“Culture Opens Us Up” – a Conversation With Robert Carl on LIGHT DANCES and Other Works

An interview by composer Robert Carl on Bridge’s new release of Light Dances (Chamber Concerto No. 2) to appear in Fanfare Magazine’s May Issue. Bridge 4001.

To login via Fanfare Magazine: Light Dances


Feature Article by Robert Carl
“Culture Opens Us Up, With Luck”: An Interview with Stephen Jaffe
Buy Jaffe: Light Dances
Jaffe: Light Dances “Chamber Concerto No. 2”
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Bridge Records

Steve, I suspect none of our readers will know this, but you and I actually have some history—we were both graduate students in composition at University of Pennsylvania in the late 1970s. We both then found jobs soon thereafter at institutions where we’ve stayed our entire professional lives, something of a rarity. And while we’ve been in different parts of the country and not stayed in close touch, I think we’ve remained aware of one another over that time. So it’s nice to reconnect in more depth and detail. Welcome!

Robert, it is a pleasure to have this conversation with a composer colleague whose creative work and musical life lived I have followed. Your path has been exploratory and innovative, and it has developed in unforeseen directions. You aspire in the best traditions of American music, grandly—perhaps your Transcendentalist impulses reflect something of Charles Ives, your Connecticut neighbor!

Thanks for such kind words, but remember, this is about you! So, let’s get back to the subject at hand. Before we get to your music itself, could you give us some background on the “phased release” of this program, and how you feel it fits into the current state of production and marketing of new concert music? Not all Fanfare’s readers may be aware of the shifts currently in process.

Fanfare’s readers may know that it may take years for an ensemble or a composer to raise money sufficient to issue a CD. I have been very lucky to have had partnering orchestral and chamber ensembles, and record labels, who felt it important to get my music out there. Thanks to their advocacy I have been able to record lots of music to offer to the present and the future! Having issued a number of orchestral or large ensemble works, Bridge’s current Jaffe project is a gathering of three pieces of my chamber music by the Borromeo Quartet (String Quartet No. 2, “Aeolian and Sylvan Figures”), the Kennedy Center Chamber Players (David Hardy, cello and Lambert Orkis, piano—Sonata (in Four Parts), and the Da Capo Chamber Players—Light Dances (Chamber Concerto No. 2). As Light Dances was beautifully recorded and superbly rendered, Bridge decided to issue the work now, as its first digital download. That’s kind of fun. A physical CD, containing all three pieces will be issued in 2020.

Light Dances is written for a mixed sextet (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion) often referred to as a “Pierrot sextet,” derived from Schoenberg’s ensemble, replacing voice with percussion. It’s become one of the most favored chamber ensembles for new works written after the middle of the 20th century. But you call the work a chamber concerto. Can you describe the concept of a chamber concerto, how you realize it in this intimate setting?         

Actually, I have composed four chamber concertos: Singing Figures for oboe solo and instruments (1996, recorded on Bridge 9141), Light Dances (Chamber Concerto No. 2, 2009); the HIP Concerto (Chamber Concerto No. 3), for an ensemble of historical or modern instruments, 2013; and Migrations (Chamber Concerto No. 4), which is essentially a “walking violin concerto” for a soloist and itinerant ensemble. I have also written solo concertos with orchestra that listeners may know from recordings. In the solo concertos, problems of acoustical balance are opportunities: A solo cello can’t project over a whole orchestra, but it can play in many delicious combinations: against harp, steel drums, and timpani, or against the cello section, divided in groups. In my chamber concertos, questions of mass are not as much in play. There’s a feeling of a lithe, taut quality where every player is featured as a soloist, and can step in and out of solo and ensemble roles dexterously, which I hope makes them really fun to play and also fun to listen to.

I think the title is truly apt, because each of the three movements does have a dance-like quality, sometimes quite concrete, other times more abstract. And the sound/color world of the piece is always clear and transparent. Can you say a little more about the title, how it shaped your idea of the piece?
Light Dances takes its title from Brian Peterson’s phrase “my whole creative life is a dance around the light.” These aren’t dances per se. Instead the movements reflect dance and light in different ways. The music varies in emotional scope, departing in one movement from the lightness of dance, and from spiritual light in another. Brian’s phrase captures the creative dance, and the rhythmic body. The work’s three movements are called “Steps,” “Incipit,” and “dance around the light.”
As for sound/color: Light Dances aims to hold the stage in all its fullness, allowing the spatial qualities of music to be entwined with other aspects of the musical narrative. Opening up what I call “the theater of space” (wherein each player takes on many roles) helps to allow the performers to present a work that is vital and virtuosic; poetic and spatial.

Elements of the piece, according to your program notes, also come from the writings and photographs of Brian Peterson, whom I also know from our earlier Philadelphia time. He’s a remarkable person; can you say something about him and how his personality and work intersects with your own?

