with my children and grandchildren, and with friends.

Elegiac Songs

Y: What have been your major influences (as a composer)? Did you and your husband influence each other musically? Are there places in your Elegiac Songs we might hear any of these influences?

M: I wrote these pieces in 2015-2016. They are dedicated to the memory of my husband, the composer Edward Cohen, who died in 2002. We were married for almost 30 years, and he was a great influence on me in every way. I wouldn’t be able to point to some specific technical influence, but in this piece there is actually a direct quote: in the first of my songs, the piano plays an upward-sweeping scale in Ab, doubled at the fourth, which occurs both at the end of the first section and again, more briefly, near the end of the movement. This scale and gesture come from the opening of my husband’s opera Bezhin Meadow, which he worked on for several years, playing this passage almost daily. The story in his opera deals with the fragile nature of life and the thin line separating the living from the dead, and it ends with an image of birds flying high overhead. These themes are related to the poetry of my first song, and I felt inspired to make this musical quote.

Y: What can you share about working incorporating poetry into music? Is there anything special about the collaboration between poet and composer? 

M: For me, singing is a very fundamental thing, and I have written quite a bit of vocal and choral music. I have most often chosen poetry or prose that I have known for years, because those texts have already worked themselves into my imagination. I became aware of the wonderful poetry of Louise Gluck during the 1990s, and I happened to meet her because my daughter studied poetry with her at Williams College. Ms. Gluck didn’t offer any suggestions about setting her work, except to tell me that she enjoyed having it set to music. I’m very grateful for her permission to use her beautiful poetry.

come join us for our concert January 15th, 8pm at Longy School of Music to hear Merryman's Elegiac Songs along with works by Daniel Strong Godfrey, Gordon Beeferman, Carl Schimmel, and Seymour Shifrin. Visit Here for more information.

A Conversation on Elliott Carter w/ John Heiss, Christopher Oldfather, and Tony Arnold by Collage New Music

A Conversation on Elliott Carter w/ John Heiss, Christopher Oldfather, and Tony Arnold

by Talia Amar

To understand Elliott Carter's music more in depth I had a chat with John Heiss, Christopher Oldfather, and Tony Arnold. John Heiss, a composer, flutist, and educator knew Carter personally and had many interesting stories to tell about him. Pianist Christopher Oldfather and soprano Tony Arnold are tremendous musicians who will be performing some of Carter’s works at the Collage March 13, 2016 8pm concert at Longy School of Music (the piano sonata and Tempo e Tempi). They had some illuminating insights to share about the challenges and rewards of performing Carter’s music.

Talia Amar: John, would you tell us a little bit about Carter’s changing musical styles?

John Heiss: Carter had five creative periods: the first is tonal in which he wrote until about 1948. Then came his neo-classical period, which was very popular at the time. He started with it in 1939 when he went to Harvard, and he studied with Boulanger during that time.

Later on he became somewhat negative about his tonal pieces. They didn’t interest him anymore. I told him once: “Elliott we love your tonal music, what do you think about that?” He looked at me, smiled and said: “John, how would you answer a question like that if I asked you?” To me in his earlier works the music feels much more connected. Part of their urgency is counterpoint and multiple voices and multiple activities simultaneously.

Around 1950 something changed and his writing became more chromatic. In the middle of that change he wrote a very significant piece, Eight Etudes And A Fantasy For Woodwind Quartet (1950), in which the chromatic language is coming through. It’s not atonal exactly, but it’s certainly not tonal. The decision of which one to do (which was a hot issue at that time), is eradicated. It’s neither tonal nor atonal.

Then something more lyrical was coming in, and something more emotional. That is called The Late Carter. Around the 1990’s, there is an absolute serenity, and ease and poise, something more relaxed than his earlier music.

The last period is called Late-Late Carter. That is a distinct period with many more short pieces with a technical virtuosity. These Late-Late pieces are highly accessible, and the audiences just love them.

