By, Dan Perttu


This week on the Muse in Music blog, I am interviewing pianist Tammy Miller. Tammy and I met over the internet, and after I shared some music with her, she invited me to collaborate with her on a piano concerto project. I was and am beyond thrilled to do so. For me the dream is to write concerti, possibly even more than symphonies, because I get to write for special soloists and orchestras. This is really a dream come true. So, I am grateful to Tammy for her enthusiasm in collaborating with me.


So, a little about Tammy. Tammy is quickly gaining a reputation as a performer who is “artistic” and “highly emotive.” She has performed throughout the U.S. as well as a recent solo performance in the Esterházy Palace located in Eisenstadt, Austria, where Haydn served as a composer. Passionate about commissioning music, she is working on a large-scale recording project with composers such as Libby Larsen, Noelia Escalzo, William F. Montgomery, and Daniel Baldwin. Over the next couple of years, Tammy will give the world premiere performances of piano concertos by Daniel Perttu and Eric Ewazen as well as “Impressions of Yellowstone” for piano and string orchestra by Daniel Baldwin in Granada, Spain. Tammy has appeared in recitals and commercial recordings with principal instrumentalists from the National Symphony Orchestra, San Fransisco Symphony, and Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional of Mexico. She has given collaborative recitals at colleges and universities across the Midwest, the International Double Reed Society Conference in Appleton, Wisconsin, and the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.


Dan: So, I love starting with the following question because I don’t think we ask it of each other enough, and we certainly don’t hear people’s answers enough. Why do you love performing? What inspires you about what you do as a pianist?


Tammy: The first thing that comes to mind when asked this question is connection—to the music and to people. When you perform a work, you have to live with it and know it to a higher level than if you are just playing something recreationally—I love having that deeper connection and understanding of music.

I have been fortunate to meet many great people from all over the world through performing. I always appreciate connecting with audiences and sharing music that I am passionate about.


Dan: I love this; what a great theme: “connection.” Music is not just about communication, and it’s not just about emotion, but it’s actually about the thread that links those two, which is “connection.” When I talk to people about this in general, similar themes bubble up, but I think your emphasis on “connection” is really resonant. So, what music do you like to use to connect with people? What music inspires you as a pianist, particularly what contemporary music inspires you?


Tammy: I’ve gone through phases with this. It started out with an infatuation with the piano works of Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven, then Debussy and Amy Beach, followed by Ginastera. However, for the past decade, I’ve settled in to finding my voice as an artist through contemporary music (particularly contemporary American), little known and underrated piano music from the beginning of the 19th century to the present day, and music by female composers. Currently, my greatest passion is for commissioning new works. There is an even deeper connection to the music because it is being written for me with my strengths/desires being taken into account. I love being a part of the creative process from conception to premiere that you can only get from commissioning new works.


Dan: A performer who loves commissioning new works—we composers love you, of course! So often I feel like I am a leper when I approach conductors or other performers; I almost hate to say I’m a composer, because I imagine their internal monologues saying something like: “Oh, God, another composer.” Then I have to remind myself that not everyone feels that way. But, there is still a stigma against composers now, and, frankly, I think the radical avant-garde of the 20th-century was, whether intentionally nor not, responsible for this. So, on this subject, do you have preferences for certain aesthetic orientations or styles in new music? What does this imply for your programming and for your audiences?


Tammy: I have a pretty adventurous musical palate. I can think of several examples of music that is neo-romantic, impressionistic, neo-classical, atonal, serial, 12-tone, pointillistic, bitonal, or incorporates extended techniques, etc. that I enjoy listening to and/or performing. The common thread between all of these styles that determines a piece’s appeal is if it is well constructed and it paints an aural picture/tells a story. When programming, I select music that is expressive in some way regardless of its aesthetic orientation. A side note: I hope composers don’t just follow what is trendy at the expense of losing their voice and what makes their music unique. I can think of a few highly regarded composers whose music lost their charm over the sake of them emulating a trending aesthetic at the time. I believe you can find and create good music in any aesthetic language.


Dan: I agree. This kind of thinking is commonly associated with post-modernism, and we live in a friendlier, more embracing era when it comes to composers’ pursuing what they believe in. However, in the earlier and middle part of the 20th-century, there was very much an aesthetic snobbism among many of the avant-gardists. I have run into that with some composers I have met, though I must say it was earlier in my career as compared to now. I appreciate the fact that you are not a snob about aesthetics and that you are more concerned with whether a piece of music is effective within its own aesthetic language or internal logic. That, I think, is the most enduring and important way to approach such a rich diversity of music that is able to be performed. So, on the subject of performing, particularly with orchestras, what is it like trying to find orchestras to collaborate with? How do you do it?


