Sunday, March 24, 2013

Questions for Brendan Keenan

The following is an email interview which I conducted with Brendan Keenan, composer and co-author of this site. The format was as follows: I presented Brendan with a list of questions, and asked him to respond to several of them. I then added follow-up responses of my own, and the result was this discussion.

  • What are you currently writing? Do you feel that you are working in the context of a larger musical idea, or does each piece seek a new direction?

  • What is the future of your music: live performance, or recording? If the former, what variety of venues? What kind of ensembles? If recording, what formats will you use (single, EP, album, etc.), and how do you intend to distribute these media? Do you see a trend in either direction in “modern classical” in the US and elsewhere?

BOK: I’ll answer both of these together. Right now I’m writing a song to a poem by Thomas Moore, an Irish poet who lived from the late 1700s to the mid 1800s. I actually wrote the song about 11 years ago; it was I think the first piece I managed to complete. I threw out almost everything except the melody (and that has been substantially altered) and effectively have written a new piece. As of March 21, 2013, it is done.

The piece is part of a broader project of mine. I will be forming my own ensemble later this year, and all of my creative energy is going into writing works for this group exclusively. The instrumentation will be a high soprano, acoustic and electric guitar (primarily acoustic), electric bass, drum set and accordion. All guitar parts will be done by me. The foundation of the group is a philosophy of communication: audiences can understand and deserve to hear sophisticated music written in the right language.

The future of my music lies both in live performances and recordings of this ensemble. Performance is more important than ever, and we will primarily be playing in rock-oriented venues. While I am very fond of physical media, in our current world I’m not sure it has any place, especially given that we will likely be operating on a small budget. CD printing runs of 500 or 1000 or 10,000 are probably never going to make sense. Music for download is currently the most important way for people to get music. I expect this to change as subscription services grow in popularity.

As for a trend in modern classical towards performance or recording, performance looks to me to be more and more important. Most composers don’t have the budget for highly-produced recordings, and the audience isn’t there to purchase them. Recordings here serve different purposes than being an end product. Rather they are a source for other people to hear a composer, hopefully deciding to see their next concert, an important item on resumes, and of course a source of pride and accomplishment. In this world, however, it’s the performances that matter.

WCM: You get the impression that finding the “right language” is a priority with other composers today, too, with traditional concert audiences dwindling. In light of that, it's seems a little odd that you feel performances to be more important and financially realistic than recordings; ensemble and orchestral performances in large concert halls are notoriously expensive to produce, and it's not likely that they'll become more accessible to composers in the near future. But, in thinking in terms of a small performance group, you seem to be heading away from this world, into the direction of a “band”. It also seems as though you're talking about venues other than traditional concert halls, although I'm not sure. Do you think these choices will help to solve some of the problems of getting performances through the “classical establishment”? Do you see small ensembles and venues other than concert halls as an important route for today's composers, and, if you do, are there any difficulties in presenting “sophisticated music” through these channels?

BOK: Regarding money, we’re talking about two different things: Composers don’t generally hire orchestras themselves. They aren’t the ones bankrolling the performance, the orchestra is–but if he wanted to record his piece with a symphony, he might very well have to pay for it. At any rate, he would certainly have to pay for production expenses. From the composer’s point of view, performances are free or they even pay, so it makes more sense for him to focus his efforts there.

And yes, you’re right about me basically starting a band. My own music is rapidly fusing together my rock and classical backgrounds (I initially went to Berklee on an electric guitar scholarship), and that accounts for a large part of wanting to perform outside of the concert hall world. But beyond that, audiences seem to be very different in the two worlds. The classical world does not command the same enthusiasm from its audiences that popular music styles do from theirs.

As far as other composers go, I am seeing more and more composers having pieces performed in non-traditional venues, whether they are cafés or jazz clubs or art galleries or anything else. I am also seeing more composers start their own groups, so there’s clearly a sense that music goes beyond concert halls! And everyone can see that the money for large, concert hall ensembles is evaporating.

Some styles of music will have difficulty being successful no matter the channel. But sophistication isn’t unwelcome anywhere–everyone wants to hear music that is good. But my point earlier about the language is, I believe, very important. Art can be stated beautifully and articulately when it’s also being complex. It doesn’t have to be alienating.

