23rd Annual Underwood New Music Readings: Composer Spotlight – Robert Honstein

SoundAdvice sits down with Robert Honstein, one of the composers selected to participate in ACO’s 23rd Annual Underwood New Music Readings on June 6 and 7, part of this year’s inaugural NY PHIL BIENNIAL celebration.  His piece, Rise, is intended to inspire the audience to create their own art.

American Composers Orchestra: What was the inspiration for your piece that will be read by ACO at the Underwood New Music Readings?  How has that been incorporated into the work?

Robert Honstein: I was thinking about the idea of the pastoral, particularly the symphonic tradition of representing nature. It’s a pretty old tradition that had a real flowering (pardon the pun) in the 19th century. You’ve got Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Berlioz, for example, writing orchestra music that expressed a distinctly romantic idea of nature. I love that music but feel like this way of representing nature isn’t quite suited for the 21st century. We’re still moved by the outdoors, of course, but it’s complicated these days. What does it mean to romanticize nature in the post-industrial, climate-changing 21st century? Perhaps this explains the somewhat haunting mood of my piece, Rise. There is a celebration of the natural world, but also an unsettled feeling that never resolves.

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

RH: 1) Oh $&*!, time to make some parts.
2) Yay!!! How cool that I’ll be able to hear my piece for real!
3) Time to order some nice paper. Am I out of toner?
4) What an honor to be selected. I can’t wait to hear the other pieces.
5) This Biennal thing is awesome and I’m really excited the NY Phil is putting so much energy into celebrating new music! I hope I can catch some of the other concerts while I’m in town!
6) &%#* it, have to make those parts now.

(Thoughts basically in that order)

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

RH: I’ve made very minor changes, primarily with an eye towards clarifying notation and making sure everything is playable. I use a bunch of extended techniques in the strings and I wanted to make extra sure my notation clearly explained how to execute them. I know there will be very limited time at the readings so I’d hate to spend it all discussing the finer points of bowing a tailpiece.

For myself, I’m just trying to learn my piece really well. It seems like I should know it because I wrote it, right? But actually, those two things don’t always go hand in hand. I sometimes feel like I use a totally different part of my brain writing a piece as opposed to performing a piece. I want to know my music well from a performing perspective so I can anticipate any potential hurdles and be ready to deal with rehearsal issues as quickly and effectively as possible.

I’m also trying to figure out the best way to talk about the piece. I’m sure this is different for other composers, but I find that while writing I rarely know what it is I’m actually doing. That sounds bad, but what I mean is that I’m living in a non-verbal music space where most of the work involves figuring out abstract things like sound and structure. Of course I have some idea what the piece is “doing” or what it’s “about” but I’m not really focusing on that and I’m definitely not having coherent conversations with other people about it. This means that after the works is finished it’s actually a real thing for me to figure out how to articulate what the hell is going on in my music. So yeah, I’m trying to get better at having that conversation in an articulate and engaging way.

ACO: During the Readings your work will be workshopped with George Manahan, mentor composers, and ACO musicians. What do you hope to gain from this experience?

RH: Knowledge, insight, wisdom. It’s such a great opportunity to be in a room with this incredible cast of characters. Just watching them work will be a learning experience. The fact they’ll be working on my music is an incredible bonus. I know I’ll come away with a lot of new ideas and be better prepared for my next encounter with an orchestra.

ACO: Is there anything you’d like the the audience to know about your piece in advance? Anything you hope they take away from hearing it?

RH: The audience can take away whatever they’d like! I’m happy if my music leaves an impression, good or bad.

Check out Robert Honstein’s piece, 200 OK:

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