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An Interview with Gordon Beeferman

Interview by Stephanie Griffin.

The music of Gordon Beeferman occupies a special place in the Momenta Quartet’s unique personal repertoire. Since meeting Gordon, there has probably not been a single Momenta rehearsal at which at least one of us has not spontaneously erupted into the striking opening motive of his first string quartet. This Saturday, March 30th at 6pm we are pleased to offer the New York premiere of Quadrille, which he wrote for Momenta in a collaboration with choreographer Stephanie Sleeper last August.

As we embark on the journey towards non-profit status, we are thrilled that Gordon will serve on our new Board of Directors.  With that in mind, I would love for all of you to “meet” Gordon, and hope that this recent interview will shed some light on the inner workings of his mind and music.

(SG = Stephanie Griffin, GB = Gordon Beeferman)

SG: So, Gordon, when I had the privilege of staying at your parents’ house overnight while I was in Boston to hear the concert I wrote about in my last blog post, I had the opportunity to talk to your father about your genesis as a composer. Among the many other interesting anecdotes he told me about your childhood, he told me something rather intriguing about your musical background. He told me that when you were young, one of your first passions was musical theater. Would you care to elaborate a little on that?

GB: Sure. I think even before I was interested in musical theater, I was interested in Vivaldi.

SG: Oh, wow….

GB: Going back even further, he could have listed any number of my musical obsessions including the George McGovern campaign song, which, according to him, I listened to ad nauseam, literally making my parents crazy, and I listened to the Four Seasons a lot….but yes, musical theater was one of the things I was really into as a young person. That came from my parents and my grandparents, because my grandparents were really big fans of the classic Broadway musicals– Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Lerner and Loewe, and so on. So I grew up watching all those musicals on video with my grandparents, and I was really into Chorus Line and all that stuff. So, how is that relevant to me now …… ?

SG: Well, I’ve noticed that a lot of your work is theatrical, and you tend to choose projects such as operas and dance collaborations that involve a theatrical element. I was wondering if your early obsession with musical theater informed that.

GB: Yes. Absolutely it did. From a young age, I was writing songs and learning all these classic musicals and was always interested in music as part of a theatrical experience. I performed in musicals as a kid, in day camp and in high school, and so even before I became interested in instrumental composed music, which I started writing later, the theatrical aspect of music was really essential to how I thought.

SG: What are some of the major theatrical works that you have recently completed or are currently working on?

GB: My current big project is The Enchanted Organ: A Porn Opera, which I’m writing with Charlotte Jackson, who is a brilliant librettist. We just premiered the first act last year at Dixon Place in New York, and we are currently writing Act Two. The Enchanted Organ is a burlesque opera – that’s what we are calling it. It’s a send-up of opera, in general and in very specific ways, and of porn as well, in general and specific ways. We like the ridiculousness involved in those two forms of…cultural production – I’m laughing as I say this. They are both ripe for satire. So, anyway, that’s a huge project. Prior to the Porn Opera, Charlotte and I wrote a chamber opera called The Rat Land, which is slated to be premiered in 2014 by a new company in Los Angeles called The Industry (www.theindustryla.org). Then there are smaller projects that I am working on with dance. I’m working with Stephanie Sleeper. We are doing this piece, obviously, with Momenta called Quadrille, which is very short but very theatrical. Stephanie and I also did a short piece called Pulley, which is just performed by the two of us. It was made into a film, by Minos Papas, which was recently shown in Brazil…

SG: So, one of the interesting features of Quadrille and of PulleyQuadrille of course being the piece we’re going to perform this Saturday – is the way in which both you and Stephanie have created space for the musicians to actually participate as dancers. Was this your idea, or Stephanie’s idea – or was it something you came up with together?

GB: Stephanie’s idea, which I enthusiastically went along with! Well, this piece was written for a particular occasion, where the Momenta Quartet was performing at Gretna Music in Mt. Gretna, Pennsylvania. The festival asked for a program of Beethoven and Schubert dances with actual dance. The dancers were Stephanie Sleeper and the wonderful Thomas Baird, who is a specialist in period dance. But the Momenta Quartet, particularly Stephanie Griffin, who I’m talking to right now –

SG:  That’s me…

GB:  – you didn’t want to do a program with just Beethoven and Schubert dances without something to mix things up a little bit, so you invited me and Stephanie Sleeper to create a new piece that would have to somehow fit on this program of mostly obscure German dance pieces. So, we decided – what kinds of dances did we have on the program? We had minuets, and waltzes, and – what other kinds of dances? Probably sarabandes….

