Interview with composer Eric Nathan

Interview by Stephanie Griffin (SG) with composer and friend of Momenta, Eric Nathan (EN). June 9th, 2013- New York, NY

SG:  I’m here in Eric Nathan’s living room, where we just had a Momenta rehearsal on his new piece “Multitude, Solitude,” which we are going to premiere at the Chelsea Music Festival on June 16.

So, Eric, my first experience playing your music was playing the quartet, “Four to One,” that you wrote for Momenta Quartet when you were finishing up your doctorate at Cornell. That was my first time hearing your music, and this has been a really intense week learning two relatively new pieces. One of them is “Multitude, Solitude,” which you just wrote for us, and the other is your “Quartet for Oboe and Strings” which is from this fall. This has been a real chance for us to delve deeper into you language and as I have been playing these pieces, I’ve noticed that one thing they have in common is a sense of storytelling, a sense of narrative and a dramatic arc, without being programmatic. I was wondering if you could tell some of our readers how you think in your music in terms of storytelling and drama?

EN: When I’m composing I definitely do think of storytelling and creating a sense of drama. I think central to all my music is the concept of line, and also goal-orientated form, the idea of departure and arrival – a piece being a sort of musical journey. In my recent music, whether it be for a large ensemble or chamber ensemble, I try to think of the different instruments as being characters in a sort of theatrical play or drama, and so I think of the physicality of each player performing, trying to have them interact and react to each other spontaneously as if in a dialogue that is unfolding in front of our eyes. These past two years or so, in almost every piece that I have written, I’ve composed while looking at images of performers performing. I look at these images and imagine the different players interacting with each other. I am very visually inspired as a composer, I’ve written a number of pieces inspired by art and landscape, and so I think the inclusion of this visual element in my composition process is an extension of this.

SG: So when you wrote “Multitude, Solitude” for Momenta Quartet, since it’s your second piece for us, were our parts customized to a certain degree from what you perceived as being our characters?

EN: I definitely had you all specifically in mind, since I’ve heard so many of your concerts and performances, and I heard you play my first quartet, “Four to One,” a number of times now…

SG: At least six times now, if not more…

EN: Yes, I have each of your sounds and performing styles in mind, so this definitely influenced me as I was writing the piece. Just as a director may write a script with an actor in mind, this piece is crafted with Momenta in mind, but that is just a starting point. I wouldn’t say the viola’s “character” is you per se, but the music I’ve given it is inspired by your style of playing.

SG: In terms of the ingredients you used to tell these stories, I also noticed in practicing and rehearsing these past few weeks, that there are some harmonies, motives and lines that I recognized from “Four to One” that are in “Multitude, Solitude” and the oboe quartet but in completely different contexts. As I’ve been practicing, I have been thinking, “Oh that is familiar, that’s interesting,” just as if when you’re playing a piece by a classical composer when you notice things that are distinctly Haydn, distinctly Beethoven – I’m starting to notice things that I would consider “Nathan-isms.” I was wondering if when you work, if you think of your body of work as a work in and of itself, and these motives that you use – are they imbued with a certain type of meaning that is specific to your unique musical language?

EN: I do often step back and look at my music as a larger body of work. In the last year or so I’ve been exploring this new sound world that first emerged with “Four to One,” so I think some of these motives have been functioning as a kind of “idée fixe,” that keep returning in various guises – for instance, there this two-note motive that you’ll hear in “Multitude, Solitude” and the oboe quartet. I find it very malleable, since it lacks a strong individual identity being such a short musical fragment, so I can use it in many different contexts, and to create different melodic lines and textures. In these pieces I haven’t necessarily set out with the intention of using this motive, but in a sense I keep gravitating towards it, like it is something I’m not done perfecting or exploring. For instance, when composing “Multitude, Solitude,” the opening motive was inspired by the seagulls calling on Aldeburgh beach, which I transcribed and then noticed how it ended up using this motive but in a slightly different way. I was also listening to Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge” at the time, and was inspired by the rhythmic texture of the fugue, which is built off the two repeated notes in the subject, so in a sense my use of this motive in this piece is also a tip of the hat to Beethoven in a sense.

