19 February 2011

Five-Minute Begbie

Here's another "five-minute book review"; I have piles of books I'm supposed to review on this blog, but very little time in which to do it. So, I'll just write my first thoughts about the book really fast now and then and share them with you. I’m especially planning to read and review several of the staple works on the Arts & Faith, and then maybe at some point a few of the many books that are sent me in my capacity as Book Review Editor of Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal. I’ll plan on reading and reviewing Andy Crouch’s Culture Making next.


“Five-minute” review

Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts edited by Jeremy Begbie

I must say, I was a little bit disappointed with this book. It is brilliant, but maybe a bit too much so. It was hard to really get anything out of it that I could hang on to, think about, and (especially) apply. It was, honestly, a little over my head. I expected amazing, world-rocking, paradigm-shifting essays like Dr. Begbie’s talk at Biblical Theological Seminary last year. Well, I didn’t get any of that until the very last essay in the book—and lo and behold! –it’s the text of that very same talk. So just that one essay is worth the price of the book, and then there’s also the excellent introduction, and then there’s the concept as a whole, which is fantastic.

The concept is pretty well encapsulated in the title. The original idea is to see what the various art form can teach us about the doctrine of the Word become flesh. That’s pretty awesome, right there. And the book is set up with the maximum interest and scope for fabulous work: each chapter is Through… one of the art forms, with an explanatory subtitle. So we have (just a sampling) “Through Literature: Christ and the Redemption of Language” by Malcom Guite, “Through Dance: Fully Human, Fully Alive” by Sara B. Savage, as well as through poetry, icons, sculpture, popular music, and then Begbie’s own chapter on music.

I think one problem is that only Begbie himself really gets what this book was supposed to be all about. Only he has the wide enough vision, deep enough theology, and professional enough expertise in his field (he’s a concert pianist) to really know what he’s talking about. And he’s a top-notch communicator. The others had one or two of those qualifications, but lacked the full arsenal. Some lacked the ability to make their ideas clear and memorable. Some are not practitioners of the art they were discussing. Some just had wacky perspectives and used bizarre examples (especially in the poetry and sculpture essays).

Also, the volume is intentionally wide-ranging theologically. The authors represent the gamut of Christianity: Anglican, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and a few flavors of Protestant. However, this left the book feeling a little loose around the seams. There are different denominations because (among other reasons, many of which are historical rather than religious) we take our doctrines seriously; we have some sharp differences, and we hold our positions tightly. Putting them all together in a book on what may very well be the most important doctrine of Christianity—the incarnation—is bound (pun intended) to sacrifice either unity (as a book) for truth (of doctrine) or truth for unity. Or both. I think there’s a little of each.

However, let me reiterate that Dr. Begbie’s essay on music is more than worth the price of the book. I am thrilled to have the text of that fantastic presentation. And I think that there really is a whole lot more wealth for me to glean from the rest of the essays, but that they are just dense enough, and their concepts foreign enough to me, that I will have to read the book several times in order to absorb them. But for now, I think I’ll move on to Andy Crouch. More later.

17 February 2011

Review of the ASO's Carmen

[addendum on 19 April 2011: I attended a meeting of the Lehigh Valley Arts Council Last week (report to follow), and I met several artsy people there, including the photographer Marco Calderon. It turns out that he was commissioned to take pictures of ASO's Carmen! So here are some pictures on his website and here is a lovely slideshow of his photos on vimeo.]

This past Sunday I had a fantastic time at Allentown Symphony Hall, where I got to see and hear Larry Lipkis’s fanfare “Maestranza,” and an abbreviated Carmen. My seat was dreadful: right behind the projector in a tiny, horrifically steep balcony that’s basically stapled to the top rear corner of the building where the ceiling meets the back wall, approximately a mile higher than and away from the stage. But that hardly mattered, because the acoustics (I thought) were great, and the concert was enhanced by a multi-media, multi-planar visual experience. More on that in a moment.

