When did you first experience "Winter Scene"?
[Brooklyn Phil artistic director] Alan Pierson contacted me about a year and a half ago to talk about a collaboration with the Brooklyn Philharmonic—a dramatic piece with voices, somehow tied to Brooklyn. I contacted my writing partner Royce Vavrek, and he actually first showed the painting to me—via the Brooklyn Museum’s website. It was only later that we both went to see it in person.
What kind of emotions did it raise in you?
Whenever I see an image of a person in an old painting or photograph, I can’t help but think, “This person is dead,” and ask, “Is this all that’s left of them?” Perhaps that's a little morbid, but it’s a question that has led me to some really interesting places creatively, so I keep asking it. I don’t know if I would say that this inspires a feeling of sadness, per se, but it is definitely a kind of melancholy—an awareness of mortality perhaps, like the monk’s memento mori.
But in the case of the Francis Guy painting, a few things counter this melancholy. First, all of the people in the photos are active, so unlike a portrait where they are sitting specifically to be memorialized, the citizens of Brooklyn ca. 1820 are just doing their thing. In this, they seem to be much more alive than figures in traditional portraits, which I found inspiring. Second, these are normal people, and more importantly, we know who they are! It’s perhaps telling that I was writing this when the first installment of Occupy Wall Street was heating up this fall, but something about the documentation and memorialization of the average citizens in this painting felt like an interesting counterbalance to, say, the portrait of Pierre Van Cortlandt from 1731. In a way it felt like a kind of delayed justice, which I found inspiring.
Could you talk about some of the musical influences in this piece? Like the shape-note singing?
This piece explores some new terrain for me. I grew up playing drums in rock and punk bands, and a lot of my music over the years has drawn on this experience, full of rhythmic vibrancy and really concerned with pushing performers toward some sort of transcendental threshold. But here, the suspension of time was much more important than the keeping of it. So I found myself thinking a lot about Brian Eno’s ambient works, and some of Morton Feldman’s pieces, like Coptic Light. There’s this amazing stasis to these works that nonetheless is not static, if that makes sense.
The rock side of me got its fix through the Sacred Harp, which in a way is like death metal for choir. It’s very loud (for unamplified music), very raw, and full of these crazy fire-and-brimstone lyrics. The main shape note impetus for AM I BORN, was Idumea, which asks “Am I born to die.” My piece really fuses these two worlds, and uses this rather intense question to explore issues of memorialization, as inspired by the Guy painting.
Do you think of yourself as a "Brooklyn composer"? That is, do you feel a strong connection between your music and where you work and play?
I think what’s being understood now as the “Brooklyn scene” grew out of a need to be honest with ourselves creatively. There was a sense for many of us going through music school that there was a “right way” and a “wrong way” to be a composer. And as a bunch of us started putting shows together and starting ensembles back in 2003 or so, we started to realize that that was nonsense—that really, we could do what we wanted, be who we wanted to be as artists, and be our own audiences. It’s nothing new, really—in a way it’s no different than what the Beats were doing in San Francisco in the 50s—but like in the 50s, we ended up with a collection of like-minded people who wanted to make work they believed in for each other to enjoy. This work cross-pollinated, and started to be seen as something new. It gave rise to a local scene, and a record label, and as we all started putting out records, the scene started to take wing and fly. But it all began with a DIY spirit.
For those unfamiliar with it, what's the new music scene in Brooklyn like right now?
The most amazing thing about new music in New York is how diverse it is. Last week, my ensemble Newspeak co-hosted the New Music Bake Sale at Roulette. It was amazing to see all the people who came out. Young brand new groups like Hotel Elefant, more-established groups like Gutbucket, and everything in between. Again, it’s the DIY spirit. People just say, "I’m going to start this group and we’re going to play music we believe in," and they do it. And because they’re here, there are a ton of people who (a) have also done this, (b) want to be part of it, and (c) want to help this new group succeed. That what makes the scene so special: that all the groups who came before us—and this extends all the way back to the beginnings of MATA, and before it, Bang on a Can—say: “Awesome! The more the merrier. Let us know if we can help,” or “Let’s do a show together.” It’s a community in the clearest sense of the word. How could it do anything but thrive under these circumstances?
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart
The Brooklyn Philharmonic will perform "Brooklyn Village" at Roulette on Saturday and Sunday evenings. More info here.