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.
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
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.
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!
are you favorite composers of all time?
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" ?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"Divertimento; Music for Winds". Bay Cities BCD 1030]
for Piano and Winds
of the Tango Bird
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]
for two pianos
for clarinet, cello and piano
Sketchbook for violin and piano
Jenner, vl; David Krakauer, cl; Maxine Neuman, vc; Allen Shawn, Elizabeth
Wright, pnos. [OPUS ONE CD 157].
for Cello Quartet
"Cello Quartets of the Twentieth Century". OPUS ONE CD 148]
Oppens, pno; Albany Symphony Orchestra; David Alan Miller, conductor. [Albany
Records CD Troy 441]
#3, 4 and 5
to a Friend
#2 and 3
Dance Portraits *
Shawn: Piano Works. Albany Records CD Troy 317]
Quartet No. 4
for cello and piano
Macomber, violin; Steven Klimowski, clarinet; Maxine Neuman, cello; Yoshiko
Sato, piano; Music from Salem Quartet. [Albany Records CD Troy 683]