Talia: What are the difficulties in performing Carter’s music?

John: He had tonal mastery and rhythmic mastery. That set the standard for how to write, and how to invent a rhythmic language and get instruments to be more virtuosic than ever before. There are works that have not been performed well yet, too complex and too hard to know where to go.

In every single piece, there’s always a challenge, in the beginning, for the performer. Many of his pieces have significant technical challenges. It’s a way of stimulating musicians to rise and meet the challenge. Was this part of his philosophy? I think so, but I’m not sure he would have put it that way. He would have said, “I didn’t choose a philosophy, so much as I always did the work I wanted to do”. He’s a musicians’ composer, they always loved to play his music.

In 2008, when Carter was 100 and he came here [to Boston], Frank Epstein [percussionist and founder of Collage New Music] commissioned him to write his first percussion ensemble piece, which he did at the age of 99, a fantastic work called Tintinnabulation (2008). I set next to him during the performance and he was laughing and laughing. So after the performance I asked him “why are you laughing?” and he said: “John, it works!“

Christopher Oldfather: Elliott's music is hard for many reasons. He is a synthesis, which is a polite way of saying that he steals from everybody, all styles, all periods.

The solo piano sonata [Piano Sonata (1945-6)] bubbles with tiny little angular jazzy riffs, bouncing along inside a Beethoven-Brahms-Wagner-ian structure. There is always tons of stuff going on on many levels. It is constant Information overload, and hard to control. Ice skating in a raging torrent. The harmonies are basically tonal, so there is no serial combinatory stuff to worry about, but inversions and short mirrors pop up all the time to divert the ear, and distract the player.

To say nothing of the second movement. The second movement is a very large, wild fugue, which is framed by an operatic aria that plays like Verdi. So one must contend with mad polyphony and a dying diva.

Tony Arnold: There are technical difficulties in all music; Carter’s is not exceptional in this way. But he must be met on his own terms — which means that rhythm is king. Expressive problems in Carter must first be solved by mastery of the rhythmic element. Only when the interlocking rhythms are in their “groove” do the textures begin to sparkle, and the gestures begin to fly.

Carter’s sense of time when setting text is quite protracted, and the challenge for a singer is to keep a thread of intelligibility spinning through the very long and wide-stepping phrases. In the case of Tempo e Tempi (1998-9), the Italian language adds another layer of complexity when it comes to communicating clearly with the audience. But the colorful instrumental lines are so skillfully written that they do provide (albeit in a non-traditional way) quite a bit of text painting.

Talia: What would you say is most special about Carter, both in terms of his music and personality?

Tony: I love the energy of Carter's contrapuntal instrumental writing — it provides a varied canvas for me to experiment with a wide range of vocal timbres. The clarity of complex textures in Carter’s music is like a high-definition relief map: exhaustive in its craggy detail close-up, but zoom out and the listener is traversing a majestic landscape. It is exhilarating to perform.

Christopher: Carter was an elegant cultured gentleman, and his music is that too. Always very well dressed, nothing out of place, unlike, say, Barber's near-sentimentality, or Bartok's gut-wrenching rawness. But there is something beyond elegance here, something very deeply felt, as well as intellectually understood. I must show both, and I never know how it will work.

It is rather intimidating actually. This is a man who wrote a piece setting a poem in Greek and English simultaneously, what would I add to that?

One of the great joys of my art is the ability to perform effectively I piece I will never "understand". All you have to do is look at the cover of your Well Tempered Clavier book to realize that there is more on each page than you will ever, ahem, get. You just have to keep playing and see what happens!

John: Like Bach and Beethoven his music is serious music, rich complexity, very appealing and engaging. It was never music that aimed low or dug itself down to be accessible. He held a very high standard, and a lot of creative integrity.

He always said that he “loves improvisation… because I end up doing all my hard work in composing, trying to compose the improvisation”. That’s why his rhythms sometimes are seemingly wrong metrically, which was groundbreaking for 1972.