“Maestranza” by Larry Lipkis

Indeed, for the fanfare my seat added some interest, because I was located up behind the brass players (see my interview with Lipkis for an explanation of the spatial arrangement of his fanfare). This did spoil the ring effect for me (I was outside the ring, and the piece was really designed to have the audience inside it), but I could still follow the waves and arches worked into the piece. The piece was framed by nice opening and closing percussion work that set up the rhythmic interest and lively, celebratory mood of the piece consistent with its function as a fanfare. I thought there was good rhythmic consistency throughout the piece, in spite of what Lipkis told me about his propensity for shifting in and out of odd meters. The harmonic language was mostly straightforward tonality, with a few crunchier moments of interesting dissonance. There was nice formal structure, although I can’t reproduce it here exactly, having heard the piece only once (well, twice, if you count the time I heard it played by MIDI). The “arches” in the harp were lovely. Altogether, it was a spirited, enjoyable piece. The performance was almost spoiled by one trumpeter, who nearly blew it (well, did blow it, if you know what I mean!) by shrieking his way through the wrong notes up to the right ones just at the dramatic climax. That was too bad, but the piece was very nice and worked well as the start of the concert and as a prelude to Carmen, which was just what it was supposed to do.


This was a semi-staged, abridged version (I believe conductor and music director Diane Wittry made the abridgement herself) with a narrator (I don’t know if Diane also wrote the narration?), chorus, and dancers. The three soloists—Cristina Nassif (Carmen), Viktor Antipenko (Don José), and Eric Dubin (Escamillo)—were superb. I really thought they were, all three, just top-notch young singers. They were also excellent actors who used the stage and their physical presence to full advantage. And if I could tell this, sitting glued to the ceiling as I was, it must have been really great! Nassif has a rather rough mezzo, or maybe the roughness was somewhat assumed for the role, but her voice is very powerful and dramatic. She’s a great actress, too, making everybody on stage and off fall in love with her, and breaking all our hearts with “Là-bas, là-bas dans la montagne.” I remember that song as one of the highlights of my sister Nadine’s performance as Carmen; when she sang that song, she gave my huge shivers of Sehnsucht! Nassif didn’t exactly do that; but she did make me weep, at least intside. She is also extraordinarily beautiful!
I loved both the Don José and the Escamillo; Eric Dubin’s voice especially seemed extremely fluid, mellow, and powerful, all at once. And Viktor Antipenko handled all those killer arias gorgeously across their range, through their sustained notes, and with their emotional fervor.

One of my favorite moments was Escamillo and José’s fight duet. I had never heard it before, since all the versions I’ve ever seen or heard were also abridgements of various kinds, and left it out. How they could leave out that gorgeous song is beyond me. I love tenor-baritone duets anyway, and the one in Bizet’s Pearl Fishers is one of my favorites. This one is stunning, and Dubin and Antipenko sang it beautifully. It was one of the weaker moments in the blocking (Don José ran off stage in the opposite direction from Escamillo just after they had been fighting for their lives, which made no sense), but the beauty of the music helped me to get over that.

The narration was useful to help guide newcomers in the audience through the plot, since so much was left out, but was written in an entirely different tone from the text of the opera, so it didn’t blend. Because this was abridged, it was almost just a chain of arias and duets, one after the other, in a heart-wrenchingly beautiful chain of melodies. I think it was the perfect introduction to opera for any newbies in the crowd. A bunch of teenagers sitting behind me, talking about how this was their first opera, seemed to be amazed and overpowered by it, in the best ways. There were a few moments when the abridgement didn’t quite seem to work; when moments in the story didn’t make sense due to what had been skipped. For instance, José does not flee with Carmen at the end of “Non, tu ne m'aimes pas,” but returns to his barracks. So then his talk of “our past” later doesn’t make any sense, since they haven’t had any past. And I wasn’t sure if there were cuts taken internally in some of the orchestral parts? Micaela was left out entirely, as was (so sad!) the whole card-reading scene. This is another of my strongest memories from Nadine’s performance: she played it with extreme depth and pathos so that we understood Carmen and didn’t see her as just a two-dimensional seductress. Instead, we saw into her heart and into her past, recognizing the pain that made her into what she was: a wild country creature trapped in a city and in a confining political situation, using her body, and using men, to try to get out. In the card song, “En vain pour éviter les réponses amères,” we see that she has given up hope but has not given up longing. At least, that’s what Nadine put into it! I wonder what Cristina Nassif would have made of it—not that I would have been able to tell from where I was sitting.

