26 October 2010

Interview with Paul Salerni, composer

This is the thirty-first interview of the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.

Interview with Paul Salerni
via email
17 & 18 August 2010

IA: Please tell us about your work as a composer. Your work covers a variety of styles; listening through a series of selections of your compositions is almost like a little tour through music history. You have some Baroque driving rhythms, some Classical harmonic structures, some Romantically memorable melodic contours, and some Modern atonal influences. How else would you describe your music to those who have not yet heard it?

PS: I am skittish about describing or labeling my music. I can, however, describe my intentions. My music usually tries to, as directly as possible, communicate a story, an image, or an emotion, so I try to choose whatever technical or stylistic means best suits that directness of communication.

IA: What specific techniques do you use in your compositions?

PS: I have used various linguistic or technical approaches (serialism, minimalism, free atonality, straightforward common practice tonality, jazz idioms) throughout my life as a composer. There is a broader "technique" that I ascribe to which is more of an aesthetic imperative, the aesthetic imperative described succinctly in Roger Sessions' book The Musical Experience of the Composer, the Performer, and the Listener. The principles involved in that aesthetic are that a good piece of music will be unified, that it will progress, that it will have one big contrast. Another principle I ascribe to is that music be recursive--the idea that what happens in the small structure is reflected in what happens in the large structure.

IA: Your works are often programmed alongside those of early masters—Cimarosa, Frescobaldi, Locatelli, Vivaldi --and later titans of classical music— Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Stravinsky. How would you compare your work to theirs, in terms of style, harmonic vocabulary, rhythmic and melodic gestures, and other compositional techniques? Are there other composers to whom you have heard your work compared? Are there others whom you intentionally emulate?

PS: I love all of the composers you mention and borrow or emulate much of what is in their work. Complete pieces of mine have seldom been compared to those composers, but there are sections of my pieces that some colleagues and critics have labelled as Stravinskian, Puccinian, Weather Reportish, Donizettian. If there is anyone I have intentionally emulated it has been my teacher Earl Kim--not often the actual musical material he uses (although I did directly borrow a Kim idea for the last section of the last scene of Tony Caruso's Final Broadcast), but rather his insistence on economy of means and directness of expression.

IA: Do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?

PS: I think of myself as a son of Earl Kim, which means that I continually strive to find the unique, appropriate voice and technique for a particular piece while staying aware and respectful of the great composers who have preceded me.

IA: What sets you apart, as a contemporary composer?

PS: The same things that set apart any other contemporary composer from another, that is the sum of the influences and experiences one has accumulated. Some of those influences are Earl Kim and his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, Miles Davis, James Brown; some of those experiences are conducting operas, especially Italian ones, and playing in jazz and rock bands. I don't know if my particular set of influences and experiences is that unique, but maybe the manner in which they are synthesized or juxtaposed in my music is. I really never think about what sets me apart.

IA: You have written many vocal works—opera, choral, solo—and many, if not most, of them are in English. English is a notoriously difficult (some singers would say “ugly”) language to sing and to set; do you enjoy working in English? What specific challenges does our language present to a composer?

PS: I don't find English particularly difficult. The one small difficulty is that there are some vowels that are less singable than others and that they tend to be used more frequently in English than in the only other language I've used in my music, that is, Italian. But this is not an insurmountable problem, especially when you have a text being written for you and you can convince the writer to supply beautiful vowels at crucial spots. As much fun as it is writing pieces in Italian, I am still more drawn to English for the simple reason that being a native speaker one understands more clearly the nuances and echoes of the language. Having lived in Italy for extended periods and having become relatively comfortable in the language, I still don't feel I get all the subtleties of Italian rhetoric and diction.

IA: You have a long working relationship with the poet Dana Gioia. How did this relationship develop? What is it about his work that appeals to you, and to American readers and concert-goers at this moment in history?