How does your composing process affect your music? How do your current surroundings affect it? Do your current attitudes toward the world, the sciences, the other arts, and toward people manifest themselves in what you compose?

BOK: My composing process is very internal. I rarely discuss anything I’m writing with anyone else until it’s nearly complete. I find others’ input distracting; I’m happy to receive feedback, but in general that seems to get applied to the next piece! The result tends to be that my music is a very honest representation of who I am at that time, for better and worse.

In more mechanical terms, my process virtually always begins with a desire to write something specific. I don’t mean a piece, but I mean this piece, and I spend days or weeks or months, and at times years, considering how to write it. Better ideas usually happen faster! A lot of my time is spent planning and understanding what it is that I want. When I know my destination, I can plot a path there. I’ve never been able to aimlessly wander into a piece. Once I do know what I want, on a deep level, writing happens very quickly.

I tend to also be somewhat scattered in my approach. For whatever reason, I don’t think very linearly, and this reflects in my writing process. I don’t ever really write from beginning to end – usually I start somewhere in the middle and work on whatever part I feel like writing. Eventually a picture emerges, but for almost the entire writing process it isn’t very clear to anyone else what I am doing! While I’m writing I study the relationships that are occurring and develop them further, trimming away parts that don’t have a close relationship to other ideas in the work. I continually evaluate the work to see what’s working and what isn’t, and I try to get rid of absolutely everything that doesn’t need to be in the piece.

This relentless attempt to get rid of excess is related to the fact that I’ve never really liked the idea of writing for enormous groups like symphonies or wind ensembles. I like intimacy and focus in my music, and that necessitates tight writing and smaller groups. The more people playing a particular line, the less detail it has in its sound. A single person playing a single line usually sounds much more interesting to my ears than a section of 20 people.

The current world is frenetic, always connected and technology obsessed. While I do from time to time compose electronic music, for the most part I am much more at home writing for acoustic instruments. The connection to real, physical sources of sound played by actual people has a draw to me that outweighs the infinite possibilities of electronic music. And as much as I enjoy pop music, the insane degree of studio production is off-putting to me, for mostly the same reason, and much of my music is bluntly a reaction against it. I find this always-connected technological obsession to have largely the opposite effect of what it advertises; it seems to me that it causes more isolation, not less. I am woefully inadequate at avoiding this in my life. Writing in an acoustic style is something of a symbolic rebellion against that.

I love learning about the sciences and exploring art, but those tend not to be primary sources of inspiration. Music, and art in general, is more than anything a way of relating to people, understanding them and allowing them to understand you. A woman once said to me, “The arts access and draw attention to what makes us human, and common experience. Isn't that part of what empathy is?” The core of human experience is our relationships to others and ourselves, and that empathy is what drives my composing – I desire to write music that really, deeply connects to another person on a level that goes beyond “oh, that’s an interesting compositional process.”

What are the realities of being a composer in 2013? Is your music in any sense a response to values, ideas, and movements of today?

BOK: Perhaps the most notable trend I’ve seen in classical music is an embrace of corporation-style thinking. Brand development and image is at the front of every composer’s mind, to the exclusion of the artwork itself.

This itself is obviously not limited to classical music, and honestly it’s not as bad. But I don’t hear many composers emphasize the qualities of their writing. I hear them emphasize the number of performances, who gave the performances, and their recordings. And their long lists of pieces and awards. No one has a choice in the matter; if you want to survive as a composer, this is what you have to do.

It could be worse. I haven’t heard of any composers employing focus groups, and while I still sort of expect it to happen eventually, I’ve never heard a piece in a concert be interrupted for an advertisement!

My music has evolved into a rejection of the world of modern classical music. There is better music to be written for more relevant instruments played for more appreciative audiences.

WCM: It's a little surprising to hear it described so bluntly as corporate-style thinking, but this is probably right. I've noticed something similar in the visual art world, where there's a certain sense that an artist's image has almost as much to do with his or her success as the work itself. How do think this trend affects the way composers approach music? I'd suspect there's a sense of, to put it nicely, “democratizing” the process of composition, in which a composer responds carefully to the interests of his audience. Obviously this is nothing new; for example, Josquin and Agricola both wrote songs in the simple, homophonic Italian style, which was, in the late 15th century, something of a courtly fad. But we've probably never seen anything like the level of market-consciousness that composers are developing now, and what interests me are the concrete, musical results of this trend. Can something new, musically, come out of composers' attempts to develop a “personal brand”?