Now, this was a semi-staged version, and so was Nadine’s, and I realize I’ve never seen it fully staged! So I don’t have a fully-staged version to compare to it, which is probably fine. I love the staging. It was really powerful. It did a lot with a little: Carmen peeling an orange while singing the “Habanera”; Don José tying her up with a long rope, then being reeled in along the rope himself during the seguidilla; good use of chairs, including Escamillo demonstrating the bull’s ferocity with the legs of a chair; and some cute if amateurish dancing by members of the Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley. Altogether, it was an engaging performance.

Finally, there was some interesting use of visual media. There was an enormous screen behind the orchestra on which images were projected throughout the show. They were in black and white and were minimal: a picture of a tree, the clouds, a castle, the bullring, festive lights in Lillas Pastia's, a gloomy lantern in the prison, etc. They were intended to serve instead of sets, to give a sense of time and place. They worked for provide that, but we are so used to colored, moving images that they seemed quaintly old-fashioned. At least they were not riveting our attention away from the stage action, which I suppose was the point. I think, then, that the visuals worked well together with the action and the music. This whole arrangement made for a difficult set-up for the musicians, however; the orchestra was on a slightly higher stage behind the action, which meant Ms. Wittry had her back to the singers at all times. I did not notice any musical discrepancies due to this, however, so I guess it worked! Overall, a remarkably strong performance of Carmen from a local symphony!

You can read the Morning Call’s review here.

09 February 2011

Interview with Larry Lipkis, composer

This is the forty-first interview in the “Where are we now?” series and consists of selections from my conversation with composer Larry Lipkis--just in time for an exciting premiere this weekend at Allentown Symphony Hall. Back in early summer, I interviewed Diane Wittry, Music Director of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra. She told me that this season, in celebration of the Symphony’s sixtieth anniversary, the orchestra was commissioning five fanfares by local composers. I have already posted interviews with two of the composers: Paul Salerni and Doug Ovens. If you live in the Lehigh Valley or nearby, please attend the concerts at which these fanfares will be premiered! Here are the dates; click on them for more information.
Larry Lipkis, “Maestranza,” 12 & 13 February
Doug Ovens, “Endless Possibilities,” 12 & 13 March
Paul Salerni, “Concert Fanfare,” 16 & 17 April

In this interview, we follow several threads of conversation that are becoming themes in my talks with composers: the growing importance of film (and video game) music, the continued move away from atonal music back into concepts of a center and of thematic development, and the necessity of direct communication with one’s audience. Larry also draws a brilliant comparison between music and rhetoric. Enjoy.

Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.

Interview with Larry Lipkis, composer
in his office at Moravian College,
17 September 2010

IA: Why don’t we start out by talking about some of your current projects, and then past projects, and so on. This year is the Allentown Symphony’s 60th anniversary, and they’re commissioning five fanfares, one for each of their concerts. Would you like to start out talking about the fanfare for the Allentown Symphony?

LL: Sure, we can talk about that. When I was first commissioned, I wanted to see what I saw paired with, because I thought the fanfare might be something that could relate to the main piece or the main pieces on the program. So I learned to my great delight that the feature was highlights from the opera Carmen, one of my favorite operas! So there will be my fanfare, and then the rest of the program will be given over to Carmen. I began thinking along those lines: What would be a nice piece to be appropriate for that context, that wouldn’t create any dissonance with the piece but would fit in harmoniously? I didn’t want to write a pseudo-Carmen or anything like that, but I thought about the idea that Carmen is set in Spain and centered around bullfighting. I began looking at some images of bullfighting rings, actually. The whole last act of Carmen takes place in front of a big bullring in Seville. The famous bullring there is called Maestranza. So I just downloaded some images. This is what a bullring looks like:

IA: It’s huge!