I composed Light Dances for Philadelphia’s Network for New Music, and in some parallel, associative way, the work is reflective of my time in Philadelphia—studies, friendships, repeated professional associations. It’s really musical ideas—notes, timbres, instrumental combinations, tempos—that guide my composing. And while poetic ideas—expressed through words or images, are certainly in the mix at the margins of my sketches, or when I’m staring into blank space—their influence is loose; verbally articulated ideas fuse together with music’s abstract language at the end of the process.

       There are various ways to enter into the piece. If you’re a listener attuned most to melody, you could consider Light Dances’ three movements linked by a falling melodic fourth (for example A-G-F-E)—these notes appear everywhere. If you are attuned to the play of voices among instruments, you’re in for a treat, too, in hearing the colors change so vibrantly. And if you are more inspired by the breath of poetry, you might enter Light Dances by way of the evocations of Brian Peterson’s work. Brian is of course, the lifelong Philadelphia friend to whom your question refers. His essays and photographs reveal spiritual realms, and invoke a dance of vital strength against mortality. Having lived now with many performances of Light Dances, I can’t separate any of these images now.
“the whole thing becomes a prayer…”
“a dance with a silent partner: the sound of the rain, dripping from the eaves outside my window”

In the nice booklet Bridge has produced, Brian’s photographs appear on the cover, and within the notes. The booklet is very much worth having if listeners are downloading the music (better heard, by the way, in mp4 or Wav. format than mp3!).

The second movement in particular is striking sonically for the sounds produced by all the players beyond their traditional instruments, The non-percussionists play crotales (antique cymbals), snap fingers, and shuffle their feet. It creates a subtly jazzy effect. This use of delicate sounds and extended sonorities of course reminds one of music of one of your teachers, George Crumb (though it does not sound like a literal reference; your take on this is quite your own). But can you say a bit about Crumb and any possibly influence he had on you as a composer and musician?

George Crumb’s example was vital for me: in particular, his knowledge and complete ownership of musical tradition, and his compellingly artistic example. To take the second point first, it won’t surprise any listener that I learned several Crumb works by heart—he has the best sense of timing of any living contemporary composer, in my opinion. But also, he also seems to have the entire musical repertoire right at his fingertips, accessibly and palpably: moods, themes, sets of proportions. One of the world’s most original timbral composers can immediately call to mind Beethoven quartets, Chopin Études; the Barcarolle, the Fantasy, whole worlds of Debussy, Mahler, Dallapiccola, Ives, Bartók! For those of us privileged to have been his students, such command represented not only a touchstone, but a connection—to a perceptibly felt imaginative world of music—joyful, mystical, or poignant notes, sometimes otherworldly, but unfailingly tangible.

Throughout the piece the percussion is used in a really striking way to me. Along with such traditional fully pitched sounds such as the marimba there are a lot of unpitched sounds that are precise but a little raw—snaps and rattles, clinks and clanks. They import a special wit to the sonic landscape. Am I on track or off the mark here? Any thoughts about your “composer’s philosophy of percussion”?

Of course, the percussion part is central—and wonderfully performed on the new recording by Michael Lipsey. In the opened theater of space, the instrumentalists also play a percussive, coloristic role, when they strike a crotale, shuffle their feet, or snap. It sounds like it could be a formula for a circus, but it is really quite effective and interesting to follow as the sound travels around the stage. This is quite well captured in the recording.

One other striking thing about the piece is the way “other musics” insinuate themselves into the piece’s fabric. There are rock and jazz beats, Debussyan harmonies, and even Thomas Tallis! It all feels very well integrated to me, but we were in a hotbed of this sort of eclecticism with our “other” teacher George Rochberg, who was a pioneer of American Postmodernism (though he hated the term!). What’s your take on the world outside the concert hall and the classical repertoire?

When I look back to our time in Philadelphia, I do imagine Postmodernism opening up music. This was the attraction for many of the talented young composers who flocked there to study. One of them, Stephen Hartke, had been a choirboy growing up, and introduced me to Thomas Tallis’s Lamentations of Jeremiah, that I copied by hand onto a purple piece of mimeograph paper—now much faded, which survived several moves. In fact, the four notes falling here reference Tallis’s “lamento” and they can be heard at the beginning of the clarinet’s solo in the second movement, “Incipit” (the title is from “Incipit Lamentationem Ieremiae”: Here are the Lamentations of Jeremiah). But this is only a departure. The music goes off in its own directions, coming back often to the bells, and then taking flight again. “The whole thing becomes a prayer,” in Brian’s coinage.

       You mentioned integration. Yes, that is what I seek. What I have wanted to imagine musically, aided by the experience of “the Philadelphia School,” was to build a flexible and musical language, alive to the moment—not reliant on evoking any particular music of the past, but responding to the composer’s need to nimbly compose music of different weights, different speeds, etc. For me, this is the legacy of a song cycle like Schumann’s Dichterliebe, or the gift of versatile musicality exhibited by many of today’s wonderful jazz musicians (some of them even in my family). To integrate diverse musical materials within music of meaning and sophistication: That seems a pretty good goal, and a particularly potent one for American music, especially now.

       Yes, it was a really exciting time there and then, wasn’t it? There was a sense the old and the new were finding common ground.