Tammy: The age-old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” applies here. I start with my friends. I am very fortunate to have many talented friends out there doing wonderful things with whom I enjoy collaborating. When approaching new orchestral contacts, I look for organizations that are interested in performing new music and have similar goals to myself.


Dan: Yes! But this is easier said than done. At least for me, it’s so hard to meet the right people! And sometimes it feels like some people are evasive or even hide from composers. That, of course, could be just my imagination. I wonder what your perspective is on this? In what ways do you think conductors should interact with contemporary composers, and what does this imply for the future of art music?


Tammy: I think conductors should always be open to collaborating with composers through either commissioning new works or programming existing works. There is a lot of great new music out there that deserves to be performed and promoted! Audiences should be made aware that art music is very much alive and still relevant. If new music does not continue to be programmed by orchestras and performers, then the voices of composers today will not be represented like they have in the past.


Dan: Well, so much more could be said, but this is all we have time for. Thank you so much for appearing on this blog!


Tammy: Thanks!


 

As Tammy leaves, Guy, the snarky imaginary journalist from the fictitious New Bostonian, enters.


Guy: Tammy is really quite open-minded as a performer. That's truly refreshing. Are you as open-minded to different aesthetic perspectives, especially avant-garde ones, as Tammy is?


Dan: Well, you certainly have a penchant for zooming in on loaded questions. [Lifts a single eyebrow.] As one of my composition teachers, Robert Xavier Rodriguez, said, "There is nothing right or wrong in composition; there are only consequences." I stick with that. There's nothing wrong with being an avant-garde composer. The consequence of writing in such an aesthetic is that one's audience might be more specialized.


Guy: Very diplomatic. But, do you like to listen to avant-garde music for pleasure?


Dan: Depends on the music. Avant-garde styles themselves are so disparate. I would have to give you an answer on a case-by-case basis.


Guy: Do you enjoy listening to Boulez's Structures for two pianos?


Dan: No. While I respect Boulez's intellect and how the piece conforms to its own internal logic, I hate listening to it. But, going back to Tammy - I also like what she said about collaborators. We all need to embrace the music of our time in various forms because we don't want this era to be lost on the map of history. I really appreciate that perspective.


Guy: She is indeed wise. Well, off to write.


Dan: Cheers!

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Updated: Jul 28, 2018

By, Dan Perttu


Hello! For this week in the “Muse in Music” blog, I am interviewing my colleague and friend, Dr. Tim Winfield, about his passion for trumpet performance. This is a departure from interviewing composers, but I want to know and share what inspires musicians of any kind about musical creation of any form. Tim is a trumpet professor at Westminster College, and he performs in orchestras throughout the region.


 

Dan: Why do you love performing? What inspires you about what you do as a trumpeter?


Tim: One of the main reasons I love performing is that there are never two identical performances. Every performance evokes a different emotion, even if you are performing the same work several times. The dynamic of the performance venue, the size of the audience, even the temperature of the room may change how one may express the musical line. Performers work for consistency within their craft so that they can spontaneously communicate nuances that best fit the moment. This isn’t something that I practice. It is something that comes from within, and that is what I love about performing. I guess we can call it spontaneous, emotional, non-verbal communication. Whether I am performing the Star Spangled Banner for the thousandth time, or I am performing Torngat for the 4th time, both myself and (hopefully) the audience grow musically and emotionally.


Dan: Interestingly, as I have seen with composers, performers like you also want to communicate emotion. So, what music inspires you as a trumpeter, particularly what contemporary music inspires you?


Tim: I would say there are three elements of music that inspire me the most right now. Music that dances, music that sings, and music that accentuates extremes. Back when I was in high school, I was enamored with the playing of Rafael Mendez and Allen Vizzutti, and I still am! Through their recordings and performances, these musicians took solo trumpet playing to new heights, and in my opinion, they defined how to make music sing and dance even in the extremes of range, tempo, and dynamics. Having any of the three elements present in a piece really inspire me as a musician, but having all three in one piece of music is rapture. Joshua Hobbs’s work Keystone Landscapes does a great job of accentuating the singing element through the first movement, then he accentuates extremes in the second. Your piece, Torngat, demonstrates all three elements throughout, and I love how the third movement dances.


Dan: Thanks, Tim; I appreciate it! So, do you have preferences for certain aesthetic orientations or styles in new music? What does this imply for your programming and for your audiences?