LL: Maybe not as big as Beaver Stadium at Penn State, but not too far off. I began to think about that in terms of compositional ideas. I thought it might be interesting to turn Symphony Hall into a bullring. That means the audience would be in the middle, and the players would surround the audience to create a ring-like quality. That was one image that came to mind. I went to Allentown Symphony Hall. I have been there many times, but I really wanted to scope it out in terms of the physical space and where I might put instruments. I looked things over and I came up with a little chart that I will show you. This is my little bullring here. The audience is here [in the “orchestra” seats]; here’s the balcony; here’s the stage; and this would be the conductor. I have strings, harp, and percussion [on stage]. Then we have a little mezzanine, so if you’re walking in the mezzanine to your left, I have a choir of woodwinds: flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon; and opposite, the other choir of woodwinds. Now we’re up in the balcony, and there’s actually plenty of room for this, so we have two horns here, two horns here, two trombones, tuba, and the trumpets in the back.
There is some precedent for this; I’m not the first composer to move instruments around. Actually, last year I went to an ASO concert at which they played Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” which calls for some brass back in the balcony. But I thought getting the ring idea opened up some new possibilities.

IA: So is your audience the bull, or the matador? Or both?!

LL: Exactly! Well, maybe a little of both. I don’t want to take the analogy too literally! I’m just trying to create a ring of sound, basically.

IA: Do you use that concept musically—do harmonic progressions chase their way around the ring, or do melodies run around the circle?

LL: In a sense. Yes. The other image that came to mind is the arch, because you can see around the perimeter of the ring there are all these arches. And of course arches are related to a ring in that they are a curved space. That also played into my ideas.

There are little arch-like musical cells. The score has many examples throughout of that kind of thing. And then, you mentioned the harmonic idea of the arch. There is one place towards the end where I thought it would be fun to get a wave of sound going one way and then back. If you’ve been to baseball games, football games: sometimes in a stadium they do the wave; people stand up, then the next section carries it on. I thought it would be fun to create a wave. At one point there is playing a static chord up here in the strings, I have a little sound idea that moves, then moves back. Musically it is in the form of a suspension: a dissonance that hovers, then resolves down. [he plays it for me]. That’s kind of a fun thing to do; the audience will be following it around.

IA: I can picture the way the noise of the crowd follows the action that’s going on in the ring; I can imagine that the fight is moving around part of the ring and back again.

LL: Yes. I’m not literally trying to recreate a bullfight here; it’s just kind of getting some bullfight ideas into a piece of music which still has a fanfare connotation.

IA: Are there Spanish-sounding harmonies?

LL: A little bit. Not too much, but a little bit. I played through some parts of Carmen just to get that sound. I didn’t want to write faux-Spanish music, but on the other hand [he plays a selection], that has a sort of flamenco sound. It ends with just the brass at the end.

[Then he played the MIDI file of the entire composition, as it then existed, for me.]

IA: I love the energy of it, I love the rhythms—

LL: You can see, though, it is a a huge space, and it’s Diane Wittry’s job have to hold it all together! I met with her and showed her the score. She is great and she loves a challenge. She’s not one to say, “Oh, I don’t think we can do this.” She looked at it and her eyes said, Yeah, I think we can do this. She had a few practical suggestions, but basically, Yeah, we can do this. It’s a bit of a challenge to be very far away from the conductor, especially when it’s not just 4/4 time all the way or waltz rhythm; there are lots of shifts of meter. But these are good players, these are pros.

IA: It’s like you have made a piece of visual and architectural art as well as sound-art.

LL: That’s the idea. There’s really no reason the orchestra has to just sit on the stage. I don’t want the placement to be just a gimmick; it’s an integral part of what the piece is all about.

The Baltimore Consort

IA: Now, one of your very recent projects with the Baltimore Consort was a recording of Spanish Renaissance music. Do you think any of those rhythms or sounds are in your ear?

