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Continued from page one - My Interview with Allen Shawn
S/21: What kinds of works do you gravitate towards in your compositions?

AS: I hesitate to say "serious" because I have written music with every possible tone of voice--and many of my pieces are seemingly light in tone. But I think of all of them as having some kind of spiritual dimension. They end up almost seeming like diary entries. I believe that it is important to communicate an internal world. But I don't consciously approach my music as "self expression". It is more a matter of honoring what seems true at a given time. When I compose I try to catch something that moves and flows like the present. I am not talking about "the present moment in history", but simply my own present. I gravitate towards a music that corresponds in some way with the present moment, but that might in fact turn out to be quite antithetical in mood to what I take to be the "character" of that moment. The tone of the music is quite commonly the contrary of my conscious mood. I gravitate to musical materials that have potential to me, but above all that seem a true expression, one which might even surprise, disappoint, or disturb me. Whatever authentic ideas come to me, I then try to allow them to flower into whatever shape they want to become.

I can't compose anything unless I start with an attitude of acceptance. I have written almost all of my music thinking that I was just writing what I could come up with, biding my time until the real music showed up. Probably many people might wish that I had just kept waiting! I'm sure that you can also tell that I gravitate towards music that is for acoustic instruments . I have written much of my work for people I know.

S/21: How do you feel about where music is today? Is there a school of composition practice that you can site and/or even identify with?
AS: I tend to like individualists with a very long view of music history. The whole idea of "schools" suggests warring camps to me, and I am not drawn to being part of a particular camp or advocating for it, unless that means advocating for music, in whatever style, that is thrilling and adventurous--that I will do. Music is an art of sounds. I like music that somehow fuses  sound with meaning and passion. That can happen in any style. I  love Debussy, but it's because of his particularlity , not because he is an impressionist.

So if there is something I don't like about the current scene it is that contemporary music is so often written for a contemporary music audience. We still need more conductors and concert artists than we currently have who can put the best present day music under the same roof as the great music of the past. And we need composers on the highest level who somehow, once senses, speak to the world at large. Then we need a society that recognizes it NEEDS this music--that's a long haul. But I get uneasy when I sense that a piece was composed for one age group or one small audience, be it a hip new music audience, an audience of doctrinaire composer-theorists, or an audience of people who don't like modern music. The best composers--like Messaien and Ligeti--  remain "difficult" yet still manage to reach out, like modern-day Bachs. I think that people like Ives or Schoenberg who faced such neglect in their time are deeply moving today not only because of their purely musical genius, but because of the huge human reach of their voices. They were composing to enlarge the experience of the human race generally, not just to reach an audience of new music enthusiasts. They were great humanitarians who resisted bitterness and managed to keep addressing the large public that didn't properly value their work.

What I usually identify with is music which communicates in musical terms, and which is multi-dimensional, something that can be listened to again and again and only gain in depth as you get to know it. If I need a conceptual explanation in order to grasp a piece, I am less drawn to it. I like the notes and rhythms and timbres to explain themselves to me. Generally if a piece is rewarding there will be something you hear in it the first time that draws you back to it for a second listen. It leaves a kind of beeping tracer somewhere in you.

S/21:  As far as the composers of modern times who do you listen to or like?

AS: I am forever steeped in early twentieth century music: Bartok's piano music and quartets and orchestral music, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Ives--literally everything by Stravinsky. I don't like to admit it, but the sound of mid-century American music (current in my 1950's boyhood) is unmistakably stamped on what I write--Barber, Bernstein, Copland etc.-- also Shostakovich and Prokoffiev, and Kirchner, whom I studied with, as are the sounds of Gershwin, Ellington and Mingus, if not their forms and methods. Other "favorites" are Schnittke, Berio, Kurtag, Messiaen, Andriessen, much Boulez, early Stockhausen, Galina Ustvolskaya, much of Carter, Ligeti, Nancarrow, certainly some of Frederick Rzewski, particular works of Harbison, Bolcom, some Rouse, Bernard Rands, Tobias Picker, occasionally Michael Torke. I think that there is a great deal of amazing music written today. I hear new pieces all of the time that I find very exciting, for example a Clarinet Quintet of Magnus Lindberg, which I heard last summer. And many pieces by younger composers who seem to have a special new way of hearing music. There is so much that it is very hard to sort out!

S/21: Who are you favorite composers of all time?