However, in feeling the need to explore and perfect a certain idea over time, I think of Rothko, who seemed to be trying to perfect a certain concept over time in his paintings. But that said, a number of the pieces I’ve written in this time period have occupied a completely different sound world and aesthetic, for instance my “Toying” for solo trumpet. But it is interesting that these recurring ideas that you mentioned are in the three main string pieces that I’ve written recently. I was thinking of “Multitude, Solitude” as being a sequel in a sense to “Four to One,” there are parallels between the two but they are seen through very different lenses.

SG: It’s interesting what you say about Rothko, because when I think about Rothko I think of the way he used similar techniques to evoke different emotional states through various color palettes. I always associate color with harmony – and I remember that you mentioned that there is a certain harmonic language that you developed in “Four to One” that you have been using since then.

EN: A few years back I came upon this irregular scale that I have liked and been using, constructing and building harmonies out of it. I also use it to join with other harmonies but it underlies a lot of what I’ve been using recently. It is creating a sort of “sound” to my music.

SG: So this is a scale that you created for yourself?

EN: Yes, it originally came out of a piece, “Rothko Musings,” for bass trombone and two percussionists, which was based on two chords that I then combined to create the scale.

SG: That’s interesting, because when I was practicing the patterns in the accompanimental figures in “Multitude, Solitude,” I was trying to figure out what the scale was, so I could more easily remember it…

EN: I’ve been trying to create a sense of consonance in my music and a sense of tonality without it actually being tonal, so I think what I’ve come up with, taking triadic-based and extended tertian harmonies combined with this scale, has created a sense of a sense of key, where the music is not really in any specific key. Then I can add dissonance to this more “consonant” world – I think some of the most striking moments of these pieces are the moments of dissonance, where the harmony shifts, or where a long-absent note is introduced.

SG: Yes, and the sound of the scale is nothing that any of us recognize. That makes me feel better, because were wondering, “Is it whole tone? No. Is it octatonic? No. What IS this?” It’s a Nathan scale.

EN: Yeah, it’s a little different. It takes off from both of those. It’s always a task to figure out how to spell it enharmonically because it keeps switching back and forth between being centered on a sort of D-flat world, versus B major type world.

SG: Do you modulate your scale too?

EN: I haven’t modulated it, though I focus on different parts and aspects of the scale in different contexts, and I of course contrast it with other harmonies. There are pieces where it’s not present at all, or an altered variation of it is.

SG: Maybe you should talk about the concept behind your new piece, “Multitude, Solitude.” You mentioned to me your experience in Aldeburgh, which is of course the home of Benjamin Britten, so it connects very well to the theme of the Chelsea Music Festival, which is Britten and Italy. What were you doing in Aldeburgh?

EN: I was there for the past two summers participating in the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme in composition. In the program we were asked to write a piece for sinfonietta in about a week and a half, and they rehearsed it over the course of the workshop. It’s a real hands-on experience with a lot of immediate feedback. You’re writing every day for a rehearsal at 4PM and hand in the score and parts at three, and then write again for the next day. So I got pretty good at making up orchestra parts in about an hour, though it was easier since it was a short piece and there weren’t any page turns.

EN: About six or seven. The second summer I was there I was thinking about writing the quartet, which I had already titled “Multitude, Solitude.”  I had just recently moved to New York and at Cornell I had taken a poetry class where I got into Baudelaire’s poetry, especially his prose poems in “Paris Spleen,” which reflected on city life in Paris. There was a line, “multitude, solitude,” in there that really resonated with me just having moved to New York. Baudelaire has a poem entitled, “1 AM,” where he describes finally getting back home after a busy day in the city and finding moment of solitude to write his poetry. So, I was initially aiming to write a piece about finding moments of solitude within the multitude of the city, whether they be in the park, such as on the High Line in Chelsea, or in my apartment. I was thinking about that when I was in Aldeburgh, but when I was taking a walk alone at dusk on the shingle beach, the feeling of the moment musically inspired the reverse – experiencing the multitude that exists within a moment of complete solitude. There was the multitude of the sea crashing on the shore, and also the seagulls calling forlornly, circling overhead, criss-crossing high in the sky. Two or three gulls flew overhead, and then hundreds more joined, creating a dense constellation of birds, reaching as far up as I could see.  I was captivated by the peacefulness and beauty of the moment, the solitude I felt, but also by this multitude around me.SG: And how many composers were in attendance?