PS: I started setting the poems of Dana Gioia in 1987 when my wife suggested that I set a poem of Dana's that she found in The New Yorker. The name of the poem was "Garden on the Campagna." That poem became part of a song cycle called Sad Stories, and once Dana heard it, he gave me blanket permission to use his poems. Since then I have written a complete cycle on his poems (Speaking of Love) and some separate songs (Money, Alley Cat Love Song) that are either free-standing or part of other cycles. Another set of three poems of Dana's that I set for choir is called Requia. I also wrote two Italian "fables" for narrator and orchestra where, after we discussed the story and I wrote the music, Dana wrote the narration. They are called The Old Witch and the New Moon, and The Big Sword and the Little Broom. So we have worked together for a long time. In some ways, I found myself as a composer when I found Dana's words to set.

Dana first told me about his idea for the libretto for Tony Caruso in 1994, saying that it was an idea whose libretto I would be the only composer he would imagine writing the music. He gave me the first part of the libretto (six scenes) in 2000, three more scenes a year later and the final scene at the end of 2003. I finished the opera at the beginning of 2004.

We are just embarking on a new project, a setting for baritone, tenor, dancers, and ensemble of a poem of Dana's called The Room Upstairs.

Dana's work appeals to me because it is beautiful and witty and referential and smart and moving. It also appeals to me because it seeks to do with poetry what I seek to do in my music, that is, maintain the highest "artistic" standards while trying to communicate to the largest possible intelligent audience. Dana's poetry should appeal to American readers and concert-goers at this moment for exactly those reasons, that is, because it is wonderful and because it really wants to communicate with them.

IA: How do you and Dana work together? Do you meet in person, or work digitally long distance?

PS: We have worked together in various ways. I have set many pre-existing poems of his—“Garden on the Campagna,” “Speaking of Love,” “The Song,” “Orchestra,” “Alley Cat Love Song,” “Pentecost,” “Prayer,” “For the Birth of Christ.” I just simply chose them from his books and, with his permission, made songs or choral pieces from them. Those songs and choral pieces have been grouped into cycles of just his poems or as parts of other cycles that have themes (Sad Stories, Bad Pets). The two Italian orchestral fables with narrator were developed in a different fashion. I had the precise story in mind when I wrote the music and then Dana wrote the prose narrative to fit the music. This activity was done with both of us in the room. I remember sitting in a room at Wesleyan University as he worked out the narrative for The Big Sword and the Little Broom. For The Old Witch and the New Moon, I made a trip to Santa Rosa, California, and we spent a weekend together as he created the words for that piece. For Tony Caruso's Final Broadcast, Dana announced to me in 1994 that he had an idea for a libretto that I was the only composer he thought could set it. In 2000, he sent me the first six of the ten scenes and I set them. Same thing for the next three scenes. However, when we got to the final and crucial scene we did spend some time discussing its content in person. Even though the scene he wrote was not exactly what I imagined, the brilliant and mysterious conception Dana produced did reflect some aspects of what I had proposed. Some of these discussions were quite volatile--imagine two strong-willed sons of Southern Italian immigrants arguing over things about which they feel passionately. Pretty fierce fun. Our latest project together is a kind of opera/ballet with one main singing character (a baritone), a subsidiary singing character (a tenor), seven dancers, and a chamber ensemble. It is called The Room Upstairs. The Room Upstairs is a poem from Dana's first book of poems but he adapted it so that I could compose some unsung dance scenes. After he saw my first draft of the piece, we decided we needed a separate "aria" for the tenor role which Dana wrote and sent to me to set. As is the case when I read a poem of Dana's that has "musical" intent, the setting came quickly, more like a translation of the poem's inherent music than some new creative act. We are not yet satisfied that the entire opera/ballet has the right proportions and through-line, so there may be some more back and forth before it achieves its final form.

IA: What topics tend to recur in Dana’s texts, at least those you have put to music?