AS: That's not fair. I get excited by different composers at different moments. I hate to leave anyone out. I love Astor Piazolla and I have been listening to Thomas Tallis lately ( 2005 is the five hundredth anniversary of his death), but I'll leave them out. If I only had four, I'd probably have to say Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky and J.S. Bach. Sorry to be so unoriginal. But what a tough question. And who would want to live without Schumann, Brahms and Chopin...or Haydn or so many others, including music that is just irresistible but might not be "great" ?

S/21: You are also a professor at Bennington College in VT. What  is your approach to teaching music and of teaching composition?

AS: You can probably tell from what I have said. I think people should learn to be musicians if they want to be composers. Thier music should be meaningful and gratifying to play. If you are a piano player yourself, you'll  avoid writing piano music that gives people tendinitus. You have to develop your ear and your mind and your feeling for the other arts. You should be absolutely immersed in the great music of the past, though not cowed by it. Know the repertoire, and push through the traditional theory studies, even if you'd rather be home writing your own stuff. You shouldn't worry too much about your "style" or the "time" you're living in. They will both assert themselves of their own accord. Ultimately what is "relevant" , "modern" and "subversive" is what is beautiful, passionate, and  musically deep . What could be a more  shocking answer to the depressing aspects of contemporary life than Beethoven's last Quartets? They are utterly modern. Enjoy writing; develop a style and techniques out of the materials that come to you and the way your mind actually works. If you have a melodic gift, develop it; if you have a strange unique ear and will never write a hummable tune, develop that strangeness. You will have achieved success when the listener accepts whatever you offer them without missing what you cannot do.

Chamber Music

I have spent some time with this recording, a collection of five chamber works for solo instruments and ensembles; solo piano, solo clarinet, string quartet, cello and piano duo and piano quartet; clarinet, violin, cello and piano. I have found an intimacy there and have become familiar with it. The compositions lead me in and keep me there. They pieces are engaging and speak of a grounding in musical tradition while they hold the unique voice of the composer. 

The intimacy, evident in the structure and instrumentation of the works, reaches its peak in a piece, actually a kind of theme and variations for solo piano written for and played by Yoshiko Sato entitled Childhood Scenes. The piece is engaging and while intimacy and nuance are its overall character there are passages of virtuosity and romantic intensity. Ms. Sato's playing is elegant, warm and displays edgily perfect execution.

"Cabaret Music" is a nostalgic and fun romp through a scene set up by the opening jarring chords on the piano and the sensuous, sinuous clarinet melody. The String Quartet breathes and has an intimacy of listening and dynamic response. A cello and piano duo which is a suite of six sections works brilliantly for and with its melodic structure. It is a piece that is well integrated between the two instruments and the cello's voice is never lost.

This is a offering by a composer (Shawn also plays piano on two of the pieces) that shows why he is, although well known in many circles, a composer deserving much wider recognition and acclaim. --DHG


Woodwind Quintet (N0.1)
Aspen Wind Quintet
[on "Divertimento; Music for Winds". Bay Cities BCD 1030]

Blues and Boogie
Piano Trio
Sextet for Piano and Winds
Song of the Tango Bird
Aspen Wind Quintet; Joanna Jenner, vl; Maxine Neuman, vc; Ursula Oppens, pno; Allen Shawn, pno; Su Lian Tan, fl; Elizabeth Wright, pno. [Northeastern Classical Arts NR 258-CD]

Eclogue for two pianos
Trio for clarinet, cello and piano
Winter Sketchbook for violin and piano
Joanna Jenner, vl; David Krakauer, cl; Maxine Neuman, vc; Allen Shawn, Elizabeth Wright, pnos. [OPUS ONE CD 157].

Suite for Cello Quartet
Bennington Cello Quartet
[on "Cello Quartets of the Twentieth Century". OPUS ONE CD 148]

Piano Concerto
Ursula Oppens, pno; Albany Symphony Orchestra; David Alan Miller, conductor. [Albany Records  CD Troy 441]

Four Jazz Preludes
Preludes #3, 4 and 5
Letter to a Friend
Reveries #2 and 3
Three Dance Portraits *
Allen Shawn, pno
*with Daniel Epstein
[Allen Shawn: Piano Works. Albany Records CD Troy 317]

String Quartet No. 4
Childhood Scenes
Episodes for cello and piano
Cabaret Music
Curtis Macomber, violin; Steven Klimowski, clarinet; Maxine Neuman, cello; Yoshiko Sato, piano; Music from Salem Quartet. [Albany Records CD Troy 683]