New York Philharmonic EarShot Readings: Composer Spotlight – Andrew McManus

SoundAdvice sits down with Andrew McManus, one of the composers selected to participate in the New York Philharmonic EarShot Readings in June, part of the inaugural NY PHIL BIENNIAL. His piece, Strobe, will be read on June 3, followed by feedback from the New York Philharmonic musicians, maestro Alan Gilbert, and mentor composers.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Ross

American Composers Orchestra: What was the inspiration for your piece that will be read at the New York Philharmonic EarShot Readings?  How has that been incorporated into the work?

Andrew McManus: In the program notes for Strobe, I talk quite a bit about descriptive musical images: flashing lights, stop motion, faded photographs, electronic dance music. But the very first idea I had for the piece – which eventually became its central idea – was a lot more abstract. In the past few years I’ve gravitated towards techniques that involve a high degree of rhythmic complexity. This includes horizontal complexity, in which a single musical line sounds rhythmically erratic and uneven, and vertical complexity, in which multiple simultaneous musical lines have conflicting rhythmic structures. For Strobe I chose to work with a deceptively simple idea: a pulse that decreases in speed by regular increments (2 beats, 3 beats, 4, 5, 6 etc.) On top of these pulses I added sweeping, ascending gestures. My first sketch for this idea looked like a series of flagpoles with ascending wavy lines of increasing length – certainly a far cry from the vivid and colorful musical images I would later come up with! But bridging this kind of gap is very important to me. While much of Strobe uses detailed manipulations of this idea (superimposing different pieces of the idea in different tempos, for instance), it’s certainly not the only one at play. Some are much more freely and simply constructed: soaring melodies for horn and oboe, a rich string chorale, a thumping kick drum, a brief allusion to swing jazz. Synthesizing these ideas with more complex, abstract ones is a challenge, but it’s one that I love to undertake.

ACO: What were your first thoughts when you were chosen to participate in these Readings, which are part of the inaugural NY PHIL BIENNIAL?

AM: I remember missing the initial call because I was on the phone with a friend, but when I finally checked my messages and called back I couldn’t stop thinking about how thrilled and honored I was. I’ve been in love with orchestral music since I was 10 or 11 years old, and it’s always held a special place in my compositional heart. So to be able to work with such an esteemed orchestra is incredibly meaningful to me.

ACO: Since you were selected, have you further developed your piece? How have you been preparing yourself and your work for the Readings?

AM: I wrote Strobe for a reading session organized by the University of Chicago for graduate student composers last year. While I chose not to make any changes since then, I have been thinking quite a bit about what details to refine. For instance, I knew that the U of C reading session would have a small string section, and I balanced the dynamic markings accordingly. This becomes a perpetual challenge when you write complex textures with many moving parts! There were certain passages, however, where I missed the sound of a large string section. While I’m happy to have more strings for this reading, I know that this will affect balance in other parts of the piece. And I’m definitely looking forward to learning something from how this plays out.

ACO: During the Readings your work will be workshopped with Alan Gilbert, mentor composers, and New York Philharmonic musicians. What do you hope to gain from this experience?

AM: I’ve known and admired the work of Maestro Gilbert and all of the mentor composers for a long time, so I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to work with them in person and receive their feedback. And the opportunity to work with such incredibly accomplished musicians is incredibly rare, so I’m really looking forward to hearing their reactions to the piece.

ACO: Is there anything you’d like the musicians who will read the work, or the audience that might hear it, to know about your piece in advance?

AM: I’ve worked quite a bit with electronic music, and I’ve found that it requires paying a great deal of attention to the timbral details of every sound I make. This has heavily influenced my acoustic music, and Strobe is no exception. It’s a piece full of noises – some bizarre or unpleasant, others beautiful, and many somewhere in between.

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