3 years ago

Volume 9 Issue 5 - February 2004

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COMPOSER TO COMPOSER Interview with John Rea profession, a way of being, un metier, literally a capacity to do a certain thing, in this case in the world of sound. Sometimes in our country, you tend to act like a composer, to work like a composer, even to be perceived like one, but you don't necessarily feel you are one. Certainly I don't, sometimes, because these things in our country are missing followup and continuity. You're often starting from zero all the time, in many endeavours. That's not only the case for peop_Ie my age, but even for young people. So, unlike the ·practice of art in other cultures, ours is a perpetually fragile one. That's Jiow I answer the question - some days I am a composer, some days I'm not. STEENifUISEN: But doesn't it also have to do with how you approach the act of composing? REA:. every' artist, every composer comes to some kind of understanding "".ith what it is that they do. Some types of artists learn very quickly that they can make a "product". Some do it very very well, some polish the products, and continue to have a significant output. Sometimes painters work this way, whenever they find a kind of groove, or a brushstroke that really works. In composition, in the concert 'music field, although there is something similar, I have always pulled away, from that, and' made each successive piece challenging to me in a different way. I've always liked to change a little bit each time. These are modest things - I mean, I still use pencil and paper, but I try to keep the projects variable, and to not have too many of them, in a way to avoid the problem of getting in a rut with brushstrokes. STEENIRJISEN: The difficulty in using the term composer is also somehow about the identity within the pieces, in the sense that the pieces are very layered, internally .and externally. There is often a significant cast of others whose identities are present in your work. So the role of you as composer has changed - you 're like a conduit, a conciliator. REA: This is a good intuition. It means one is channeled to listen in f. particular way. Sometimes, what one describes is put into the piece to be more perceivable than other · elements. I like to take in multi- 20 layered literary, cinematic and visual works, and I also try to respond to them in my way. Maybe it's communication - one sends the messages. Artworks are messages in some ways. It's not ambivalence, or ambiguity, but polyvalence. Not everything is at the same meaningful level, but I like these multi-channeled messages. STEENIRJISEN: Does hybridization apply to your work? REA: Yes, I do that. I'm conscious of it, and the approach, and movements in the arts that involve that, but there are other words that can be used too, some technical, some poetic. For a while we were using the worc;I "impurity", like there was something (chuckling) contaminating the entity. If there were impurities in the work, there must have been a time when the work was "pure" .. There were even books written on the topic, in the eighties. With hybridizagon, that's certainly a fair rendering of the approach. STEENIRJISEN: You've also used the word transcultural. l,{EA: Some of my colleagues have taken this very very serious! y. If the word has any meaning, it means that within the artwork, at least two things have come together. In popular culture, there's world music, where we can sometimes recognize a number of streaming elements that bring together various cultures, but in concert music, the transcultural ele- · ments are sometimes very subtle, and produce a different kind of alloy. I think of my colleague Jose Evangelista, who, for more than 25 years, has mixed Indonesian music, particularly traditional musics from Bali, Burma (Myanmar), and his native Spain. So you can really have a transcultural co-mingling of the streams. · In my case, it's a bit different, because I've tried not to go overtly towards borrowing from orie culture or another, or searching for isomorphisms that could be placed within the context of our Western culture, but it's true that it interests me as well. STEENIRJISEN: Given the many different sources that inform your pieces, I sometimes think they can be musicologically read as much as heard. REA: On a good day, some people say I'm a didactic composer. On a bad day, they .say I'm just lecturing to them. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that I've spent so much of my life in the classroom, and part of the professional residue bleeds over into the composition. I'd hate to think that ·such an approach was "acadernic'i in my·music, but it's true that I'm instructing sometimes ... showing something,. and therefore, the reading might be musicological. STEENIRJISEN: As much as they may be "academic" or didactic in some way, they 're rarely conclusive. You present possibilities more than you resolve problems. Would you agree? REA: Yes, I would, and ifl were concluding, then it would really be terribly academic. I think I do it playfully. It's a playful inquiry and positing of possible answers: What come to mind are ' some lieder I've done, or melodramas. Once you accept that they're melodramas, then you have to accept that there is some kind of nar• rative, and accounting of a story or historical fact, or even a fiction. But to be conclusive or to