Vespers interview 4

The last part of my interview with Navona, the record company behind Vespers, from last year’s release of our CD. Part 1 of the interview is here, Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here. Additional comments as I ponder my answers now, a year after the interview, are in italics.

6. Would you elaborate on composing for Renaissance instruments in a contemporary setting?

Again, I think you have to respect the instruments for what they are. A sackbut is not a trombone, for instance. If you think of it as a small trombone, that gets closer, but it still misses so much of the essence of the instrument. It’s its own thing. But it’s the same with all instruments. Look at today: there’s so much writing for trombones that treats them as if they were tubas or bassoons. And some people write for voices as if they were trombones, for goodness’ sake.

So we have to respect each instrument for what it is. It would be an error for anyone to think of the shawm as just a primitive oboe (even though we’re told that’s what it is), but for a composer, it would be a miscalculation. Each instrument, ancient or modern, has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. Even the violin, which has hardly changed since Beethoven’s time—how could it be improved?—cannot be all things. Each instrument has its own acoustical properties. The Renaissance recorder produces such a wild mix of shapes, colors, and textures, that to overload it with chromatics would flatten out and deaden the very qualities that reveal its distinctiveness.

I think that’s true, in general, for all “early” instruments. They have character: audacious character. The “improvement” many of these instruments underwent was meant precisely to tone down that character, to knock the edges off, so that they could behave better with others. Well, it is tricky to write for early instruments in mixed ensemble. This is why they invented consorts of instruments: a range of dulcians from top to bottom, say. But there are ways to do it, if you let the character speak, and listen for where the blends are. You have to find a way to let them gallop full out, hooves flying, otherwise I don’t see the point in writing for these tremendous personalities.

It’s funny: I never was bitten by the electronic music bug. But reading the above, I’m thinking that electronic composers and I are not too far apart. We’re trying to find that essence of sound that is peculiar to the piece we’re writing. Maybe we’re not so far apart.

7. Is this the Vespers for the modern man?

It’s a good question, but I don’t know, I guess I’ve never believed in modern man. Or, I might say, people in every age believe that they are uniquely modern man, and I part company at the “uniquely.” That is, I don’t believe that we’re made of different stuff from our forebears, or that we think different thoughts, or that we face different problems. We are, all of us, in all times and in all places, the same. Old books teach us this, don’t they? When I read Thomas Mann or Mark Twain or Jane Austen or Shakespeare or Dante or Beowulf or the Psalms I come face to face with… me. They speak to me in my language; I understand them because they recognize me. I see myself in the Vespers liturgy if I listen closely enough. Then I write down what I hear. If I’ve done my job well, then anyone can hear it.

I’m not a post-modernist and have never even been a modernist. (Post-post-modernism is a phrase I’ve seen; will have to look that up. If it involves—in any way—irony, I’m outta here. You cannot have irony without tradition, without settled truth. Irony works… well, irony is funny only if you have an agreed-upon tradition. I’d make a Lutheran reference here but we Lutherans aren’t funny. No, okay, we are funny, but only to each other. You have to be there.)

8. What other projects are you currently working on?

Just finished my first string quartet, in which I attempt to solve the problem of evil in the world, in three-quarter time. I’m joking. Sort of. It’s called The Best of All Possible Worlds, and a reading of Candide got me thinking about Voltaire’s spoof of Leibniz’s optimism. I confess that I side with Leibniz, even granting, for the sake of argument, Candide’s naïveté. And it really is a waltz.

Right now I’m finishing another major choral work for The Crossing, an unaccompanied piece setting three texts of Paul Celan. Donald Nally constructed a season-long Celan Project, delving into the writing of this remarkable, sad poet. His texts are stunning. How about that, Voltaire and Celan, looks like I’m still working with language.

Then I’m continuing to work on the reduction and transcription of Vespers for other instrumental possibilities. Other choirs have expressed interest for performance with keyboard or other combinations of instruments, so Vespers continues to grab my attention.

Whew, a lot has happened in a year. I finished The Best of All Possible Worlds, then the Paul Celan piece Where Flames a Word, then Two Laudate Psalms, and as of this writing have three big commissions to finish in the next year: choral with instruments, vocal with full orchestra, and instrumental. I did finally finish the piano/vocal score to Vespers: it’s something we never needed for the premiere or recording, but is needed now.


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