PS: Failure is one of Dana's big topics: The failure to communicate about love (“Speaking of Love,” “The Room Upstairs”), the failure to resurrect the face of a loved one (“Orchestra”), the failure to repeat the perfect moment of romantic happiness (“The Song”), the failure to achieve one's grandest artistic goal (Tony Caruso's Final Broadcast), the failure of classical music to hold its audience (Tony Caruso). Dana can also be wonderfully satirical about sex and money (“Money,” “Alley Cat Love Song,” “The Past is Over” Scene from Tony Caruso), and he can be deeply spiritual (“The Path of Tears” from Tony Caruso; the final sections of The Room Upstairs; “Prayer”; “For the Birth of Christ”).

IA: What technical devices (of rhyme, meter, etc.) does he use that you find readily adaptable to the devices of musical composition?

PS: Dana's poetry is often in traditional forms or has direct musical imagery that makes the approach to some of the musical settings immediately tangible. Nonetheless, my attraction to, and ease with setting, his words arise much more out of his poetry's strong emotional, dramatic, and imagistic qualities.

IA: Now you have written your second one-act opera, a sort of companion-piece to Tony Caruso. Would you tell me about its style, text, topics, composition history, and anything else you would like?

PS: The new one-act is called The Life and Love of Joe Coogan. It's an adaptation of a Dick Van Dyke TV Show episode originally written by Carl Reiner. The libretto is by poet Kate Light. It was written as the companion piece for Tony Caruso Final's Broadcast. It is obviously a comedy, but it has a tender, spiritual side.

It was my wife, Laura (yes, like the heroine Laura Petrie) who suggested this idea for a one-act. We are big fans of the Dick Van Dyke show and own DVDs of all the episodes. In order to do this project, I needed permission from Carl Reiner. When his agent told him of my wish, he called me and we talked for a least a half an hour about the synchronicity of my request (he had just talked to the real Joe Coogan's family). The only stipulation he made for granting permission was that I finish it before he dies. I guess we made it there! When Tony Caruso was premiered in Los Angeles, Mr. Reiner (in cognito) attended the performance with his family and then invited Laura and myself over to his house so that I could play for him what I had written so far on Joe Coogan. It was one of the most magical afternoons of my life. He, as his agent guilelessly stated, is the nicest man in the world. And as funny as ever. He probably won't come to the premiere, but he has volunteered financing the video shoot of the premiere.

The piece has sonnets as one of its main plot and textual elements. When I went to choose a librettist, I decided on Kate Light because she is one of the best sonnet writers in the country and on top of that she has been playing violin in the New York City Opera orchestra for years. I started working with Kate on the piece in 2007 and it was basically finished at the end of 2009.

The music I've written for the show is quite light, one might even say it is more music theater than opera. I feel like the borders between those genres have become very blurry. Anyway, what's important to me is that all of the music is in some way derived from the opening chords and motives of the Dick Van Dyke TV Show theme music written by Earl Hagen, kind of my musical tribute to that beloved show and its music.

The opera is based on a particularly charming episode from that beloved TV series. The plot centers around mistaken identity and unrevealed information about Rob and Laura (our happily married main couple) and the sudden appearance of Joe Coogan. Rob and Joe meet on the golf course, then go for a cup of coffee. Rob proposes a toast to Joe’s wife, but Joe tells Robs that he has no wife. When Rob expresses surprise, Joe says that he has only been in love once, with a woman coincidentally also named Laura, to whom he wrote love sonnets as a young man. Laughing, Rob says that he wrote a few poems for his Laura too, although his were really more like songs. He sings one that he remembers, while Joe recalls a few lines of one of his sonnets. However, as the conversation continues, Rob realizes that Joe’s Laura is the Laura who is now his own wife. From that point on, miscommunications alternately deliver uproarious laughter and serious reflections on the nature of love, loneliness, and longings both earthy and spiritual.

IA: You are also on the faculty of Lehigh University (and were the chair of the music department at one time, yes?). How does this department define itself? Is it a traditional, classics-only program, with music history courses that end with Schoenberg? Or is it a progressive program, training students to know what is going on now and to be the ones who influence and direct the future of music?

PS: I was the chair of the department for six years, the years in which we planned and raised money for the Zoellner Arts Center. I did another three year stint as chair recently.

