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Interview with Frank J. Oteri

This Thursday evening, the Locrian Chamber Players are presenting a concert at Riverside Church in New York City. The program features music by Harrison Birtwistle, Judith Shatin, John Luther Adams, and Frank J. Oteri. Frank is a fixture on the NY scene. He’s the composer advocate for the American Music Center and is Founding Editor of their web magazine New Music Box. Frank is indeed a persuasive advocate on behalf of other composers, but he’s not asked about his own music nearly often enough. In the interview that follows, we focus primarily on Brinson’s Race, the piece that appears on Thursday’s concert. But along the way, we are given a window into Oteri’s approach to composition and his harnessing of a veritable smorgasbord of musical interests and influences.

Photo credit: Jeffrey Herman

CC: First, let’s talk about the dedicatee. Who’s Robert Overstreet? How did you meet him?

FJO: Robert Overstreet was a fascinating man who collected art and taught for many years at Auburn University in Alabama where he was Professor Emeritus of Communication and founded The Reader’s Theatre. All his students called him “Doc.”  After he retired, he moved to back to where he grew up, in rural Georgia where he maintained a small farm. We first met in 1996 and since then had had countless conversations about art, literature, music, travel, and martinis–he had at least one every day. He wrote tremendous letters (all handwritten). He was one of the last people with whom I maintained a mail correspondence; although I regret that I was far less prompt in answering his letters than he was in answering mine. He died in December 2005.

Could you tell us a bit about Brinson’s Race – the place? How did you come to decide to write a work about this location?

Over the years I had the pleasure of making several visits to his country home, an estate called Brinson’s Race, in Emanuel County, one of only two counties in Georgia to vote against secession prior to the American Civil War. Overstreet’s family lived on this land since that time and the land even includes a family cemetery. Since Robert Overstreet’s death, his daughter Laura Overstreet Biering has maintained Brinson’s Race as a family farm as well as a retreat. She set up a nice website for it that gives some more detailed history of the place and even talks about my piece of music (http://www.brinsonsrace.com/).

Trumpet plus string quartet is an interesting combination – one that you don’t see on concerts too terribly often. How did you decide on the instrumentation?

Every year Robert Overstreet used to present a chamber music concert in nearby Twin City which consisted of works from the standard repertoire.  After hearing a recording of my 1985 song cycle Two Transfers for tenor and string quartet, he asked me to write a piece especially for one of his concerts scored for trumpet and string quartet. As far as anyone knows it was the first world premiere in Twin City. While the trumpet and string quartet idea was completely his, I think clash between a solo brass instrument and a closely-related group of strings is an interesting sonic metaphor for the clash of me, the ultimate city dweller, discovering a place that is so deeply rural.

The way you use it reminds me in certain places of Ives’ Unanswered Question. Not necessarily linguistically, but in terms of having the trumpet ‘work against’ or run ahead of the strings in certain places. Was Ives a touchstone for the piece? Were there others you’d like to mention?

Ives has always been one of my personal heroes. There are many other role models for this piece, among them, believe it or not: Arnold Schoenberg, Milton Babbitt (the first movement actually incorporates a serial approach to duration, albeit one that does not sound as you might expect it to), Philip Glass (the early strict additive process pieces), John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Henry Cowell, Conlon Nancarrow, Elliott Carter and Johannes Brahms, to some extent though admittedly it might be hard to hear their influence in here, and even Ornette Coleman and J.S. Bach.

But perhaps the biggest touchstone for me about this piece is that it was the first new piece I started and completed in the 21st century and, in retrospect, it marked a new phase in my composition. It was the first piece I composed after my performance oratorio MACHUNAS and the first lengthy piece of instrumental chamber music I had composed in a very long time.