Tim: When programming new music, I am looking for music that is melodically, rhythmically, and harmonically engaging or inventive. I really connect to singing and dancing. New music that contains these features are no brainers for me. This does not mean that I totally dismiss new music that is void of traditional harmony or music that does not have obvious melodic lines. When I work on music that lacks harmony or apparent melody, I work harder to make my musical intentions clear to the audience. Can I make an atonal unaccompanied solo dance or sing? Sometimes it is difficult, but I embrace and enjoy the challenge.

My audiences can then always expect to hear me doing my best to communicate the musical line in everything I do. Most of the time, if I program new music on a recital, it is going to be melodically, harmonically, and/or rhythmically engaging and inventive.


Dan: What great ideas – I appreciate your thoughtful approach to programming, and I’m sure it makes for exciting recitals! On the other hand, now, let’s talk about orchestral playing. Is orchestral playing actually gratifying for trumpeters? I know that sometimes your parts can be rather uninteresting.


Tim: This question really depends on the trumpeter. Orchestral trumpeting playing can often be like the tortoise or the hare, and also at times, everything in between. When orchestral playing is like the tortoise, those performers that are not happy unless they are playing all the time will be unhappy. When I was a younger player (all the way through undergrad), I was one of those performers who liked music that always required playing. I’m not sure if I just didn’t have the patience to sit and count rests, but I grew out of that. I started listening to what was going on in the music during my rests instead of focusing on how much of a drag it was to count 80 measures of rest during a slow movement. I realized that the music during that rest was usually very important to what I was going to do when I made my entrance. If I was out of touch with what was happening musically, I would not be able to enter with the sensitivity needed to be successful in my position as an orchestral trumpet player. So I guess I’ll get to the point of this question, is orchestral trumpet playing musically gratifying. I would say absolutely. There are times, such as big moments in a Mahler Symphony, or during Strauss Tone Poems where I get to play a large role in the music making process. It is easy to say that during these moments, it is very gratifying to be an orchestral trumpet player. Even during Mozart Symphonies, I am reminded that I am part of a larger musical organism, and at times I contribute to the success of that organism. The times that I am not contributing as a player (AKA counting rests), I get front row seats to hear some of the best music in the world.


Dan: That’s a great way of looking at it! And, I understand it totally depends on the personality of the trumpet player. So, on the subject of orchestras, I’m curious about your perspectives on conductors and new music. In what ways do you think conductors should interact with contemporary composers, and what does this imply for the future of art music?


Tim: Conductors are looking to give the music they program, their own interpretation. Composers are looking to have their music portrayed in a way that is characteristic of what they envisioned while writing the work. There seems to be a fine line here. If conductors open up to composers, and the composers dictate how every detail should be carried out, is there going to be any musical freedom? Most likely, no. This may lead to a lackluster performance. If conductors and composers stay out of touch, and the conductor takes the musical features in a different direction, it could greatly distort the initial intention of the composer. I believe conductors and contemporary composers should have a dialogue about musical direction of the piece, but they should both know that both the composer and the conductor are important to the successful performance and reception of the piece. The conductor may have an idea that may further solidify the ideas that the composer had. The composer may hear something the conductor is trying to do in the music and have an idea on how to make that musical idea even more engaging. I believe it should be a courteous dialogue where both are respectful of the music making process. Positive working relationships between composers and conductors could mean for more quality new music for symphony orchestras and other ensembles.


Dan: As a composer, I agree. I hope a lot of conductors see it this way. I have some conductors lined up for interviews soon, so I am looking forward to hearing their perspectives on this too! Anyway, thank you for talking with me and sharing your perspectives as a solo trumpet player and as an orchestral musician.


 

[Tim leaves, and Dan’s snarky journalist frenemy, Guy, enters.]


Guy: Wow, I never knew that trumpet players could be so intelligent! Just kidding.


Dan: Perhaps this is one thing we actually agree on! [Smiles.] I really enjoyed listening to Tim’s thoughts. Once again, like a composer, Tim is interested in conveying emotion through music. This may not seem surprising in the big picture sense, but I think it’s easy for musicians and even composers to forget this sometimes when we get bogged down in the technical aspects of our art.


Guy: This is true. I also appreciate his perspectives on new music in general. It will be interesting to see if his perspectives are shared by other performers or conductors.


Dan: Indeed. Well, see you next time!


Guy: Cheerio.



