Q&A with Composer Keane Southard

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Photo Credit: Glenn Asakawa

Composer Keane Southard’s Symphony 2: Movement 1was selected for the 2020 Underwood New Music Readings, where it will be rehearsed and performed by American Composers Orchestra under the direction of conductor George Manahan, with mentorship from composers Derek Bermel, Jonathan Bailey Holland, and Melinda Wagner. Reading sessions are free and open to the public at City College on March 12, 2020 at 9:30am and March 13, 2020 at 7:30pm. Click here for more information.

Described as “a hugely prolific musician with a wide variety of skill sets” (newmusicbuff.com), Keane Southard is a composer and pianist who believes deeply in the power of music to change how people think, feel, and act, and that it can be a catalyst for positive change in the world. His music has been described as “a terrific discovery” (Bandworld Magazine) and “highly-professional and well-orchestrated” (Portland Press Herald) and his works reflect his many diverse musical tastes, from medieval chant to 70’s rock, Bach to the Blues, and 19th century romanticism to Latin dance forms. He has been a recipient of many awards, most recently winning the Yale Glee Club’s Emerging Composers Competition and Capital Hearings Young Composers Competition, and has been a fellow at the Intimacy of Creativity (Hong Kong) and the Bennington Chamber Music Conference. Keane earned his M.M. at the University of Colorado-Boulder in composition and is currently a Ph.D. student in composition at the Eastman School of Music. His composition teachers include Kenneth Girard, Loris Chobanian, Daniel Kellogg, Jeffrey Nytch, Carter Pann, Richard Toensing, Allen Shawn, Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, and David Liptak. Keane spent 2013 in Brazil as a Fulbright scholar studying music education.

We spoke with Keane about his piece and the upcoming readings.

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the 2020 Underwood New Music Readings?

Keane Southard: I was really happy! I’ve applied for so many of these orchestra reading programs, including Underwood and Earshot readings, over the past decade or so and have never been accepted to one before now (although I’ve come close a few times). I’m so excited to finally be a part of this and, of course, to hear my orchestral music realized by this fabulous orchestra in New York City!

ACO: Can you talk about your compositional process for your selected work, Symphony 2, Movement 1? Does anything stand out, like mentorship from another composer or inspiration from music you were listening to at the time, as a strong influence on the piece?

KS: The original piano piece was written when I was an undergrad and I was listening to and exploring a lot of different music at the time, especially 20th century classical works. I was also going through a rough time personally when I first started composing the work, and this piece was a way of getting some of my frustration and anger out of me, which I think is certainly audible! Composing it was a slow process because I had never written a piece that was this divorced from tonality so it took a lot of time to learn about how to write something convincing and powerful in this very dissonant musical language when I wasn’t as familiar with it. I do remember taking inspiration from Mahler’s Adagio from the 10th Symphony for this movement, which may sound a bit strange as in a lot of ways these are very, very different pieces. But Mahler’s form of that Adagio, or at least what I perceived it of at the time, is what I based the form of this movement on, which was having two contrasting musical ideas that continually alternate but grow in length each time they return until a point where the beginning of the first idea returns but then is suddenly interrupted by the second idea, setting off a kind of battle where they keep interrupting each other. This probably isn’t exactly the form of Mahler’s piece, but that idea of two contrasting ideas that alternate, grow, and then interrupt each other came from my listening to that piece. I also was inspired a bit by Charles Ives’ “Concord Sonata” especially the first movement “Emerson,” which has now become one of my favorite pieces by maybe my favorite composer. (It’s also another piano sonata that has been orchestrated into a symphony, but by Henry Brant rather than Ives himself). Another composer that definitely had an influence on the orchestration of the piece (although not on the original piano sonata, as I don’t think I was aware of his music at that point) is Christopher Rouse, especially his “loud” works for orchestra, like Phantasmata and Gorgon.

ACO: There are a handful of aleatoric elements in your Piano Sonata 2, which is what you orchestrated to create your Symphony 2. Did you keep those aleatoric elements in the symphony version? Why or why not? Can you talk about any similar decisions you had to make, where a musical idea might work differently on piano than for a full-scale orchestra?

KS: Using aleatoric elements in orchestral works is something I’m beginning to explore more, as I love how a composer like Leonardo Balada uses them in his orchestral works. In this piece, the only aleatoric elements from the piano sonata movement are a few spots where I ask the player to play a series of random pitches or chords but either in an ascending or descending motion — basically to just plop their hands and fingers down on the piano while only thinking about the general direction. This is always done with the sustain pedal down, so it just creates a generally dissonant cloud of pitches. These are always used at the end of a section to help drive the music to a climactic point. In orchestrating the piece, I kept these elements in the orchestral piano part, although I expanded these gestures into the rest of the orchestra by using specific pitches but making the harmonies very dissonant. I chose to make everyone but the piano non-aleatoric so that I could ensure very dissonant harmonies. With plopping your hands randomly several times on the piano, there is almost no chance the texture will end up consonant, but with the orchestra there are many more variables to consider meaning more a risk that it might not quite achieve the texture and effect that I want. I certainly had to think about how to create the effect of the piano’s sustain pedal in the orchestra as well, as the blurring of phrases in the softer and more lyrical sections is an important element of the piece, and I’ve done this by having multiple instruments play a melodic line yet each stop on a different note of the melody. For example, the 3 flutes play the same melody and one stops on the last note, one on the penultimate note, and the other on the antepenultimate note, before having them all cut off sharply, like when the sustain pedal is finally cleared.

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Photo Credit: Glenn Asakawa

ACO: What are you doing to prepare for the readings? Are there any changes you have made to your piece since its last performance?

KS: The piece has only ever been performed in the original Piano Sonata version, and in fact I’m still working on the orchestration of the other movements, currently working on the 3rd movement (although I’m thinking about cutting the 2nd movement of the sonata, so this 3rd movement may end up as the 2nd of the symphony). The only changes I have made have come in the process of orchestrating, where I have been able to add counterpoint in places, add unpitched percussion, have continuous glissandi via the strings, and other things that I can do because I’m no longer limited to what two hands can do with 88 keys. To prepare for the readings, I’m really just trying to get back into the original piano piece again and remember why I did what I did because I composed it more than a decade ago! I once was analyzing a piece by the fantastic British composer Robin Holloway, his Second Concerto for Orchestra, and emailed him to ask him so questions about it, and I remember he said he’d try his best but he wrote the piece more than 30 years ago, so even composers forget why they wrote something the way they did!

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the workshops and readings? What do you hope to learn from the experience?

KS: Of course I’m most looking forward to hearing this work finally realized by a professional orchestra! It always takes so much time and energy to create a large ensemble work, and opportunities to hear them realized, especially for orchestra, are so few and far between, so it will be really satisfying to hear it. I’m also looking forward to catching up with a few composer friends: Derek Bermel, who I studied with for a few weeks at the Bowdoin festival back in 2012, Anthony Green, who was a classmate of mine a decade ago at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and Dai Wei, who was a fellow Composer Fellow at the Intimacy of Creativity program in Hong Kong last year. I hope I’ll learn some lessons to improve my writing for orchestra and that this might lead to more opportunities to do write for orchestra.

ACO: In addition to Underwood, who are some of your collaborators that you’re especially excited to be working with this coming year?

KS: Other than this and collaborating with other students here at Eastman, at the moment I don’t have any other confirmed projects with collaborators that I can share. But I’m always looking for performers and ensembles to compose for and collaborate with and would love to discuss ideas with anyone who might be interested in having a new piece.

Hear Keane Southard’s Symphony 2: Movement 1 at the Underwood New Music Readings. Reading sessions are free and open to the public on March 12 and 13, 2020 at City College. Click here for more information.

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