Art song doesn't seem like the most popular style these days. Why art song?
Art song is an intimate way to get words across. I'm interested in it because the song form is so popular these days, and most pop-music listeners don't realize that the song form has roots in classical music. It's also really challenging to fit something like a political speech into song form; it forced me to be really concise and straightforward about my message.
Your last piece was an opera; how is writing art song different from writing opera?
I like writing dramatic music the best, and art song can still be dramatic. The big difference is that it has to be a lot smaller in form and in scale: I didn't have the option to write for a big orchestra, like I might in opera. I can still set dramatic text—for instance, one of the songs uses the actual translations from Saddam Hussein's execution, and goes from when Hussein's prayers start until after he is executed—but the songs are self-contained and cellular, and done without staging or costuming.
How'd you end up in Bay Ridge?
By way of Bensonhurst. I love it. There's so much good stuff going on—great food, good nightlife—and I feel really safe walking home at night.
Why did you want to write about the Iraq War?
My best work is political, thanks in no small part to my mentor, Fred Ho, who has taught me the value of self-reliance in this business and making the message of the music paramount. I want to write about things that are relevant and I want to end racism, classism, hatred, and the like through my work. When Mike Brofman [director of Brooklyn Art Song Society] and I started talking about this commission, and decided it would be about the Iraq War, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to present all sides—good, bad, and ugly—and make people think about what we lived through as a society.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of using quotes and speeches as your texts?
Advantage: political speeches are in the public domain! Disadvantage: they can be dry and unpoetic. I really had to live with them for a while before I wrote a note of music to figure out the most musical and poignant moments so that the songs didn't become too long or tiresome.
I imagine most of these texts speak for themselves. How does the music affect their meanings?
I tried my best to let the texts dictate the music instead of the other way around. What I ended up with as a result were songs that have very different musical styles, voices, and influences. Each speaker—Bush, Hussein, Obama, Rumsfeld, etc.—has their own speech pattern and vocabulary. (Hussein's is the most poetic, actually.) And I wanted to give each of them their own distinct voice. Sometimes I also deliberately go the opposite way of a speech pattern—usually for comic effect—there are several Bushisms that I set, partly because the piece needed some levity as it deals with some serious stuff!
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart