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.