LL: That’s interesting that you mention that, because I started out listening to those pieces again. At one point I was considering writing a set of variations on one of those tunes. But I just rejected that; I got a little bit into it and thought: This isn’t what I want to do; it doesn’t sound like a fanfare. There’s really nothing on that CD that sounds like a fanfare. So I listened to Carmen again and got this idea and realized this is what I want to do. But I love the Spanish music of the Renaissance. It was a very interesting time period; 1492, when worlds were coming apart and together and Columbus was traveling here but there were clashes between the Christians and the Muslims, the Jews were expelled then the Muslims were expelled. Three different influences in the music. A very exiting time. We still perform that program quite a bit. but I just thought it wouldn’t really fit to bring that music into this.

IA: Now, do any of your other experiences tie into this fanfare? You have done at least one film score and at least one score for a play. Those are both theatrical.

LL: Yes. I do like to write about extra-musical ideas: dramatic ideas or poetic ideas. When I wrote my concertos, I had characters from the Commedia dell’arte tradition, so they are named after characters: Pierrot, Harlequin, and Scaramouche. I had little scenarios in mind. Nothing very specific, but that helped me to imagine the characters musically.

IA: Can you talk about the film score you wrote for The Juniper Tree?

LL: Well, that happened a long time ago. That was, oh maybe 20 years ago or so.

IA: I think the film came out in 1990.

LL: That could be right. I was friendly with a filmmaker at UCLA. I forget how we met, or maybe I was recommended to her by somebody, but she contacted me and said she was working on a film based on the Grim fairytale The Juniper Tree. It was filmed in Iceland, in black-and-white; she wanted it to be very Medieval-looking, very austere. She asked if I could write music that would fit that mood.

IA: I saw the trailer, and it certainly achieved that look and that sound.

Note: you can login to watch the full movie here

LL: And the interesting thing is that it has become kind of a cult film because of Björk. Without Björk no one would have ever noticed it.

IA: It was her debut, right?

LL: It was her debut. She looked like a 12-year-old, she’s supposed to be the younger sister, and she looked very young. But in fact she was maybe 20, and was pregnant, which they had to kind of cover up with loose clothing. But she was good! The film has some currency because of that. It was fun. What I did is I researched some Icelandic music because I wanted to see what some folk traditions were. It deals with folk elements, obviously, about people in the country trying to survive in a very harsh landscape. I kept the music very simple and I used instruments that I thought might approximate the folk instruments of early Northern Europe. I wanted the singing to be very simple. But some of the language, the vocabulary, was quite dissonant. It is a story of today as well as of the past, so I didn’t just want to recreate the music. I have some eerie effects with voices. There are some very compelling moments visually, so I wanted to capture those. I do enjoying watching films with an eye towards how the music is supporting the action. There are films in which I find that the music is irritatingly present, or underlines the action unnecessarily, or becomes a nuisance or an annoyance. I think film music should be in the support of the action.

IA: Who are some current film composers whose work you admire?

LL: Oh, I like some of the big names: Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, occasionally Jamie Horner. Sometimes they are a little over the top. I like Patrick Doyle. A lot of my students, actually, are interested in writing music for film—or now, more currently, video game music. That is timely, increasingly they are more interested in that because it is culturally relevant for them.

IA: Where is that music going right now? Is it still in that big German Romantic harmonic tradition?

LL: A lot of Japanese composers are taking the lead there, and they have come out of a tradition that often has very lush, rich, Romantic-sounding music. But it also has some “Eastern” sensibilities about it. Sometimes the music has to be modular, so you can’t really have music that grows organically in film music the way you could with symphonic music. People don’t have the patience for that anymore. They want quick, small pieces, rather than just sitting and listening to [the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth] evolve over time, how a composer develops an idea. That’s more of a nineteenth century, early twentieth-century idea. I think sometimes our minds are just now geared towards getting something quick and self-contained, rather than allowing ourselves the luxury of a symphony. I think music has evolved that way whether we know it or not. I’m not sure it’s a good thing, necessarily.

IA: Do you have to adapt to that or take it into account?