Also, Brinson’s Race was the first substantial new piece of music I conceived of after starting to work at the American Music Center. In my first year at AMC, I had a lot less time to compose and I was still trying to complete the vocal score for MACHUNAS. Then I had a very heavy case of writer’s block for musical composition. The amount of music I was being exposed to was daunting and rather intimidating. The polystylism of Brinson’s Race I think is a direct result of being exposed to such a variety of music. In addition, it began a new interest in very formal design that has remained a hallmark of almost all the music I have composed since then.

In the notes for the first movement, you mention it being serial in some ways, though not sounding like what we generally consider serial music’s palette.

My departure for the piece was two-fold. I wanted to convey specific impressions I had of Brinson’s Race as well as Robert Overstreet, in so far as such things can be conveyed in a piece of abstract, instrumental music.

The first movement is a response to getting lost in his fields and is an elaborate palindrome based both on a tone row and on minimalist additive process. At the onset each of the stringed instruments has a very strict rhythmic articulation–the first violin emphasizes every two beats, the second every three, the viola every four and the cello every six. They only come together every twelve beats. The harmonic rhythm follows a scheme suggestive of the sestina’s retrogradus cruciform

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but in reverse

using on a chaconne-like basis the first six notes of a tone row. First six beats then five then four then three then two then one.  Then one then six then two then five then three then four, etc. As the material develops, the other six notes of the row enter as passing harmonies between the original six and eventually the original six drop out and the music “modulates” to the second hexachord. Then the whole thing goes back to the beginning, in reverse. Are you still with me?

Sure, and that type of a multistage process helps to explain why this doesn’t necessarily sound ‘serial’ in a dogmatic sense: it’s very fluid.

Let’s turn to the middle movement, where you work things out quite differently. It has a very specific, goal-oriented, type of aleatoric process. (By the way, having heard Locrian on several occasions in quasi-improvised scenarios, most recently doing a bang-up job with a Malcolm Goldstein piece, I’m eager to hear their rendition of this!)

The second movement is indeterminate and is inspired by visit to the family cemetery. The cemetery is surrounded by a fence, but outside the fence there were additional graves, only one of which was marked with a name: Pharabe Chance. It turns out that Pharabe Chance was a freed slave who after the Civil War became a second common law wife to Overstreet’s grandfather. Because of the prejudices of that time, she was never really an official part of the family–she remained outside as she did in that graveyard. I’m not sure if he ever did, but Robert Overstreet frequently talked about wanting to tear down that fence. The music does.  I call it “Fair Be Chance.” The score is simply a set of verbal instructions. The strings are instructed to play notes that are consonant with each other, but the trumpet must clash. As the strings in turn attempt to blend with the trumpet, it veers off again. And on and on until eventually they finally all blend.

The final movement is very old fashioned and might be the biggest shock of all. It’s unabashedly tuneful, diatonic, and metrically regular – in fact it’s a waltz.  It’s a set of variations, some homophonic some highly contrapuntal based on a rather simple tune that by the end might be something of an earworm to people. The idea was to develop the tune through a potpourri of American styles in chronological order as a metaphor for how some things change, e.g. the world, and some things don’t, e.g. the land at Brinson’s Race.

On an even more geeky level, though the first movement uses a row, it begins and ends firmly in D. The middle movement has no key, so it could be said to be in the key of 0. The final movement is resoundingly in C. That spells out “Doc.”

You’re known as a composer who enjoys these kinds of polystyistic endeavors. Would you mind telling us a bit about how you weigh these amalgams; what determines how these at first seemingly disparate elements are fitted together?

In a way these three movements sound like the music of three different composers. But I do hear these disparate styles fitting together to tell this story. I guess here Ives is a role model again. His 4th Symphony, which has always been one of the most important pieces of music to me, also presents three very different movements following the initial brief introductory movement. Those movements have been described as three possible answers to a question. I conceived of Brinson’s Race in that same spirit.

How did the Locrian Chamber Players find out about the piece? What’s it like working with them?