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By, Dan Perttu


This week on The Muse in Music, I have the pleasure of interviewing composer Elliott Grabill. I have known Elliott for 14 years; we met at the Brevard Music Center when we were composition students there in the summer. Elliott’s instrumental and electroacoustic compositions have been described as colorful, imaginative, hauntingly beautiful, journey-like, and with an American style. He is the recipient of the Dark in the Song Prize, and the third place winner of the Peabody Conservatory Prix d’Eté. His works have been or will be performed by Dark in the Song, the Washington Men’s Camerata, the Meridian Arts Ensemble, Quartetto Apeiron, Hila Zamir, Melissa Lander, Shawn Earle, Andrew Im, Tae Ho Hwang, Michele Jacot, and Andrea Cheeseman. His work has been performed across the United States, as well as Canada, the UK, and Serbia.


Dan: Thanks for joining me on The Muse in Music blog, Elliott. I’m looking forward to getting to understand you better as a composer! Why do you compose?


Elliott: Music is my way of authentically communicating with other people. I’m not very extraverted, but when I’m writing, I have time to think about what I want to say. I can make a blueprint of my best self. It makes me feel beautiful on the inside, and confident on the outside.


Dan: I understand that. For me it’s almost like creating an idealized world. Mahler, of course, talked about conveying the totality of the universe in his symphonies. I don’t have quite the same level of chutzpah, but I understand the sentiment.

So, how would you describe your aesthetic orientation as a composer?


Elliott: I’m a romantic, hands down. I want to make an impact on audiences, and I want my music to resonate with the culture at large. I try to write music that I myself would want to listen to: something emotionally compelling that also sounds different from what’s been done before.

I also adopt a mindset that beauty is more important than anything else. Beauty can contradict itself of course: young people are beautiful, but so are old people. Beethoven is beautiful, and so is Lachenmann. So what is beauty? Perhaps this question could be answered with music. And the more answers there are, the more ways people get to experience beauty.


Dan: This is fascinating. I am intrigued by your point about how both young and old people are beautiful; it is definitely related to the theme of how beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That said, I’ll offer a little challenge to this: is there no biological or ingrained conception of beauty? Some research indicates that people will generally agree on which faces are more beautiful than others. Considering this, are concepts of beauty truly in the eyes of the beholder? And, what implications are there for your music?


Elliott: I’m not sure I believe that people have universal tastes in physical attractiveness unless the research you refer to sampled a wide enough diversity of cultures and time periods. Perhaps homo sapiens prefer some sort of facial symmetry, but we also mated with Neanderthals. I think we’re attracted to certain types of people because we’re told to by society, and it becomes ingrained early on because we’re hardwired to fit in. But preferences in body type, facial hair, and style change when societal norms shift, and things that used to matter no longer do.

Physical attractiveness is also about self expression. People go shopping because they feel like a different person when they try on a new outfit. Unfortunately right now, beauty is defined by corporate hegemony and unreasonable expectations. But if enough fashion designers and individuals assert their own individuality and self expression, a new trend could catch on, and we'll adjust our both our tastes and cultural values to sync with that new form of beauty.

There are lots of parallels with music. Music is about expressing yourself in a non-verbal way. Music helps you attract a mate both by showing your uniqueness, and showing you fit in with the tribe. People prefer certain types of music until society shifts, and what once nurtured their souls no longer do. People express their individuality with music. If a new style catches on, the beliefs and values associated with it begin to resonate with society in non-musical ways. Just like fashion, music can start with a few artists, turn into a trend, and go on to affect society's paradigm. Look at how both popular music and fashion from the 1960's revolutionized the culture at large.


Dan: Fascinating. Thanks for your perspectives on this. So now, we’ll switch gears a little. What makes your music unique? What makes it original?


Elliott: I use electronics a lot in my music. The modern listener is extremely attuned to sound, and technology can expand the expressive potential of an instrument. It brings in new colors and textures, and adds fullness. Just one player can perform in the intimacy of someone’s house, with the force of an orchestra behind them.

I also like writing longer works. When I was young, I was first attracted to classical music because I loved the way pieces were broken up into different movements, each exploring a common theme in from a different angle. Long pieces are like emotional journeys to me that explore the totality of a composer’s imagination.


Dan: I love when music conveys an emotional journey. Can you share what one of your recent compositions does in terms of an emotional journey?


Elliott: Pluto, for clarinet and live electronics. It’s about 35 minutes long. It opens with a texture that recurs throughout the piece: the smooth, blue sound of a clarinet, mixed with star-like overtones produced by the electronics, all looping like gravitational orbits. Harsh, caustic sounds are used to resemble solar wind; other parts have a feeling of floating through space. The piece also commemorates the journey that the New Horizons probe took to Pluto.