LL: I do take it into account. I sometimes find in my own writing I gravitate that way, too, maybe because I gravitate that way or I’m thinking that my audience is that way, too. A little while ago I gave a talk about how Google, or the whole idea of the Internet, has changed our way of thinking. And while it’s a wonderful vehicle for getting information, it’s not always a wonderful vehicle for doing deep and contemplative thinking about something. It’s not to say that you can’t; Google is just a tool. It should allow us to go very deep into something, because it opens up a world of articles and books much more quickly. Part of tt is that we get impatient and we want to move around very quickly, so we don’t take the time to absorb something. It’s so attractive to click on links, and get little bits of information here, link, link, link. We don’t necessarily stay with anything for a long time. It’s interesting how technology can change how we think and how we write and how we listen to and take in art.

IA: How does that affect you if you sit down to write a large-scale piece, say, a symphony or a concerto?

LL: Well, I haven’t written a large-scale piece in a while. I did write a flute concerto a couple of years ago, that the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra did. That was in four movements; each was about maybe five or six minutes long. and maybe the largest scale single-movement piece I have done, maybe 12 years ago, was 15- or 16-minute piece that stood by itself. But not the pieces are broken into shorter movements. It’s typical even back in Mozart’s day, if you wrote a symphony, it tended to be into shorter movements. You get into the nineteenth century and a symphony by Mahler: a movement can be thirty or forty minutes! A symphony can be a hour and a half! But we’re not in that culture anymore. The idea is that we need to get the message out more quickly. Television has changed the way we perceive things, the way we go from one quick cut to another quick cut. I had a friend who thought a good model for writing a piece was a one-minute commercial. The typical commercial was a series of images: if it’s about headache medication, we see this sufferer, then we see a remedy, then we return to the sufferer now that he or she has taken this medication. Now that has a certain form.

IA: Theme, development, restatement.

LL: Right: ABA form. I am interested in how we shape something in a short amount of time. One thing that I have spent a lot of time thinking about and talking about with my students is Rhetoric. This is a subject that goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks, as part of the Trivium and Quadrivium of Medieval institutes.You used to be able to take classes in Rhetoric. Some schools still offer it; now it’s often just called Communication. But it is a way of organizing your thinking and your speaking. Rhetoric is part of persuasive speech. I’m always interested in the relationship between language and music and how the way one might organize a speech might be the way one might organize a piece of music. For example, let’s say a lawyer is arguing a case, or a speaker is speaking before the Senate. He would have an introduction, and then sort of lay out the facts, and then there is a section in rhetoric where you have alternate facts, or secondary facts; you discuss: Well, what if that didn’t happen? or: This is an alternative to that. And then you come back and repeat the facts again, summarize everything, and then have your conclusion. It’s a pretty good analogy to what we call Sonata Form in music. You have your introduction, you have not a laying-out of facts, but a laying-out of a theme. You have a second theme, which is different. It doesn’t refute the second theme, it just presents a contrast. And then you mix it up together. And then you restate that first theme. And then you sort of summarize that, in what musicians call the Recapitulation. And then you have your Coda, which is your summary to the jury. It does kind of follow that form.

That’s on one level. And then on another level we have what you might call rhetorical devices. Like metaphor, simile… And there are musical analogies to some of these rhetorical devices. Not necessarily metaphor and simile, but one that is interesting is a rhetorical device called the anaphora, which is a repetition, usually a rather strong repetition, at the beginning of a phrase, so that the repetition kind of hammers the point out. When Hilary Clinton was talking about what it takes to raise a child: “It takes dedication, it takes a community, it takes, it takes….” She’s saying “It takes” at the beginning of each. That’s anaphora. If you have a politician who says: “The people demand change! The people are fed up with higher taxes! The people want…” you know, all that stuff. So that’s a rhetorical device. A composer can do that, too. And composers have done that. They repeat things in a dramatic way. I’m aware of that. I have my students practice writing anaphoristic phrases just to see what it’s like to do that. That’s just one example. Then there’s the climax, the peak, of a piece of music. In rhetoric it’s not so much the peak itself, it’s how you get there, it’s the process. And so we look at this very famous speech by a theologian named Richard Hooker. He has sentence that is like 186 words long, and it just starts very quietly, and then the images get more graphic, and the phrases get shorter. It builds to a beautiful climax and you finally get his point. You’re kind of swept along by his verbiage. If you just went straight to his point it wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic. It kind of takes us there…. So I have my students write a phrase, or it might be something equivalent to that, and build through a crescendo. A crescendo is one way to create a climax, but there are other ways, too.

