SA5: The Philadelphia Issue

What is the personality of a city? What allows us, acting as citizens or visitors, to relate to it as a separate evolving organism? Even if we’ve never set foot in a given city, we approach it on equal footing—as its own being, equal to and different from us. I’m currently on a plane to Mexico City, a place I’ve never been, and I have already been grappling with my personal preconceptions of it as a city crammed with people, somehow slow and fast at the same time. Yet I’ve traveled enough to anticipate being disabused of these notions when I land. Discovering a city is like meeting someone for the first time, an enthused search for points of mutual consonance and dissonance. Philadelphia is a city I continue to grapple with, though as a 12-year resident of New Jersey it’s well within striking distance. I’ve visited often. I’ve done what those not from Philadelphia are supposed to: consumed a cheesesteak, visited the colonial attractions, mounted the steps of the Museum of Art. I’ve wandered the hardware and electronics stores in North Philly, and come to accept its derision of my New Jersey license plates. But we had no true relationship, Philadelphia and I, and so I undertook this issue of Sound American with the excitement of first exposure to another’s heart and mind. Vijay Iyer recently published an article for the Red Bull Music School connecting the idea of social systems, history, and the physical infrastructure of a city (New York, in his example) with the architecture and process of music, specifically improvisation. It is a fascinating idea that might be applied to Philadelphia: the seeming insularity of its neighborhoods, multiple campus centers, and history of class and racial strife have surely affected the way people make their music. Yet I’ve chosen a different approach. Rather than analyze the specific historic, social and cultural systems of Philadelphia as brought to bear on its creative inhabitants, this issue will focus on the creative inhabitants. The hope is to take information of a cross-section and find the common denominators—the personal and musical qualities that anecdotally rise to the surface when taking each artist at face value and in their own words and sounds. Through the conversations presented in this issue I came to better understand the nature of artistic practice in Philadelphia, while avoiding a form of urban chauvinism that elides the individual even as it attempts to define what makes a city unique. While there are trends amongst these interviewees—musical eclecticism, a certain satisfaction in being left alone to their work, a DIY aesthetic mixed with liberal application of the concept of mutual aid—there is no fixed Philadelphia archetype, but rather a collectively sustained environment within which they create their personal statements. No issue comes without regrets on my part. By the time I’m writing this opening salvo, I am already battling the voices in my head, wishing I had been able to include this piece of music or that composer. The Philadelphia issue is especially sensitive in this respect. Due to the size and scope of the project, there are many facets of the city’s musical culture and history that are not included here, either due to my own inability to grasp its heritage in one three month period, lack of space, or polite refusals of subjects to take part. The most glaring omission, is the complete lack of voices from Philadelphia's African-American community; a community that makes up almost half the population of the city and is THE major source of its cultural milieu. This is a great loss to the conversation, one that I understand and feel, and hope to rectify in a future issue. Sound American Issue 5 was funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. They have been a generous collaborator, allowing me to find my way among the musicians of the city and learn by experience, rather than via a set of guidelines that might have resulted in a discovery process more touristic than artistic. I’m grateful for their sensitivity.
Andrea Clearfield is a composer that thrives on communication and cooperation in the ways she works and the music that results. This quality is obvious in her project with Tibetan master singer Tashi Tsering and the subsequent effort she and her colleagues have put into preserving and sharing this musical heritage. This sense of giving is also present in a subtler form in her music, as evidenced by her piece Tse Go La Cantata, performed live by the Concert Chorale, women of the Chamber Singers, and the New Music Ensemble of University of Texas at Austin under the direction of Dan Welcher. The music, which we are able to stream on this page and in DRAM's Philadelphia Music Archive by permission of the composer, displays a careful attention to the push and pull of the instruments and voices to create a warm musical balance. Philadelphia, her lifelong home, has benefitted from her desire to share as well. Her salon series is now completing its 26th year and has become known for its spirit of open exchange of musical ideas. By presenting ten performances per evening, ranging from chamber music to dance, spoken word, and beyond, she has maintained the salon as a place where artistic diversity is the norm, not the exception. Andrea has also been a part of another long-running Philadelphia new music institution, the Relâche Ensemble, as a performer for over twenty years. We were luckily able to find time between musical residencies away from home to have an email conversation with this Philadelphian force of nature.