Dan: How interesting. I love how the programmatic elements translate into musical elements. This makes me think of your listeners, of course. So, what audience do you hope to reach?


Elliott: To name a few, I’d like to reach millennials and future generations, spiritual people, friends, and anyone outside of the classical music bubble. It’s also important that I appeal to performers; if they’re going to invest their time to learn my music, I should write something that inspires them. And of course, I need to be true to myself. A lot of my music is written “for the bottom drawer.”


Dan: I’m curious: there a reason why you want to reach the particular audiences you named, such as millennials and future generations or spiritual people?


Elliott: Classical music normally appeals to old people, but what will happen when the old people die? “New” old people grow out from middle age, and they long for music that addresses the human condition. Millennials will "grow old" sooner as they struggle with more issues than the preceding generations. Environmental catastrophe, political and economic instability, war, and a rising rates of mental illness might make millennials to look beyond pop music to nurture their souls. I'm hopeful that house concerts will catch on. The salon atmosphere of private party is much different from the sterile concert hall, or the superficial nightclub. We need ways of connecting with one another that go beyond wealth and status. Millennials are also used to hearing certain harmonic structures in film and popular music that weren't around as much in the 80's or 90's. They're used to electronic music. These ideas seem revolutionary to older generations, but to millennials, they're just the norm. They don't need to be educated in it, the same way people of Schubert's generation didn't need to be educated in art songs.

I try to explore spiritual concepts in my work that can exist without religion. Like many young people, I'm suspicious of organized religion -- but for thousands of years people have been searching for meaning beyond themselves, and we can't throw the baby out with the bathwater. People need help in discovering what spirituality means to them personally, or else we're destined to live in a society that's void of compassion. I wrote Pranayama to help me better connect with practicing yoga and meditation. Pluto is sort of a spiritual piece for atheists, because it brings out majesty of astronomy and physics. I think about love all the time when I write; not just love for another person, but love for God and humanity.

I don’t know what the tastes of future generations will be, but I know that they will be looking and listening to contemporary music and wondering how composers like you and I fit in with the times. What do you learn about when you read history textbooks? Wars, presidents, and powerful people. What do you get when you listen to music from an earlier time? You get glimpses of things that mattered to the average person. I want future generations to know what mattered to me.


Dan: Well, with any hope, they will! This was really fascinating. I was very happy to get to know you better as a composer and as a person. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed!

Please check out Elliott’s website and Soundcloud sites at elliottgrabill.com and

soundcloud.com/elliott-grabill


 

[After Elliott departs, Guy enters again. For those of you who are new to the blog, Guy is the chic and snarky imaginary journalist from the fictitious New Bostonian who interviewed me in the first blog episode.]


Guy: So Dan, do you think there is a biological, ingrained sense of beauty, and how does that inform your compositional style?


Dan: I do. The studies on this are quite compelling. That said, there will still be considerable variation on how people react to something they might think is pretty. For example, one can note that a person is beautiful but be completely turned off by his or her personality. Likewise, one can acknowledge that a piece of music is beautiful but might think it’s too melodramatic. It’s sometimes hard to write something that appeals to biological senses of beauty nowadays because sometimes it seems that we live in a rather cynical age. How many times do you hear people snarkily or sarcastically about art that is perhaps overly emotional? One critic said my Spring Overture was “pretty but not profound.” I’d really like to have a conversation with that person. What does “profound” mean to him or her? Does one always have to be on the verge of suicide to create “profound” art? Must “profound” art always be tortured? Can’t we write pretty music nowadays? Did Schoenberg single-handedly kill the idea that pretty music should be taken seriously? Not all of us have to cut off our ears to prove that we are artistes.


Guy: Well, Schoenberg did say that “there is still much good music to be written in C-major.”


Dan: Schoenberg also said “My music is not lovely.” A man whose name means “beautiful mountain” doesn’t want his music to be perceived as “lovely.” That is an interesting one to sort out. I would be honored if other people thought my music was lovely. I think Schoenberg’s quote is very much emblematic of a broader way of thinking. For some reason “loveliness” has often been associated with lacking in depth, particularly after 1900. I wish that weren't the case.


Guy: [coolly] Grinding an axe, are we?


Dan: [Inwardly rolls his eyes, takes a dram of Ardbeg Corryvreckan, and turns his attention to watching the fire in the pub in which he and Guy are sitting.]

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