IA: Layered instrumentation…

LL: Exactly! Layered instrumentation, rhythmic complexity, harmonic complexity. All these things the composer has.

IA: Delaying a harmonic resolution…

LL: Absolutely. All these things. It’s kind of fun to train them that these are time-tested ways that people have communicated, so we as composers can communicate that way, too.

IA: Wow. I’m going to take this to my College English One class and tell them: your five-paragraph essay? That’s a Sonata Form!

LL: There you go. There are all sorts of rhetorical devices that have musical analogies.

IA: Let’s talk a little bit more about your musical vocabulary, and maybe just a really brief history of what was your relationship, say, with serialism, what was your relationship, say, with minimalism, and then who you are now and whether you would describe yourself in terms of a particular school of composition.

LL: Yes. Well, I guess like everyone you sort of start off writing the kind of music you are comfortable with, that you’re listening to a lot. So early on I would write imitation of other styles in tonal music. And then you’re introduced to new concepts at school. I had to write some serial pieces. For a while I wrote what you might call “friendly” atonal music, because I didn’t always use a key center, a pitch center, but I liked there to be relationships. It might be triadic without actual being tonal. I also liked the sound of triads, but I would not always necessarily have a key for them to resolve in. Much of my music had that quality. I never really was taken with trying to write minimal music myself. I enjoy listening to some of it, and I teach it, and I am interested in how that as a style has evolved from the early days of the 60s to what might be called now, or at least what those composers who were early minimalists are doing now. I didn’t ever see myself as someone who did that. I guess I grew up in the tradition where you had an idea and you developed it and nurtured that idea: sort of the old-school way that I was taught, and so I keep doing that. I would say, over time, my music has maybe gotten a little more tonal, a little more key centered. You know, I really believe in communicating with my players and with my audience, too. I feel I have to be true to three constituencies: myself, my audience, and my performers. I want everyone to have a good experience. I have sometimes made the mistake of writing pieces that I thought intellectually made sense, but they were either too challenging for one reason or another, or didn’t come off in performance, and alienated the performers as well as the audience, so I thought: Well, that didn’t work! But then you grow from that. You learn why that didn’t work and what you could do differently next time. I still always like to do something different, something I’ve never done before. I don’t really ever like to repeat something that’s safe, because you don’t really grow as a performer. I admire the composers who are taking challenges and moving into new directions.

One characteristic of my music has been that I tend to change meters frequently. Conductors who know about that brace themselves when a piece of mine is coming. They think, OMG, maybe it will stay in one meter for more than ten seconds! 5/8, 7/8, ¾, 10/16, 7/8. I have done that. I confess. It’s not because I’m ADD or I just want to annoy people! It’s just how I feel the music should go. I try to put the music into meters that make sense to me and to the players. But it is a characteristic of a lot of my music.

IA: Do you think that your story is a microcosm for your generation of composers who were required to write in serialism and then lived through minimalism, maybe coming back to tonalism now?

LL: It could be. Well, minimalism was always sort of a tonal reaction to complexity, a sort of stripping down of all the chromaticism and the rhythmic complexity and saying let’s go back to something simpler and repetitive. And some of the composers went that way without being minimal. They just said, I’m tied of serialism; I’m tired of mathematical relationships. So that definitely has been happening in my generation. They learned something, wrote that way, and then worked their way out of it. I don’t see any people who are sort of moving into serialism except if they’re just on a particular path of exploration and they want to do it. It doesn’t really have an audience, honestly. There are not a lot of people outside of academia who are interested in hearing atonal music.

IA: We’re still not whistling twelve-tone rows in the streets, and we never will!

LL: We’re not, we’re not, and I don’t think we will! I can admire a composer like Elliott Carter who can write very complex music, but a lot of his music is very off-putting because it’s so dense, so chromatic, and so difficult that while it gets lots of awards, it has no appreciable audience.