Andrea Clearfield

Sound American: I think you might be the only composer I’m interviewing that is a Philadelphia native. You grew up in Philly, went to school at Temple, and have remained to develop your career and voice there. Can you tell me a little bit about how you first discovered music and developed your abilities as a pianist and composer? Did you ever feel the desire to leave Philadelphia and explore a different artistic scene? Andrea Clearfield: My parents are both amateur musicians (my mother was a pianist and my father a clarinetist) and they enjoyed playing and listening to chamber music; as a child there was always music in the living room. I started piano at age five and in my early teens started transcribing pop songs from the radio and arranging them for voices, strings and percussion so that my friends could play. I was very fortunate to have been guided by inspiring and supportive music teachers in middle school and high school in Lower Merion where I played flute in the wind ensemble, percussion in the orchestra and piano for the choruses, theater and rock bands. At Muhlenberg College, I studied piano with composer Margaret Garwood who remains my mentor. When I showed her my compositions she encouraged me to keep “listening to the voice within”. Until that time, I did not think of myself as a composer – I just followed a natural urge to make things and bring people together to play them. After receiving a Masters in Piano from the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts (now The University of the Arts) as a student of Susan Starr, I went on to receive my DMA from Temple University in Composition studying with Maurice Wright. I had an adventurous ear and was turned on by all kinds of music from folk/rock/world to Bach, Renaissance, French Impressionists, Bartok, Stravinsky to experimental performance art and early electronics. A seminal moment occurred in 1976 before heading off to college. Upon hearing some odd sounds emerging from a venue on Philadelphia’s “hip” South Street, I walked into the old Painted Bride [Arts Center] and there discovered a troupe of musicians wandering around in the dark playing long tones to a rapt audience. As they approached each other, the tones would undulate and I found myself transfixed by this captivating musical ritual unlike anything I had ever experienced. It turned out to be Philadelphia’s Relâche Ensemble and they made such a profound impression that I vowed to “meet them one day”. Strange how life spirals around – I was invited to sub on keyboards with the group in the 1980’s and have been playing with them ever since. I freelanced for a number of years and these performing experiences as pianist for chamber, orchestra, choral, popular and new music – were invaluable training grounds for my work as a composer. I learned about the voice, psychology and colors of the instruments, orchestration, rehearsal techniques and a vast array of repertoire from the inside. In answer to the question about leaving Philadelphia – for many years, I did not feel a desire to leave. I was stimulated and invigorated at having been part of the growing, vital music scene in Philadelphia. Then at age 40 I discovered artist colonies and was hooked. I now travel for concerts and residencies for much of the year but I always look forward to coming back to my home and community in Philadelphia. SA: Looking over your list of compositions and taking a chance to listen to some of your work, I’m struck by a couple of themes. You seem to have an ability and desire to tell a story, to deal with a narrative. Is this one of the reasons that you tend toward writing that features the voice in some way? What role does a story or text play in your composing? AC: About two-thirds of my work is written for voice. I have a passion for poetry, researching interesting and challenging topics, uncovering poetic gems from the past and collaborating with living writers. I love the singing voice, and the emotional and color possibilities of this most intimate of instruments. However, in all of my works, including the purely instrumental ones, structure is extremely important…how the materials develop and form into a cohesive and compelling trajectory. SA: As opposed to some composers that seem to relish solitude or require complete control over their work, you seem to tend toward working with others, be it with dance or text or in commission from ensembles. How do you view collaboration as a part of your work? AC: I very much enjoy the collaborative process. Working with other artists, particularly those with whom there is a palpable creative resonance can be a very high experience. There is the possibility to develop work that none of us would have conceived of alone and it also stretches me artistically. Sometimes the interdisciplinary works involve structured improvisation, which can be so alive in the moment. I also deeply appreciate the relationships with commissioners, conductors and performers that result from writing on commission, which is what I am doing full-time now. That being said, when I am composing a concert work such as a cantata, concerto or opera, after the initial pre-compositional period researching the subject matter or text, I do spend a great deal of time in solitude working out the composition and orchestration. SA: Can you tell me a bit about the work you’re doing in Lo Monthang in Nepal, recording the area’s folk music to continue it’s lineage amongst the younger Nepalese generations? AC: This has been an amazing life journey that started in 2008 when I was commissioned by Network for New Music to create a work in collaboration with visual artist Maureen Drdak. Inspired by Tibetan iconography, Maureen had traveled often to Nepal for her work. She invited me to trek with her to the remote, restricted Himalayan region of Lo Monthang, Nepal with anthropologist Sienna Craig. Only a few miles from the border of Tibet, this area was once a part of Tibet and having been closed to the world until 1991, exists as one of the last remaining enclaves of traditional Tibetan culture. We crossed many Himalayan mountain passes on horseback to get to Lo Monthang. With the encouragement of John Sanday, one of the world’s leading architectural restorationists, I made recordings of the Tibetan ritual and folk music there, including songs of the aging royal court singer, Tashi Tsering. Our collaborative work inspired by the field research, Lung-Ta (The Windhorse), premiered in 2009 with Network for New Music, Maureen Drdak and Group Motion Dance Company and was presented to His Holiness the Dalai Lama as an initiative for world peace. As a result of my visit, the Lo Monthang community became interested in the recordings of their music, none of which had been previously documented. Things were rapidly changing in Lo Monthang and this ancient horse culture was threatened. Tashi Tsering had no willing heirs to learn his music, so if he passed, these songs that were passed down aurally for hundreds of years would have been