On his birthday we had him here. We had 5 or 6 of his pieces at the main concert. We had some other concerts too, which he was not able to attend. He was very fragile at the end, but his mind was alive until the end of his life. Elliott was also warm as a person and was extremely smart. He spoke many languages, and knew a lot of poetry.

The audiences are much better for him now than when he was much younger. I sat next to Elliott at one of his concerts, and a woman came up and said “oh Mr. Carter, I’m so in love with your music!”. So Carter gave a small laugh and said “Well! I hope you recover soon!”. He didn’t take himself too seriously.

 

 

 

Voices of Now and Tomorrow by Collage New Music

Voices of Now and Tomorrow

An interview with the composers

By Talia Amar

 

I am thrilled and honored to have my composition, “Reminiscence,” premiered in tonight’s concert along side of three composers that I very much admire. In preparation for the concert, I have interviewed David Rakowski, Yehudi Wyner, and Chaya Czernowin. This is what they had to say about their pieces:

 

David Rakowski “Stolen Moments” (2010)

The piece is dedicated to the composer and educator Yehudi Wyner. What is your relationship with him?

I know Yehudi only slightly before I came to Brandeis in 1995. But then I got to know him quite well when I started at Brandeis, and we were colleagues for about 10 years before he retired. I sometimes helped him with his computer in his office, he sometimes came into my office while I was giving lessons and told great stories (or just commented, “I said no tritones!”). And of course we got to know each other’s music pretty well over that time. I had a couple of piano trios right around 1995 that had syncopated rhythms that could conceivably called “jazzy” — but not jazz — and Yehudi’s wonderful Horn Trio from that time consciously had some things that borrowed from jazz idioms. Yehudi commented that jazzy must have just been “in the air” at the time.

My assignment for this piece was “Classical composers respond to jazz”. It reminded me of me and Yehudi and our “jazzy” conversations of so many more years earlier. And, as it turns out, it was right around the time of his 80th birthday.

The piano has a special role in the first and fourth movement. However, in the second and third the piano almost doesn't play. Was this a conscious decision?

I knew the original pianist would be Tony de Mare, and he has a reputation for being a badass pianist. Nonetheless, the stride that I wrote in the first movement and the long bebop solo at the beginning of the last movement were such monster parts that it felt like with all those notes to learn, Tony should have much easier stuff for the rest of the piece. Also: I knew what other pieces were to be performed on the concert when my piece was premiered, and it included a tango set by Tony. Thus, I omitted Tony from the tango movement, because why not? He was already playing four tangos.

The piece has Jazz elements in it. Is it something you like to use in other pieces of yours? How do you reconcile Jazz, which traditionally has harmonic progressions, with atonal music?

Well, with this question I have to go into the terms of the commission.

Greg Evans was the director of programming at Merkin Hall in New York, and he had played horn in a piece of mine in NYC in 1996 (he seemed to have liked his part). In the 2008-9 season, he had programmed a series of classical composers interacting with jazz idioms, featuring three ensembles: the Lark Quartet, Zephyros Winds (wind quintet) and Tony de Mare. Greg’s idea for the commission was to bring those three groups together into a single piece with me doing my own interactions with jazz. It turns out I don’t listen to a lot of jazz and I don’t know so much about it, except blues scales et al — but I’d gotten a reputation for jazziness in some pieces, and I had put videos on YouTube of a stride piano etude and a bebop piano etude. Greg liked how I responded to challenges like that, so he proposed a much larger version of that challenge, at least 20 minutes. (Greg also mentioned that not a lot of rehearsal time was budgeted, so naturally I did a lot of writing for the ensembles by themselves so less putting-together in rehearsal would be necessary. Which also explains the big piano solos).