IA: What are some of your strongest composition students, current students or recent graduates, working in?

LL: I have some who are interested in film. One student went to North Carolina School of the Arts just to work more in film music. He wrote a nice piece that the orchestra did here last year. I don’t think ,any of them will be professional composers; some of them have gone on to teach. Most of my students here are music education students who take composition, but I have three or four actual composition majors. And it’s hard to know what’s going to happen with them. There is not a huge market for contemporary music, so you have to figure out what are you going to do with this. And sometimes they are natural teachers and they teach. Others might go on to something else. Often there’s a bond between technology or computer work and composition, so often they gravitate in that direction and do some composing, too.

IA: Do you think that the world of contemporary classical music needs a huge new breakthrough? Needs a huge idea like the Second Viennese School?

LL: It’s hard to know. Two years ago, we took the music department to see John Adams’ opera Dr. Atomic. I was very curious, because I wanted to see what John Adams was doing right now. And yet, what is it? It’s quite tonal, quite lyrical; there are some real singable arias. One of the students said, “I want to do that song in my recital!” That hardly ever happens when you go to a contemporary work. It is hard to generalize, but the successful composers are the ones who are getting commissions to write pieces that do reach out and don’t put up barriers but are trying to be communicative. Stephen Paulus is someone who writes very well, and his music is tonal, for the most part.

We don’t see too much absolute music anymore. It tends to be programmatic, or operas…. I think people are still writing operas and there are still commissions for operas. I’m always amazed that opera has stood the test of time from the Baroque period. It’s such an extravagant art form and ridiculous in some ways! But so compelling. People who write operas keeping writing them, because there’s a real lure. I wrote one opera, and it was so much work, and it was fun, but I wonder if I would have the energy to do that again. Mozart would write an opera and then he just kept wanting to write them, even though he was writing tons of other stuff too. If you have that gift of drama and story-telling and you like language and you like dance and everything else and you like the whole to be part of something larger, it’s really addictive. You can see why he kept doing it, but you can also see why he died when he did! It killed him to do all that!

Paul Salerni, one of the fanfare composers, writes operas. I really respect Paul very much. Well, I don’t want to tell his story for him, but he’s, you know, he went to Harvard, studied with Earl Kim. He got that very rigorous education there, but his music is very tonal. There’s a jazz influence at times, a pop influence in other ways. His first opera, Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast, he said it’s almost musical theater. There are those elements. It’s part of the story: there are jazz elements, pop elements, deliberately so, and other parts that are not. I got to know it fairly well, because Rory, my son, was playing a role. Its beautiful writing! It’s really, really gorgeous. Paul has that advantage Italians have somehow. They have that beautiful language, and Italian composers from Monteverdi on have great, lyrical writing. They’re always, down through the line, Verdi, Puccini, even Luciano Berio, who might be the leading Italian composer of the twentieth century, still can write very interestingly for voice. They just feel at home. I’m looking forward to his next opera, The Life and Love of Joe Coogan. It is light, and I think that’s a direction Paul has gone. Some of his other music tends to be story-telling and light. He’s no longer interested in pushing an envelope towards wherever he might have been pushing twenty years ago, and I’m not either.

IA: He said something very similar: No matter what it is, no matter what the vocabulary of it is, it’s always about communicating something, it’s about telling a story.

LL: Absolutely. Steven Stametz is another composer who does that, too. Beautiful writing.

IA: Are there any other future predictions or current observations you want to make?

LL: Well, I’m always interested to see how technology always moves at such a fast pace. It can be exhausting to keep up with it, and sometimes I find myself annoyed that sometimes the technology is the tail that wags the dog, and some people are overly reliant on it, or they think that technology replaces actual composition. Just the way a filmmaker might use technology to make a visually stunning movie, but without any substance. I have actually seen movies like that. So it’s never going to replace our critical thinking. Sometimes it’s a distraction. Being at a liberal arts college where they drill you, hammer you, about the need for critical thinking is still very important. I always like to wave that particular flag.

Larry with the music faculty of Moravian College