BOK: There’s a difference between trying to predict the interests of your audience and writing in a way you think they'll respond to, obviously–I’m not interested in letting someone write a piece for me. The things I write are the things I need to say, but I’m trying to write them in a way that will get the message through. I think most composers are probably writing that way, at least I like to think that! Perhaps I’m being optimistic, I’m not sure.

I don’t see why it should be different in musical terms than any other movement, except that those movements were generally about music philosophies. One that comes to mind is the appropriation of pop music and pop culture sounds into classical music. Michael Daugherty is an example. His brand is defined by Americana–in a very self-conscious way. The effect is “Oh look, the Symphony is playing rock music!”

More often I think it’s the other way around. Philip Glass’s brand happened because he kept doing the same thing after people expected it from him. He wrote his minimalist music first, then continued to allow it to define him.

What role do computers play in your music, if any, and what would your music be without them? How have computers changed the role of composers in recent times?

BOK: Computers have been extremely important. Most obvious, notation software reduces the time necessary to produce a score by months. If I’m being careful, they also allow me to explore complex contrapuntal relationships and harmonies without being burdened by the physical idiosyncrasies of something like a piano. I mention that I need to be careful because if you aren’t aware of it, a notation program can railroad your writing.

More recently, sequencing has become important in my work. With the availability of high-quality sample libraries, credible mockups can be done that allow other musicians to understand a composer’s vision like never before. No matter how good the software is, it’s never as good as real musicians, but it allows for a great, tangible way of showing musicians how the composer wants the music to sound.

Of course, entire industries regard these as good enough, which is disappointing to me.

WCM: In what ways can notation software harm your writing, and how do you counteract that threat?

BOK: I first became aware of that railroading when I was in college and I noticed that everything I was writing was at 100 beats per minute, Sibelius' default tempo at the time (it’s 60 now). I have the facility with the program now to force it to obey me, but even now I still fight the program all the time. God help anyone who tries to write unmetered music in a notation program! The main problem is that they are set up for a specific kind of writing. If you write basic music, doing so is incredibly fast. The further you get away from traditional (and I mean traditional) techniques, the more effort it takes, and the more it slows you down. It can be awful having an idea and not knowing why the program refuses to write it down. It can be very easy just to give up and put something else in!

The main way I counteract it is simply knowing when I can save time and write directly into the program, and when I have to do everything on staff paper and find a way to notate it later. That’s a matter of experience, but if I’m not completely sure I write it out by hand.

Name a few musicians for whom you have low-to-middling esteem. What do you like about their music? What do you dislike about the music of your favorite composers?

BOK: I’m not a particular fan of Arvo Pärt. But I admire his simplicity, both in sound and in concept. The tintinnabulation idea of his (that he endlessly repeats) does result in a beautiful, easily understood musical phrase. It’s easier to make music complex than it is to make it simple (and still be worth the listen!). At the same time, he avoids the mindless repetition traps that ensnare minimalist composers.

I do like György Ligeti, but it’s a strained relationship. His music gets to be outrageously complex, and can be extremely harsh. I’m a little tired of the tendency of composers from that era to punish their audiences.

For all my love of Opeth, I wish they would break out of their square 4-bar/repetition phrasing. Try 5, just once!

WCM: Both Arvo Pärt and György Ligeti seem to get a lot of attention from composers in the US and Europe these days. Are they responding to something similar in these composers' works, despite the massive differences between, say, Fratres and Ramifications? Do people have the right idea about Ligeti and Pärt, or would you say that their strengths and weaknesses are misunderstood?

BOK: Ligeti’s best trait is his incredible imagination–nothing seems totally off-limits to him, and his intellect and curiosity give his music a breadth of expression that’s really unmatched. My sense is that his popularity comes from this dazzling display of artistic inventiveness.

Arvo Pärt couldn’t be more different! Imagination never sounds like the purpose of his music. Rather, his music seems to realize in its small way the promises made by every religion: the music has a singular purpose, a clarity in its role and method that strip away all excess in contemplating its truth. Fratres is far and away his best success in this regard, and for good reason!

Both composers have achieved something extraordinary in their ability to relate their perceptions of the world to their listeners, and that really is the essence of art to me.

How important to you is the idea of originality?