I chatted about the piece with David McDonald a number of years ago. Ironically, if memory serves, we were at Keens, one of my favorite old New York bars which dates back to 1885. I say ironically because the one time I saw Robert Overstreet in New York City I took him there and he loved it. The space is filled with historic memorabilia including what purports to be the actual theatre program that Abraham Lincoln was holding when he was assassinated.

You’re on a program that includes a varied mix of pieces: John Luther Adams, Harrison Birtwistle, and Judith Shatin. Do you enjoy being on concerts that are programmed with some catholicity?

Absolutely. JLA has been something of a mentor to me for many years now, going back to when he served as President of the Board of the American Music Center. My conversations with him about music and visual art over the years have been a deep source of inspiration. And in fact I remember how excited I was to tell him about all the theory that went into Brinson’s Race when I had first composed it. I’ve known and admired Judith’s music for years as well. Birtwistle’s aesthetics are quite different from my own, although one of my favorite scores of all time is the music he composed for an extremely authentic British television adaptation of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. But that is the joy of new music nowadays, the endless variety of possibilities.

What do you think is Locrian’s specific contribution to NYC’s music scene?

I love the idea of focusing only on music composed in the past decade which is Locrian’s M.O. And of course now that it’s 2010 that means that Locrian only performs 21st century music. So I’m particularly delighted that the first piece of mine they’re doing is my first 21st century piece!

If you were asked to curate a Locrian Chamber Players program – one of music written only in the last ten years – which pieces would you recommend to them?

Sorry to sound like I’m backing away from this one. I have over 15,000 recordings in my home and bring home even more every week. And during the regular concert season, I’m frequently at as many as five concerts a week, usually to attend premieres: as many as I can. There have been so many amazing pieces of music composed over the last decade – I’d be hard pressed to narrow it down to one evening’s worth of material.

_______________

The Locrian Chamber Players

Thursday, August 26 at 8PM in Riverside Church (10th floor performance space)
Free admission

The Program:

Harrison Birtwistle
“Crowd”

John Luther Adams
“Nunataks” (NY Premiere)

Frank J. Oteri
“Brinson’s Race” (New York Premiere)

Judith Shatin
“Run” (New York Premiere)

Ken Sullivan
“Strayhorn’s Short Yarn” (World Premiere)

David Macdonald
“Pieces” (World Premiere)

The Players:

Calvin Wiersma and Conrad Harris, violins; Daniel Panner, viola; Rob LaRue, cello; Sycil Mathai, trumpet; Emily Wong, piano; Anna Reinersman, harp.

A reception will follow the concert

Comments

Comment from Laura Overstreet Biering
Time: August 24, 2010, 9:28 am

What a delight it was to find this article today! Thank you for interviewing Frank, and for allowing him to talk about Brinson’s Race. If you are interested in more about the farm and my father, Robert Overstreet, I do hope you will visit http://www.BrinsonsRace.com, and leave me a comment there! All the best to you, Laura Overstreet Biering

Comment from Alex Shapiro
Time: August 24, 2010, 1:04 pm

Frank is one of the most fascinating and gifted people in our music community, and I’ve been hoping for a long time that someone would interview him about his music in the thoughtful manner in which he’s always brought everyone else’s work to the fore. Thanks, Christian. I had the pleasure of hosting Frank a few years ago on the Los Angeles Composers Salon series I moderate, and among the works he shared, all of which the audience of fellow composers loved, I was completely blown out of the water by Frank’s approach to microtonality, and the tremendous beauty his music elicited from his personal, expansive way of hearing. I wish I were in NYC this week to enjoy this concert, which looks wonderful all around!

Comment from Marvin Rosen
Time: August 29, 2010, 2:12 pm

I just got around to reading this wonderful piece about Frank J. Oteri and am delighted that his composition was featured in the article. Frank is one of the most knowledgeable new music people around and his own music should be more frequently heard and discussed.

I hope that he will send me more of his works for airing on my radio program!