lost. In 2010, with support from the Rubin Foundation and The University of the Arts, I trekked back to Lo Monthang with anthropologist Katey Blumenthal (making the arduous journey on foot) to document the indigenous gar-glu (court song) repertoire of Tashi Tsering as well as tro-glu (common dance songs) performed by women in the community. We recorded over 130 songs that we then sent back to Lo Monthang with cassette tapes with boom boxes, batteries and headsets so that the children could learn the music. Katey and I became interested in ways that the music could be given back to the community, not only to preserve but also to educate the younger generations about these centuries-old songs. We initiated a library enhancement project to build a section dedicated to local culture in the Lo Monthang Community library that would include not only music, but also dance, art, language, literature and local medicine. If funding is secured and if there is continued interest from the community, our next project will be to transcribe the songs into a songbook with translations into English and Nepali so that children around the world can learn the songs. Our recordings are now up at the University of Cambridge’s World Oral Literature database for streaming. This project, Voices of Vanishing Worlds, at University of Cambridge is "an urgent global initiative to document and make accessible endangered oral literatures before they disappear without record". I composed other works inspired by the treks; Kawa Ma Gyur (The Unchanging Pillar) also commissioned by Network for New Music for chamber ensemble and electronics and Tse Go La (At the Threshold of this Life), a multi movement cantata for double chorus, chamber orchestra and electronics commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club and the Pennsylvania Girlchoir as a way to bring these songs to the US for the first time. The work incorporates some of the Tibetan melodies from Lo Monthang and poetry by Sienna Craig and explores thresholds – rites of passage from birth through death. Last year I was commissioned to write an opera on the most venerated Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, and the research may take me back yet again to the Tibetan plateau.  SA: Not unlike a lot of the younger improvising and experimental musicians I’ve talked to for this issue, you have also taken on the role of presenting music in Philadelphia as the host of the Salon series. Can you talk a little bit about the history of the series and what your vision of it is in relation to Philly’s musical culture? AC: I started the Salon in 1986 as a way to continue the tradition of music in the home, create a vital community around music and build audiences for the music of our time. Freshly out of grad school and performing all kinds of music, I did not know of any other venue in Philadelphia that presented a wide array of musical styles in an intimate setting, so I created one. Since that time, I have hosted and curated monthly Salons in my home where there have been over 6000 performers and over 16,000 audience members passing through my living room. I was inspired by the Parisian Salons of the early 20th century which had become a social gathering for artists, musicians, scientists and writers of the day and was a crucial venue for new music. I wanted to create a contemporary spin on the European Salons – not only would there be chamber music, but also jazz, world music, electronics, dance, multi-media, spoken word and genre-bending forms. Although most performers are local, others come from around the country to perform. With 10 ensembles in one night, the Salons give audiences the possibility to be stimulated and moved by something they had not heard before, as well as to interact with the performers. There was a thriving Salon scene in NYC in the 80’s, however I observe that a number of New Yorkers now come to Philadelphia for the Salon because they are seeking this kind of community. The success of the Salon has confirmed my belief that people are hungry for music in alternative and intimate settings, and that Philadelphia audiences, once they are in the door (perhaps they have come to hear their favorite folk singer) will relish an adventure of the eyes and ears from Bach, Brahms and Ligeti to new opera, Butoh dance, gypsy choral music, experimental improv with spoken word, electro acoustic arts and more. With technological advances, there is so much changing in the music world and I am grateful that a growing Salon culture in Philadelphia exists to foster “live” music and dynamic exchange in the home. SA: Finally, as a lifetime resident of Philly, as mentioned earlier, what do you think the city gives you that you couldn’t find anywhere else? What are its greatest strengths and what do you think are its weaknesses, if any? AC: Philadelphia, at the heart of American history, is a city that cherishes tradition. It is a place of neighborhoods and longtime residents, and many of us in the music scene feel a special connectivity and community here. It’s a place where music can be heard at the highest levels of refined artistry, and yet also a place where one can take risks; I am continually amazed at the cool new groups and fresh artistic initiatives that are developing around the city. I think that Philadelphia could make more of alternative venues and situations in which to experience arts (this is part of another project that I helped start with the Pew Foundation: New Spaces/New Formats) and there is the continued question of how to engage more audiences. Many of us are thinking about manifesting new collaborative work that also includes more audience interactivity and I am excited about these new possibilities.
In a city that has two powerful musical institutions of higher learning, University of Pennsylvania and Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia has never been at a loss for compositional talent. Some composers, such as George Crumb and Richard Wernick, have built legends in music and education while making Philadelphia their home. The same is true of another generation of composers, consisting of the other three interviewees in this issue (Primosch, Higdon, and Clearfield) who have built phenomenal reputations and continue to affect the compositional climate of the city. Then, there's Melissa Dunphy: a young and talented composer building her reputation as part of a new generation of Philadelphia composers one piece of a time. Add to it that she's an international transplant involved in making fairly tonal, yet modern vocal work based on the political railroading of ex-US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales or Ayn Rand's sex life, and I think it becomes clear why I chose to feature her as a voice of Philadelphia. In our interview, we delve into common practice harmony, the desire to connect with people through music, and owning your musical predilections, along with the ups and downs of finding your way as a musician and what it means to work in Philadelphia.