BOK: I’m reminded of someone I knew who was almost violently dismissive of Shakespeare, claiming he was a plagiarist. The “what” is never what really matters, it’s the “how” and the “why.” Shakespeare’s utter mastery of these is what makes his work so important.

Music is the same way. How much invention have musicians wrung from 12-bar blues songs? The originality is in the details. It is very important to me – I could never simply recycle ideas I’ve already used (Arvo Pärt, I’m looking at you) or take them whole from another composer (Osvaldo Golijov). I am of course very influenced by my favorites, but I somehow manage to never sound like them.

It’s important to me to explore new territory in every piece.

WCM: I guess this rules out musical “movements”, but are there any “currents”, present or historical (which I guess amounts to the same thing), musical or otherwise, that you wouldn't mind associating yourself with? I'm thinking of that passage in one of Morton Feldman's interviews where he talks about all the past musicians—Liszt, Schoenberg, Debussy, Ives—his life has been tangentially connected with through teachers and friends, and finishes by saying “they are not dead”. Schoenberg, too, of course, talked a lot about his ties to the past and their immense importance to him. Is historical continuity a meaningful idea to you?

BOK: It is meaningful to me. I still define myself as a classical musician and composer, regardless of what I’m doing. I adore older music–it’s how I got into composing in the first place! I admired Beethoven and Bach and wanted to understand them and do what they did. But I aim not to be held back by it. I hope to forge ahead on my own path, but everyone stands on the shoulders of those who came before them. Amusingly, the world of professional sports seems to have a healthy relationship with the past. Sports writes and fans are always talking about great games and reliving the best moments, without for a second trying to stop new ones. The past is past, but it’s inextricably part of my style.

As for associating myself with currents, one of the most important of the past 30 years or so has been a return to functional, more or less tonal harmony. I certainly fit in there.

How would you describe the role of emotion in your music? How does it affect form, melody, and harmony?

BOK: I am an emotional, deeply feeling person, so it makes sense that this would be fundamental to my work. I have little use for intellectually-derived elements as a rule–Fibonacci sequences, spectral analyses, stochastic processes, pitch sets, matrices and whatever else are basically never present in my work.

The music I write has to affect me in the way I hope for it to affect others. That often makes my melodies lyrical, my harmonies moody, and my forms shifting as the feelings I’m exploring do.

What are you listening to now?

BOK: Lately I’ve been listening almost entirely to pop music and metal. I’ve become especially fond of Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen! Opeth has long been one of my go-to groups, and they’ve become an important influence and source of inspiration for me. Immortal, Emperor and Jimi Hendrix are also constantly on my playlists.

I find that I can’t really listen to classical music during the periods of time where I’m actively writing music (I go through phases, sometimes lasting months, of either writing continuously or not writing at all), and during those times I’m generally listening to popular music.

WCM: From looking at some of your most recent scores, I've noticed more emphasis on clearly metrical melodies and a precedence of the voice over accompanying instruments. Would it be wrong to relate this to pop? What musical values in pop do you admire, and how does the pop music you mention intersect with your views on music?

BOK: Yes, you’re right about the more metrical melodies. I hadn’t thought of it like that. I’ve always believed that the voice is the primeval instrument. Sofia Gubaidulina wrote a piece called “In the Beginning There Was Rhythm,” but I don’t buy it. The voice is the most important instrument to me, although I spent a long time away from writing for it simply because it can be very frustrating!

As for accompanying instruments, it’s been more about defining general roles, and embracing the general roles that have been pervasive in popular music.

But they do show my influences. The values in pop music, while noting that we do not live in a perfect world, are really about clarity of communication and understanding people. There’s a reason nearly every pop song is about falling in, being in, or falling out of love! Pop music aims to explore the things that matter most in a direct, clear way. The first argument against that would be that popular music is there to make money, but to that end it's worth asking why, if you want to make money, you would write that style of music! It has a broader appeal because it’s meant to be understood. While classical music has typically sought to explore emotions on a grand, transcendental scale–think Requiems, or “everyman” characters in operas, or the myriad settings of Faust–popular music attempts to explore the same thing on a less exhalted, more everyday level. I see no reason not to do both, and this is another way in which popular music is intersecting classical music in my writing.

That’s the idealized version of pop music. Reality is different, but part of being a classical musician is tirelessly pursuing the ideal.