The Music Department at Lehigh is in some ways a typical small department in a University setting. We offer theory, composition, and history courses as well as avocational performance opportunities in all the traditional ensembles: orchestra, wind ensemble, jazz ensembles and combos, large and small choirs, chamber groups. What distinguishes us is that most of the conductors are also composers or arrangers--Bill Warfield, the head of our jazz studies, is a well-known jazz composer/arranger and band leader having written for greats such as Ornette Coleman. Steven Sametz is one of the pre-eminent choral composers in the United States, widely commissioned and performed; most notable are recordings made of his pieces commissioned by the great a cappella men's group Chanticleer. Our wind ensemble director, David Diggs, is kind of the principal guest arranger and editor for the Coldstream Guards, the wind band assigned to the Queen of England. So, there is a heavy emphasis on creativity in the department. There is rarely a concert at Lehigh where some faculty piece written for the student group isn't being performed. We seldom prepare those young musicians to become professional performers--most of the student performers in the Lehigh ensembles will become engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers. But we hope they will become good audience members who value and support creative endeavors.

What we do produce are composers who go into the profession. Undergraduate composers at Lehigh get an incredible amount of personal attention and go on to have successful graduate school and professional careers. We've had students go on to the best graduate composition programs in the country (U. of Michigan, CCM, SUNY Stony Brook, USC, BU, etc.) and have two recent graduates who already are teaching at the University level and are widely-performed composers. Part of that success might be attributed to the existence of LUVME (The Lehigh University Very Modern Ensemble). I started LUVME in 1982, so it has been around for 28 years and has regularly performed the "masterpieces" of contemporary literature, newly commissioned works, and works by our student composers. We've had the honor of presenting Jan DeGaetani's last performance of Schoenberg's “Pierrot Lunaire” and the final commissioned piece by composer Norman Dello Joio (“The Vigil”). LUVME has also produced two weekend-long festivals in honor of Earl Kim that featured performances of his music, the music of his teachers, and the music of his students. So, I am not afraid to assert that the Lehigh Music Department is a uniquely creative and forward-looking entity.

IA: You are also the artistic director of the Monocacy Chamber Orchestra. Does this involve conducting the ensemble? Creating programming for the season? Composing new works for the Orchestra to play? Does this group have a particular flavor, some distinctive about what or how it plays, that sets it apart from the general run of chamber ensembles?

PS: I share the conducting responsibilities for the Monocacy Chamber Orchestra with its Principal Guest Conductor, Donald Spieth and we have had distinguished guest conductors (Jung-Ho Pak and Eugene Albulescu) lead the ensemble. Don and I usually consult on the programming for the season, and I have written two new works for the ensemble. The Monocacy has already recorded a CD of my works and is the orchestra on the Naxos recording of Tony Caruso's Final Broadcast.

NOTE: Today was the official release date of that recording! Congrats, Paul!

The orchestra is unique in that it emphasizes the musicians of the Lehigh Valley, both those who are experienced and those who are "emerging." The "emerging" part means we have tried to include in the orchestra the young people from the Valley who have gone on to study music as a profession. For example, recent concerts have had Tess Varley, a violinist studying at Boston University, in the orchestra. Both my sons have played in the orchestra--Domenic, a violinist, is finishing a Masters at Yale, and Miles is a percussionist studying at Boston University. The Monocacy also relies on its members to perform as soloists. For instance, Domenic and Tim Schwarz, the Monocacy concertmaster and the head of Lehigh's string faculty, will share the solo responsibilities for a concert of Vivaldi's and Piazzolla's Seasons in January. Similarly, Don and I will share the conducting responsibilities.

IA: What else can you tell us about the current state of music, specifically about contemporary composers in the “high” tradition of “Western” classics? Please talk specifically about individual composers whom you know (or whose work you know), their topics/techniques/theories, and in general about your sense of the North American music scene right now.

