Interview with Nate Bachhuber, November 2010.
Nate Bachhuber: Tell me about the name: It takes a long time to become a good composer.
Timothy Andres: I keep a sheet of names for pieces, actually a bunch of stickies on my computer, and sometimes they’re on there for years and years before I use them.
NB: So is this an old one.
TA: This isn’t particularly old. I thought of it in the past year or so.
NB: So these are just things that pop into your head.
TA: Often they’re things I read somewhere, or something someone said, just phrases that catch my ear. This particular title probably came from reading an interview with someone, but I didn’t think to write down who said it.
NB: Do you often assign names to pieces before they’re complete?
TA: I do. That was definitely the case with Clamber Music.
NB: Which is also going to be on the program.
TA: Right. I was like, “I think I’m ready to write Clamber Music.”
NB: The word “composer” is in the title of this piece so…
TA: Initially when Andrew Cyr and I were planning this concert he said, “I want you to do something involving your work and someone else’s work, but having something to do with your influences.” This was a hard assignment because, well, I like to think I’m still developing and being influenced. I didn’t want to present something as “this is a reductive portrait of who I am as a musician in one tidy little hour-long bunch.” I can’t even do that.
NB: There isn’t an hour of music that sums up a composer.
TA: Right, and much less in terms of music that I can play on the piano by myself.
NB: Tell me about the influence of Schumann on this piece.
TA: I’ve been working on Kreisleriana on and off over the years though I’ve never performed it. What initiated the idea was that I had so much fun playing the Brahms Piano Quartet last season, and I was thinking how much I wanted to do something like that. I don’t really play standard repertoire. That’s not my job, or at least hasn’t been since high school. So this is an exotic idea for me. It’s as exotic as playing a Mozart Concerto and re-writing the left hand. I don’t play Mozart Concertos.
NB: So did you feel that last season’s concert, Home Stretch, put some new challenges in front of you?
TA: Yeah, it was a little nerve wracking.
NB: For me, when I think about you as a musician I always think composer / pianist. How do you feel about that title?
TA: That’s good! I think of myself that way, too, it’s just that mostly the pianist side of me is playing my own music or my friends’ music, or contemporary pieces in general and not so much the classical canon— which nonetheless is the stuff I grew up on. It’s the stuff I still play for fun now. When I listen to music on iTunes, it’s not usually classical music at all. But when I’m making music for my own enjoyment, I like to play Beethoven and Schubert… what can I say? It just sounds really good on my piano.
Actually the thought never occurred to me, but this is a Schumann anniversary year. He was born in 1810 so he’s two hundred years old. But that didn’t even cross my mind. I don’t like the composer birthday calendar as a programming tool. It’s random and uninteresting, and is just used as an excuse for orchestras to play more Mozart and Brahms.
NB: You have to program what you love but it also happens to be an anniversary.
TA: Yes, and I just got back from Tennessee where I was playing another Schumann concert with my friend Mingzhe Wang, a clarinetist. He paired three Schumann pieces with pieces by living composers who are influenced by Schumann. So we played Märchenerzählungen: clarinet, viola, and piano, paired with Kurtág’s Homage à R. Sch., the Gesänge der Frühe and a portion of It takes a long time…. Another group of musicians played Schumann’s third trio and a Wolfgang Rihm trio.
NB: Did the performance influence your thinking about the piece for Metropolis, or change anything you ended up writing?
TA: No, it more confirmed things. I thought both the Kurtág and the Rihm were extremely cool, and very different from each other in the way they incorporated Schumann’s influence. Kurtág takes Schumann miniatures and miniaturized them, so the piece is super, super concentrated, and you get these movements that are four bars long and last 16 seconds. The Rihm takes the sturm und drang Schumann (what I think of as the “Brahmsian” Schumann) and distorts it, making it more extreme.
NB: And how do you think your piece would look if you analyzed it that way?
TA: I think I’m taking more of a Kurtágian angle, in that I’m working with form more than actual quotation.
People who think they know something about music like to say that Schumann was a great miniaturist. There’s this popular idea that when it came to larger classical forms, like string quartets, sonatas, and symphonies, Schumann was Brahms’s inferior. This is a surprisingly espoused notion— “Schumann is a miniaturist”— done and done. So I was analyzing Kreisleriana. And it is, at face value, structured as a series of miniatures. But actually it’s a fractal form where you zoom out and you get larger units; and you zoom out again and they’re halves; and then you zoom out again and see that it’s an entire thing— that half an hour of music is one unit. It succeeds as brilliantly as any Beethoven sonata. but it is interesting to me how he accomplished this using recurring material and alternation of musical moods— the piece is ostensibly inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman’s character Johannes Kreisler, the manic-depressive musical genius with whom Schumann identified quite deeply. In Kreisleriana, you get very intellectual, rational music juxtaposed with the Sturm und Drang— they alternate. This is the very basic structure of the piece. But then you talk a step back, and these pairings become quadruplings. I’ve been trying to dissect how he did this and structure my piece in a similar way, and it’s really difficult.
NB: Let’s talk about Metropolis in general. This is your third performance.
TA: I don’t think I actually understood the extent to which Andrew liked my music. I thought he’d do one concert and get tired of it. In the past year since I moved to New York, it’s really become a composer-in-residence kind of job, or artist-in-residence, as Andrew terms it. Not only are there concerts, but sometimes he’s asked me to write for the website, or even involved with the design of concerts and media, building the organization, doing outreach.