Melissa Dunphy

Sound American: Let’s just get started with some of the obvious questions and then I want to try and move to some talk of your musical output and how you think about music. You grew up in Brisbane, Australia, correct? Why the move to Philadelphia? Melissa Dunphy: Yep, I grew up in Brisbane, and then moved to Sydney for six years when I finished high school. Coming to America is kind of an epic tale, but the super-short version is that while I was in Sydney, I struck up an online friendship with a guy in Central Pennsylvania who ran a news website for Nine Inch Nails, a band I was obsessed with at the time. We chatted platonically on ICQ (remember ICQ?) every day for about two years, and met in person while I was vacationing in America when I was 22. While hanging out, we roadtripped to New Orleans from York, PA, and somewhere along the way, we fell in love, despite our every effort to keep it platonic. After a few months of intercontinental love, we couldn’t stand it anymore and decided to get engaged and navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracy of immigration. People often ask us why Matt didn’t move to Australia, and the answer is simple: America has more than ten times the population of Australia, so there are far more arts and media opportunities here because the audience is so much bigger. At first, we lived in the Harrisburg/York/Lancaster region, which admittedly sounded like a nightmare to a city girl like me, but living in small towns removes a lot of distractions; I figured out what I wanted to do with my life while there, and I don’t think I’d be where I am now if I hadn’t spent a few years away from the big smoke. Eventually, though, we started inching our way east, and when we landed in Philly, I felt like the city welcomed us with open arms. Matt has a great job that he loves and, almost immediately, I was landing lead roles in Philly theaters and getting amazing opportunities like my fellowship at Penn. I used to think I wanted to end up in New York, but Philly has been really good to us and I feel very at home here now – and we bought a house easily, something that definitely wouldn’t have happened in New York City. SA: Where did the impetus for music making come from? In my research I seemed to come across a number of wildly different career paths that you've taken, which is not all that unusual for a musician supporting themselves, but when you’re talking about medical school or television, that goes a little beyond a typical "day job" commitment. What is your musical history and how did your desire to devote yourself to it full time make itself known to you? MD: I have a Chinese mother, and in stereotypical Chinese-mother fashion, she took me to piano classes when I was three years old to see if I would be the next Mozart. When it was clear that I was not quite in Mozart’s league, she wanted me to quit so I could concentrate on learning math and science for an eventual career as a doctor (I did mention she’s a stereotypical Chinese mother, right?), but I loved music too much and was very headstrong about continuing. I went to a great school in Brisbane where it’s mandatory to take up a stringed instrument in fourth grade, so that’s when I started the violin, and I switched to viola at 14. As much as I loved music, it didn’t even occur to me to make music my career until I was in my mid-twenties. In high school, everyone was sure I would be either a doctor or a lawyer, even though I did better in music than I did in chemistry or legal studies. I did reasonably well as a performer on viola, but I had terrible stage fright when playing solo music. I loved writing madrigals and baroque-flavored counterpoint (seriously, I have a ton of four- to seven-part madrigals and fugues I wrote in high school), but never thought to become a “proper” composer. When I graduated, my grades were high enough to get into a medical program at the University of New South Wales, and everyone said, “That’s wonderful! You should go,” so I did. Unfortunately, I hated it. I spent the next eight years figuring out what I wanted to do with my life via a process of trial and error. It’s telling that the first thing I did after I quit med school was become a junior legal secretary, to see if law would be any better. (Definitely not.) And then I worked in wines sales, IT, television production, web design, and stage acting – but I was trying to discover what I enjoyed so I could find a career, not supporting myself as a musician. I still had music – I played in youth orchestras and then rock bands for years, and in Sydney I sometimes had to busk to make enough to pay the ludicrously high rent – but it didn’t become my primary focus until I was asked in an emergency to set some songs for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival, where I was a company actor. I spent two underslept weeks composing, and something clicked. I just knew – this is it. This is what I want to do. I think it’s because writing music uses both the left brain and right brain. It’s creative and a logic/math puzzle at the same time. To say it another way: music and I were co-stars in a romantic comedy, one of those Austen-esque plots in which a girl dates a million different wrong men until she realizes her perfect partner is her best friend who’s been right in front of her the whole time. SA: I think you’re best known, at this point, for The Gonzales Cantata, a 40 minute work for small chamber ensemble and voices with the libretto coming word for word from the emotional destruction of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in 2007. A lot has been written about this work, but I wanted to ask you specifically about the music. Beyond the subject matter, which may be one of the great political psycho-dramas of our time, your setting is a mix of Baroque continuo and, for lack of a better term, pop harmony. It’s difficult to put it that way because I think a lot of people will automatically turn off thinking of it as a hybridization, but there isn’t that feeling at all. The whole work seems to coalesce in a natural way, not only musically, but in the setting of the text as well. Do you feel like you consciously are working toward a symbiosis of all those kinds of elements within a piece? MD: Thanks! It’s not really a conscious effort, I don’t think. I mean, I just really like writing baroque-flavored music. I’ve been steeped in it; I can remember improvising on the piano as a kid, and it was always chains of suspensions and other contrapuntal ideas that I picked up instinctively because I liked Bach. I guess you could say it’s my original musical accent, the way