The Muse in Music -- Beauty, Biology, Millennials, and Composition
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
[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.]