NB: That’s something different.
TA: I’ve really become invested in Metropolis— I feel I’m involved in a way that I’m not in other organizations. I don’t know if this is something I set out to do— it just sort of happened. I’m happy to be Andrew’s sounding board when he need someone to talk to and run ideas by. I think we have reached a point where we are willing to say to each other, “I don’t think that’s going to work” or “how about this random idea?”
NB: So Andrew’s not just saying “can you do all this other stuff for us.” He’s listening to your input and giving you the space to form the program, and use the ensemble in the way you need or want.
TA: Yeah, it’s quite flattering to be asked about these things that I don’t really have experience in.
NB: But it seems like many musicians, especially contemporary music players and composers, go to a lot of concerts and have ideas about what works or doesn’t.
TA: Living in the world of contemporary music and performances, there are certain things that you become sort of inured to almost. Through repetition they become tiresome or you don’t even notice them.
NB: So this concert is going to be in a private home, but it’s a public concert. How does that situation affect you? Do you think about it when you are composing at all?
TA: I feel as though the genre of the Piano Recital is really something that came out of the salon tradition. When you see Alfred Brendel performing a solo recital at Carnegie Hall it might be great, but can you actually have a fulfilling musical experience sitting in a huge hall, listening to one guy play this relatively tiny instrument? I find that more and more, I can’t. I never go to piano recitals anymore, and it wasn’t a conscious decision, I think I’m just not in the right world. I’m not a conservatory pianist and piano recitals don’t happen much these days outside the academy. Having said all that, I really like the core idea.
NB: It’s a really simple thing that doesn’t seem like it’s enough.
TA: Yeah, everybody thinks you need to add a video installation or something. But I really like the format of a piano recital. It’s something I am interested in doing something fresh with. And of course, Andrew suggested we add Clamber Music, which is a chamber piece with two violins and piano. So it’s not truly a piano recital anymore, it’s got a bonus appetizer, but I think the piece fits in with the overall scheme of the backward-looking music I’m writing.
NB: This concert doesn’t have a video installation, but we have Central Park in the background.
TA: It’s true! The entire Manhattan landscape— it’s a pretty amazing situation. I like the idea of playing in someone’s living room. I would rather do that and have people sitting in my lap than feel so removed playing in a huge hall. When you’re thinking musically about that setting, you write differently. I’m going to write more subtle, detail-oriented things in this piece than I would if I were going to première it in Disney Hall (which I think is the largest venue I’ve played solo in, and was really scary).
NB: Was that the Green Umbrella series?
TA: Yes, I played a solo piano piece of mine on the Green Umbrella series and I felt like I was floating in the ocean.
NB: What else is coming up?
TA: I’m working on a number of projects for the spring. Doing this show at Zankel Hall with Brad Mehldau, where we are playing two piano stuff: some of mine and a new piece that he is writing.
NB: A stretch?
TA: We’re coming at things from our different worlds, but not really. We get together and talk about the music that we both love, and it’s Brahms. And I’ve been a Brad Mehldau fan for many years, so it’s something I had in my ear before I knew him. So I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch. I think if you listen to some of the pieces on Shy and Mighty back-to-back with some Mehldau tracks you can hear some similarities.
Speaking of piano recitals, I think one of the best piano recitals I’ve been to in the past year was going to hear Brad play at the Highline Ballroom, just a solo set. I was more riveted by that than I can remember being by anything in a while.
I’m planning a concert with singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane who I’ve gotten to know recently. Here’s another person where perhaps at face value, we come from different worlds, but we get together and sight-read Schumann. Gabe is a person who grew up on classical music— his dad is a concert pianist, and he’s a very accomplished pianist himself. So we are mixing up our various influences and focusing on Ives and the Americana tradition. We’ll both be writing new things for that show as well.
NB: I know Gabe is a great singer as well as pianist. Have you written a lot for voice?
TA No, though that’s something I’ll be doing a little more coming up. I wrote a tiny set of pieces for Gabe to sing and play. I’m also working on a piece for my friend Maggie Hasspacher, who’s a bass player and jazz singer. She’s also going to sing and play at the same time. Gives them something to do with their hands when they’re singing.
NB: I’ve never seen anything like that. Is there a tradition of [music for bass and voice]?
TA: There is in the jazz world. I was kind of at a loss and then my friend Ted Hearne took me to hear the incredible singer René Marie, and she opened her set with a bass-and-voice cover of House of the Rising Sun. It was the most awesome thing I’ve seen in a while. It turns out, there is this mini-tradition in the jazz world of singing with just bass. Obviously there’s that huge registral difference— I like the sense of physical space that it creates.
In general, though, writing vocal music is something I haven’t really come to terms with. I’m almost a little scared of it, to tell you the truth. Most of the vocal music that I listen to doesn’t come out of the classical tradition at all. And the idea of an art song recital is very problematic. I’m still working on finding something that works for me. As for Maggie— she sings standards. This isn’t my home turf either, so I think what I come up with could be either really interesting and a huge step forward, or just a complete and total failure.
NB: That’s fun.
TA: You’ve got to try these things.