apply formal answers, I would usually recoil from that, and let the artwork ask all the questions, and let the audience make conclusions on its own. STEENIRJISEN: Your pieces must then require you doing significant preparatory compositional detective work. Is that the beginning of the compositional process, or is it when pencil meets paper? REA: It starts earlier. It's conceptual, after all. Once the ideas start circulating (I've heard it said before, and it certainly applies to me) - I'm already composing. There are ideas that come to mind involuntarily - they could be concepts, notions, let's call them intuitions, little things that you put together, atoms of thoughts that produce a nexus of some kind. Sometimes you take notes on the ideas, and later go back to see if there was resilient genetic material in those thoughts. That can happen sonically, and the composition is well underway before the commission comes, or before you put the pencil to the page, or, shall we say, the mouse to the screen. STEENIRJISEN: It seems that you involve this early conceptual element a great deal. What is it that attracts you to it? REA: I don't know what attracts me, but I know that I do it. The energy is channeled into at least two manners, or two personalities. I'm attracted to one type of music that could be called narrat0logical, that has some type of intrigue, or human element, t1iat involves hu- . man destinies. They're upfront, WWW. THEWHOLENOTE.COM and they may be programmatic, or overtly theatrical, but human. · There's a whole other part of my work that I would say, for lack of a better word, might be called geometrical, or structural, figurative. Not that it's inhuman, but it involves musical elements for their own sake, and for their own relationships, probable or improbable among themselves. The parameters of music become the subjects themselves - harmony, etc., processing, in some sense - numbers, chains of numbers, entities, all sorts of things that translate eventually to sound. So I have these two manners, and each is always circulating in my head. Some days I'm more attracted to the human one, other days Tm attracted to the more abstract one. STEENIRJISEN: Where does a work like Treppenmusikfit in this? REA: That is an abstract geometry piece, with a few winks, whimsical things that happen in it. Essentially, it's about sonic metaphors linked to visual .images and their underlying teehniques. In this case, the inspiration is the visual illusions at the hands of the Dutch graphic artist Maurits Comelis Escher, and finding parallels to such things in the world of sound. STEENIRJISEN: Is this type of thinking what you mean when you describe something as a project? , REA: A project to me, is really a projection, and here I'm being a mu~ical psychologist. I would say that whether artists know it or not, they're always projecting something. I'm very conscious of the fact that I throw against the screen, shall we say. I'm a projector and I throw against the screen, your .ears, sound images. A project might be an hypothetical result, but I like to think of a project as the result, the concrete evidence you have of the projection. STEENIRJISEN: How does this apply to your set of piario pieces, Las Meninas? REA: There's no question that there is a project involved in that work, and I would say that I worked like a painter on it. That was the principle artistic approach to the task. I made a series of tab- · Ieaux, in this case twenty-one. I worked like painters do who sit inside museums in front of paintings, trying to copy them and be inspired by them. They treat the paintings as if they were still lifes, and they're rendering them in their own hands. This is somewhat the FEBRUARY 1 - MARCH 7 2004

method I play with in the project of Las Meninas. My title, in some sense, is a carrier of the project, in that I was making a double reference to not only a painting of the same name by Velazquez, but also using it to serve a musical composition. I'm asking the listener to imagine that the composition Scenes from · Childhood, by-Robert Schumann, coulq be the equivalent of a tableaux by Velazquez called Las Meninas (!he Lesser Royals). Like a painter 1 I made variations on the musical tableaux, on various sections of the tableaux of Schumann, and I call up this image directly by asking the listener to know that painters have worked like this in the past. In the particular case of the painting Las Meninas, a number of painters, including two great ones, Dali and Picasso, were obsessed for all their working lives with this Spanish master. Dali, in particular, continued to make reference to the achievements in that painting for most of his life. STEENHUISEN: So you made the variations almost through the voice of Velazquez? REA: It's a "double thing" again, because there were two approaches. One is the approach that Picasso takes. As an artist commenting on the work of another, Picasso cannibalized the Velazquez. It looks violent, destructive, and recompositional. He dismantles Velazquez in his images, and' does almost fifty variations on this one single painting. But those images are rough. They sometimes look like body parts on the canvas, whereas Dali's work is respectful in a surprising way. He goes after various structures and images in this painting, and translates them in a wide variety of new settings, often whimsical, but often surprisingly new