that, buried inside my current weird hybridized Australian-American accented voice is the far more broad Queensland accent I had as a kid. I can speak in a completely American accent, but I have to “put it on,” and I feel the same way whenever I try to write something that leaves Common Practice harmony behind. I will say, though, that something was starting to happen to me musically and stylistically around the time I wrote the Cantata. For years and years, I had tried very hard to like modernism and atonalism. In my late teens, I enjoyed the idea of listening to music that most of my friends hated. In my early twenties, I somehow got the notion that I was supposed to like difficult music, even though I often felt like I didn’t understand it. I made excuses for it. Maybe I am just too ignorant to get it. Maybe I’m too dumb. Maybe I’m not musical enough. Maybe I’d like this music if I performed a set theory analysis and/or found all the tone rows. Eventually, however, I began to think that maybe I don’t have to like modernist music at all, or want to write it. Maybe, given that the majority of the population of the Western world relies upon functional harmony to give music meaning, I shouldn’t lock that toolbox, and I shouldn’t be ashamed of it either. And the first thing I started to do was go back to what I first loved to write, before the pretension of my late teens kicked in. Of course, it’s not completely diatonic, because all these other influences have imposed themselves, which is great. The more I write and listen, the more my accent changes and becomes unique. But the kernel of the harmonic tradition that began in the baroque period and is still present in every pop song on the radio is still there. Setting text is like a puzzle, and the more difficult it is, the more fun I have with it. I get a real kick out of shaping a supposedly unsettable text into melodies that make formal sense, but a difficult text is also exciting because it sometimes forces you to twist a melody in a different direction, which can make your music and phrases more interesting and unexpected. I’m at a point now where the task of setting an easy text, like a poem with a regular meter, sounds awfully boring, like playing a game on easy mode when you’re used to expert. I’d probably write the squarest music. SA: In the case of the common practice kind of music you write, have you ever delved deeply into what it is that gives you such great pleasure about writing in that way? If it's a construction issue, then why not dodecaphony or some of the process oriented minimalism that has a similar connection to thinking of music as a "puzzle". There's obviously a deeper connection there, have you put much thought into it, or is it enough to know you like it? MD: I believe that music harmony is a language just like any other – we learn to interpret whatever system of harmony surrounds us probably from the moment we start hearing music in the womb. Step one to understanding common practice Western music: uneven patterns of tones and semitones generate scales that we learn to hear as having a clear beginning and end. Step two: a dominant seventh chord implies a tonic, and the tonic feels like home. Once those aural concepts are established, a whole world of expectation opens up which gives composers the ability to surprise, shock, comfort, suspend, gratify and otherwise manipulate the listener with remarkably few notes, just as understanding the implications of the words “yes” and “no” begins the process of spoken communication that allows us to impart very specific meanings with only a few sounds. And the beauty of it all is that the grammar of this harmonic language is common to everyone who grew up singing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, whether they realize it or not. Dodecaphony requires people to learn a different language, one which they in all likelihood did not grow up hearing and haven’t internalized. And that language is aurally less precise. Here’s the thing: I have listened to and studied dodecaphonic music, I have perfect pitch – and I still can’t identify the bloody tone rows aurally. If I can’t hear them, what the hell hope does the general public have? Sure, there’s a system behind what notes are being written and played, but I personally don’t understand why I would want to use a system that can’t be perceived. Of course, it’s still possible to communicate gesturally using such a system, but the specificity afforded by common practice harmony is lost; there’s no closure when you hear the last note of the row, because nobody listening can hear it (or if they can, they are much smarter than I am, and should probably join some musical equivalent of the Prometheus Society). To me, dodecaphony is a bit like Esperanto. It was constructed rather non-organically as a rival system for quite noble reasons, it has some advocates and people who speak it fluently, but it hasn’t caught on with the vast majority of the population, and if I were a playwright, I wouldn’t be much interested in writing Esperanto plays, nor would I expect non-speakers to fully understand or like them very much if I did write them. I guess I’m just in love with the musical language we have, and everything it allows me to do and say, and the commonality of it. I mentioned that I love that composition sometimes feels like solving a giant “puzzle” -- but if you were to ask me what puzzles I enjoy, I would tell you that I much, much prefer cryptic crosswords to Sudoku. To tell you the truth, I can’t stand Sudoku, which have nothing to do with language (and precious little to do with math, for that matter). But give me a clever punning snarl of a cryptic crossword, and I’m in heaven. SA: You mentioned in one of our pre-interview emails that you have three loosely defined things you're trying to accomplish with your music. Could you tell us what they are and how you're trying to achieve them? MD: Sure. My first mission is essentially what we’ve been talking about – I want to write music that my audience understands. I want to communicate ideas and emotions with people. I want a wide variety of people to feel like they understand what it is I’m trying to impart to them by the time they get to the double barline. I’m tired of the culture of the obtuse in contemporary art music. Second: I want to make my music relevant. There are stylistic elements involved here, but the most overt manifestation of this pledge is that I like to write vocal music about subjects that are directly relevant to today’s world and audiences – the Gonzales Cantata is an obvious example. What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach? was about marriage equality, which I feel very strongly about. Right now I’m working on an opera about the sex life of Ayn Rand, and I’m making a comparison between her irresponsible actions and the later actions of her acolytes which contributed to the financial crisis and current economic recession. Thirdly, I am becoming increasingly committed to the idea of bringing more women to the stage, either by telling women’s stories, or having women tell stories. I think I’m being radicalized by the growing realization that as a composer, I am almost completely surrounded by mostly white men of average build with brown hair and glasses. Seriously, that physical description probably fits at least 80% of the composers I see, and I’m not even talking about older generations. It’s cross-genre too – just take a look at any list of film composers or composers of Broadway musicals. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being a white male composer of average build with brown hair and glasses, but when I go to a new music concert and ALL of the composers with works on the program look like they could be brothers or at least first cousins, I am concerned. This translates into a bias in the type of stories that those composers choose to tell, because by default, we all like to tell stories about our own experience. Factor in that almost all conductors are male, most all performing organization executives are male, and most directors are male, and I think we have the makings of a serious problem. But worst of all, in my view, is the fact that when you go to see an opera, it is still usually the case that more of the main roles are for men than women – and this absolutely ridiculous because there are far more female classical singers on the market than male. Time and again, I see productions in which the female performers are infinitely better than the male performers because their audition pool is so much more competitive. I see the most talented sopranos I know struggling to find work and make a living. The National Association of Teachers of Singing has at least four times as many female members as male. And yet, so many modern composers continue to churn out operas about Moby Dick and soldiers fighting in World War I – male characters as far as the eye can see – and nobody bats an eyelid. I find it infuriating, and I think that perpetuating the problem would be a dick move. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) SA: Finally, you've talked a little already about what it means to be a composer and musician in Philadelphia. Can you generalize what Philly is like for someone working in the creative arts right now? Do you feel like there are positives that you would only be able to get in Philadelphia? Conversely, are there things you think are lacking in Philly that may be present elsewhere for you and your career MD: Philly is the perfect-sized world for me right now. It’s small enough that it’s easy to get to know key people in the community, and I don’t feel like I have to hustle. It’s big enough that there’s always a lot going on and plenty of opportunities to be had – and it’s pretty centrally located in to the eastern seaboard megalopolis, so it’s no big deal to find more opportunities in Boston, New York, Washington DC, etc. if I so desire. At the moment, I’m knee-deep in composing, so I stay in my office most of the time. My interaction with the community only happens at occasional concerts or online, but I still feel like I’m connected to the city and I haven’t completely lost touch with the scene. I think one of the best things about being a creative artist in Philly at the moment is that you can easily have a voice in the community just by speaking out. I’m aware of so many artists in different disciplines, and I assume many of them are aware of me, even if we don’t “know” each other. I read and pass on other artists’ blogs and articles, and I try to keep abreast of general goings-on – the weekly free papers (Philadelphia Weekly and City Paper) help a lot in this regard. I feel like there’s always a conversation going on in Philly about all the challenges facing artists – financial, creative, societal – and there’s no significant barrier to joining in and being heard. I’m convinced Philly has better housing options than most other eastern seaboard cities. We have a three-bedroom 15-year-old semi-detached house (I guess it’s called a “twin” here) with a full basement a mile north of City Hall in a safe neighborhood, and our mortgage payments are less than $1000 per month. Oh, and we have a sizable backyard and driveway parking for two cars, and a subway station two blocks away. I can get to Penn in a 20-minute bike ride, and to the Art Museum (or the Franklin Institute, or the Barnes) in 10. Try finding all that in another major city. The internet has changed everything about working in the arts, and for the work I do, I think it makes physical location less important. I don’t feel like I have to live in any particular city to do what I do, particularly since I’m not looking to get an academic job any time soon. (When I’m done with the doctorate I’m going to risk freelancing for a while.) Honestly, the only things I complain about consistently in this city are the Parking Authority, which is an agent of Satan that I hate with a white-hot passion, and the weather, which is sadly nothing like the Australian climate I love, except when it’s excessively hot and humid in the summer.
No list of musical Philadelphians would be complete without Jennifer Higdon as a key component. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2010 for her Violin Concerto, premiered by violinist Hilary Hahn with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and conducted by Vasily Petrenko, and is one of the most performed living composers in the world. Higdon’s music is both emotionally powerful and technically pristine, and she imparts these qualities to her students as the chair of the composition department at Curtis Institute, one of the central hubs of composed music in the city. Between her busy schedule of teaching, composing, and other engagements, Dr. Higdon was able to answer some of my questions about her work. Not surprisingly, given the popularity of her compositions with orchestras, her responses to our questions show a genuine desire to connect with her audiences. Whether those people are infrequent concert-goers, or her musical peers, there is a sense of giving and a need to communicate. In addition to her numerous accolades and her position in the city's musical life, it's this sense of community that makes her a valuable representative of Philadelphia.