SG: I think a lot of our readers already know that you won the Rome Prize, so you’ll be heading to Rome in September I believe?

EN: Yes, for eleven months.

SG: When we first saw the announcement we saw that your Rome Prize project was called “Multitude, Solitude,” so our original thought was, “Wow, so he’s going to Rome to do something with our quartet. Let’s get tickets, let’s go!” But then we read further and realized you’re working on another piece based on this concept.

EN: This concept interested me after I began working on the string quartet, and I thought it was fertile ground for more music, so I wanted to explore it in a different way. I’m planning to write a symphony in two movements – one movement that explores solitude within multitude, and the other that explores multitude within solitude, but here it will be inspired by my time in Rome, engaging with its long history, the multitude of living in a modern metropolis, and the solitude of the churches and living in a foreign city. I’ve been strongly inspired by place in my previous works, which have shaped the music as a result, such as in “Multitude, Solitude,” but also in “Timbered Bells,” which was inspired by the landscape around Tanglewood…

SG: Do you have any pieces inspired by the landscape around Ithaca?

EN: Why yes, my string quartet, “Four to One!”    [laughter]    As you know, that was inspired by the hills surrounding Ithaca and a fiery autumn sunset. So yes, I can’t wait to see how Rome will inspire my music.

SG: What else are you working on while in Rome?

EN: I’m working on a few pieces – one is a commission from the New York Philharmonic for a new work for solo trombone, to be premiered on the CONTACT! Series at the New York Phil’s 2014 Biennial. Another is a song cycle for Ensemble Meme, on the correspondence between Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, which lasted about twenty years. Higginson kept many of Dickinson’s letters, and was instrumental in posthumously publishing her poetry. He was a very interesting man, and although he is now largely forgotten, his efforts had a lasting impact. He helped found Radcliffe College, was an outspoken abolitionist, an early advocate for women’s rights, and a minister. He also served as the commanding officer of the first African-American regiment in the Civil War, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. I plan to contrast the timelessness of Dickinson’s poetry and private writings with Higginson’s writings and involvement with current events of the time.

SG: So, time and place.

EN: Time and place, yes.

SG: Well, speaking of time and place, the trajectory of the project you’re about to do in Rome and the piece you just wrote for us in Aldeburgh fits in perfectly with the theme with the Chelsea Music Festival, which is of course Benjamin Britten and Italy.

EN: Yeah, it’s a nice coincidence. I didn’t know about Rome until much after I knew I was doing the Chelsea festival, but it ended up working nicely.

SG: I hope that all of Momenta’s friends and fans come out to hear all of these pieces, and you also have a Gesualdo tribute on the program, right?

EN: Yeah, I wrote an homage to Gesualdo, “Omaggio a Gesualdo.” My dissertation at Cornell was on Kurtág and his use of homage, so I studied in depth how he has commented on, referenced or embodied music of other composers, so I tried to take inspiration from how Kurtág pays homage, which is not necessarily quoting other music, but incorporating that composer’s style, or characteristics of their music within his own musical language. I isolate a few main gestures and motives from a Gesualdo madrigal and refashion them into my own harmonic language. It will sound like me but if you hear the Gesualdo I hope you can hear the connection between the two.

SG: And this is a world premiere as well?

EN: Yes, it is on June 17th, alongside another Gesualdo-inspired work by fellow Composer-in-Residence Edmund Finnis with ensemble amarcord performing Gesualdo madrigals for a cappella voices between our pieces.

SG: Beautiful.

EN: Yes, I’m looking forward. Hope people can make it out for it!

For more information, visit www.ericnathanmusic.com.
Eric Nathan photo by Rebecca Fay Photography
Multitude Solitude and Aldeburgh Beach by Eric Nathan
Seagulls by W. Peter Griffin