By David Stevens
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.