PS: It is tough to get a read on this particular time since we are in the midst of it. I'm most enamored of the music of my teacher Earl Kim because it is so much his own music, unrelentingly perfect in its execution, always moving, a music that arises both out of his Eastern sensibility and his deep love of the tradition of Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and Schoenberg. He, like me with Dana, found his "voice" when he discovered the texts that would inspire him, in his case, the plays, prose, and poetry of Samuel Beckett. Nonetheless, that voice somewhat changed as he started to set the texts of the French poets (Rimbaud, Apollonaire) and Rilke. Another contemporary composer I admire is Bill Bolcom. He has an uncanny ability to successfully synthesize and juxtapose the musics he loves (rags, cabaret songs) in a highly, charged and often quite dissonant context. There are so many other composers I admire: Steve Reich for his economy of means, Frank Ticheli for the playability and directness of communication, Arvo Pärt for his economy and spirituality, Jan Jirasek for similar reasons. Oops, the last two composers aren't North American. Nonetheless, having had to verbalize this, one might conclude that I personally see a return to simpler, more direct music as a positive trend. That doesn't preclude my admiring and enjoying more "complex" composers like Lou Karchin and Bill Bolcom.

IA: If you have a religious point of view: Can you comment on the differences between sacred and secular music?

PS: I don't find sacred and secular music to be very different since spirituality has an important place in all my music. The recurring themes in my music--food, family life, human frailty, loss, love--all seem to connect back to one's relationship to a higher power. I would also add something Earl Kim once said in a very public forum that I also ascribe to, that "good music is inherently moral."

IA: How do you think the arts (your own or others’) are responding to present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism, the looming “post-human” phase, and the possible artistic effects of the Eastward orientation of economics and Christianity?

PS: Again, I don't see trends because I don't have the benefit of hindsight. If I see anything, it's a healthy pluralism, that is, a lot of wonderful music being written in lots of different styles being influenced by a lots of different cultures. As Schoenberg said, there are still great pieces left to be composed in C major (I paraphrase). The stylistic battles of my youth (tonality vs. atonlity, serialism vs. aleatory, Schoenberg vs. Stravinsky) seem passé.

IA: How do you think we got to the phase where we are now?

PS: If my seeing a positive trend of returning to a simpler, more direct classical music is accurate, I think we may have arrived at that point because we realized that we were losing our audience, that composers were writing for each other rather than writing for the large, interested, and intelligent audience that I believe still exists for classical music.

IA: Where are we going?

PS: Tough to say. Speaking for myself, I just keep trying to make the next piece as good as it can be.

You can access samples of Paul's music through this link (requires iTunes).

Please also visit Paul's website.


Anonymous said...

As I read this interview, I was interested to read Mr. Salerni's comment concerning secular vs sacared music. He saw no difference between the two as did another artist you interviewed several months ago. I do not remember which artist he was. My question is this : do most artist believe that there is no difference between
secular and sacared works. Any thoughts ?
Mrs. K

Iambic Admonit said...

Dear Mrs. K:

Great question! I think there are several answers. I'll try to give a few here.

1. If the artist is a Christian, he or she probably means that all of life is sacred; that the Lord rules every area of life, even those seemingly mundane areas such as music or reading designed for entertainment. The best artists with this sensibility understand that every work they make has a "sacred" function; in other words, it can serve to communicate something about some aspect of God's character, such as orderliness, love of excellence, love of beauty, hatred of sin, spontaneity, superfluous grace, etc. They don't see religion as restricted to Sunday; they are worshiping when they paint, write, sing, dance....

2. If the artist follows one of the more Zen-style religions or spiritualities that are popular right now (the kind of feel-good, Disney-style idea that we need to be nice and follow our dreams, and that's somehow divine), he or she probably means that art is a spiritual activity like meditation. Since art is often the best product of a culture, it is like a religious act to a person of vague spirituality or humanistic tendencies. As Christians, we would say these artists are seeing God's general revelation through works of art.

There are two other, worse interpretations of the idea that there's no difference between sacred and secular art.

3. Thinking there is nothing sacred.

4. Treating art as an idol.

So, there are some ideas. What do you think? Thanks for your comment!!!