In a way, some of Stolen Moments became larger versions of the Stride and bebop etudes, but with more kinds of stuff layered in. A lot of the chords I use are already chords that could be considered jazz chords in a different context, but I use them differently. I wouldn’t consider my music atonal, anyway, more of a hyper-chromatic kind of tonality that I can’t explain. There’s voice leading and pitch centers and pitch goals in my music (I think) that, if they have a system, it’s a secret one. If someone figures out how it works, please make sure you don’t tell me.

 

Yehudi Wyner “The Second Madrigal: Voices of Women” (1999)

Where does the title come from?

One of the ten songs (number 5) is called The Second Madrigal. That is the only reason it is called that way.

Your piece is based on ten different poems. What made you choose these poems?

The texts are from “A Book of Luminous Things”, an international anthology of poetry edited by Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz was a great man and a great poet who was polish and survived the Nazi war. He is a man of great courage and strength. His philosophy of poetry is that poetry should not be obscure, it should be very straightforward, very clear, it should communicate, and be very concrete. I went through that book and the poems that captioned my attention the most are the ones about women. I don’t know why.

I want my music to speak with the poetry. The most extraordinary poems are by the polish poet Anna Swir. I used three of her poems in my piece. The frankness, the honesty, the courage to say what she says is just very powerful. This suggested to me what kind of music I should write.

How do you express the text in your music? Do you follow the general atmosphere of the poem, or do you follow the individual words and phrases?

I think both. I use the general atmosphere of the poem, if it’s passionate or angry, the music should not be like Debussy. On the other hand, it is a bad idea to start a dreamy poem about nature with big stormy music. Now, this has to go hand in hand with the text.

The melodies are not standard in this music, but every phrase has a melodic shape. The melodic shapes are very carefully built and meant to be memorable.

Did you try to unify the whole piece considering it is based on different poems?

No, I did not try to unify the piece. But while I began writing the notes I realized there was an arch. It went somewhere and from that point went somewhere else. The piece begins with a young woman who is flirtatious, who is looking forward maybe to an affair. Another woman is looking to getting out of bed and putting on her makeup. It goes to the point where women are deeply involved in their passions, and the affairs of their lives. From there it goes on to decline. Towards the last song there is a poem about a woman who is totally destroyed. The end of her life is nearby, and she hates the way she looks. Then we get to the very last poem (the only one that was written in English), which is about death. A lot of things fell into place without my intending them to. Another thing that helped to keep things unified was not having long postludes and things like that.

 

Chaya Czernowin “Lovesong” (2010)

Your piece is called “Lovesong”. Was there an underline text for the love song? Or is it more a song without words?

 It’s a song without words. The piece starts with a memory of something that could have been a love song and slowly layers of this memory are peeled away and we remain with something very fractured. For me, this really talks about the sustainability of love, not in the first moment, which is always so exciting, but how does it grow. We have fragile textures that are all the time in danger of getting cut or getting thrown away. It always continues to grow. That is actually the real love song.

Are you expressing your own love song or should the listeners think about their own experience? Are you expressing an internal feeling or a universal one?

It is both. For me music is always a little bit about both. If this succeeds to communicate something internal in a very very strong way, then it means that it can project something, which is to some extent universal. I start and end with something that is mine because that is what I know. The question is how do you succeed to objectify it by some extent even if it is very subjective, how do you succeed to communicate it so it is able to convey to everybody else also something very prominent.

Around the end of the piece (minute 7) there are more aggressive moments followed by fragile textures. What did you have in mind when you composed this passage?

There are fragile and melodic lines, which are very tenuous, very hard to catch, it is not a real melody. But it is always going on, always continuing and always developing. In spite of all these catastrophes and all those glares by fate or some external very strong power, it still goes on. That is the sustainability of love in a very very dramatic way. In a way I always thought that this piece is like a big opera in a bottle. Because it is extremely dramatic with a huge spectrum but actually it is in a tiny piece, just ten minutes long. It contains all this dramatic density. The story and the theme are very dense. You can hear a lot of things happening.