settings in the typical Dali style. He doesn't let you know me tricks. He doesn't let you know that he's making a reference to the Velazquez. I find myself working a little bit more like Dali in this piece, in that of the twenty-one little compositions, I adjusted, arranged, composed, transformed, and made it appear that i( wasn't in fact me who was composing them, but somebody else. STEENHUISEN: So where are you in this work? REA: I'm the puppeteer, you know? You could ask the question of Dali as well. Where is Dali in the things he's doing? FEBRUARY 1 - MARCH 7 2004 r When he does this transformation of the Velazquez, you're sometimes unaware. We know now, ' because we know the style and playfulness that everyone recognizes; he puts on the mask of another painter. He's so inventive that sometimes it. seems as if his work was done by someone else. This is what interested me too. Of course, everyone knows that I'm the author of-this piano cycle, but it's also clear that I'm pretending to be other people. For the listener, it's like hearing two things, or even three things simultaneously. One can hear the original "painting" by Schumann, and one should be able to hear the approach that I claim someone is taking by listening to the original ~'painting", and then one hears my "take" on that approach. So one is hearing three musics, or points of view. The first piece is dedicated to · Jose Evangelista, and composed from his point of, view, his "analysis" of the Schumann - I mean, where am I? I'm another party in this entire circle. It's a fourth level to it. And Evangelista's music is itself commenting on Spanish folk music by way of Burmese and Balinese music. So it gets a little twisted. I find this really fun. When the idea for the project came to me, it really charmed me. I had a lot of fun writing the pieces, and with the debate around them that certainly ensued right from the very beginning. Some people thought that I had done a great disservice to music and to Schumann, and it was appalling, while other people thought it was the greatest thing. It was a wild and kind of strange debate here in Montreal when that piece was performed. STEENHUISEN: This is what I was getting at earlier, where you pose as different characters, with many other figures behind you. REA: Right. STEENHUISEN:. You've described postmodemism in concert music as "the progressive dismantling of the precepts of European modernism since 1945, and to signify their progressive replacement with other precepts, however loose or Wuidy they may be''. . Do you agree with yourself? REA: (Laughs) Well, it's a big word, a catch-all term. It had, and still has, a certain kind of currency. It's a bit different now, but what you've just read, I could still agree with that. One thing is sure: If you accept that the so-called grand narratives in Western European civilization have come 'to an end .. . (I suppose Liberty is one, liberty at all cost. Marxism, Freudianism .. . no one has said Capitalism has come to an end), if you argue that the grand narratives have come to an end, even though everything has transformed itself, somehow the 'narrative, the historical projection remains an obligatory destiny. If you transfer this notion to music, one recognizes yery quickly that in the twentieth century there was some type of obligatory destiny which music would have to evolve toward. It comes a little bit from Schoenberg, and by way of the post Second War composers like Boulez, Stockhausen. etc. If one accepts that the narrative underlying this obligatory destiny has come to an end, then that which comes after it is post. We usually associate these narratives with the modernist project. There's still a debate about this, whether it has finished, or is still at work. I would say it's still at work, actually, because Capitalism is like.a medium tliat keeps on transforming itself and transforming ideas. But many things have changed, so I'm prepared to say we live in postmodern artistic times. But these words are illusory, and slippery, or journalistic sometimes .. They can get you to think a little bit, and then they fog you over. STEENHUISEN: Interestingly, many of the reference points in your works remain the historical European ones, whaJ I'll call the "distant beloved''. REA: That's wonderful... beautiful. Yes, there's a type of nostalgia, a longing, a looking back. I must say, as I think about it, this makes my skin creep a little bit. STEENHUISEN: Why? REA: As they say, people who are condemned to look backwards are death-obsessed, and it's only people who look forward who are looking to tomorrow, who hav\! greater success in survival. Why look backwards? Why look at the doors that have just been closed? But it's true that many of my projects are of that nature. On the other hand, one could look at these pieces by saying maybe we're looking at places that have never been looked at before, looking at things differently, that we missed things, so we need to look at them again. We see things with a fresh light, and illuminate them differen\­ ly. We tum them around and see the back side. That is a much more positive and' optimistic than the nostalgia-laden one. • Violins, violas, cellos, and bows Complete line of strings and accessories Expert repairs and rehairs Canada's largest stock of string music Fast mail order service ~ ~- , i

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