Jennifer Higdon

Sound American: To start at the beginning, you have something in common with another composer I’m profiling for this issue, Melissa Dunphy, in that you came to music through a somewhat circuitous route. What was the impetus for you to become interested in becoming a performer, and how did that interest move toward composing music? Jennifer Higdon: It started with a flute that I found in the attic. My mom had purchased it from a pawnshop and I just decided to try teaching myself to play. Now that I look back on it, it’s a bit illogical to suddenly start down this path, where I had no prior history (before the flute, I couldn’t read music). Especially considering that I now work so intensely in the field. But, I do have vague recollections of having a sense of the power of music, even from a young age. I had always had creative interests, but nothing in music (it was always either visual or the written word). Maybe my brain was trying different creative endeavors until something stuck. And boy, did it stick! I started on flute, but in the process of studying in college, I became interested in composition (my flute teacher had me write a little piece, and I just loved it), so my musical studies expanded from that point. It’s kind of an unusual start, especially considering that in classical music, most people begin at a very young age, and during my childhood, the house was focused on visual artists. SA: I’ve read that you were initially interested in more contemporary forms of orchestral composition due to the, as you said, later age at which you started becoming interested in classical music. I'm talking about mid to late twentieth century composers like George Crumb, who you ended up studying with later. Was there a specific element in the music of that era that drew you to more modern music? JH: The newer music actually spoke to me…the older music felt, well, older and just didn’t hold the same interest. But looking back, I now realize that [this attitude] is related to what I’ve discovered when talking with young audience members. For those who are coming to classical music for the first time, they tend to respond much more to the newer music. Its general pacing and musical language is much closer to what they’re used to hearing in pop music, and so it feels more familiar. Often times, they eventually work their way back to the older classics as I did, but the doorway into Classical occurs through the newer stuff. SA: Your music is very successful at incorporating certain gestures I associate with late 20th century music we were just talking about, but with melodic and harmonic content that could be identified as being, at different moment, out of the romantic era or country/bluegrass or pop music. This in itself is not so shocking in the contemporary classical world, but your work also seems to live in a balance between these influences without sacrificing anything, which is not so easy to do. Have you been conscious of these influences while working, or does your composition come more out of a refining of your musical intuition? JH: It comes out of my refining my musical intuition while acknowledging that there are a tremendous number of influences floating into my awareness from a lifetime of hearing all kinds of sounds, as well as a variety of music. I think every composer is influenced by everything they hear in a lifetime. I work hard to find a balance of spirit and emotion, while insuring that the music communicates. How that happens is much harder to explain, and I’m not sure anyone can define that in a literal sense (I sometimes feel that in all creative endeavors, there is a bit of magic). I constantly look for fresh ways to express emotions, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. But the journey and what I learn from the process is always worth the effort. I feel so lucky to even have the opportunity to give it a try. I take that privilege very seriously. SA: After looking over the breadth and volume of your compositional output over the last few years, and reading a couple of interviews where you explain your methods for composing for commissions and specific ensembles, I wonder what your relationship is to working? Not simply the process of working on a piece but the role that working on music has in your life. JH: Working on music is like breathing to me. So much so that when I go too long without composing (even a week), I start to feel moody and very affected. If I’m writing every day, which is usually the case, I feel much better about the world in general. I suppose it’s a way of organizing the whirlwind of insanity that life throws at you, and bringing chaos into a manageable, harmonious form. It’s amazing how I can spend six hours in a day composing, and come out with 15 seconds of music…which is actually the norm. But consistent work does take those 15 seconds and grows them into a full-scale piece. SA: Your work is the some of the most widely performed in the world right now. It has the ability to touch an audience that may not be drawn in by modern orchestral music, while maintaining serious contemporary music credibility. To what do you attribute this quality? Do you feel a desire or need to use your music to make these kinds of connections to bring people in or is it, as in the previous question, simply a by-product of your intuition. JH: It’s definitely a by-product of my intuition, but it also comes about through a sense of responsibility to my fellow composers and to audiences in general. It’s strange to admit it, but I have found that most people don’t particularly like classical music. I think it’s something like only 4% of the population in the U.S. listens to classical. Within the classical world, a very small percentage listens to contemporary music. I believe that classical can speak to all 100% of the population…they just have to find the type of classical that speaks to them. And the same goes for classical consumers; out there is some type of contemporary music that speaks to each and every individual. As a creator, I am aware that I have the opportunity to “speak” to both groups. Because the truth is, music is about relationships, and it’s about people, and it’s about expressing something that goes beyond words. And I know everyone responds to that, and there’s something out there for everyone. It very well might not be my music, but it could be the music of one of my colleagues. We’re living in such a rich time in terms of how many different styles of new music are out there, and I relish the opportunity to share that with as many people as I can. Any enthusiasm, found in any musician and/or audience member, helps us all. And I can think of no greater form of expression. SA: Finally, because this is a Philly-centric issue of SA and you are a long-time resident, now teaching at the Curtis Institute, is there a quality of Philadelphia, the students, the musicians, the composers, that is utterly unlike anywhere else on Earth? What do you find about the city that makes you feel musically alive, and what would you, if given the opportunity, change about it? JH: I love that people that I don't even know come up to me on the street and ask when they’re going to get to hear a new piece. I love that when I travel to other destinations, sometimes a person will come up to me and identify themselves as someone from Philly, who just happened to be in town, and decided to come by and hear the concert (it’s really surprising how much that happens). The quality I love about Philly is its resilience; the sense of “Let’s make this happen.” It’s a roll-up-your-sleeves and get-to-the-task kind of town. The pride in what’s happening here is totally inspiring. And people want quality…they don’t want just anything…they’re serious about it (and they let you know). I don’t think I’d change a thing about this town. I have been here 27 years, and I’ve loved every minute.

James Primosch

Jim Primosch deals with composition in the way that many people learn to cook. He works to understand his ingredients in a deep and meaningful way: styles, harmonic concepts, rhythmic concepts, texts, and historical musics. After developing a relationship with each component he finds new and interesting ways to blend them, to marry the sounds, to create rich layers of ideas into a whole that ends up being much greater than that which went into it. Primosch's musical mind has been molded by his studies at the University of Pennsylvania with George Crumb, Richard Wernick, and George Rochberg; all of whom were powerful educational figures in the history of Philadelphia. He absorbed their different teaching styles into his own varied musical experience as a jazz pianist and church musician to make something completely personal and new. He is now the Robert Weiss Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania where he is teaching a new generation of students to find their own new and personal voices. He took time from his busy schedule to speak to us about his work and the climate of Philadelphia for the modern composer.
