Underwood New Music Readings: Composer Spotlight – Michael Small

Composer Michael Small’s works often draw on visual or literary sources. Michael studied at the Royal Northern College of Music and with David Horne, before moving the United States to study with Steven Stucky at Cornell University. He was recently named one of the six Fellows chosen to participate the Copland House’s esteemed CULTIVATE program. Eastern Point is Michael’s orchestral work selected for the 25th Annual Underwood New Music Readings, Tuesday, June 14 at 7:30pm Miller Theatre, Columbia University.

Michael answered these questions about what he looks forward to at the readings, and gave some insight into his new work.

Composer Michael Small

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?
Michael Small: I was absolutely delighted to find out – several of my friends and colleagues have done these readings before, and they all had great things to say about the experience. The ACO’s readings and Minnesota’s are regarded as the best professional ones out there for young composers!

ACO: Your piece is based on two paintings by Winslow Homer: West Point, Prout’s Neck and Eastern Point. Given the choice, would you like the audience to see the paintings before or after they hear the piece, or perhaps while they listen?
MS: I think that either before or after the performance would be preferable, but probably not during the performance. I wouldn’t want the audience to feel like they have to hunt for clues in the painting to explain what they’re hearing, and I certainly want to leave listeners to form their own impressions and images. Though this piece (for me) is “about” water and the sea, it will probably not sound at all that way to others. For this reason, I’d probably lean more towards showing the painting afterwards, perhaps during applause (if it wouldn’t be awkward) and not so much in the direction of showing it before, since I’d be uncomfortable with “priming” the audience’s listening. A fourth option might be to have it printed in a program note, so that the listener can refer to it as they want. I’m very passionate about trying to communicate and excite listeners, especially for those who are new to contemporary music, and I’ve found that some really appreciate being given an “anchor” or a little concept of some sort to guide them through the piece, something very open and poetic. For me, that is the function which the title performs – but I also believe that a composer should make themselves available to questions. Sometimes I like to briefly introduce a piece before a performance, but another part of me believes that diving straight in without any pre-amble can actually have a greater impact. A lot of my fondest memories of discovering new music in my teenage years are when I simply allowed the music to shock me, without knowing anything about it ahead of time. I’m never quite sure which is the better method, but I always assume that the audience will form their own view anyway. That brings me to my next answer:

ACO: Why did you find Winslow Homer’s paintings to be good basis for your orchestral study? Do you believe that all artwork, in one way or another, can be suited with a worthwhile musical interpretation?
MS: I’ve always tried to broaden my knowledge of other art forms – even if I had never become a composer, it would still be one of my favorite hobbies to go to museums, read books, watch films and listen to music. I always loved art in particular, and for a while, (like many composers, it seems!) I was even considering studying architecture. As such, I certainly don’t just explore the arts to look for good ideas for pieces – and I don’t believe that anything can be interpreted through music. Many ideas don’t survive translation, and moreover, not everything needs to be related to music. The abstract contemporary works that I love are appealing purely on the basis of their sound, architecture, and sense of conversation, surprise, drama and logic playing out in time, and while that may have many resonances in other art forms, sometimes music is best left standing on its own terms. There’s an enormous richness in the listening experience which is quite unique.

For my own process, I only sometimes start a piece knowing it will have a certain non-musical association or source. Most of the time, deciding to use a painting, or a book, or a poem is because of a central idea or impression for which I seek a musical analogue. As such, my use of these sources is often an aid to me in figuring out what the “world” of a piece might be; anything from it’s general mood and atmosphere, to the behavior of the tiniest ideas and fragments. I find it helpful to have a wealth of material to which I can respond, even if the way I respond is very esoteric and personal to me. It often kicks me off the blank page. That said, sometimes I will be halfway through, or nearly finished with a piece which has no pre-decided association, and I’ll suddenly find myself thinking of an artwork or book which seems close to what I’m trying to achieve. This was the way with a string quartet called Memory Palce I wrote about 18 months ago, a concept which came from my favorite Salman Rushdie novel. Eastern Point was written as the last in a series of works responding to paintings. I saw both paintings I mentioned in the Clark Museum in Massachusetts in October 2014, and though they made a great impression on me, my first thought was certainly not about using my response in my music. As the orchestral piece progressed, I thought that the sense of gravity and weight I was trying to evoke with the orchestra was akin to giant ocean waves, and the paintings came to mind. The first version of the piece was read at Aspen with the AACA Orchestra – which brings me to my revision:

ACO: What have you done with your piece, score, and parts in preparation for the Underwood New Music Readings?
MS: I actually rarely do major re-writes of pieces. After a premiere, I almost always make minor changes and tweaks in the light of conclusions gleaned from that performance. But those are rarely more than changing a measure here, or a few notes there. Most of all I focus on issues of timing and pacing which I didn’t quite get right the first time around. With this version of Eastern Point, I would say about 60% of the piece is newly written in preparation for these readings. The first version was about 4 minutes, and this one is just shy of 7. When reviewing the score, there were many problems with pacing, and too many logical non-sequiturs between sections. What I did like was that I’d written a smooth transition out of the climax, which featured a very blended textural shift. I decided that the whole piece needed to function like that, and that the climactic moment (where stacks of chords pile up and overlap with one another) should be set up right from the beginning. In one sense, this whole piece is about large textures made of overlapping parts, in a manner not unlike Ligeti’s micropolyphonic technique. It took a while to figure out that that was the real story of the piece, which was originally occluded by other aural junk, but I think it now represents a much more coherent statement.

ACO: What do you hope to gain from the workshops, and the feedback and guidance of mentor composers Derek Bermel, Sarah Kirkland Snider and Stephen Hartke?
MS: I’m very much looking forward to working with these other composers – though this is technically my eighth time writing an orchestral piece, the others were all wonderful experiences working with very good student orchestras. I’m looking forward to seeing what I will learn in a professional context, under the guidance of experienced composers and players. Thank you for the opportunity!

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