SG: There were no sarabandes – those were outlawed…

GB: Ha! So we decided to create a quadrille because there were no quadrilles on the program. It was sort of an arbitrary choice to choose the quadrille, but as we researched it, we realized that is was a great choice because the quadrille literally is a “square” dance – “quad” –  you know, four couples standing in a square. And it’s a very stiff, very boring, extremely formal dance, so we said, “Oh, we can really do something crazy with this!” So, instead of having couples dancing in pairs, because we didn’t have eight people – we had four string players, Stephanie Sleeper, and me playing the piano – we had six – we decided to explore every pair combination of that group musically and otherwise, and that was how we structured the piece. So, in some sort of vague formal way, the piece is like a quadrille, in that everyone takes turns partnering, musically and movement-wise.

SG: Excellent, thank you! I also want to ask you about the genesis of your particular musical language. One of the things I think that distinguishes you is the fact that you have one foot in the quote-unquote “classical” composed musical world and another foot in the world of avant-jazz. And being from Boston, of course, (and as I heard from your father), you had an early encounter with Third Stream.

GB: Exactly –

SG: Could you please tell our readers a little bit about what Third Stream is and how you encountered it, and how it affected you as a musician?

GB: Well, as a young kid, I did what most young kids do who take music lessons: I played piano, and I learned little Kabalevsky Sonatinas and all that kind of stuff, and I think by the age of nine or ten I was just completely bored. Basically what I really enjoyed doing was improvising and composing, and so, pretty soon people started to say, “Oh – so you play jazz,” because what I would do was I would take these classic music theater songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein books that we had around the house, and I hated to sight-read, so I taught myself how to read the chord symbols, and I would improvise on those songs, and re-harmonize them in ways I liked. And those songs of course are jazz standards. So, that’s how I got into playing jazz, because I told my parents I hated my piano lessons and I wanted to quit and I wanted to do something else. They found me a jazz teacher, and after a while, he said “OK, well, it’s time for you to get a new teacher. I’m going to send you over to Hankus Netsky,” at New England Conservatory of Music, in the jazz and Third Stream department. He was the founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, and really spearheaded the Klezmer revival. I studied with Hankus for a number of years, and then he passed me on to Ran Blake, who is in his late 70s now, still maybe the most influential jazz pianist to me. Ran was one of the founders of the Third Stream program that Gunther Schuller started at New England Conservatory in the 1970s, where all these brilliant people like Ran, and Joe Maneri taught. Third Stream is basically a term coined by Gunther Schuller in the 1950s, meaning that the stream of jazz and the stream of classical music come together into a Third Stream that combines those. So I studied jazz and I studied various kinds of classical music, and all of those streams definitely came together for me. So, in terms of a piece like this – like Quadrille – which is fully notated except for some parts that are sort of open in terms of tempo or feel – I think there is, in this piece and in most of my fully notated compositions, a certain type of improvisatory feeling that I am going for – a feeling that we don’t know what’s coming next – and I think there’s a type of gestural language that comes from performing a lot of improvised music.

SG: In your career as a jazz musician, what are some of your pet projects?

GB: Currently the projects that I am working on are a quartet called Other Life Forms, which you play in – it’s a great group, with keyboard, viola, bass and drums. The drummer is Andrew Drury, and the bassist that played with us most recently is Pascal Niggenkemper. OLF is a group for which I write the music, and it’s a combination of improvised and very intricately composed music, very complicated rhythms and detailed stuff like that. It’s anyone’s judgment what type of music it sounds closer to – what type of jazz it’s close to, or what type of contemporary classical music – but it’s my own idiosyncratic blend. My other jazz project is called Music for an Imaginary Band. It’s a septet with four horns and rhythm section. I’ve written probably about an hour and half long program of music for that group, and we put out a 7” EP on vinyl, on Generate Records. It’s very rehearsal intensive, this kind of music, and its more involved compositionally than what people typically hear, or play, in a jazz context. I’ve been lucky in New York to work with some really marvelous musicians who like reading this type of music and have the ability to improvise on it.

SG: One last thing I would like to ask you is if you have any general comments about what our audience might expect on Saturday’s concert. You initiated it, since you are now doing your doctorate at NYU – so this is a concert featuring not only Quadrille but also some works by your colleagues. Do you care to say a few words?

GB: Sure, well, we’re having a short program starting at 6 p.m. on Saturday – it will be about an hour. In terms of Quadrille – literally – I don’t want to say that you will be lifted out of your seat, but we will be lifted out of our seats. Let’s just say it’s not your typical string quartet and piano concert. There will be some leaping, so you might actually want to stay in your seat so you don’t get run over by a pianist or a cellist or whatever.  It’s really exciting – it’s going to be a thrill to present this piece to our friends and fans in New York and hopefully to some strangers too…

SG: Thank you Gordon!

GB: Thank you Stephanie….

SG: Is there anything I should have asked you?

GB: How’s the weather?

SG: OK, let’s see….

(Transcript of an interview recorded at NYU, March 27, 2013)

More information on Gordon Beeferman: www.gordonbeeferman.com

Photo credits: Rijard Bergeron, Leah Beeferman, and Sebastian Collett