       Art was opening up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Philadelphia was no exception. While many of them never met, many years later I mused about the parallel figures then operating in Philadelphia: besides composers like Crumb, Rochberg, and Richard Wernick, Philadelphia was then also refuge for all kinds of Soviet and Chinese refusenik artists and musicians with whom I was in touch. I was friends with Aron Katsenellenboigen, the writer and economist, and his wife Genia, and the émigré composer David Finko. So many artists were about Philadelphia, turning culture’s mill—from photographers like Barbara Kasten to the writer Philip Roth, the architect Louis Kahn, and many others. Of course, social life doesn’t work this way, but wouldn’t it have been amazing to gather together the composers Ma Sicong, McCoy Tyner, Vincent Persichetti, our teachers, and architects like Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi for a party? That would have been an interesting conversation! Never mind. You don’t need to imagine art opening up through such a fantasy—you can hear lots of these currents in the music which followed—mine—or Uri Caine’s La Gaia Scienza, Stephen Hartke’s Sons of Noah, Melinda Wagner’s Proceed Moon, or Rochberg’s own late Circles of Fire for two pianos.

       Philadelphia’s 1970s musical aperture was an opening continuing to this day, as Brian says, “a dance around the light.

       A larger point I’m making is the following: Most current problems in American composition are not solved by purifying musical culture, but by creating excitingly in the context of pluralism. Culture opens us up, with luck.
As this is written, I’m just beginning a new piece for Network for New Music, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Philadelphia’s Musical Fund Society. Perhaps if my imagination is sufficiently rich, it will be good!

Finally, since this is the first installment en route to the final release of the full program on CD in 2020, tell us a little about the other works on the program, your String Quartet and Cello Sonata.

As it turns out, String Quartet No. 2 (“Aeolian and Sylvan Figures”) also has a Philadelphia connection. It was commissioned in 2007 by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society for the Miami Quartet, who played it very well. The work was later taken up by Duke’s Ciompi Quartet, with whom I’ve worked on three quartets, and ultimately by Boston’s very wonderful Borromeo Quartet. I have had the privilege of working with the Borromeo’s first violinist Nicholas Kitchen many times, memorably on my Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, which Nick introduced as violin soloist. He is such an imaginative musician! And the collaboration he enjoys with other members of the Borromeo Quartet made me very excited that the group took up the string quartet and made it their own. After a number of performances, the Borromeo Quartet made a beautiful recording, and I’m happy it will shine light on these amazing musicians, as well as on my piece. The String Quartet No. 2 is about 18 minutes long—in five sections—one may hear rhythms of wind, the woods, breathing and dance—the physicality of playing stringed instruments….The subtitle Aeolian and Sylvan Figures, and the titles of the movements like “Scherzino Chickadee,” or “Homage to the Breath (syrinx)”—suggest an essence different in quality from the chronologically descriptive title “String Quartet No. 2.” And indeed, if it is not too modest to declare it, the quartet is a special experience, distinct from any other string quartet I have heard.

       The Sonata (in four parts) for cello and piano was written for and introduced by David Hardy, principal cellist of the National Symphony, for whom I composed my Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, and Lambert Orkis, pianist for the National Symphony and the Kennedy Center Chamber Players. Thus, in working on the sonata, I was again returning to valued and wonderful collaborators. The Hardy-Orkis duo brings a really varied approach to the sonata: bold, humorous, and warmly lyrical. As in the String Quartet No. 2, musical material is spread across the whole sonata, with the outer movements bigger and heavier than the lighter, inner movements. There is rich contrast: The first movement boils, almost over the top, in its white hot and contradictory exchanges between the cello and the piano. I call it Fantasque (strange dialogue; not what it seems; fast zu ernst), the German title referring to Schumann’s Kinderszenen: “almost too serious”). In contrast, the second movement breathes slowly; its music reveals an expanded time sense. David and Lambert play the third movement with character and attitude, as if to embody its title: Strutting (Pizzicato Caprice)—the cellist plays this movement mostly without the bow! The finale is again more somber in tone, searching, if not resolution, equilibrium. I can’t wait to share it all!

       In these days, I think a lot about “belonging to music”: While a recording, made after an ensemble has programmed a piece, and feels they know its nuances, is not the only way to birth a work to the future, it is certainly advantageous for a composer to have such loving attention given to one’s music. Imagining new scores for great performers challenges me to offer my best. There’s also a time lag; it takes top-echelon artists time to present a work, to program it repeatedly, and then record or even to record a few times. As they say, and as we hope: ars lunga, vita brevis.

Steve, thanks so much for your time and insight. I find you write as eloquently and playfully as your music sounds! I can’t wait to hear the next installment too.

JAFFE Light Dances (Chamber Concerto No. 2) • Da Capo C Players; Michael Lipsey (perc) • BRIDGE 4001 (Streaming audio: 22:16) https://mailchi.mp/bridgerecords/new-digital-only-release-stephen-jaffe-light-dances?e=f7e7c88087
This article originally appeared in Issue 42:5 (May/June 2019) of Fanfare Magazine.

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