Sound American: You’re known as a pianist alongside your work as a composer. What is your history with music; how did you come to the piano and how did that develop into an interest in composition? James Primosch: I came to the piano rather late, but once I became more intent about the instrument, composition and performance seemed to go hand in hand. There is no better way to get inside a piece than to play it, so my work in the practice room was also feeding my compositional imagination. I also liked using the piano to help advocate for my composer colleagues. SA: Your music combines a lot of interesting musical elements; the use of jazz and African-American spirituals come to mind, along with elements of atonality and, for lack of a better term, “historical church music”. I’m sure that on a certain level this is all about intuition and your own musical learning, but how do you reconcile all of your interests into a cogent compositional whole? JP: It’s true that my own compositions show that I am interested in many different kinds of music. This is partly a reflection of the varied nature of my compositional life, in which I have written for a wide variety of media and for groups ranging from top professional orchestras to student ensembles. As a pianist I have not only performed a wide range of classical and contemporary composers, but have worked as a church musician and have played jazz. My musical voice can vary from piece to piece, and sometimes even a single work will encompass considerable variety. I am not greatly concerned with consistency of language; Ives and Messiaen are the models for this rather than Webern or Varese (though I love the music of all four of those composers). I have written pieces that are thoroughly atonal, like my clarinet and piano duo Times Like These; there are also pieces that use a relatively diatonic vocabulary - the third of my Three Sacred Songs uses key signatures. Sometimes motivic economy - melodic cells that find themselves in varying harmonic contexts - can pull together a piece that might not otherwise cohere. My String Quartet Nr. 2 is an example of this, where the hymn tune “Picardy” appears in modal, polytonal, and atonal contexts. I think some of my best work (for example, my orchestral song cycles From a Book of Hours and Songs for Adam) finds a balance between focus and breadth, delving deeply while remaining generous in expression. SA: You have something in common with a number of the composers we’re talking to for this issue, in that you studied at University of Pennsylvania and have either returned or remained to be a mentor to future generations. I know you also have a strong tie to Richard Wernick, can you talk a little about your studies with him and what you gained as a composer from that time. How does that relate to your own teaching? JP: I would say that I gained from working not just with Dick Wernick, but with all three composers on the Penn faculty at the time, including George Crumb and George Rochberg. The short answer is that Crumb made it easier to compose and Wernick made it harder. Crumb was mostly supportive and encouraging, and helped to clarify my notation, leading me to understand my musical ideas more clearly. Wernick was challenging, asking me to seriously confront the issues entailed in creating a coherent musical language and making pitches meaningful. While I did not have lessons with Rochberg, the classes I took with him offered insights into how older musics could have something to say to today’s composer, a concern he shared with his two colleagues. I also learned a great deal from performing music by Rochberg and Crumb, having played two large works by the former and half a dozen pieces by Crumb, including quite a few performances and a recording of his Celestial Mechanics. I would say that I try to strike a balance between being challenging and supportive in working with my students, something which is not easily found. SA: You have a strong presence as an electro-acoustic composer alongside your solely acoustic work. Do you feel like there are different aesthetic considerations in working with the electronics that you don’t have to take into account in a purely acoustic piece, and vice versa? JP: I don’t think the aesthetic considerations differ - my pieces with electronics also encompass a range of musical languages and emotional expression. The challenge with any medium is to create music that is idiomatic but not clichéd; that plays to the medium’s strengths while also stretching its possibilities. In the case of electronic music, some of the unique possibilities include the ability to work with extremes of speed, duration and articulation. I like being able to compose the inner life of a sound on the micro-level. It’s especially interesting to me to bring electronic sound in contact with acoustic instruments, where the attributes of each medium can come together to create a hybrid musical space. SA: From the work that I’ve heard, there seems to be a strong tie to inspiration from outside the purely musical realm, especially text and visual art. How do you deal with these inspirations and translating them into sound, and what do you get out of, say, a specific text as a starting point for a piece? JP: My wife is a painter, and so it’s natural that I would have a certain degree of sensitivity to visual art, but apart from my String Quartet Nr. 2, which was commissioned by The Cleveland Museum of Art and meditates on a painting in that collection, visual art has not been a starting point for my compositions. As for my vocal music, a text is inspiring not only for its expressive content but for its form. I think a lot about making my setting reflect both those aspects of a text, while maintaining its own purely musical integrity. SA: Finally, what do you think you gain from Philadelphia as a city and a community that you wouldn’t get somewhere else? As an artist and a human being what do you think Philly has for you specifically and what is it missing? JP: I have certainly benefited from a variety of cultural organizations that have supported my work over the years in Philadelphia, such as the University of Pennsylvania, where I teach; performing groups like Network for New Music, and Orchestra 2001; and presenters like the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, with organizations like the Pew Foundation serving in the background as support of so many endeavors in this region. I am grateful as well for the wonderful colleagues that this city has provided. In addition to its own energy and gifts, Philadelphia’s location affords access to the rest of the East Coast, making it possible to maintain working relationships with colleagues in Washington, New York and Boston. As for what Philadelphia is missing, we remain somewhat venue poor, and I wish we had an affordable but fine hall for chamber music, something like Merkin Hall in New York. In addition, my own university lacks a professional-level dedicated space for musical performances. Finally, regarding the two most prominent musical organizations in the area: the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society has an excellent record of presenting a range of local composers, while I wish the Philadelphia Orchestra gave us a bit more attention.